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!

Friday 25 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - Christmas Day

Back at the end of 2014 I made a list of goals for myself. Not something I normally do but maybe that is part of reaching middle age? A time when you begin to take stock perhaps?
Anyway, amongst many personal goals around losing weight, getting fitter (non of which permanently happened), visiting family more and enjoying more what I do for a living - I had a small little goal of photographing a Nightingale in song. They're a somewhat iconic bird for me, not completely sure why - perhaps their absence from Ireland as a breeding bird and scarcity even as a vagrant and then the shear difficulty in seeing one due to their skulking habits, never mind even photographing one.
So when John Geeson contacted me to say he had come across a little spot of suitable habitat in Suffolk where he reckoned there was up to eight singing birds some showing in the open, well there was no time to be lost. A dash out from work one Friday evening and I managed shots of this bird as it sat out its favourite bramble perch singing gloriously. I get great personal enjoyment when I look at this shot - it didn't get POTW or any other such accolades but to me its represents personal achievement and my best birding memory of 2015 - Happy Christmas!

Nightingale, Suffolk - May 2015

Thursday 24 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 24th December

My second day on Fair Isle and this Blyth's Reed Warbler was found at Upper Stoneybrek in a croft garden. Initially it stayed buried in a clump of Rosehip and Michaelmas Daisy but on the second day of its stay it become much more active, feeding on bluebottles beneath the Angelicas. Which is where it sat out in this classic 'banana' pose - the shot gave me my first BirdGuides POTW - much to my surprise and delight.

Blyth's Reed Warbler - Fair Isle, Shetland

Birding Advent Calendar - catch-up!

Ok, had a bit of a glitch on the interweb front as we moved house so the birding advent calendar from 17th - 23rd December kinda didn't happen.
So here's what you might have won and then I'll add the today's Christmas Eve bird and finish with a flourish tomorrow.

17th December

Glossy Ibis

A nice approachable bird which fed around the channels and ditches behind the lake at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk last November.

Juvenile Glossy Ibis, Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk
18th December


On the same day in November this late Hoopoe was present at Crostwick, Norfolk. I say late but there's still a Hoopoe around the West Midlands and several Swallows in Norfolk including a Red-rumped at Blakeney - all a bit weird!!

Hoopoe, Crostwick, Norfolk
19th December

Siberian Stonechat

A very smart bird indeed, and a lifer for me also. I managed one decent shot courtesy of some passing golfers who flushed the bird towards me.

Siberian Stonechat, Caister on Sea, Norfolk
20th December

Thick-billed Warbler

Sorry no picture of this one but well worth covering in my birds of the year round-up. Like the Citril Finch, it was right place and right time. Thanks to a tip off by James Lowen followed by a mad dash from Sumburgh to Quendale, I managed to get several flight views of the bird as it dashed from one clump of nettles to the next. Not how you would want to see it but better than missing it altogether.

21st December 

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

It took eight attempts, which reflects the scarcity of the species now sadly, but in the end perseverance won out and I managed good views of this female drumming at Santon Downham, Suffolk (in fact it flew across the Little Ouse so that gave me both Norfolk and Suffolk views also).

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Santon Downham, Suffolk
22nd December

Western Bonelli's Warbler

An unexpected bonus en route to Fair Isle last September. I had gotten a taxi from Sumburgh Airport to the Sumburgh Hotel, dropped off my gear and got the driver to bring me up to Sumburgh Lighthouse. I told him to come back in two hours and pick me up. The light was running out and I had to meet the taxi at 6.30pm, chances of a photograph were looking slimmer and slimmer until with about two minutes left before I needed to go, the bird popped up briefly for a look about before dropping down and out of sight. The trip was off to a great start with a lifer.

Western Bonelli's Warbler, Sumburgh Head, Shetland
 23rd December


A small crowd of seven or so birders had assembled to watch this Bluethroat at Winterton dunes last September, once they'd had their fill they all trooped off to try for a nearby Wryneck. So I was left on my own with the bird as it continued to feed around the bottom of the gorse. This is where it got good. At one point a Redstart dashed in and seemed to chase it away. The Bluethroat held its ground and then perched up on a low stump a short distance off the ground and began excitedly fanning its tail. I was trying to figure out why it was doing this when an Adder slithered past below the bird. Marvellous to see such behaviour up close.

