Sunday, 13 April 2014

More Crossbill fun

So after returning from my brief trip to Latvia, I still had a few days off. Once all necessary 'chores' were out of the way I had time for birding. While it was certainly more spring-like in Norfolk than Latvia had been, there was still a chill in the air and migrants were relatively thin on the ground.
On Thursday I walked Winterton north dunes going beyond the toad pools to try and find the Wryneck that had been reported earlier in the day but it had moved on probably. It was only on the return leg that I saw one of the three Ring Ouzels, a fine male perched on a distant gorse bush. Apart from my first Swallow of the year, the other highlight was this fine Adder. The first time I have seen one anywhere, I guess thats what becomes of living in 'snake-free' Ireland for most of my life.

Common Adder, Winterton Dunes, Norfolk - 10th April 2014
On Friday I birded Horsey Gap where four Swallows, one Willow Warbler and an adult Med Gull were the best. I popped into Great Yarmouth Cemetery en route home but could only dig out a Chiffchaff in the northern section.
On Saturday I tried East Wretham Heath briefly to see if any Redstarts had arrived - they hadn't, but there were plenty of Blackcaps singing. From there I went to Lynford Arboretum to try for Hawfinches but after two hours stood waiting in the one spot I gave up and joined the group near the entrance hoping for views of the Two-barred Crossbills as they came in to drink. Again another two hour fruitless stake-out. Well, I say fruitless, but it had its benefits as you will see. I got speaking to the couple who own the old gardener's cottage. A nicer pair of people you couldn't hope to meet. They invited me and a few others to come in a stand near the white container so we could get better views, should the birds come to drink. I spent the next hour or so chatting with them as we waited. The Crossbills never showed and as the light faded and the cool air began to make me shiver, I decided to head away. It was then about 7.15pm. However, they suggested that I should come back early in the morning and stand at the opposite side of the pool to have the best chance of a photograph. With their permission I returned at 7am this morning and after about one and a half hours the Crossbills finally played ball and dropped in to drink. First some Common Crossbills, then the 'contentious' Crossbill and finally a male Two-barred Crossbill. I filled my boots with photographs, with mission accomplished it was time for coffee back at the car.

Female Common Crossbill
Female Common Crossbill
Male Common Crossbill

Male Common Crossbill

Male Two-barred Crossbill

Male Two-barred Crossbill

Male Two-barred Crossbill and female Common Crossbills

Male Two-barred Crossbill and female Common Crossbill

'Contentious' wing-barred Common Crossbill or 1st year Two-barred Crossbill or hybrid??
The bird above is very interesting, I first saw it in November last year and wondered whether it was a Two-barred Crossbill or wing-barred Common (see previous blog entry Two-barred Crossbill....?). Recently Marcus Nash has written an excellent article on the RBA about the Lynford Crossbills and this bird in particular (see The Crossbill Conundrum). Whatever it is, the whole thing has been very educational, my experience before moving to Norfolk had been flyover Common Crossbills in Ireland. But within the last year I have seen Common, Parrot and Two-barred and this 'contentious' bird also. You can't help but learn from seeing these birds whatever they are!
After the Crossbill fun we drove over to Felbrigg Hall for the Red-rumped Swallow. Sadly it seemed to have moved on before we arrived. I stupidly forgot my bins and returned from the lake to the car to retrieve them. On my way back I had a very interesting looking Buzzard. The first thing that drew my attention was the very pale band across the rump. I know some Common Buzzard can show this but it was quite striking and well defined. Secondly as it passed over me I could see very clean and pale underparts and undersides to the wing. It showed dark primaries, a dark tailing edge to the inner primaries and secondaries and a brown crescent shaped mark on the underside of the wing by the carpal joint. Of course, I now had my bins but no camera. I returned to the lake and mentioned it to Nick, he had managed some distant photos and will be checking these at home later. Based on a look at Forsman's text I am leaning strongly towards Rough-legged Buzzard.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Late winter in Latvia

I'm back over in Latvia for a few days. Not a birding trip but my gear did come with me just in case. Gardening chores were finished ahead of schedule so I was given a pass to go birding for the day. I didn't have any transport and had left it too late to arrange a guide so I just decided to check out the local patches that I had birded often in the three previous summers. The small reserve up by the Leilupe river has been a fine spot for summer migrants, birds that I have seen here from June to August in previous years include Great White Egret, Black Tern, Cuckoo, Wryneck, Marsh Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Barred Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Whinchat and Common get the picture, its a good spot! Spring comes late in Latvia, its still quite cold and grey and shoots are only beginning to appear. In the summer this place has tonnes of cover, today it was stark and bare so I didn't have much hope of seeing anything special.....but you never know! The pictures below show the contrast.

