Sunday, 14 June 2015

Return to Narborough

An early exit from work on Friday evening never materialised so I cancelled my plans to go again to Narborough for the Marsh Warbler. Instead I hit the hay early on Friday night and rose at 4.30am on Saturday morning. By 6am I was parking up at Narborough village.
I was joined by photographer John Pringle and we both proceeded to the spot along the Nar Valley Way where one other birder was present and the Marsh Warbler was singing and showing well.
I spent the next three hours there. Despite covering up well I was still devoured by mosquitoes. They even bit me through my gloves and trousers, I need to take up smoking or start wearing some industrial strength insecticide to deter them. I have ten or eleven bites on my left hand that are driving me nuts!
Anyway, all worth it because unlike Thursday evening, the bird showed very well. A little tricky for photos in poor light and moving reed stems, but I managed some nonetheless.

Marsh Warbler, Narborough, Norfolk - 13th June 2015
And of course, an obligatory video!

Youtube clip of Marsh Warbler singing

The mimicry of the song is incredible. I recognised Chaffinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Swallow, Nuthatch, a very convincing blast of Blackcap, Reed and Sedge Warbler and even mewing Buzzard. 

From Narborough I headed up towards the north-east coast, stopping for the first time at the excellent Holme dunes NWT reserve. It was a bit windy and wet but a very fine reserve as anyone who visits it on a regular basis knows. I searched around the dunes for Lesser Whitethroat (which breed there) but to no avail. You could see though why the spot can be so good for scarce migrants such as RB Shrike, Wryneck, Ring Ouzel, Redstart and so on. As I drove back out the rough track I came across this rather pretty Grey Partridge - not so common any more and not a bird I've seen too often in my lifetime.

Grey Partridge, Holme Dunes, Norfolk - 13th June 2015
I took the A149 coast road to Cley and half-thought about yomping down Blakeney Point  for the Paddyfield Warbler. But to be honest, unless it was giving decent views, I didn't feel any push to go to all that effort just to add the species to my life-list. Some would disagree with that mindset, but brief flight views may not be tickable for me and to really appreciate a bird like that I would need to have a proper look at it.
A quick coffee and bacon buttie at the impressive new Cley visitor centre and then I turned south and headed back to Norwich.

Friday, 12 June 2015

A round-up of the week

It's late spring and migration is slowing to a trickle, however there's still enough around to keep me interested. I haven't spent as much time this year at my local patch of Marston Marshes, so last Saturday morning I took in a few hours there to see what was about. Nothing I haven't picked already this year but there are decent numbers of House Martins who are smartly using the recently dug drainage ditches to gather building materials.

House Martins, Marston Marshes, Norwich
I haven't seen any Cuckoos this year but did hear one calling last week and the Barn Owl is there most evenings. Other than that, Reed and Sedge Warblers are all there, Blackcaps, Common Whitethroats too but this year no Garden Warblers. The Grasshopper Warblers seem to have stopped reeling but I did have one in flight carrying a faecal sack, so that bodes well.
Later that day I drove to Lakenheath Fen to try for the Little Bittern, three hours or more spent waiting with no sighting though I did hear it "singing" (more like a "woofing" really though).
Brief flight views of Bittern and Cuckoo were nice and several hunting Hobbys kept me entertained while I waited for the Little Bittern.

Hobby, Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk
Still the option this weekend to try again for it with the added bonus of a Collared Pratincole thrown in.
On Sunday I stayed a bit more local and visited the excellent Strumpshaw Fen reserve near Brundall. It was a family day and the carparks were full but away from the reception area the hides were quiet enough. At the fen hide I had a single Hobby, a Cuckoo, several Bearded Reedlings and a pair of courting Marsh Harriers.

Male Marsh Harrier drops food to his lady!
After my lunch (supplemented by some fine Lemon Drizzle cake from the cake sale at the reception hide), I headed up to the Doctor's garden with Rob Holmes to look for Swallowtail butterflies. We only had a short wait there before two appeared.

Swallowtail Butterfly, Strumpshaw fen, Norfolk
I made a brief stop at Buckenham before heading home but only went as far as the hide. Two Avocets were the best there.
During the week I did several evening visits to Marston Marshes. On Wednesday evening I was very fortunate to have some excellent close views of the Barn Owl as it hunted. I had tucked myself away under a tree with the setting sun to my back. After a fifty minute wait or so, it just sailed past me within about twenty feet and proceeded to hunt over the meadow in front of me. The light was really fading so I had to go to ISO2000 but still managed a reasonable shot.

