Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Cantley's Tringas and Corton's Jynx

On Saturday morning I took to the east coast for some bush-whacking. A light easterly air flow had me hoping but clear skies overnight and blue skies that morning dampened my enthuasiasm. I birded around Happisburgh, Cart Gap and Winterton but couldn't produce a single migrant. "Bird of the Day" was not even a bird.....a fresh-looking Painted Lady butterfly at Happisburgh was the best of the lot. At lunch-time I threw in the towel and opted to take Polina shopping in Norwich (that's how bad it was.....actually the shopping trip was quite enjoyable as it happens).
I skipped Sunday and instead went with Nick to Cantley Beet Factory to look for waders. That was not a bad option as it turned out and before lunch-time we had enjoyed smart views of some very handsome looking juvenile Tringas. I think the tally was five Green Sandpiper, two Wood Sandpiper, three Common Sands, three Greenshank and also about ten Ruff. Views were distant and heat haze would have been an issue for photography (didn't bother to bring my heavy lens). There was one delightful scope view of a Green and Wood Sandpiper alongside each other, if approaching without flushing them was possible then it would have made an excellent portrait. I had to settle for a very 'iffy' phonescoped effort instead.

Green and Wood Sandpiper, Cantley BF, Norfolk
After lunch we drove down to Corton in Suffolk to check out the Wryneck that had been frequenting the old sewage works compound. The bird was quite obliging but harsh light and a wire mesh fence put paid to decent shots.

Wryneck, Corton, Suffolk - 29th August 2016
So quality Wryneck shots continue to elude me.
A juvenile Whinchat kept it company but it kept its distance. At around 4pm we called it a day. Not a bank holiday to compare with previous years (see 2013, 2014) but a second Wryneck in a week, some tidy looking juvenile Waders and a Clouded Yellow at Cantley BF was quite acceptable.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Double Jynx

After a Saturday afternoon slogging around Great Yarmouth Cemetery and Winterton South Dunes, I came home and saw a report on RBA of a Wryneck in the northern section of the cemetery - drat and double drat! I had walked that area an all!
Anyway, it was still present on Sunday at midday so I made my way back over there hoping for some decent Wryneck shots. I figured if the location of the bird could be pinned down I would have several hours to get a good shot, all I needed was patience. However, I always under-estimate just how much cover there is there and this turned out to be a very tricky bird.
It buried itself within a Holm Oak and later a Holly tree. It was quite content in the latter, sitting against the truck just visible but with a twig or foliage always blocking a clear shot. So record shots only but I certainly enjoyed watching it feed with darts of its long lizard -like tongue.

Such a smashing bird. My second GY cemetery Wryneck (double jynx!) - not as showey as the first one from August 2014 though slightly less soggy!

Wryneck, GY Cemetery - 28th August 2014

Signs of autumn

A short little run of easterlies in the second half of the week and a few drift migrants started appearing. I managed to finish work a bit early on Friday evening and got to the east Norfolk coast as the rain began to fall. I had high hopes for a Wryneck or Greenish and wild dreams of a Booted or even Syke's Warbler (well we can at least dream). In the end a tally of four Pied Flys, two Whinchats and six Wheatears was not bad for an afternoon punt-about.
I started out at Happisburgh, parked up at the cricket club and walked towards the cliff edge. Around the pillboxes and dung piles I had two juvenile Wheatears and one adult male Wheatear. Also a single juvenile Whinchat.

A juvenile Wheatear keeps ahead of me on the path

Juvenile Whinchat
I was on my way back to the cricket club when something flew from the willows on the edge of the garden of the very last house before the cliff - Pied Flycatcher. Didn't give great views but it put a smile on my face at least.

Pied Flycatcher, Happisburgh, Norfolk
I did a quick check of the trees alongside the cricket club and a lap around the cemetery but it was quiet there. After that I parked up near the lighthouse and checked the general area there. I was just thinking that the overgrown meadow with all the Ragwort and Angelicas looked quite 'Whinchatty' - when a second juvenile Whinchat popped up. It was joined by another Wheatear and they even obliged for a photo together on nearby fence.