April 2014

June 2012
Anyway, before I had gone twenty meters I had a nice flock, about thirty strong, of Tree Sparrows. Commoner here than the UK so worth stopping to watch for a while. I wandered around the trails and paths and noted the many Great Tits and Chaffinches and small flocks of Siskins and Redpolls (I thought there seemed to be both Common and Lesser in these flocks???). I headed out along a worn path across some open fields towards the river which is where I usually see Whinchat and RB Shrikes in the summer. This time I had a small flock of Song Thrushes, several Hooded Crows, a single Lapwing and when I reached the willows near the river's edge......a fine Great Grey Shrike!
What a stunning bird, it hunted along the river edge, perching in the stunted willows to scan the field below and occasionally hoping down to chase after some prey-item. I watched it for a while when it appeared to take a small rodent from the long grass. It then took off into a willow clump and began impaling its victim on a branch before ripping its head off and beginning to devour it. Unfortunately then a woman walking her five dogs flushed the bird and it left its meal behind before resuming its hunting position atop another willow.
I reckoned with my presence also it was unlikely to return to its larder so I too beat a retreat. Meanwhile I walked another trial that ran alongside a small fishing lake, the reeds here in summer have been great for Reed and Great Reed Warblers. At the beginning of the trail I had a single Chiffchaff feeding high in the willows (the first summer migrant) and a brief glimpse of a female Black Redstart.....not bad birds really.This time I had to contend with Reed Bunting and at least four smart looking White Wagtails.
At this stage I decided to head back to the house for some lunch and to pick up my camera. On the return journey to the area I stopped to take some photos of the Tree Sparrows which were wary at first but quickly became quite confident.

Tree Sparrow, Lielupe River, Latvia, 7th April 2014
I headed over to the area where the Great Grey Shrike had been and took a quick peek at his larder first as he was nowhere to be seen nearby.

The victim!
I scanned the tops of the trees and soon picked up the Butcher Bird himself about four hundred meters away. I approached carefully but as expected with this species, he had seen me long before I had seen him and he kept me at arms length.

Clearly eyeing me carefully!

Great Grey Shrike (nominate race Excubitor) - Leilupe, Latvia

Keeping watch from the willows on a grey and cold morning
The cold was starting to get into my bones by now and hunger pangs were gnawing at me. As I left a female Merlin caused panic amongst the Reed Bunting and White Wagtails as she passed over the reedbed.
That's more or less all the birding I will get on this short visit. As always Latvian birding never disappoints!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Dunwich's Dartfords

After 'bashing the bushes' along the east coast yesterday, today I decided to forget all that rarity hunting stuff and try and take some photographs.
With warm temperatures, clear skies and just a light wind, I thought it might be time to try for some Dartford Warbler shots down at Dunwich Heath in Suffolk. Probably I should have gone early in the morning to give myself the best chance, but with the clocks going forward and the want of a lie-in (as Saturday I was up at 5am), it was 12 noon before I reached Dunwich Heath itself. I met two other photographers who were half-way through their second day there and hadn't anything to show for their troubles. They said the birds were present but not coming close enough for good shots. A week ago a male had being singing in the gorse by the car-park and was so close and fearless that people were stepping up with 'point and clicks' and getting photographs. Well that was a week ago and today was different.
I got my gear ready and headed off to look for some diminutive Sylvias. It took a while to find any but once I located a smart male Stonechat, finding the Dartford's was easy. I'm not sure why they do hang out together, I presume there is some kind of loose symbiotic relationship, perhaps something to do with disturbing insects or maybe the Stonechats act as good sentinels, I haven't found anything on Google about it just yet.
Anyway, getting a shot was very difficult. The other two photographers joined me but none of us had any luck. Must have spent about four hours waiting for them to come close but it didn't happen. In the end I headed back to the car for a late lunch (it was 4pm). I thought about packing it in and heading home but I decided to give it one more go with another couple of birds that were slightly closer to the car park.
One of these was slightly less elusive and although it was distant, it did finally sit up on the heather for a couple of reasonable shots. I'd love to have one of these perched in the yellow furze within about 15 feet and then the results would be stunning. But the moment these efforts below will have to do.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Ever the optimist