Bluethroat, Winterton dunes, Norfolk

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 16th December

This very fresh looking and showy Icterine Warbler was present at Burnham Overy Dunes last August. Easily the best views I've had of one. I remember ticking Icterine Warbler for my Irish list on Cape Clear during the spring of 2009 and that was elusive to say the least. Even though they're plentiful during the summer in Latvia, I've never captured a decent photo of one. Until this bird!

Icterine Warbler - Burnham Overy Dunes, Norfolk - August 2015

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 15th December

Winter wouldn't be winter without a Brambling thrown in somewhere along the line. Here's one from way back last January - taken at Santon Downham, Suffolk - from the warmth of my car!

Brambling, Santon Downham, Suffolk - January 2015

Monday 14 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 14th December

Early May and a long weekend in Latvia. Not quite "baltic" although there was still a chill in the air. Walking around the small local reserve I had a reeling locustella, a scan of the reedbed revealed the source to be Savi's Warbler. One bird became two, then three and at times four birds in a hormone-fueled "reel-off"! They kept a little distant for photos and the sun was very much from the side and very harsh, but I managed some "artistic" shots in the end.

Reeling Savi's Warbler - Lielupe, Jurmula, Latvia - May 2015

Sunday 13 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 13th December

In mid-June I did several evening visits to my local patch of Marston Marshes in west Norwich. I was very fortunate to have some excellent close views of a 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 - June 2015

Saturday 12 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 12th December

Some of my fellow Cork birders will know this as a 'Black Rodney' rather than 'Black Redstart'....long story but a good name!
This one was a late autumn bird hanging the compound at Horsey Gap, Norfolk. I see less wintering Black Rodneys in Norfolk than in County Cork, where presumably the slightly milder winters suits them better.

Black Rodney - Horsey Gap Gap, Norfolk - November 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 11th December

OK - I'm a day behind. But never mind, this is a good one.
Madeiran Firecrest, this bird was right under my nose - or more specifically in the pines outside our hotel room in Madeira. So I didn't need to walk too far. Its a little scruffy but still a very pretty wee thing!

Madeiran Firecrest - May 2015

Thursday 10 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 10th December

I'm continuing to bend my own rules here - yet another Lepidotera or more specifically Nymphalidae. A late summer visit to Holt Country Park had White Admiral, Silver-washed Fritillary and with a little bit of 'gen' from the helpful lad in the visitor center and I was able to locate at least one female Silver-washed Fritillary of the valezina form.

Silver-washed Fritillary of the valezina form, Holt CP, Norfolk - July 2015

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 9th December

I love Whinchats me! Doesn't matter how many I see, I never grow tired of them. By the end of the autumn I'll have usually seen double figures of these confident and handsome chats.
This pretty juvenile was one of two birds frequenting the ditches and gardens around Chalet on Fair Isle last September.

Juvenile Whinchat, Fair Isle - September 2015

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 8th December

On the first day of my trip to Shetland and Fair Isle I stopped off at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse to see the Western Bonelli's Warbler (keepin' that one for later). This Spotted Flycatcher was keeping it company in the lighthouse compound garden. Sadly the only Spot Fly I saw all year and that seems to be a reflection of their status right now!

Spotted Flycatcher, Sumburgh Head, Mainland, Shetland - September 2015

Monday 7 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 7th December

Late July and I had finished walking the east Bank at Cley and had checked Arnold's Marsh for passage waders. 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 got the better of me.

Little Gull, Cley, Norfolk - July 2015

Sunday 6 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 6th December

I'm bending my own rules a little. So its not a bird, but it does fly and its oh so pretty. Strumpshaw Fen is a good spot mid-summer for Swallowtail butterfly and the Doctor's garden is usually the most reliable spot to see them. Which was where I photographed this particular beauty last June.

