Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Twitching Raptors and returning Chats

So the options last weekend were as follows; check East Wretham Heath for Redstarts, use my renewed permit and see if Colney GP had any Nightingales, check the east coast once for migrants or head into the Brecks and check a site I knew for Nightingales. With cold NW winds none of those options seemed to hold much promise. In the end I decided I would check East Wretham and if that was a failure I would move on to the Nightingale site.
While it was a pleasant walk around East Wretham Heath, I failed to see or hear any Redstarts. Its looking like they may have abandoned that site altogether as they were absent too last year - shame really.
From there I moved on to a site near Lakenheath in Suffolk where I had great success with Nightingales the previous year Ode to a Nightingale
I located three birds within half an hour and two were showing briefly from time to time - though Nightingales are real skulkers so if I wanted to improve on the shots I got last year then I was going to need to work at it. I also needed to contend with the constant noise of military aircraft from nearby RAF Lakenheath. Apart from the F16's, there was the added attraction of some F22 Raptors which had brought several enthusiasts in to "twitch" them. As a birder though I'm not really best placed to pass judgement on plane-spotters - no doubt we are the ones they think are a bit nuts! I didn't see the F22's but a group of ten F16's did rip over at one stage. Impressive looking aircraft but killing machines nonetheless.

One of ten F16s coming into RAF Lakenheath
Anyway, back to the birds. I picked a Nightingale and spent several hours in one spot trying to photograph it. The light was very harsh and the bird was as you would expect "skulking" - to say the least. It did come out in the open several times but strong light or a poor background meant that I got better results with using the HD movie function instead (note: background noise in clip 2 is drone of F16 engines after landing at Lakenheath).

Nightingale singing - clip 1
Nightingale singing - clip 2

The next day I returned with James Lowen, the light was slightly better but the wind had picked up and it was colder. We spent about three hours with the same bird and did a little better with photographs but it took all of three hours for it to show well enough in the open.

Nightingale, Lakenheath, Suffolk
I rather suspect this could be the very same bird I photographed last year. It often sang from the very exact same spots as a year ago, although they were slightly more over-grown than last year. I'd like to think its the same bird that has successfully over-wintered in sub-Saharan Africa and successfully made its return back to the same spot to breed. I feel a little connection with this chap!
Anyway after three hours we called it a day. We had singing Woodlark, Willow Warbler and a rather smart Lesser 'throat to keep us entertained when Luscinia wouldn't show.

Lesser Whitethroat
I may not get better shots of the Nightingale but its tempting to try!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The trickle becomes a flow

This post is a bit of a round-up of the last two weekends because finally some migrants have started to arrive. Well, a trickle became a steady flow as Swallows, Sand Martins, House Martins, Wheatears, Chiffers, Willows Warblers and Whitethroats are all in and this morning I had a singing Nightingale only five minutes walk from the house (not a snowballs chance in hell of that ever happening in Ireland).
The weekend before last Nick and I checked the Horsey and Waxham stretch of the east coast for migrants. Chiffs, Willows and Swallows were all present and correct but it was a fine male Ring Ouzel near the pipe dump that won bird of the day - despite competition from an equally handsome though distant Red-necked Grebe at Ormsby Broad. I think if that had been closer it might have won because summer plumaged RN Grebes are just stunning. Nick commented that they must be rare birds in County Cork and come to think of it - I have not seen one there in my time. In fact I have seen every grebe on the Irish list in Cork (including Pied-billed Grebe) but not Red-necked!
First Wheatear of the year!

Bird of the Day (though not Photo of the Day) - Ring Ouzel

Last weekend I managed to squeeze in some birding somewhere between bathroom renovations and Muse concerts - I think I did well to manage that.
Once again I hit the east coast, being mindful of the fact that the winds were all wrong, so my expectations were low. Horsey and Waxham were very quiet apart from a few singing Willow Warblers however a jaunt around Great Yarmouth Cemetery produced two smart Blackcaps and a Lesser Whitethroat (excuse the dreadful photo).

Willow Warbler - Horsey Gap, Norfolk

Lesser Whitethroat - GY Cemetery, Norfolk
Meanwhile, I've been doing almost daily spot checks of a site only five minutes from home where in the last two years there had been several singing Nightingales. Although Will Soar beat me to it, I was delighted this morning while walking the dog at 6.20am to hear the sweet lilting tones of a Nightingale in song. From the same spot, in fact from almost the same hawthorn bush exactly to the same day as previous years - quite a feat for any creature. Welcome back boys!

