Tuesday 24 December 2013

Review of the year - part three

# Three - A long weekend in Morocco

Nick Watmough had organised an excellent few days in Morocco targetting Atlas Flycatcher, Levalliant's Green Woodpecker, Seebohm's Wheatear, Tristram's Warbler, Red-knobbed Coot and Dupont's Lark.
We flew into Fez on a Thursday afternoon and between then and Sunday morning we covered 1100  kilometers. While we didn't see Levalliant's Green Woodpecker or Dupont's Lark, we saw all the others plus Egyptian Nightjar, Spotted Sandgrouse, Lanner and Pharoah Eagle Owl.
I had never desert birded before, the light first thing and in the evening was wonderful for photos, here were the highlights for me:

Rufous Bush Chat - near Errachidia, Morocco, May 2013

White-crowned Black Wheatear, Rissani, Morocco - 25th May 2013

Seebohm's Wheatear
Egyptian Nightjar, near Rissani, Morocco - 24th May 2013

Moussiers's Redstart, Tizi-n-Tairhemt pass, Morocco - 24th May 2013
# Two - spring in Norfolk

Autumn had been the time of year for birding in Ireland. Spring can be good and occasional rares do turn up, but its mostly predictable. Like anyone else, I look forward to the first Swallow and hearing the first Chiffer or Willow Warbler. Anything scarcer than that is a bonus. So I hadn't high expectations coming into my first spring in Norfolk which probably made it all the more exciting. To be able to see species such as Nightjar, Cuckoo, Stone Curlew, Yellow Wagtail, Turtle Dove, Nightingale, Wood Warbler, Common Redstart, Garden Warbler and Hobby within a short commute of either home or work was fantastic. I don't want to give the impression that these species are abundant in Norfolk and going by the BTO Atlas and Birds of Norfolk, its clear that some of them like Common Redstart, Nightingale and Turtle Dove have seen very significant declines in recent years. Some of the others are doing quite well though such as Nightjar, Stone Curlew and Garden Warbler. I only had to take a short stroll up to the UEA campus one evening in May to see Garden Warbler, three Cuckoos and hear a singing G'ropper. At Strumpshaw Fen I had several more Cuckoos as well as Hobby and at Whitlingham CP, only ten or fifteen minutes from home, I had Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler and of course Nightingale. Ireland is on the edge of the range for some of these species, those that do breed seem to do so in lower numbers and are more localised (e.g. Garden Warblers around the county Fermanagh lakes, Yellow Wagtails in Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow and Wood Warbler and Redstart at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow - usually only a single pair or in some years not at all).

Garden Warbler, Whitlingham CP, Norfolk

Singing Reed Warbler, Whitlingham CP, Norfolk
# One - Red-flanked Bluetail at Horsey Gap

Well if you do follow my blog, this will be no surprise. No matter what else I saw in 2013, this one was always going to be very hard to beat. Finding a Red-flanked Bluetail in my first spring living in Norfolk will live in my memory for years to come. A good way to announce my arrival on the scene you could say.
I went out that morning hoping for a Common Redstart or Ring Ouzel. I would have been quite happy with either, the last thing I expected was a Red-flanked Bluetail. When I first set eyes on the bird feeding within a small stand of sallows, I thought female Common Redstart. But as I stood staring at its orangey flanks through my bins, I could feel my jaw drop. When it turned and presented its cobalt blue tail to me, my hands started to tremble and my heart thumped. For twenty minutes or so it was just me and the bird, I sat still on the bank as it fed in the short trees, sometimes within ten feet of me. Its not the rarity it once was in Norfolk since the first bird turned up in Yarmouth cemetery in October 1994. But its still a birders bird I believe and who wouldn't want to find one. After such a dispiriting autumn the previous year in Cork, where I thrashed the headlands from late August to early November with nothing better to show than a scruffy Reed Warbler, this I felt was payback.
To round the whole thing off, my wife Polina organised for Irish bird artist Robert Vaughan to do a painting of two of the best photographs I took that day. Its now framed and hanging proudly in the living room at home.

