Sunday, 12 June 2016

The master mimic

So the choice was Great Reed Warbler at Little Paxton, Cambridgeshire or Marsh Warbler at Reydon, Suffolk. Reydon was a little closer and with all that mimicry I really find that Marsh Warblers are very charismatic little Acros. So I choose the latter.
I hadn't been to the SWT Hen Reedbeds reserve before, to be honest I didn't even know of its existence but its a really fine reserve, I expect a pretty good spot for Bittern, Hobby, Cuckoo and plenty of other interesting stuff.
I arrived late afternoon, I didn't feel like a 6am start so I thought it better to leave it later in the day rather than go mid-morning or mid-afternoon when the sun would be strong. Turned out to be a good call because I met another birder returning from the spot and he told me he had waited two hours for it to show. Fortunately I only needed a couple of minutes before it came out onto its favoured singing perch where it showed and sang for at least quarter of an hour. It was a little distant though so these shots are all heavily cropped unfortunately.

Marsh Warbler, Hen Reedbeds, Reydon, Suffolk

And this rather rubbish video clip of it singing.

I spent around an hour there, the bird showed on and off in that time. This is only my second UK Marsh Warbler, the previous bird being last year's Narborough, Norfolk one which incidentally was on the exact same weekend (see Return to Narborough.). I only ever saw one bird in Ireland (a very skulking individual on Cape Clear in late September 2009). During the summer in Latvia they are probably the commonest Acrocephalus so I'm well used to them from there but still, they are such a charismatic and lively bird - one I'll never grow tired of seeing and hearing.
It took me quite a while to make it back to the car park, there are still some Reed and Sedge Warblers singing including this ringed Reed Warbler.

Reed Warbler, Hen Reedbeds, Reydon, Suffolk

It had a BTO ring on so ringed somewhere in the UK or Ireland and possibly even a locally ringed bird. I reported it through the BTO website so let's see what comes out of that.

Sedge Warbler, Hen Reedbeds, Suffolk
I made home just in time to see England play Russia and the less said about that the better!!


Monday, 6 June 2016

Scratching the itch

I wasn't expecting the Gunton, Suffolk Greenish Warbler to be too easy but I was at least expecting to see it and add the species to my UK list (I've had a couple in Ireland and even a few singing males in the garden in Latvia). On Friday night the cool northerly airflow remained in place and it was foggy until after dawn. This, I thought, meant it would be still about. But sadly on Saturday morning there was no sign. I stayed on site until around 10am but had to give it up in the end. The best there was a Spotted Flycatcher and a Lesser Whitethroat.

Spotted Flycatcher, Gunton, Suffolk
I thought about cutting the day short and heading back to Norwich and in the process putting some "brownie points" in the bank for use later. However, I had this strange unfulfilled feeling!! I think the disappointment of my non-event trip to Kolka Cape, Latvia the previous month (see A Mixed Week in Latvia and now having dipped on what I thought was a dead cert Greenish Warbler - well, I couldn't just call it a day and go home - that'd be like giving up.
The weather was warming up and Dunwich Heath wasn't too far away - maybe I might get a decent Dartford warbler photo?? If past experience was anything to go by, that would be a long shot, but why not try at least.
I expected Dunwich to be busier but I think the crowds were probably over at Minsmere following the Springwatch lot. In fact at 11am Dunwich Heath had hardly any cars at all in the carpark. I strolled out along the path into the heath and passing the stand of trees at the picnic area I even managed to flush a Nightjar which had I think been roosting on a branch - darn, if only I had seen it first, would have made a lovely photo - oh well!
Anyway, it didn't take too long to find a singing male Dartford Warbler. As usual it never really came anywhere close to the pathway and preferred to sing further back on the heather and gorse. I think you would really need a good bit of time and patience to capture a decent full-frame shot of one of these birds. I had about an hour so I didn't do too bad I suppose and I even managed a brief movie clip.

Male Dartford Warbler, Dunwich Heath, Suffolk

After that I felt I had "scratched the itch" a little and headed back to Norwich. The day that I grumble about seeing "only" a Spotted Flycatcher, Lesser Whitethroat, Dartford Warbler and Nightjar is the day I should hang up the bins really.
As it happened though the bird of the weekend wasn't that far away in the end. Saturday evening Polina and I had the grill out again in the back garden, I added two ticks to my garden list namely Swallow and.......get this......Marsh Harrier. So that's 47 species seen or heard from the garden / house in the six months we've lived there. I hadn't high hopes of seeing much when we moved there, I mean its in a housing estate after all but so far I've had Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Red Kite and Arctic Tern as my own personal highlights and locally I've had Lesser 'throat, Nightingale, Hobby, Great White Egret and Garden Warbler to name but a few - no bad at all I say!