Monday, 28 March 2016

Thayer's Gull - right place right time again

So it was either going to be north-west Norfolk for migrants or Minsmere for Caspian Gull and Jack Snipe. Conditions for migrants didn't look great and I hadn't ever been to Minsmere so decision made and it was down to Suffolk Nick and I headed. And what a good decision that turned out to be!
We started off at the North hide where the previous day two Jack Snipe were reported as "showing well" (always a little careful of what that actually means). Anyway, one of the RSPB staff did manage to find one 'bobbing' away on the ground and while it was a little distant, it was at least visible.

Jack Snipe, Minsmere, Suffolk
The next step in our plan was to walk around the hides via the beach and see if we could jam in the season's first Wheatear (for us anyway). En route we stopped off at the East Hide where we got chatting to a group of two or three birders who were discussing an adult 'Herring Gull-type' bird that  Brian Small had found earlier that morning. They managed to put us on to the bird (which was a feat in itself considering the distance and number of large gulls present). Careful mention was made to its similarity to the Duncannon, Co. Wexford Vega Gull but with the wise caveat that they were by no means claiming that this bird was one. The bird was sleeping with its head tucked in, so bill and legs could not be seen. But it occasionally opened a dark eye! Whats more, it was the only adult Herring Gull type that had a dark 'shawl' still over its head and neck....all the other adult birds had already moulted. We waited for at least an hour before it made any movement, but when it stood up the raspberry pink legs were striking to say the least (cue expletives). This was clearly a very interesting gull and no-one was going anywhere until some further details could be worked out. Meanwhile Nick smartly re-read Killian Mullarney's article on the Vega Gull discovery in Birdguides while we waited in the hide. What was clear was that a good shot would be needed of a spread upper wing - showing the pattern of the outer primaries right back to the inner webs. That would be tricky. However, one person had very helpfully managed to get a digi-scoped shot which showed that the degree of black on the primaries was quite small and this would be wrong for Vega Gull. With that species most likely ruled out - other possibilities were considered. Thayer's seemed the most obvious, Glaucous-winged a possibility but the darkness of the primaries was probably outside the range of variation for that particular species and so thoughts returned to Thayer's Gull. I did manage a distant shot of the bird from the East hide and hopefully its clear to see the dark eye, the yellow bill (which appeared green-tinged from scope views), sturdy raspberry pink legs, dark shawl around the head, neck and shoulders of the bird. The mantle was little darker than Argenteus Herring Gulls but not as dark even as Argentatus or Yellow-legged Gull (taking into account light conditions and distance here of course).

Cropped shot of Thayer's Gull
Same shot less cropped
The bird started to get a little more active as the afternoon wore on. We decided that we might get better views from the south hide and headed around there. The bird was a little closer there and with better light, but had decided to continue snoozing.

It did occasionally look up giving slightly better views of head and bill and with better light and closer proximity you could see that the 'shawl' was made up of small brownish concentric almost crescent shaped markings.
Again the bird did stand up a few times and walk about - it even stretched its wings once or twice but all I got was shots of the under-wing without it being sufficiently spread to see the inner webs.

It was now 4pm and we had spent a combined 6 hours or so looking at this bird. We hadn't eaten since early morning either. We headed back to the car-park to have lunch and meet James Lowen who was on his way. By the time we had done all that we decided that we would be unlikely to improve on the views we had and needed to start getting back to our wives and families also. We left James as he hared away towards the south hide while we packed up our bags and baggage. Later in the evening shots emerged on Facebook from Craig Shaw which showed the pattern of the spread wing with the black from the primary tips running into the inner webs  - this seemed to strengthen the case for Thayer's Gull and Birdguides etc upgraded it from 'Probable' to 'Mega'.
So, compensating for a failed twitch in December 2014 to Wakefield (see Blyth's Pipits and Thayer's Gull twitch) and much like last year's Citril Finch (see Citril Finch - North Norfolk) -  it was a case of right place and right time. Obviously the record will need to run through the rarities committee but its credentials look very good. Congratulations to the finder Brian Small and it must be said how good it was to see how birders worked together sharing thoughts, details, internet images and articles, 'back of the camera' shots and video stills to try and piece together the evidence that this was indeed an excellent candidate for Thayer's Gull - so good to see that and in the pre-internet age - how quickly if at all would the conclusion have been reached as to what this bird was?
So a great day out at Minsmere and I didn't even get to mention Sand Martin, Caspian Gull, Glaucous Gull, Bittern and nice views of Pintail and summer-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit.