Red-flanked Bluetail, Horsey Gap, Norfolk - 14th April 2013
 And of course the fantastic artwork by Robert Vaughan.

Monday 23 December 2013

A review of the year - part two

# Seven - early autumn fall on Blakeney Point

The final weekend of August brought classic conditions for drift migrants from Scandinavia. You could say I was unlucky not to connect with any of the Booted, Icterines and Greenish Warblers that arrived but good numbers of scarce migrants all along the north Norfolk coast made for a great jaunt down Blakeney Point with Nick. Between Gramborough Hill and Halfway house on Blakeney Point we had three Wrynecks. All along the shingle there Redstarts, Garden Warblers, Pied Flys, Whinchats and Yellow Wagtails.

When we reached the Plantation there were several Pied Flycatchers and Garden Warblers feeding amongst the willows and this slightly moulted male Common Redstart gave me the best photo opportunity I have had of the species so far.

Male Common Redstart, Blakeney Point, Norfolk - August 2013
And a brief movie clip here

Some birds hung around for a while, with this Wryneck at Strumpshaw fen a week later being a rare inland record.

Wryneck, Strumpshaw fen, Norfolk - August 2013
# Six - singing Nightingale at Whitlingham CP

Of course I've heard and seen singing Nightingales before in Mallorca but to have one so close to home in the city of Norwich was special. Whitlingham Country Park is only a ten minute drive from where we live. When spring finally arrived James Emerson reported a singing bird from Whitlingham. I got directions and managed to see and hear the bird one evening after work. It remained in song for at least a week after I saw it first, but I only had the briefest glimpse of it. Given that in Ireland they are at best a scarce migrant, this was a bit special. Sadly, the recently published BTO Atlas shows that the species has declined as a breeding bird in the UK by 52% in the period between 1995-2010, so there's no guarantee that this will even be an annual observation for me at Whitlingham.

Nightingale, Whitlingham CP, Norfolk - April 2013
# Five - Lesser and Great Grey Shrikes

Both rare birds in Ireland, seen only previously by me in Namibia and Latvia respectively. I tried and dipped on a Great Grey Shrike at Wrentham in Suffolk but succeeded in the bitter cold and sleet on Good Friday at Egmere, Norfolk. Sadly the best pictures I took were lost as my memory card played up, but at least I had one record shot.

Great Grey Shrike, Egmere, Norfolk - March 2013
In late September I twitched a Lesser Grey Shrike at Leiston in Suffolk, I'd have been waiting a while for one of those in Ireland.

Lesser Grey Shrike, Leiston, Suffolk, September 2013

A review of the year - part one

In previous years I had selected my top three birding moments and written about them on my blog. Having just moved in January to Norfolk, there's too much to try and fit into a top three so I'm going to try and do the year some justice by writing a top ten. Here goes:

# Ten - Confusing Crossbills

In Ireland I'd only seen Common Crossbills. With influxes of both Parrot and Two-barred Crossbills, this was the year I got 'schooled-up' on Crossbill ID. I missed the very first Two-barred Crossbills at Cley but a few days later caught up with others at Lynford Arboretum. I twitched them straight out of work in temperatures of 30oC as they fed high in the larches. See A second bite of the cherry.
Later in the year when I went back to see the fine male that had been reported, I started an ID debate over what I believe is a wing-barred Common Crossbill - see  Two-barred Crossbill....? and Birding Frontiers
and further discussions on Birdforum, facebook and twitter.

Juvenile Two-barred Crossbill - Lynford Arboretum, Norfolk - July 2013

'Wing-barred' Common Crossbill - Lynford Arboretum, Norfolk - November 2013
A little later in November and after a few attempts, I managed to connect with the flock of Parrot Crossbills at Holt CP. This time the ID was not so contentious.

