Thursday, 26 November 2015

Winter sea watch

Strong winds, wintery showers which included a fall of snow over Norwich meant that birding on Saturday would be challenging. However, signs from the coast were of good numbers of passing seabirds including quite decent numbers of Little Auks, Leach's Petrel's and scarce Skuas.
So on Sunday, Nick and I arrived at Cley beach car-park for 8am and set ourselves up on the shingle for a sea watch which was to feature eight Little Auks, one Great Northern Diver, several small parties of Common Scoter, Teal, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers and Dark-bellied Brents. During all of this a lone Snow Bunting kept us company as it fed within a few feet of our tripods. Somewhere between 9am and 10am the flow of birds slowed to a trickle and the rain came in from the north west in sheets, we called time and headed back to the car to dry off and warm up.
From Cley we headed westwards to Titchwell stopping en route to check around Choseley Barns where we had a very sizable gathering of Pink-footed Geese as well as a flock of Fieldfares and Yellowhammers.
At Titchwell we walked north along the main path to the beach checking without success for Water Pipits along the way. At the beach there were huge numbers of gulls (mainly Black-headed, Common and Herring) feeding on the washed up bodies of many, many starfish.
A message on Birdguides reported three Shorelark at Thornham Point so we set off west along Titchwell Beach but failed to connect with these birds sadly. However, we did have four Snow Buntings which included a very smart male bird. We both tried to apply a little stealth by creeping up on the birds for a photo but they were surprisingly wary and fast moving so never really came that close for photos.

Male Snow Bunting, Titchwell Beach, Norfolk - 22 November 2015

Snow Bunting, Titchwell Beach, Norfolk - 22 November 2015

Me (looking tired or grumpy or both) waiting for the Snow Buntings to approach (photo by Nick Watmough)
By the time we arrived back to the car the evening had drawn in and the light was as good as gone - which was also true of the Little Auk which had been sitting on Salthouse duck pond - pity as I subsequently saw some excellent up close photos of this bird, never mind!

Monday, 16 November 2015

The hieroglyphs

Wet and windy weather, dark mornings and even darker evenings. Hard to resist the lure of a local Hoopoe isn't it?
Add to fact that the bird was practically in Norwich too - well Crostwick to be precise but only a fifteen minute spin from home. I got there around 11am and the bird was feeding about thirty feet away from the fence, which incidentally was as close as it got. Photographing it was tricky though, the fence was high and those in the know had brought crates or wooden blocks to stand on. I had to stand on the tips of my toes and balance my lens precariously on the fence. And being November the light was pretty poor. But I managed some okayish shots in the end as it fed around the horse paddock. This was the first Hoopoe I've seen in the UK. I must have seen five or six in Ireland and all of those have been late March / early April overshoots.

At one stage the Hoopoe started to get a little grief from a local Magpie. But it was having none of that and put its crest up a couple of times to show he wasn't moving from his paddock.

After an hour or so of standing on toes and with the Hoopoe showing no signs of coming any closer, I took off towards Felbrigg Hall to look for the juvenile Glossy Ibis. A bit of hike over towards the lake (the last time I visited there was a for a Red-rumped Swallow in April 2014). The Ibis was in the paddock at the rear of the lake, feeding busily among the rushes and boggy ground.

Glossy Ibis, Felbrigg Hall NT, Norfolk
A brown bird against a brown background - not great shots but still another UK tick.
So, a Hoopoe and an Ibis together. Not Egyptian hieroglyphics but mid-November in Norfolk!

Monday, 2 November 2015

A good Chat to round off the autumn

A little bit of a hiatus from birding following my Fair Isle trip, partly because I wanted to and partly because I had to. The break was good but it did mean missing out on a few good days of birding in Norfolk when Red-flanked Bluetail, Isabelline Shrike, Olive-backed Pipit and Hume's Warbler were all on offer. Anywho - the weekend before last I had a chance to steal away for a few hours so I decided to head over to Caister-on-Sea for a very fine male Siberian Stonechat. I had not seen Siberian Stonechat before, there are 8 Irish records and 370 British records to date. This particular bird was not assigned to either maurus or stejnegeri and it is presumably hard to assign it to either race as well. When I got there the bird was showing well but distantly. It had a favoured perch atop a gorse bush along the edge of one of the fairways at Caister golf course. It made frequent sallies from this perch to catch flying insects when it showed its nice dark underwing coverts. Sadly I didn't get any photos of that though. It looked like the bird wasn't going to come close but once or twice it was flushed by passing golfers and that seemed to push it back down the fairway and deeper into the gorse which meant it came closer to where birders were standing. I took up position and waited for the golfers to pass and managed to obtain some reasonable shots both of which showed its clean rump nicely.