Having a bit of a 'chat' (groan!)
The rest of the area was quiet so I headed over towards Cart Gap and walked down Doggett Lane where I came across three Pied Flycatchers. I fared a little better this time with the camera. One bird at least played ball.

Happisburgh Lighthouse and Church from Cart Gap, Norfolk

The next day I birded Great Yarmouth cemetery and Winterton South Dunes in the late afternoon but there seemed to have been a clear-out and I didn't have a single migrant at all.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Chicken of the Swamp

I first heard about the Minsmere Purple Swamphen on Sunday evening after I returned home from an afternoon birding (Norfolk 3G grrrhhhh!!!!). Anyway, like some I was a little dubious at first. But this bird had its advocates, right subspecies, recent and notable dispersal from its nearest breeding grounds in southern France and a very recent record in Brittany. I couldn't go on Sunday night, almost went at 4.30am on Monday morning but in the end I threw my gear into the car on the way to work on Monday morning and twitched it that evening.

Purple Swamphen twitch, Minsmere, Suffolk
I'm still taken aback by the crowds at UK twitches, even though I shouldn't be at this stage. Biggest Irish twitch I recall was for the first Irish record of Blyth's Reed Warbler on Mizen Head in 2007*. I think there was ten of us - at the most.

Blyth's Reed Warbler twitch, Mizen Head, Cork - 2007. Look at the crowds!!!
Anyway, back to Minsmere. The bird was elusive but I got decent enough views, no mistaking what it was, unlike the recent Scoter twitch. 
Photos were harder though, mainly because of distance, numbers of people and high growing vegetation. But I managed a blog worthy record shot.

Purple Swamphen, RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk
The poor bird has been given many different monikers - Purple Swamp Chicken, Purple Swamp Monster, Swamp Donkey and Purple-helmeted Swamp Chicken (yes guilty!). Knob gags aside, it does really have good credentials and these have been excellently presented by Josh Jones and Hugo Touze in this Birdguides article. 
Hard to see a strong reason not to add this species now to the British list. On the subject of lists then, on my way home from Minsmere I started to formulate a new list in my head. Its the "Birds I dashed out of work to twitch" list. I started on it ten years ago in Cork when my birding was I suppose at the 'moulting of juvenile feathers' stage. The first bird I twitched from work with a mad dash was an Isabelline Shrike on the Old Head of Kinsale in 2006. I ran the list through my head and its got some fond memories, here are the highlights:

Spotted Sandpiper - Shanagarry, Cork - 2007
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - Ballycotton, Cork - 2007
Dusky Warbler - Ballycotton village, Cork - 2007
Pallas's Warbler - Phil's back passage (yes, really!), Ballycotton village, Cork - 2007
Ivory Gull - Baltimore, Cork - 2009
Citrine Wagtail - Tramore, Waterford - 2009
Two-barred Crossbill, Lynford Arborteum, Norfolk - 2013
Steppe Grey Shrike, Burnham Norton, Norfolk - 2014
Purple Swamphen, Minsmere, Suffolk - 2016

*Footnote: The 2007 Mizen Head BRW was considered the first Irish record at the time. However it was since usurped by a Cape Clear record from 2006 that was initially considered a Reed Warbler until re-identified from photos. There is also a very interesting account of an Acrocephalus spp. found on Cape Clear in 1969 by Clive Hutchinson, Ken Preston and Tim Sharrock which certainly had all the right credentials for BRW (see Partricide by Anthony McGeehan).

Friday, 29 July 2016

The perfect antidote

We didn't waste much time licking our wounds and soon we were heading south again, this time for the beautiful county of Northumberland. We over-nighted in the village of Beal within striking distance of the historic island of Lindisfarne. Rare American ducks were put behind us as we sought out scarce plants, butterflies and some other avian treats.
After a very decent Lebanese take-away washed down with a wee dram o' Speyside single malt (thanks James Lowen), we hit the hay before midnight. Snoring aside - I slept pretty well!
The next morning we searched around the Snook on Holy Island for the scarce (dare I say rare?) Lindisfarne Helleborine. Fortunately we managed to find several of these pretty orchids - more exciting for James and Nick if I'm really honest but Dark Green Fritillary was a nice bonus for me.