Female Parrot Crossbill, Holt CP, Norfolk - November 2013
# Nine - Strumpshaw's Swallowtails

Okay, so they're not birds but still winged creatures. In the middle of a relatively quiet period for birding, I managed to catch up with the fine Swallowtails at Strumpshaw Fen as they fed on the Budelias in a private garden. Stunning they are!

Swallowtail butterfly, Strumpshaw Fen RSPB - Norfolk

# Eight -Rustic Bunting at Warham Greens

This was a great find by Nick Watmough, the first record of the species in Norfolk for seven years. Driving back down the lane from Warham Greens, we flushed two birds, one of which turned out to be a male Rustic Bunting. The bird did a vanishing act afterwards and all I managed was a very blurred record shot, but a lifer nonetheless for me.

Male Rustic Bunting, Warham Greens, Norfolk - October 2013

# Seven - East Wretham Heath

This NWT reserve is only fifteen minutes from where I work in Thetford. Its one of the quieter reserves in the county and a good spot for breeding Common Redstart. I paid several visits here after work or very early in the morning before work and enjoyed great views of singing Common Redstart and singing Wood Warbler. I also had Little Owl and Hobby here, I believe its good for Nightjar too although I never went there late enough to see or hear one.  
To have a place on my work-place doorstep like this is really special, I saw my first ever Comma butterfly here too.

Male and female Common Redstarts at East Wretham Heath

A short movie clip of the Wood Warbler singing here

Wood Warbler - East East Wretham Heath
Comma butterfly, East Wretham Heath

Count-down to continue in the next blog entry.

Sunday 8 December 2013

"Look, a Bittern"

Although I'd seen Shorelark already this year at Winterton beach, I was keen to enjoy a little more of these beauties. There were reports of several on the beach at Great Yarmouth just north of the Britannia pier. I headed there on spec this morning, though there hadn't been any further reports since the huge tidal surges on Thursday evening.
I had a hunch that they may have moved on and this sadly seemed to be the case as I failed to locate any. The best I had was a single Snow Bunting and of course the ever present Med Gulls. Which was not too bad though as there was a range of age groups on show, first, second and adult winter birds.
Seeing as I was in Great Yarmouth I thought to check the cemetery, too late for most stuff, but there's always the outside chance of a Hume's Warbler at this time of the year. You won't find anything if you don't check. I left my camera in the car and just decided to take a walk about. As I passed the holm oaks in the southern section I started to hear some 'crests calling. Something small was moving around down low, just then a Firecrest popped out in full view within about ten feet, I barely needed the bins. Such a pity my camera was back in the car.
I turned back to fetch it and then spent the next hour and a half trying to photograph the Firecrests (there were two). I enjoyed great binocular views but getting a picture was impossible. Still the best views I've had of the GY cemy birds so far and my first ever December record of the species.

Firecrest, Great Yarmouth cemetery, Norfolk - 8th December 2013
The challenge with these birds is of course their size and behaviour, very active and almost always partially or even fully concealed by foliage. In addition the light was low and raising the ISO above 800 in order to get 1/300s or more shutter speeds, just adds too much grain for me.
I'm planning a trip to Magee Marsh in Ohio next May to see warblers. In anticipation of this, I have started to practise using a flash. So far all I've done is set it up outside the house and photograph leaves and bits of branches. Today I gave it a try on the Firecrests, didn't seem to bother them but its still a whole new learning curve for me. Plenty of time to practise between now and next May. In the US, external flashes are widely used, but not so in Britain and Ireland. For that reason I don't plan to use it very much here and I'll limit my use of this technique to inanimate objects and maybe some garden birds, hopefully I'll have the swing of it in time. The above two record shots were both taken without flash. For the technically minded, the set-up I have is a Canon 580 EX II with a Better Beamer flash extender - see below.