Get up at 5am they said, go looking for migrants on the east Norfolk coast they said......nuts to that!
After several days of high pressure and light easterly winds I figured Saturday morning would be good for early migrants. I was in bed by 9.30pm and up at 5am. By 6.30am I was parking up at Horsey Gap brim full of optimism. A White-spotted Bluethroat would be found, showing well along the path or in the Sallows. An hour later I was trudging dejectedly back to the car with not even a Wheatear to show for my troubles. The best at Horsey was a singing Chiffchaff, a female-type Marsh Harrier and a fly-over Grey Plover.
At Horsey Mere a nice male Marsh Harrier flew over clutching a poor unfortunate rodent of some description. A Black Redstart was reported from the south dunes at Winterton 'in oaks'........I searched in vain, just some nice male Yellowhammers. At the Shangri-La cottage there were more singing Chiffers but little else, I would try Sea Palling.........some day that will surely hold something good. I checked the little cottages at the back of the dunes and apart from a singing Chiffer I had nothing there also. I really expected that I might get a Black Redstart at Sea Palling or a Ring Ouzel in that open field, but there was zip!
In  final attempt to try and see a nice bird, I drove into Great Yarmouth and stopped by the cemetery. Assuming they are the same birds, the two Firecrests were still present in the Holm Oaks in the southern section. Showing well and being quite vocal, calling and so on.
I met two other local birders and chatted for a while. They too had a surprisingly quiet morning. We watched a couple of Chiffchaffs fly-catching in the pines before I decided to call it a day and head home. Hopefully as we jump forward into British summer time tonight, tomorrow will bring some new migrants in.
Until then!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Goshawks and Woodlarks in the Brecks

Not a bad day in the end. The best birding was in the first few hours from 7am to 10am when I managed to add two species to my rather paltry British list. Northern Goshawk and Woodlark.
We started at Santon Downham hoping for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We had a drumming GSW alright but its diminutive cousin alluded us. However along the bank of the Little Ouse river was the first singing Chiffchaff of the spring for me, some nice views of Brambling including one very smart male coming into breeding plumage with an almost complete black head. Plenty of Siskins in the area too, a Kingfisher and a pair of Grey Wagtails were present also.
As we headed to a spot for displaying Goshawk in the Brecks, we stopped and scanned some arable fields looking for Stone Curlews. Its possibly still a little too early for them (maybe?) but I did at least hear my first ever singing Woodlark. I couldn't pin the bird down but great to get my ear in on their song.
We reached the Goshawk spot a short while later. I had been here once before, on a dull, windy and cold day a few weeks ago and only had Common Buzzard. Today though, while it was still breezy, it was sunny and looking better for soaring raptors. After about thirty minutes we finally got onto a single Goshawk flying above the pines at the end of the field. I enjoyed prolonged scope views of the bird as it climbed and soared. In good light it was possible to make out the barring on the chest, the white under-tail coverts and the head pattern. Having only previously had brief glimpses of the species in Latvia, it was possible this time to observe the distinctive shape in flight. Before the bird began to soar, it held its tail feathers in, this gave it a 'long-tailed' look with the outer tail feathers appearing rounded at the tips. In addition, the inner wing looked quite wide, i.e. the arm looked wider than the hand. Overall, to me, it gave it an altogether quite distinctive look, not just that of a large Sparrowhawk.
Happy with the views we headed away from the area. The birds were too distant for any photos but as we drove way, one Goshawk glided low over the tops of the pines. I got a couple of very ropey record shots as it disappeared from view.

Goshawk, Norfolk - the ultimate record shot!
I should also add that in the same area I got scope views of a Woodlark perched in a tree. Tickable at least but I will hope for better views in time.
By now it was 10am, we weren't to know it, but that was as good as the day's birding got. We headed to Sheringham Park for Firecrest, we could hear 'crests but couldn't see any. We took a stroll around Kelling Heath for Dartford's but had no luck here either. By then the early start was catching up. We threw in the birding towel and headed back to Norwich.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Parrot Crossbills

Lady luck didn't shine on us today. Nick and I headed up to Edgefield hoping to stake out a drinking puddle and get some crackin' shots of the Parrot Crossbills. Nick, Julian Bhalerao, Penny Clarke and myself gathered around a small pool of water for around three hours in, at times, very decent light. A flock of Common Crossbills appeared briefly but the Parrots hadn't read the script.
We managed good scope views of the birds as they sat in a tree near the road but after spending over four hours in the area we decided to move on.

Male Parrot Crossbill, Edgefield, Norfolk - 2nd March 2014
This heavily cropped shot of a male was at least the best view I've had of the species. They did seem to be quite active and also quite noisy with a combination of excited calls and occasional snippets of what might have been song. Wonder will they breed in Norfolk? According to "The Birds of Norfolk" by Taylor et al., the species bred in 1984 and 1985 in the Corsican Pines at Wells Wood, so not without precedence if they do.
After that we went to a spot in the Brecks to look for displaying Goshawk. We had left it a bit late in the day and the weather was beginning to turn. Best we had were four displaying Common Buzzards. At least I know the spot now.
Yesterday I took to Strumpshaw Fen for a couple of hours. I wanted to practise a little with the external flash and better beamer. This is because I have booked a week at Magee Marsh in Ohio mid-May for warblers. In the US, external flashes are widely used for bird photography. I have a Canon flash unit and better beamer but I'll be honest, I don't have a clue how to use them. I got some valuable tips on using the flash from another photographer. I kept to it sparingly and the birds were not perturbed. It still takes practise though and effort to avoid the results looking artificial. This was my best shot of the day.