Barn Owl, Marston Marshes, Norwich
Earlier on I tried for some Acrocephalus shots but they are singing a lot less now and the cover is quite extensive so I only managed this effort (again in fading light) of a Reed Warbler complete with what I think is a Crane fly (i.e. Daddy long legs).

Reed Warbler, Marston Marshes, Norwich
On Thursday evening I did an after work "twitch" of the Narborough Marsh Warbler, I know there are rarer Acros around Norfolk right now but didn't have time to drive to Cley and walk Blakeney Point.
I had reasonable views of the Marsh Warbler as it sang from cover but took no photos. The mimicry is awesome though, very convincing snatches of Blue Tit, Swallow, House Martin, Blackbird and even mewing Buzzard at one stage. Phenomenal!
Might try again tomorrow if time permits!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A slice of Madeira

Never was a holiday so badly needed. Leading up to it both Polina and I were so busy and stressed that we almost thought of cancelling at the last minute but in the end we went and are both very glad we did.
Despite some interesting endemic species and sub-species, not to mention rare seabirds, our trip to Madeira was not going to be about birds. However I did manage to have one full day of birding around the island and a further half a day to myself which I spent around the grounds of our hotel photographing Firecrests. So this blog entry is not an extensive and comprehensive trip report, just my account of the brief slice of Madeiran birding that I sampled.
I was picked up at our hotel by Hugo and Catarina of Madeira Wind Birds, both experienced, knowledgeable and professional guides who have been running the well established Madeira Wind Birds for eleven years now. I was joined by a couple from Birmingham (Pat and Brian) and so with Polina sitting it out by the pool for the day, that made five of us.
First stop was at the north of the island to look for Trocaz Pigeon. We scanned along a cliff face and Catarina soon located a perched bird. We spent twenty minutes or so in this spot and had two or three more in that time. Sadly a bit distant for photos though.

Trocaz Pigeon, Madeira, 23rd May 2015
We stayed around the same area (Sao Vicente.....I  think?) where we had several Common Terns but no Roseates though.

Common Terns, Madeira, 23rd May 2015
A glance out to sea produced a few Manxies (been a while seen I've seen these) and slightly further out some Cory's Shearwaters. The only gulls were Yellow-legged (though Nearctic gulls do turn up so always worth checking).
There was also a pair of Grey Wagtails present. I've included the record shot below because it shows this bird is clearly darker around the head than the nominate Grey Wagtails I'm used to seeing in Britain or Ireland. The supercilium is much narrower and the yellow colour of the under-tail coverts is deeper too. This is a subspecies called schmitzi and is unique to Madeira.

Grey Wagtail - Motacilla cinerea schmitzi
We also watched a Kestrel chase a Sparrowhawk along the cliff face. Again, the Kestrels in Madeira are also a sub-species (canariensis) - smaller and darker than the nominate race.

Looking west along the north coast of Madeira - slightly more 'wild and craggy'' looking than the pretty south coast!

From there we moved to a spot for Madeiran Firecrest, we did eventually get good views of  this most interesting Regulid but photo opportunities were scarce. However I more than made up for that a few days later as you will see.
We continued along the north coast of Madeira heading in a westerly direction until we reached Porto Moniz where we stopped for a fine lunch.
Re-fueled and rested we continued on in our westerly direction stopping at a spot whose name escapes me (Hugo and Catarina please feel free to remind me). The wind was strong and the area exposed but we were fortunate to come across a group of at least ten Red-footed Falcons. These had been present for several days at least and were the first record of the species in Madeira since 2008 (I think). It seems there has been a westerly displacement of RF Falcons of late for some reason with individuals making it as far west as the Azores. Photographically I was working with 700mm lens on a monopod so in the wind it was difficult, but such great birds to watch as they hovered above the  meadow, dropping down every so often to pick up some insect prey from the long grass.

Female Red-footed Falcon, Madeira - 23rd May 2015
Having watched the falcons for a time, we pulled the car around to the opposite side of the field and walked along a dry stony track and out onto some suitable looking habitat for both Berthelot's Pipit and Spectacled Warbler. Sadly the strong wind kept the warblers down and we saw none at all. So having missed these twice in Mallorca and last year in Norfolk too, they still elude me. It'll be all the sweeter when I eventually do see one. However, Berthelot's Pipit was a lot easier and we had several birds in this area.

Berthelot's Pipit, Madeira, 23rd May 2015
Before heading back in the Funchal direction we stopped to take in the views, I'm not great on heights but the cliffs were impressive.