Male Siberian Stonechat, Casiter-on-sea, Norfolk, 25th October 2015
Last weekend then I was out on Sunday for the day. The thick early morning mist had burned off by 11am and it turned into a exceptionally beautiful autumnal day. I birded around Happisburgh for the first hour or so but failed to see any migrants at all. I thought there was an outside chance of Pallid Swift or Desert Wheatear and a reasonable chance of Siberian Chiffchaff, Firecrest or Black Redstart. At Happisburgh I had none of those but did a little better later in the day at Horsey Gap where I had two female type Black Redstarts. One was hopping around the roofs of the buildings beside Waxham Sands caravan park (and was a little distant for any meaningful photos), the second bird was in the compound just past the car park (a spot I've always thought would hold a Black Redstart sometime). This bird was a lot more obliging.

Black Redstart, Horsey Gap, Norfolk - 1st November 2015
I have a feeling that's it for the autumn. The winds are southerly all week and then swing west before the weekend, not great for the east coast. Something might turn up but I won't hold my breathe. Having said that its not been that bad of an autumn. From mid-August to the first of November I've had many of the scarce migrants you would expect such as Lesser Whitethroats, Pied Flys, Common and Black Redstarts, Whinchats and whole bunch of Yellow-browed Warblers. I've also had two Bluethroats, a very fresh Icterine Warbler, at least two Barred Warblers and several Common Rosefinches. Throw in a Blyth's Reed Warbler that got me my first Birdguides Photo of the Week and my first UK Pallid Harrier and top it off with three lifers in Thick-billed Warbler, Western Bonelli's Warbler and Siberian Stonechat and it hasn't been all that bad really!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Fair Isle - Part eight

An early start this morning. Up at 5am for the ferry at 6am. It was dark and cold as i stood on the pier while they loaded a car onto the deck.

I reckon I have pretty good sea legs. I was only ever sea sick once and that was in a force ten gale on the southern Atlantic Ocean. But I had been warned that the Good Shepherd can be rough so I was expecting the worst - especially over four hours to Lerwick. As it happened it was fine, when I wasn't below decks dozing I was up in the wheel house or out the back looking at Tysties (Black Guillemots), Fulmars (including some dark ones) and Bonxies.

The bog door on the Good Shepherd - someone has a sense of humour

Sumburgh Head Mainland in the background
We sailed to Lerwick between Mainland and Bressay which afforded nice views of the Iron Age broch.

Broch, Bressay, Shetland
Arriving in Lerwick
At Lerwick I picked up a rental car but got a little lost looking for the local Tesco to buy lunch. I stopped and asked a local for directions who just so happened to be Dennis Coutts, President of the Shetland Bird Club. Dennis was very kind and sent me in the right direction, I was sorry afterwards that I didn't take a bit more time to chat with him.
For the rest of day I birded around Sumburgh Head, Sumburgh Lighthouse, Virkie Willows and the Pool of Virkie. At Sumburgh Hotel I had two YBWs in the garden.

Sumburgh Hotel gardens
At Sumburgh quarry I had a Lesser 'throat and another Lesser 'throat around the lighthouse compound.
By now the early start was catching up on me. I went back to the hotel and had a kip, but it didn't last to long. I was woken by a text from James Lowen "Thick billed Warbler quendale if you still on shetland". Holy cow!!!!
Within ten minutes I was parking up at Quendale mill and ten minutes later I had Thick billed Warbler on my life list. Like everyone else there I had flight views only. A large babbler-like / shrike-like bird, long-tailed, seemingly short winged and quite rufous. The light was almost gone so we all called it a day. Credit must go to James Lowen for texting me, the bird was gone the next morning and if it hadn't been for James's message I'd have missed it.
The next day I birded during the morning around Boddam, Virkie and Levenwick. The weather was beautiful but the only birds of note were two YBWs and a few Willow Warblers. I returned to the hotel and spent the afternoon trying to get some nice shots of YBW in the sycamores of the hotel garden.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Sumburgh Hotel Garden
At 5pm I dropped the car back to the airport and flew to Aberdeen where I overnighted. The next day my flight to Norwich was delayed by nine hours but I passed the time in the airport by reading Eric Dempsey's excellent book "don't die in autumn".
So that was Fair Isle for me. Would I go again? Yes, of course, but you pay your money and take your chance. You could score big-time on Fair Isle and see some amazing birds or see very little at all or somewhere in between, which I think is where I was placed. The best birds I had were actually on Mainland (Western Bonelli's Warbler and Thick-billed Warbler). But I was part of an unprecedented arrival of Yellow-browed Warblers, got some great shots of a Blyth's Reed and spent time in a truly awesome part of the world. And the autumn is not over yet - not by a long way!

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Fair Isle - part seven

This was to be my last full day on Fair Isle. I got up early to do the trap rounds and was greeted by this sublime sunrise.

Sunrise over Buness, Fair Isle
One YBW and one Redstart in the gully was the best we had. Back at the Obs a Collared Dove on the roof was new in.
After breakfast I birded south once again. At Chalet a Whinchat posed briefly on the Angelica.

Whinchat, Chalet, Fair Isle

And a Common Rosefinch dropped in briefly too.

Common Rosefinch, Chalet, Fair Isle

Chalet, Fair Isle

Just before lunch I came across this Lesser Whitethroat in the garden at the shop. I came back later that afternoon to get some shots of it - the light wasn't great but the bird was reasonably confiding.