Sunday, 29 May 2016

A mixed week in Latvia

As far as previous visits to Latvia are concerned this one was a bit of a mixed bag. The first few days were cold, windy and very wet. In the garden there were a pair of Redstarts, a Lesser Whitethroat, a single Wood Warbler and at the local reserve by the Lielupe all I could dig out was a single Sedge Warbler and a Common Whitethroat. Things improved mid-week but sadly my long awaited trip to Kolka Cape went somewhat "pear-shaped"....more on that sorry saga later!
As I said the first few days lashed rain and the wind felt cold. But on Wednesday the sun shone, the wind dropped and the temperature warmed up to around 18oC. I paid a return visit to the Lielupe area and it was like a different place. In the space of a couple of hours I had two male Red-backed Shrikes and one female, a stunningly fine looking male Barred Warbler, three singing Icterine Warblers, a Marsh Warbler, several Common Rosefinches, a briefly reel from a Savi's Warbler and a Thrush Nightingale. I didn't have much luck photographing the Barred Warbler, which was one I really wanted to snap, but one of the male Red-backed Shrikes was a little less shy.

Male Red-backed Shrike, Leilupe, Dzintari, Jurmala, Latvia
And here he is doing what RB Shrikes do best, that is - happily catching bees.

Anyway, all of that put a spring in my step and with me due to depart on Thursday morning for three days at the famous Kolka Cape, I was beginning to think I had timed my arrival there just right.
So, Thursday morning off I set, going via Kemeru rather than up the coast road P131. The idea of this being to try and stop off at some nice meadow spots for Corncrake and forest areas for Woodpeckers. This route brought me along some fairly rough dirt-tracks where dust and sharp stones were aplenty. But I took it easy and enjoyed regular stops along the way to look at White Storks, Common Cranes and Whinchats in the fields on either side.

Common Crane

White Storks

Whinchat on oilseed rape

Whinchat - common bird in the summer in Latvia but still little crackers!!
I was making  good time and on course to hit Kolka at 5pm, the plan was to drop my stuff at the guest house and then bird the tip of Kolka Cape for migrants until dusk. Anyway, that's when I saw the warning message on the dash board "Low tyre pressure". My heart sank - I stopped got out and could hear the hiss of escaping air from the back right tyre. I cleared all my gear from the boot and lifted up the spare tyre, not even a space saver tyre - just a small little pump and a bottle of silicon compound with the advice that once I get this stuff into the wheel and manage to stop the puncture then drive no more than 10 kilometers to the nearest garage and replace the tyre. Nearest garage!!! I was miles from anywhere. Anyway, I made it the next 32 kms to Kolka with my fingers crossed. The tyre held up. I spent that evening and the next morning trying to find a 195/60/R16 tyre - I tried Ventspils, Talsi, Roja and even had Polina call garages in Riga - no one had one. I called the rental company (Europcar) and they didn't want to know - could I drive for 220kms back to Riga I asked?? You could try but go very slowly and pray the tyre holds up - if it doesn't ring us and we will talk then - what service! "Good luck" - the guy told me before he hung up. So, with birding the least of things on my mind. I reluctantly left Kolka and started the 220 km drive back to Jurmala, crossing my fingers that I could make it without the tyre failing. After an hour and the tyre still hanging in there, I passed a garage in Roja - using google translate I asked "Man vaja jaunu reipu" - I need a new tyre. I didn't really understand the reply but called Polina and got her to speak in Russian to the mechanic over the phone and then to translate back to me in English. The gist of it was that he had just caught some fish, needed first to go and put them in the smoker and would return in an hour and fix my tyre. So I waited and an hour later he comes back and between him and another guy they whipped the tyre off, pulled out a nail, repaired it and had me on my way - all for the princely sum of €10 - much better than europcar.

The offending article

My car at Roja in the best garage in the world!
However, not wanting to take any chances and being genuinely concerned that if I returned to Kolka and the repair job failed then I was right back where I started except on a Saturday or a Sunday with a flight to catch and any garage or repair truck enjoying its weekend off. So I continued on to Jurmala and made it there a couple of hours later - much relieved.
To try and salvage something from the week I decided to try and get some shots of the singing Barred Warbler at Lielupe. Previously I've only seen females or juveniles - never seen a male and they are stunning birds. Remarkably melodic and easy to confuse the song with Garden Warbler. The male was singing in the open thankfully and with a little patience I managed some shots.

Male Barred Warbler, Lielupe, Dzintari, Latvia
Plus a short video clip though stupidly I left the IS on so that annoying drone in the back-ground is the servo-motor running - d'uh!

Meanwhile back at the house, an Icterine Warbler sang for one day from deep cover at the back of the garden. The male Redstart had an open battle with a male Pied Flycatcher for who got the new nest box that the neighbours had put up. I wanted a couple of shots of the female Redstart who interestingly showed some male plumage characteristics, i.e. off-white band across the forehead (not quite the snowy-white one the males have), some dark feathers to the face and grey / blue crown and mantle.

Female Common Redstart with some male plumage features

And her partner
I checked with Yoav Perlman and he suggested that she was a very old female, as they age they start to increase testosterone levels and exhibit some male features - I never knew that and would like to speculate then if she is four or five years old, could she be the same female that is around each summer and the same one I photographed in the garden in 2012??....who knows, possibly but possibly not either - its a nice thought that she is.

Female Redstart - photographed in 2012 - same bird? Who knows??

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).

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!