En route to Funchal we made a final stop at a small brackish pool just on the opposite side of the sea-wall. At first glance the pool appeared benign enough, just a few Coots and scruffy looking Muscovy Duck. However, given Madeira's position geographically, you could imagine that as a local patch, it'd be one of those places that ninety-nine times out of one hundred it would have just Coot and Muscovy Duck, but that one hundredth time could produce a decent Nearctic wader or Duck. And as Hugo confirmed, it has done just that, holding records of Buff-breasted, Solitary and Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Green and Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon and from the opposite side of the globe, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. I'm sure there's more besides but that's an impressive list to start with. We had been watching the pool for around fifteen when a couple of Squacco Herons rose up out of the reeds, flew a wide circle out over the sea before returning to pool and settling along the opposite edge to fish. Record shot territory once more but still cracking birds.

Squacco Heron

A second Squacco Heron

iphone shot of the pool - can you spot the Squacco Heron?
By then it was past 5pm, I'd had a great day birding in great company (thank you Hugo, Catarina, Brian and Pat) and so in the words of the late Bill O'Herlihy, it was time to say "we'll leave it there folks"!
I thought that was it for holiday birding, but Hugo had advised me to check for Firecrests around the hotel grounds itself. Later that week, Polina had decided to have a "pool day" and I was advised to go birding :-), no second invite needed!
I didn't need to look too far and found a Firecrest within twenty yards or so of our hotel room. At first glance Madeiran Firecest would appear to be a very close relative to Common Firecrest. However, at a molecular level it differs from Common Firecrest considerably (cytochrome b distances between the two are as high as 8.5%). Genetically, morphologically and vocally they are different and as such a separate species with a separate evolutionary history going back roughly 4 million years!
I spent several hours trying to photograph Madeiran Firecrest. In that time they really grew on me, interesting vocalizations and a different yet just as striking head pattern as Common Firecrest. All in all, bird of week for me!

Madeiran Firecrest, Choupana Hills Hotel, Madeira

I think Madeiran Firecrest is an example of what is so interesting about Madeira's flora and fauna. Obviously the island is famous for rare breeding pterodromas and other interesting petrels but the endemics and sub-species that occur there and the subtle differences between them and the races that occur on mainland Europe are fascinating. For example, Blackcaps were numerous throughout the parts of the island I visited. The race Madeiran heineken is supposedly darker than the nominate race, however without a side by side comparison, that was difficult to assess. Yet it was the vocalisation that I found most fascinating. The song is instantly recognisable as Blackcap but there was something different. I listened to the song of nominate race Blackcaps on xeno-canto and would suggest that the Madeiran birds sing in shorter phrases of around two seconds apiece as opposed to nominate race Blackcaps that appear to sing in phrases that are at least four seconds long and often longer. Robins and Blackbirds too had subtle differences, Robins looked paler, Blackbirds seemed bigger with a heavier bill. As my old biology teacher used to tell us, "mother nature doesn't do things for fun" - all of these differences are for a reason, helping the bird to occupy and thrive within a certain biological niche.

Female Blackcap, Choupana Hills Hotel, Madeira

So, that's it. A pity I didn't see Spectacled Warbler and a pity not to get on a pelagic, but you have to leave something behind so you have a reason to go back. And I would certainly go back to Madeira, beautiful island, very friendly people and fascinating birds.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Ode to a Nightingale

So....Nightingales! While I'm fortunate to live in a part of the UK where they still hang on, they're not the easiest bird to see, never-mind to photograph. There are a few local spots where they breed near Norwich but I've never seen them well in any of those, usually just a fleeting glimpse as they break cover and then sing from deep in some impenetrable whitethorn bush.
For me there is something enigmatic about them, maybe because in Ireland they are so rare, maybe because of the sheer beauty of their song, their reference in literature or their ability to remain so well concealed! At the beginning of 2015 I made a promise to myself that I would try to photograph a Nightingale in England, somewhere, anywhere! Didnt have to be Norfolk, I would travel if I knew of one that was singing in the open.
Anyway, a friend of mine contacted me during the week and gave me directions to a site in Suffolk where up to eight birds were in song. One or two where singing out in the open apparently. I decided to do a reconnaissance of the site after work on Friday evening. I'd had a crappy week and was looking forward to getting out for a few hours to unwind.
At the site, the Nightingales were easy to locate, within half an hour I had found one male singing in reasonable view. With patience and care I managed to figure out a spot where I had a clear view of him as he sang from a bramble, as the sun dropped he got busier and put on a great show.

