Thursday, 30 July 2015

A quick round-up

Yet again I've left it for a few weeks without a blog update. This becomes more of a round-up then than anything else.
Starting with last Saturday (25th July), I headed over towards RSPB Snettisham where I had distant but tickable views of the Broad-billed Sandpiper. Sadly too distant for shots of any kind but I shouldn't be disappointed because there are probably those who traveled from outside Norfolk to see it and dipped. This is a very rare bird in Ireland (I reckon eleven or twelve records only? But don't quote me), anyway it was a lifer for me so well worth the trip.

On Sunday I had a nice living room tick as I watched a Hobby hunting over the meadows that run along the northern edge of the river Yare as it passes around Whitlingham Broad. A considerable number of Swifts were hunting at the same time so was it possibly predating these??

Work wise , its plant shut-down right now so quieter than the normally hectic days I have. With that I took Wednesday off and with some domestic issues taken care of, I headed up to Holt Country Park in the afternoon for some butterfly fun - before the season finishes. All in all I had a very successful day, with great views of White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary.

Silver-washed Fritillary, Holt CP, Norfolk, 29th July 2015

Silver-washed Fritillary, Holt CP, Norfolk, 29th July 2015

White Admiral, Holt CP, Norfolk, 29th July 2015
A little bit of 'gen' from the helpful lad in the visitor center and I was able to locate the pond where I eventually came across at least one female Silver-washed Fritillary of the valezina form.

Silver-washed Fritillary of the valezina form
Valezina females can be between 5 - 15% of the population in larger colonies within the species main range. A gene that finds expression only in the female controls this form of butterfly (See Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Thomas and Lewington P.218 for more!).
So with those all that taken care of, a spot of lunch at the car and then off to Cley where I walked the east bank and scanned Arnold's Marsh. Plenty of Sandwich Terns, a few Common Terns mixed in. Also many Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Dunlin, Ruff, four Knot and one Ringed Plover.
I scanned the sea for Skuas but got distracted by three Little Gulls patrolling up and down along the edge of the breaking waves - dainty little things! I got a few shots before rain and cold got the better of me (only a t-shirt you see... d'uh!).

Little Gull, Cley - 29th July 2015

Monday, 20 July 2015

A few jars

Last Wednesday night I got the opportunity to join those fine people from the BTO as they continued with their survey of Nightjars in Thetford Forest.
Nightjars have been one of my favourite groups of birds for some time. Everything from Nightjars, Nighthawks, Potoos, Frogmouths, Owlet-Nightjars to Oilbirds just fascinate me. Whether its their cryptic plumage, nocturnal habits, the strange noises they make, the superstition and old wive-tales that accompany them or all of that! From Africa, Europe, North and South America, I have seen only nine of these species. I had to trawl through my photos archive but did find some old images in there.

Lyre-tailed Nightjar, Ecaudor - look at that tail

Slightly closer view of Lyre-tailed Nightjar

Common Nighthawk, Magee Marsh, Ohio

Egyptian Nightjar, Morocco

Rufous Nightjar, Panama
In Ireland European Nightjars are now sadly a very rare breeding bird. I have been fortunate to see and hear them on breeding grounds in County Tipperary a few years ago and had a passage bird one evening near Little Island, County Cork but that's been it. Until I moved to Norfolk! Holt CP, Winterton Dunes, Dersingham Bog, Buxton Heath, Kelling Heath and Thetford Forest are well known locations for them (to name a few) and over the years with careful management and support they are doing well.
On Wednesday I joined with Dawn Balmer, Ian Henderson, Greg Conway, Justin Walker and several others as we searched for nests and after dark attempted to net birds and place, or in some cases recover, geolocators.  The nest searching through chest high bracken was exhausting (for a 40 something desk jockey like me).

Our group of five found exactly zero nests, the other group of five found three nests - all presumably second broods. As we later set nets up around the nest areas, I did see one nest - if you could call it that. Two brown speckled off-white eggs resting on a bed of dead bracken - very easy to miss indeed.

Justin and Ian set up two sets of nets and Dawn a third set. Hidden in the bracken, Dawn and I watched this third net for about an hour but the Nightjars refused to play ball. One bird bounced out of the net and another pair seemed to see it at the last minute and flew over it. It was pitch black almost so gives you an idea as to how good their night vision must be.
Around 11pm, Justin and Ian texted to say they had caught a male bird and were about to retrieve the tag from it and would I like to see it? No second invite needed - I stumbled along the forest path to where they were. They had already removed the geolocator and kindly allowed a few quick shots on my iphone.

Male European Nightjar, Thetford Forest, Norfolk
Justin showed me how to hold the bird, I was amazed at how small it felt in the hand, a very narrow body probably smaller than a Blackbird. The long wings and tail presumably give it a larger appearance in flight.

To release the bird I held my arm outstretched, my palm flat and opened my fingers. The bird sat for a minute before flitting off into the dark.

With that it was time to do a net round and then pack up. I got back to my car at midnight, home to Norwich just before 1am and was up again at 6am to walk the dog - but I didn't feel tired. I think the thrill of the whole experience was still there.
My sincere thanks to Dawn Balmer for asking me along and to Ian Henderson, Greg Conway and Justin Walker for patiently answering my many questions about Nightjars and showing me a bird in the hand - one of my most enjoyable birding experiences in many years!

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