Lesser Whitethroat, shop garden, Fair Isle
At this stage there were very few new birds if any coming through. YBWs had decreased a little, the Pallid Harrier had gone although a Hen Harrier was still knocking about. The BRW was still there but had moved to Lower Leogh. On one hand I was sorry to be leaving Fair Isle but didn't feel I was going to miss out too much and I was rather looking forward to spending a bit more time on Mainland. I got to bed early that night because the Good Shepperd was sailing at 6am and it has a bit of a notorious reputation for being less than comfortable in high seas. Whats more it would be sailing to Lerwick not Grutness which meant a 4 hour crossing rather than 2 hours.

Fair Isle - part six

This morning I decided to join Dave Parnaby for the 7am trap round. The gully trap was empty but at the plantation it was a little better. A Robin and two Barred Warblers had joined a previously ringed YBW. Dave got the first Barred Warbler into the heligoland trap but the second had other plans and just as he had corralled it nicely into position, it doubled-back by flying straight between his legs. Not many can say they've been "nutmegged" by a Barred Warbler. We brought the Robin and one Barred Warbler back to the Obs for ringing.

Plantation Heligoland trap

Warden Dave Parnaby with a ringed Robin

Barred Warbler
After breakfast I headed over towards Setter and Pund. But a north wind and persistent drizzle made the going difficult. At Pund I had three Wheatears.

Northern Wheatear, Pund, Fair Isle, Shetland
And from a nearby crop strip I flushed two YBWs and a Common Rosefinch.

A rather soggy Common Rosefinch
A text update reported a Wryneck near the north light. With not much else about I turned on my heels to see that (I have a soft spot for Wrynecks). I stopped at the Plantation where a Common Redstart had dropped in, but the rain got too heavy for decent photos.

Common Redstart, Plantation, Fair Isle
I contined on towards North Light for the Wryneck but the weather really closed in so I canned that plan and instead stopped for lunch at the Obs.
In the afternoon I went to Quoy to try and find the 'eastern' Yellow Wagtail. It was a little tricky to find the right field but in the end I got there. Photos were difficult though, the bird was flighty and you can't really sneak up on a bird in the middle of a field with no cover - hence the ropey record shot.

'eastern' Yellow Wagtail, Quoy, Fair Isle, Shetland
I then headed to Haa and birded around Tommy Hyndman's garden (which is where Britain's first Citril Finch was found) and the fields in front of it. I had two Swallows, two House Martins and flushed three YBWs from the Iris bed in the field.

Scene of Britain's first Citril Finch

Flushed three YBWs from these Irises
I headed back to the Obs via South Light.

At Upper Leogh came across an unringed Barred Warbler sitting in a Rosehip bush - could this have been the one that "nut-megged" Dave earlier that day or a new bird - don't know and it didn't hang about for photos either.

Barred Warbler, Upper Leogh, Fair Isle, Shetland
That evening back at the Obs I decided to change my travel plans and get the Good Shepherd off the island on Thursday morning instead of flying off on Friday afternoon. All week long I had seen flights being cancelled due to low cloud or strong wind. I had a connecting flight from Sumburgh to Aberdeen to catch Friday evening, if my flight off Fair Isle was cancelled I would be 'goosed'. Better safe than sorry and I could bird around Sumburgh on Thursday and Friday. It was to be a decision that would pay off well!
At the log call that night, Dave announced the winners of the BTO bird race which had taken place that day. It was BTO Head Andy Clement's team who won - I reckon they let the boss win ;-).

Tense moments as the the BTO bird race results are announced.
I enjoyed a couple of bottles of this really excellent ale and then hit the hay.

Fair Isle - Part five

After all my BRW fun it was back to the Obs for lunch. In the afternoon I headed towards Haa to look for a Corncrake that had been flushed from an Iris bed. The Iris bed was in a field with a locked gate so firstly I thought better of climbing over the gate or fence and secondly I wasn't going to walk in and start thrashing the Iris bed just to flush out a tired migrant - so Corncrake still eludes me, still on my lifelist as heard but not seen.
Anyway, one thing that was becoming clear was that there were lots of Yellow-browed Warblers all of a sudden. And I mean lots! They were everywhere, every stone wall, ditch, iris bed and croft had one (or more), they were even hopping around on the turf like wagtails. Many say that Fair Isle is an afternoon island. Birds arrive overnight and move during the day from the cliffs and geos into gardens and crofts. It seems that there had been a significant overnight arrival of YBWs and by mid-afternoon they were starting to pop up everywhere. In fact by now they were the commonest migrant, easily out-numbering Willows, Chiffs and Blackcaps. You would never call them junk birds though, how could you ever tire of these sublime little Siberian waifs! And so confiding for photos.

Conservatively I reckon I had twenty eight birds myself (I tried not to double count). At the log that night Dave Parnaby considered that the island count was fifty-three. The highest ever single day count for the species on Fair Isle.