Nuthatch, Strumpshaw Fen RSPB - Norfolk - 1st March 2014

Monday, 24 February 2014

First lifer of 2014

Started early on Sunday morning, picking Nick up at 7am and then planning to reach Thornham harbour by 8am. The plan was to look for the small flock of Twite that had been reported there.
En route we came past Chosely Barns, before Christmas I had a thirty strong Brambling flock here. I slowed as finches flew along the hedgerow in front of me. Nick picked up a Corn Bunting sitting out on top of the right hand side hedge, my bins were in the boot (d'uh), by the time I had retrieved them it was gone. All I got was a silhouette and as it would be a British tick, I will have to leave it. I could take Nick's word but I need tickable views myself. We parked up and began to watch the sizable Yellowhammer flock feeding on grains on the concrete and drinking from the pools of water by the roadside. The Corn Bunting never re-appeared but when this very pale Yellowhammer turned up, Nick immediately asked me if I knew much about female Pine Buntings. The answer is no, but we scrutinized it for a bit. I took a few record shots and from the viewfinder you could just about make out some yellow-ish fringes to the primaries. These were more evident, along with some yellow on the belly, when I checked the shots at home on photoshop. It's still the palest and greyest 'hammer I have ever seen, almost like a washed out Meadow Pipit.

Very grey Yellowhammer - yellow fringes to primaries just visible
With no sign of the Corn Bunting, we decided to continue on for Thornham.....where the Twite awaited!!
I don't know the site itself, the reports said "seen on the old sea wall". When I got there, the sea wall was a lot longer and broader than expected, an hour of searching in a biting westerly wind failed to produce the goods. Twite remains elusive for me, I tried Raghly in Sligo twice, Titchwell twice and now Thornham and I still have yet to see this species. Some day, with luck, I'll stumble upon them unexpectedly.
A little disappointed, Nick suggested we head for Abbey farm near Flitcham. Abbey farm has a small hide from which its possible to see some farmland species such as Corn Bunting, Brambling and Little Owl. A flock of about fifteen Brambling flew over us as we got out of the car and landed in the treetops, but that's where they stayed, some feeders or some seed on the ground would be great for photos. From the hide it was possible to see a Little Owl perched on a distant tree stump. It remained stationary all the time we were there, good scope views but too distant for the lens. Even at 700mm, this was the best I could get.

Little Owl, Abbey farm, Flitcham, Norfolk - 23 February 2014

Cropped - for your viewing pleasure!
Word on the t'interweb was that the RL Buzzard at Ongar Hill had been showing well. Another bogey bird for me, I missed the Kilcoole, County Wicklow bird in 2012 and also those seen around Holkham Pines last year. So I was not optimistic. We reached the spot and marched out towards the sea wall. Fortunately two other birders returning to their car gave us 'gen' that they had seen the bird only ten minutes earlier heading west along the sea wall. We headed in that direction along the top of the same sea wall. The wind was howling at this stage, there was no shelter up there and I could barely hear anything over the roar of the gale. However, our luck was in. We had gone about half a mile when Nick spotted the bird hovering just slightly above the sea wall and into the wind.  We approached carefully and just as I got my camera set up the bird decided to do a fly past. The light was poor and the wind was brutal but I managed a few record shots as the bird moved past us and headed back down the sea wall.

Rough-legged Buzzard, Ongar Hill, Norfolk - 23 February 2014
I'm not much good at ageing and sexing raptors. But based on a quick look through Dick Forsman's 'The Raptors of Europe and Middle East', I'm going with 2cy juvenile. I'm basing this on the brown rather than black tail band (its also a little diffuse) and the dark secondaries versus primaries. Could be wrong though and I need to take longer to go through the literature. Still a life bird for me though!
From Ongar Hill, we stopped in Downham Market and enjoyed nice views of about seven Goosanders on the river Great Ouse (both males and redheads). Our route back to Norwich took us via Lynford Arboretum, neither of us bothered to check for Crossbills, I've been there and done that on several occasions and still think one of the male Two-barred Crossbills is a wing-barred Common Crossbill. As usual the Hawfinches remained out of sight in the paddocks, as did the Firecrests! By now it was after 3pm, we had both begun to fade. As Van Morrison sang "Out all day birdwatching and the craic was good", but now it was time to go home.
I may have missed Corn Bunting, Twite and Hawfinch but great views of my first Rough-legged Buzzard were more than good enough for me.