External flash and extender
I left the area about 1.30pm and decided to stop off at Buckenham marshes on the way home. Yesterday there were reports in the evening of Taiga Bean Geese being present. Not having seen the species before, it would be worth a stop off. However, I missed a turning somewhere and ended up outside the entrance to Strumpshaw fen instead. With the clock against me, I changed my plans and decided to spend some time there. And it was worth it as you will see if you read on.
In the reception hide I asked if any Bitterns had been seen. Several sightings already this morning from both Fen and Tower hides. Given that I needed to be back in Norwich at 2.45pm, I worked out that I had about 15 minutes in the Fen hide. Not much time to play with really. I walked up there at a brisk pace, the hide was pretty busy but I found a spot and after about five minutes someone muttered, "look, a Bittern" and I got a brief glimpse of one as it flew out of one spot and into an other. I managed a very blurry record shot.

Eurasian Bittern, Strumpshw Fen, Norfolk - 8th December 2013
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that this was a lifer for me. I've seen Little Bittern, Dwarf Bittern and American Bittern but not Eurasian. I guess if I still lived in Ireland there would be no shame, but here in their British stronghold, perhaps there's no excuse. Ok, I'm only living here since last January and they are a relatively secretive bird, but I probably should have seen one before now. In Ireland, shooting and loss of habitat means they haven't bred since 1840 (according to Birds in Ireland). Birds dispersing after the breeding season from the UK and continental Europe may reach Ireland and do winter in milder reedbeds on the south coast (such as Tacumshin, Ballyvergan and Ballycotton). But being so secretive and scarce, I had not been fortunate enough to come across one in my time birding in Ireland. So today was nice.
The bird dropped out of sight and I decided to head home. I'll head back the next time temperatures plummet and the inland waterways freeze over. Hopefully I might get some better views of the species as it forages out in the open.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Close but no cigar

I wanted to get out reasonably early so I could make it home for Ireland versus New Zealand rugby match at 2pm. I left Norwich at 8.30am, stopping briefly near Edgefield to watch this Red Kite.

Red Kite, Edgefield, Norfolk - 24th November 2013
I arrived at the Holt Country Park for a second stab at the Parrot Crossbills just after 9.30am and my luck was in because the flock was showing well atop one of the larches. A good crowd had gathered and decent views of the birds were had by all. Photos were never going to be anything other than record shots but at least you can see the heavy bill and broad neck on this female.

Female Parrot Crossbill, Holt CP, Norfolk - 24th November 2013
So that's three species of Crossbill ticked in the UK this year. Identification of these ones was a little more straightforward than the Two-barred Crossbills from a few weeks ago. Eventually the flock took flight, I reckoned at least ten birds present and great to hear their disticntive calls as they flew over. Brought me back to last August in Kolka, Latvia where I had seen my first ever Parrot Crossbills.
With the Crossbills taken care of by 10.30am, I needed to decide on my next move. I drove over to the car park at Cley coastguards, intending to check what was out on the sea. En route I briefly stopped at the Cley visitor centre, but nothing caught my eye in the log. At coastguards the sea was rough and the wind straight into my face. I wasn't prepared to do a sea-watch, so I decided to drive over to Titchwell where several Twite had been reported along the beach. I checked Wells harbour along the way in case the northerly wind had pushed any decent grebes or sea duck into the sheltered inlet, but nothing was doing there.
Keeping an eye on the time, I headed straight from the carpark at Titchwell to the beach, stopping only briefly to look for Bramblings on the visitor centre feeders. This male was the only one I saw.

Male Brambling, RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk - 24th November 2013
Once I reached the beach I started walking west. However I met a couple coming in the opposite direction who told me they had been further on and had no Snow Buntings or Twite at all. I hadn't time to keep walking so I decided to re-trace my steps and see if there were any on the eastern side of the beach. I was in luck and managed to find a small flock of about seven Snow Bunting feeding along the edge of the sea wall. Unfortunately no sign of any Twite but the the Buntings were reasonably approachable and I managed few decent shots.