Black-tailed Godwit, Minsmere, Suffolk
Pintail, Minsmere, Suffolk

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Blakeney Buntings (or....An Ode to Mr. Whippy)

An early morning walk with the small hound on Saturday morning helped me to finally catch up with the Bowthorpe Great White Egret. I had tried a couple of times before but kept missing out. This time it was showing well so with some nice early morning light, I headed back home, dropped off the Pug and returned with my camera. Sadly, it had moved further away with the sun behind it so the perfect shot would elude me. However, it was enjoying a titanic struggle with a decent sized Pike which made for an interesting photo.

Great White Egret (and Pike), Bowthorpe, Norwich - 19th March 2016
In the end I think the Pike survived simply because the Egret struggled to swallow it. Great to watch though!
On Sunday I managed to convince Polina to dust down her 300mm lens and come with me to Blakeney freshmarsh to photograph the long-staying Lapland Buntings. The previous evening she had developed a hankering for a whipped ice-cream. The distant chimes of 'Greensleeves' from the ice-cream van that drives around our neighbourhood was enough to set her off and I was sent in a futile wild goose-chase, driving around deserted streets looking for the elusive Mr. Whippy. I never did find him and returned home empty handed to a disappointed and "ice-cream-less" wife. So to convince her to come to birding, I had to not only promise stunning views of a decent and photographable bird - but a whipped cone as well.
So we reached Blakeney Quay mid-afternoon with the light fading. I managed to find the birds as described (by the turn in the sea-wall beside the NT gate). But they weren't playing the game and instead of posing brightly on the fence posts and singing, they were mooching around in the long grass, keeping their distance from our lenses (I guess Sunday afternoon walkers had flushed them off the path and into the long grass). Anyway - a little patience paid off and they eventually came to the seed that had been scattered on the path for them. Photos weren't great but the birds are looking lovely as they moult into their breeding livery. Plenty of Skylarks there too, a confident male Reed Bunting and several Chaffinches kept us entertained.

Lapland Bunting, Blakeney Freshmarsh, Norfolk - 20th March 2016

Reed Bunting
Cold hands eventually put a stop our fun. We headed back towards the car park taking in the view of Cley village and its windmill along the way - always a very "Norfolk- looking" vista as far as I'm concerned.

Cley village and windmill from Blakeney freshmarsh

We returned to Norwich via Wells next the sea where I knew an ice cream could be had without needing to drive around housing estates chasing strange men in even stranger vans!

Happiness at last!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Bowthorpe and Colney GP

I'm having a quiet time birding-wise this month, nothing really new as far as Januarys go. This time a very busy project in work and lots of other busy projects at home with our new house.
I would love to have been able to travel with Nick and Yoav to Holland but instead had to settle for Yoav's superb photos on his excellent blog - see rubythroat twitch.
I had intended to go for the Serin at Downham Market but a combination of negative news and limited time meant I stayed local instead. I checked Bowthorpe for the Great White Egret on Sunday afternoon but there was no sign. If it wasn't there, I rather fancied it may have headed up river towards Colney Gravel Pits. I still have my birdwatching permit, so I spent an hour or so punting around there but there was no sign of it.
However, a single female type Goosander was compensation at least. I had heard that a pair of Goosanders were there but I just had this singleton. It was extremely wary so I could only manage this heavily cropped shot as it fished from the far bank of one of the gravel pits.

Female Goosander, Colney GP, Norwich

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Twites and Larks in North Norfolk

The weather was so grim this morning I almost didn't bother to go birding. But like many, I'll be back at work on Monday and I'll be sorry then I didn't use every available opportunity to get outside.
I decided to try for the Choseley Barns Rough-legged Buzzards, but by the time I got up there they had disappeared into a pine plantation as the sheets of misty rain descended (how could you blame them). I waited for around thirty minutes but they failed to emerge and so for the sake of seeing some birds I decided to head for the Thornham Harbour Shorelarks. Time was pushing on by now, the light was poor (and getting poorer) and they were likely to be popular birds - I hadn't high expectations for any photos.
I parked up at Thornham Harbour and got some helpful directions from several other birders returning along the sea wall. It was going to take around twenty five minutes to reach the spot so I stopped to watch the small Twite flock before setting off.