Snook Tower, Holy Island, Northumerland

Dark-Green Fritillary
Lindisfarne Helleborine (crappy iphone shot)

James paps the trifid!

Nick had a go too!
We didn't stay long on Holy Island and our next stop was at the pretty (ahem!) town of Newbiggin-on-sea. A quick scan with the scopes and we had our Roseate Terns. A mix of adults and juveniles. Only my second ever sighting of the species (previously Ballycotton, Cork in 2008) and for James his first since 1990.

Roseate Terns with Common Terns
Next stop was the A189 bridge over the Wansbeck estuary for Bonaparte's Gull. With traffic rushing past on one side and a nice fifty foot drop into the estuary on the other as well as the sheets of rain - I didn't particularily enjoy twitching this bird but at least it was there and it was easy....unlike it fellow countryman the Scoter!

2cy Bonaparte's Gull, Wansbeck estuary
A couple of quick stops for Young's and Tyne Helleborine (both of which I missed in favour of ice cream and minding our gear in the car!). In my defence here, I'm still struggling with Birds, Dragonflies and Butterflies never mind adding Moths and Orchids to the whole confusing mix. I will probably regret not seeing those last two Helleborines but there was a Mr. Whippy nearby for goodness sake!
Our last stop was Bishop Middleham quarry near Durham (where Bee-eaters bred in 2002 no less). We were here for Dark-red Helleborine - which I admit was stunning (well OK - it was nice!) and Northern Brown Argus (or even "Durham" Argus if you like).

Bishop Middleham Quarry, Durham

Dark Red Helleborine

Still harassing the trifids - Orchids!
Northern Brown Argusesssss (Argei?) were thin on the ground - James found two and it didn't matter that they were tatty - still things of beauty really.

Northern Brown "Durham" Argus
After that it really was time to pack up and headhome. We reached Norwich sometime after 10pm that night, one thousand mile round-trip, three UK ticks (Surf Scoter, Bonaparte's Gull and Roseate Tern), two new Butterflies (Northern Brown Argus and Dark Green Fritillary) and some very nice weeds (sorry - last time - Helleborines). Not to mention the great company and craic - we'd almost forgotten about dipping the Scoter......almost!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The most epic of dips

When we were discussing and planning to twitch the WW Scoter in Aberdeen, had I known the bird would be such a head-wrecker, I might not have traveled. But in the end I'm glad I did. It might not be consolation for many after traveling so far but in the end I got more out of dipping on this bird than if we'd found it and ticked it in thirty minutes.....well sort of!
Here's how it all panned out.
At 4.20pm on Friday myself, Nick Watmough and James Lowen departed from Norwich and headed north. Nine hours later we had pitched in to a motel outside Perth and five hours after that at 6.30am on Saturday morning we were back on the road heading for Aberdeen. At 8.20am, as we were pulling into the car park at Murcar Golf Links, news was already on the web that the bird was showing in the scoter flocks off-shore opposite the clubhouse. Half an hour and we'd have this one in the bag and would be settling down to a slap up Scottish breakfast.
However, the best laid plans and all that.............
Seven hours later we had to admit defeat and throw the towel in. During the day we had two candidates for WW Scoter. The first bird we got onto looked pretty good, nice large,white speculum on the wing. Bigger than on any of the other Velvets. Another birder was completely happy with it, ticked it and went on his way. We were, its fair to say, about 70-80%. The shape of the white eye patch was difficult to discern at a distance and the bill shape / colour was tricky too. We scanned from the top of a pillbox on the beach but couldn't really see enough detail on the bill to make a certain identification. Sometime later we got onto candidate number two and this one really did look promising. Again, large square-ish shaped white speculum (which was bigger than any on the Velvets) and even if you lost the bird in the swell and movement of the flock, you could find it again by looking for the large white speculum. Different birders got onto it and the consensus seemed to be that this was the bird. We had all seen it and put the news out. Nick though, ever the competent scientist, wanted proper views of the bill colour and shape to clinch the ID. He returned to the pillbox roof for closer views.