After so many collective hours spent trying to photograph this species and very little photographic success so far this year, this was one of those times when it all came together. One of those moments when you remember why you love birds so much and why photographing them can be so rewarding and exciting.
I returned this afternoon and having figured out the HD movie function on my new camera body, I  tried to catch a short movie clip of one in song. This time I had to wait as the bird wasn't quite so fond of his bramble. I spent two hours waiting for him to hop up, at one stage as I sat waiting and drinking my coffee, he sang a few feet from my head - perfectly concealed of course. But eventually he played ball, sat on his "singing" branch and performed - he's now on YouTube!

A Nightingale sings in Suffolk

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Right place, right time - Citril Finch twitch

The ball bounced my way today. I was en route to Choseley Barns for Dotterel when a text came in from Nick Watmough asking if I was up twitching the Citril Finch at Holkham Pines. The thoughts of a crowded twitch and distant views of the bird with little chance for a photograph were slightly off-putting but it was Britain's only second record of Citril Finch since the 2008 Fair Isle bird and I was only twenty minutes from Holkham - I caved in and went for it!
Being close to Choseley, I stopped first and took a look at the Dotterel. I counted nineteen though I believe it has been up to twenty-nine. The last time I saw this species (and only other time for that matter) was in Cork in 2012 and they were juveniles. I had not seen a proper female bird, even at a distance they were impressive.
Anyway, I didn't hang around and was soon skimming along the A149 coast road towards Holkham. I parked up at Lady Anne's Drive where I met Nick and we began the trek towards the far side of the pines where it meets Burnham Overy Staithe. It was a good half-hour yomp but there were plenty of Warblers singing en route, Grasshopper, Whitethroat, Cetti's, Sedge, Willow, Chiffer, Blackcap and Reed. Within two  minutes of arriving the bird was re-located, feeding on the deck at the base of a pine but in thickish cover. Despite my best efforts and to be fair, with a bit of help from one very decent birder who did his best to put me onto the bird, I couldn't see. The best I had was a flight view as it broke cover. I wasn't 100% sure about ticking it on those views but still had time if I was patient. For the next hour or the bird was in absentia. Having said that no-one was really looking too hard. There were probably one hundred plus birders but very few with bins to their eyes. James Lowen, myself and Nick got bored and began to wander about. I spent time at the same spot it had been earlier but no luck. Then, as it happened, James and a few others relocated it further west in a small gulley. Cue one hell of a stampede down the dunes and back up before the bird flushed and flew over our heads to the spot we had previously all been standing around. Anyway, this time it was a little easier to pick out. After a little confusion about which pine tree it was under, I managed to get onto the bird and enjoyed excellent views as it fed on the short turf below a stunted pine tree.

Citril Finch, Holkham Pines / Burnham Overy, Norfolk - 10 May 2015
Although the crowd was sizeable, behaviour was generally good. I did see one woman tell another birder to "Fuck off" when he requested her to sit down because she was blocking his view - it wasn't an unreasonable request in my opinion and her reaction was over the top. Still apart from that, the crowd was well-behaved and once everyone had seen the bird well, the banter was great craic!

A selection of the crowd enjoying Britain's second Citril Finch
The journey back seemed to take forever, thirst and hunger were kicking in but so too a sense of satisfaction. I hope James, Nick and I didn't look too smug to those who were just arriving and heading to see the bird.
Back at the car I enjoyed a well-earned sambo and a chat with Rob Holmes. After that I headed home and had a good wash after all that dirty twitching ;-)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A long weekend in Latvia

Just back from a long weekend in Latvia. Not a birding trip as such but bins and camera came along.....just in case ;-)
I managed to slip out of work early on Friday afternoon, as I avoided the stag parties en route to Riga I bumped into fellow Irish birder Killian Mullarney at Stansted as he returned from a week of guiding in Greece. I arrived in Latvia after dark so it was Saturday before I got out.
I was greeted by a fairly grey and miserable morning as I looked out on the garden first thing but the scene was soon brightened up by two fly-over Hawfinches. I was to catch up with later on while I walked the dog to the nearby shop so not a bad start.
That afternoon we opened the BBQ season with a no nonsense grill in the back garden, chicken and pork good as it gets believe me!
Polina's friends joined us with their kids for the BBQ but the star of the show was the three month old Bernese Mountain Dog pup which I fell in love with (much to our Pug Sashsa's disgust).