Snow Bunting, Titchwell beach, Norfolk - 24th November 2013
By now there was no way I was going to make it home for the 2pm kick-off. I decided to head up to Choseley Barns to look for Corn Buntings. As I sat in the car opposite the farm buildings having my lunch, a flock of finches flew into the hedgerow. It was a large flock and although I couldn't pick out any Corn Buntings in it, it must have been mostly Brambling with the odd Chaffinch thrown in. Don't think I've ever seen a flock of that many Bramblings away from continental europe.
Just as I was leaving the area I managed to find commentary of the Ireland / All Blacks match on the radio. As Ireland went 19-nil up I raced back to Norwich to see the game live. In case you don't know, in the dying seconds of the game, New Zealand scored a try to rob Ireland of their first ever win against the All Blacks in 108 years of trying. Close, as they say...........but no cigar!

Saturday 16 November 2013

The At-las(t)

So its finally here, the long awaited BTO Atlas. Just received my copy this morning in the post. First of all a massive well done to everyone at BTO, a labour of love and surely the most relevant book about birds to be published for many a year. It'll be a fascinating read and in may parts a worrying one. But for the meantime I'm proud to have been able to contribute via my records and, if you don't mind me being a little self-indulgent, through my Firecrest photo on page 494.

My wife Polina has also had her excellent Brent Goose photo included on page 178. These particular ones were feeding on the low tide at the base of Dun Laoghaire East Pier in County Dublin, Ireland.

Now its time to start reading!

Sunday 10 November 2013

Neither autumn or winter

There were some fine photos of the very obliging Grey Phalarope at Salthouse on the web. We arrived in the car park at around 8.30am but the bird had done the dreaded 'Friday night flit' and was nowhere to be seen. Such a pity. It kind of left us at a loose then, the only other bird of note at that stage was a Lapland Bunting at Winterton, but that was a bit far to drive for just a 'Lapper'. We decided to check Well's harbour for sea duck or grebes but apart from a small flock of dark-bellied Brents, it was quiet. We drove on along the north coast heading west. We stopped at Brancaster Staithe but could only see a few Turnstones, Black-headed Gulls and a Common Redshank. These Atlantic systems will need to be replaced by easterlies of some kind in order to push more wintering birds into the UK.
We continued on to RSPB Titchwell. My first visit to this fine reserve. I was expecting it to be really crowded and although it was busy, it certainly wasn't as bad as I expected. We walked first to the beach but were a little disappointed here. The board in reception said Red-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck and Velvet Scoter, but from the beach all we could see were gulls and cormorants. Possibly the retreating high tide had pushed the birds further out. Still, we had decent scope views of four Spotted Redshanks from along the path towards the beach as well as hearing two Cetti's Warblers.
On the way back we joined a small group of people watching a Short-eared Owl hunting out over the grazing meadow. Always a great bird to see and while it never came that close, it was a pleasure to watch it hunting so gracefully and to watch it preen on a distant fence post.

Short-eared Owl, RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk - 9th November 2013
So at last we had a decent bird to show for the day. After spending about an hour watching it, we headed back towards reception. At the feeders there was plenty of action, many Chaffinches and after a short time, I picked out a male and female Brambling. Probably my favourite finch species so I tried for a few shots although the light was poor and the birds just a little distant. Here's one of the female.

Brambling, RSPB Titchwell, Norfolk - 9th November 2013
Coming back out of the Titchwell reserve we turned off the A149 and drove up to a spot known for Corn Bunting. Sadly there were none present but a flock of at least ten Brambling suggests this could be a good winter for them and further photo opportunities may present themselves in the coming months.
All in all not a bad days birding, but it seems more like the end of the autumn rather than the start of the winter. Hopefully a change in the recent westerly weather systems will liven things up soon.