Nick scans from the pillbox
James and I continuing scanning from the dunes but we'd lost the bird now. In the end we never re-found it and following a brief discussion with another birder we had to conclude that this "was not our boy". What we saw of the bill had too much yellow on it and while difficult to discern the profile didn't seem quite right either.

Dunes from Murcar Golf Links

So it was back to the drawing board. By now it must have been 2pm, we had nothing to eat, four hours sleep after a nine hour drive and nothing to drink either. It wasn't getting any easier. We spent the next two hours scanning on our own but couldn't pick out the bird. And the more we looked at the Velvets the more we realised that our initial two birds were probably Velvets also. Drake Velvets would throw me by sometimes showing a large white speculum, especially if the wing was relaxed along the side of the bird or especially if it was preening.
At 4pm we conceded defeat. We were shattered and chances of finding it now were not getting better (especially considering our lack of food, sleep and drink). We retired to the clubhouse of Murcar Golf Club for a very welcome double burger and chips and licked our wounds. James withdrew the sighting.

The defeated Scoter Squad (Graham Clarke, James Lowen and Nick Watmough)
The other two were understandably dejected. I wasn't too disappointed though. Firstly, I had travelled a very steep learning curve on Velvet Scoters, I had seen a cracking drake Surf Scoter (UK tick), and seen a very interesting Common Scoter with an all yellow bill that James had found. It was a strong candidate for Black Scoter but bill profile was wrong (I have subsequently heard this bird is "known locally" and has the nickname of Duffy Duck!). Also, I had seen the Rossbeigh stejneger's Scoter in 2010 so unless it's split from deglandi then it wouldn't be a tick for me anyhow. I think if we had rocked up and ticked the bird in thirty minutes I certainly would not have gotten too much from that. Most importantly I was reminded of the basic principles of birding and a lot of other things, if you don't have enough good quality data then you can't make an accurate call on something. No matter how far you have travelled to see a bird and how much you want to believe that you have seen it, if you are only 90% then that's not good enough. You need to be 100% certain based on full scrutiny of the key identification features to make an accurate call. If you can't do that and you're not 100% then that's that and you have to let it go - such is life.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Below the line

I think maybe everyone who takes bird photos has a hard-drive somewhere filled with thousands of large file digital images that they just can't bring themselves to delete. Recently I was checking through some of these and came across a lot of old images that for one reason or another I never ever processed . Well, some I had processed but quite frankly the end result was......more than a little bit crap. However, back when I first picked up a camera and pointed it at a bird I always cropped the image to within an inch of its life. Now, I'm a little less likely to do that and when I treat some old images this way they look better - or at least a little less crappy. Anyway, sorting through them brought back some good memories (mostly of my time in County Cork) and reminded me that I had since some damn fine birds. Here's a selection of those that at the time never made the cut as well as s few that haven't ever appeared on my blog!

Pied-billed Grebe, Great Island, Cork - December 2010
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Ballycotton, Cork - September 2010
Pectoral Sandpiper, Ballycotton, Cork - September 2011

Wilson's Phalarope, Douglas Estuary, Cork - September 2011

Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Ballycotton, September 2008

White-rumped Sandpiper, Clonea Strand, Waterford - October 2010
Sabines' Gull, Cobh - September 2009

Ivory Gull, Baltimore, Cork - March 2009

Red-throated Pipit, Ballycotton, Cork - November 2009
Swainson's Thrush, Dirk Bay, Cork - October 2008
Arctic Warbler, Cape Clear Island, Cork - October 2009
Melodious Warbler, Old Head of Kinsale, Cork - September 2008
Blackpoll Warbler, Garinish, Cork - October 2009

Northern Waterthrush, Olly Gulley, Cape Clear - August 2008

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Michael Vincent's garden, Cape Clear - October 2010

Yellow Warbler, Michael Vincent's garden, Cape Clear - August 2008
Scarlet Tanager, Garinish, Cork - October 2008

White-throated Sparrow, Lighthouse Road, Cape Clear - October 2008

Ortolan Bunting, Old Head of Kinsale - September 2008