Twite, Thornham Harbour, Norfolk
Eventually I reached the place at the mouth of the harbour, the three birds were feeding along the side of small shingle ridge. They were a little distant for photos and I was careful not to disturb them for the sake of the birds and other birders. I sat about fifty feet back hoping that as they fed, they might come closer.  They did come a little nearer but not that much, these ones were tricky - I've had better luck with Shorelarks previously (see Covehithe's Shorelark Trio and Third time lucky with GY Shorelarks).
We're past the shortest day of the year but by 3pm the light was gone and the birds weren't getting any closer. I gathered up my stuff and started back to the car. So no RL Buzzards but Twite and Shorelarks more than make up for that plus on the way back, a Peregrine dashing along the beach, three Barn Owls and four Marsh Harriers certainly brightened up the return leg.

Shorelarks, Thornham Harbour, Norfolk - 2nd January 2016

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Christmas Birding at Dun Laoghaire East Pier

Christmas this year was spent in Ireland. On the 23rd December, we drove from Norwich to Dublin which wasn't so bad seeing as Polina shared the driving duties. At Holyhead a Hooded Crow in the Asda / McDonald's carpark was a pleasant surprise.
Spending time with my parents was first and foremost for Polina and I, but I did manage a couple of hours birding along Dun Laoghaire's east pier on 26th December. In the past it has always been a favourite place of mine for some local birding. It was here I saw my first ever Black Redstart way back in 2005 and other birds I've seen here have included Great Northern Diver, Red-throated Diver, Red-necked Grebe, Little Gull and close up views of Purple Sandpiper.

Red-necked Grebe, Dun Laoghaire East Pier - January 2011
Dun Laoghaire from the east pier including the RNLI Lifeboat and the town hall

As is often the case there was at least one first winter / female type Black Redstart at the base of the pier near the old swimming baths. Since my first bird here eleven years ago, I've seen many more each winter but I've never photographed one at this spot. I have a great fondness for Black Redstarts (well, all Redstarts and all Chats if I'm honest). Eleven years ago, as I was new to birding, I didn't realise that Black Redstarts were regular if not scarce wintering birds along the east and south coasts of Ireland. On 9th January 2005, I checked Eric Dempsey's now sadly defunct BINs line and heard that a Black Redstart was present at the base of the east pier in Dun Laoghaire. I drove down, parked and walked to the spot and within two minutes was watching a female type Black Redstart fly-catching within a few yards of where I sat - I was at the time elated! The same day I ticked Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull at nearby Bullock Harbour. They were exciting times and while I might not manage the same reaction now each time I see a Black Redstart, I still always enjoy coming across them. Anyway, half an hour sat still in the rain and I managed a reasonable shot even though the light was dreadful.

Female type Black Redstart, East Pier, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin
I hadn't much time, so I walked up the pier to the band-stand and scanned for divers between the east and west piers. There were at least two Great Northern Divers but they were very distant and a mixture of Shags and Cormorants with them also. I peered over the pier wall to the seaward side but couldn't see any Purple Sandpipers. Six years ago I  almost froze to death and fell heavily trying to photograph these birds on the pier, this year even if some had been visible, the swell was too big and the waves that were crashing up against the pier wall suggested it would have been foolhardy to go anywhere close. So instead, here's some file shots from that previous time.

Purple Sandpiper, Dun Laoghaire East Pier - December 2009
By now the rain was starting to get heavier and my gear was starting to get a little too wet for my liking. I called it a day but took a quick detour via Bullock Harbour in Dalkey on the way home.

Bullock Harbour, Dalkey, Co. Dublin

There were no white-wingers here this time but a good gathering of Great Blacked-backed Gulls including this one bearing a blue ring on its left leg with white text 1KH. I think it is an Irish ringed bird but am not certain (possibly from a scheme in Louth?).

GBB Gull with colour ring - Bullock Harbour, Dalkey, Co. Dublin
The bouquet of flowers on the bench in the back ground are a poignant reminder that Christmas is not a joyous time for everyone!