Me, the 'pup' and a jealous Pug.

Polina wanted to natter with her friends so I was advised to 'F' off birding! second invite needed there. I checked the woods across from the house where a single Wood Warbler was in full song despite the cold and wet day. Up at the Lielupe river it was quiet but four fly-over Common Cranes and a reeling Locustella spp. were welcome (more to follow there).

Weather-wise Sunday was a big improvement, still a chill in the air but the crisp bright sunshine seemed to make all the difference. A Common Redstart pair chased each other along the fence of the house across the street and during a walk around the neighbourhood with the small hound I had four more singing male Common Redstarts........I'm so envious of these being garden birds!!
Up at the Lielupe river I decided to see if the Locustella spp. I had the previous day was still reeling, I hadn't seen the bird but my money was on Savi's Warbler. Sure enough, when I returned to the same spot (pausing briefly when I heard a fly-over Blue-headed Wagtail) the bird was still reeling. A scan of the reedbed revealed the source to indeed be Savi's Warbler. One bird became two, then three and at times four birds in a hormone-fueled "reel-off"! They kept a little distant for photos and the sun was very much from the side and very harsh, but I managed some "artistic" shots in the end.

Savi's Warbler, Lielupe, Dzintari, Jurmula, Latvia
These show much better than G'roppers and were my best views of any Locustellas I have ever had. River Warbler would have been a lifer, so I'll have to return when they arrive and start reeling (I wish). As I said at one stage there were four birds reeling at the one time, I tried to record this on my iphone, not exactly state-of-the-art recording equipment but maybe this gives you the picture.

The sound of the"reel-off"

I called it a day by 8pm, Common Terns, a singing male Whinchat and female Black Redstart finished off the day as I headed home.
Today I'm back in the UK and already missing Polina, the Pug and the great birding in Latvia!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Keeping it local

I used the longer day light hours to check a few places after work each evening last week. Truth be told though I was a little disappointed with the seemingly low number of migrants so far on breeding territory.
I checked East Wretham Heath three times last week and up to Friday evening there were no Common Redstarts present (from what I could see / hear). Marston Marshes also seemed dead with the odd Blackcap and Chiffchaff being all there was to liven things up. Colney GP / Bawburgh Fisheries was about the same although a single Common Swift consorting with a mixed hirundine flock was my earliest record yet of this species in either Ireland or the UK.

Common Swift - Colney GP, Norwich - 21 April 2015
Not far from Colney, a Nightingale continues to sing but as usual evades all attempts to be photographed or even seen. I had a brief glimpse one evening but no more. At times it sang within ten feet but I couldn't see it - frustrating but remarkable all the same. I took the following movie clip (click on the link) with my iphone - not exactly a state-of-art microphone but you get the picture (or sound in this case)!

The unseen songster

Resisting all offers to travel over-night to the Scilly Isles for a certain Great Blue Heron, I awoke fresh and rested on Saturday morning and set-out for Colney GP to search for more Nightingales and other arrivals. Things seemed to have picked up with a Garden Warbler singing from a Whitethorn bush just as I entered through the steel gates. I spent the next five hours in the area and had two more Garden Warblers, at least one Common Whitethroat, numerous Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs and three Reed Warblers. Mid-afternoon produced bird of the day with this fly-over Hobby.

Hobby, Colney GP, Norwich, 25th April 2015
En route home I checked the Nightingale spot where the bird remains..........singing from deepest cover, of course!
Sunday was definitely cooler but a walk around Marston Marshes and Eaton Common showed that migrant numbers were up. In total I had five Sedge Warblers, two Grasshopper Warblers, one Common Whitethroat, one Willow Warbler and numerous Blackcaps. Last Thursday I had a brief snatch of Garden Warbler song so I suspect they may be in too. I didn't have much time for photos but managed a reasonable shot of one of the five Sedgies.

Sedge Warbler, Marston Marshes, Norwich - 26th April 2015
While I watching this chap a Grasshopper Warbler began reeling behind me, against the light and slightly obscured by a frond of grass, I managed a quick shot for the record. If time permits I may give these birds a little more time and go for a better shot than this.

Grasshopper Warbler, Marston Marshes, Norwich, 26th April 2015
This coming week is a busy one, but hopefully I'll find time to continue checking the local spots. I would expect the Common Redstarts to finally arrive at East Wretham (fingers crossed) and will continue to check Colney for Nightingales and see what more arrivals reach Marston Marshes. Stay posted!