Swallowtail, Strumpshaw Fen RSPB, Brundall, Norfolk

Saturday 5 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 5th December

Back to Fair Isle once more for today's bird. Not a vagrant or a rare but not an everyday species either - The Mountain Linnet, Pennine Finch or as it is better known Twite. A flock of around two hundred birds were ever present and provided plenty of photo opportunities when things were quiet.

Twite, Fair Isle - September 2015

Thursday 3 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 4th December - Pallid Harrier

Present for most of my week on Fair Isle, this juvenile Pallid Harrier put in many fly-bys as it hunted around the crofts on the southern part of Fair Isle. I had so many brief encounters with it during the first few days there that it almost became like an old friend. Then one day, just like that, it was gone.

Pallid Harrier, Fair Isle, Shetland - September 2015

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 3rd December - Marsh Warbler

This fantastically vocal Marsh Warbler took up residence for a few days along the Nar Valley Way in Narborough, Norfolk last June. As always with Marshies the mimicry of its song was incredible. I recognised Chaffinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Swallow, Nuthatch, a very convincing blast of Blackcap, Reed and Sedge Warbler and even mewing Buzzard. A 4am start and devoured by midges but well worth it.

Marsh Warbler, Narborough, Norfolk

And of course, an obligatory video!

Youtube clip of Marsh Warbler singing


Monday 30 November 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 1st December

Instead of the usual annual round-up by way of my 'Twelve Birds of Christmas', this year I will do a Birding Advent Calendar - one bird each and every day from the 1st December right up to 25th December........there'll be no Robins but plenty of other good stuff from the year gone by.

So to kick it all off here's a nice one, the always popular and this year plentiful, Yellow-browed Warbler. During my week on Fair Isle there was an unprecedented arrival of these fine little birds, on one day conservatively I reckon I had twenty eight birds myself (I tried not to double count). At the log that night Dave Parnaby considered that the island count was fifty-three. The highest ever single day count for the species on Fair Isle.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland, September 2015

Birding Advent Calendar - 2nd December - Citril Finch

I don't normally do the twitching thing but on 10th May I was watching a spring flock of Dotterel at nearby Choseley Barns when news broke of Britain's only second ever Citril Finch at Holkham Pines. It was a case of right place and right time.
I got there ahead of the serious crowds and after a nervy hour long wait I enjoyed excellent views of it as it fed on the short turf below a stunted pine tree.

Citril Finch, Holkham Pines, Norfolk - May 2015

Thursday 26 November 2015

Winter sea watch

Strong winds, wintery showers which included a fall of snow over Norwich meant that birding on Saturday would be challenging. However, signs from the coast were of good numbers of passing seabirds including quite decent numbers of Little Auks, Leach's Petrel's and scarce Skuas.
So on Sunday, Nick and I arrived at Cley beach car-park for 8am and set ourselves up on the shingle for a sea watch which was to feature eight Little Auks, one Great Northern Diver, several small parties of Common Scoter, Teal, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers and Dark-bellied Brents. During all of this a lone Snow Bunting kept us company as it fed within a few feet of our tripods. Somewhere between 9am and 10am the flow of birds slowed to a trickle and the rain came in from the north west in sheets, we called time and headed back to the car to dry off and warm up.
From Cley we headed westwards to Titchwell stopping en route to check around Choseley Barns where we had a very sizable gathering of Pink-footed Geese as well as a flock of Fieldfares and Yellowhammers.
At Titchwell we walked north along the main path to the beach checking without success for Water Pipits along the way. At the beach there were huge numbers of gulls (mainly Black-headed, Common and Herring) feeding on the washed up bodies of many, many starfish.
A message on Birdguides reported three Shorelark at Thornham Point so we set off west along Titchwell Beach but failed to connect with these birds sadly. However, we did have four Snow Buntings which included a very smart male bird. We both tried to apply a little stealth by creeping up on the birds for a photo but they were surprisingly wary and fast moving so never really came that close for photos.

Male Snow Bunting, Titchwell Beach, Norfolk - 22 November 2015

Snow Bunting, Titchwell Beach, Norfolk - 22 November 2015

Me (looking tired or grumpy or both) waiting for the Snow Buntings to approach (photo by Nick Watmough)
By the time we arrived back to the car the evening had drawn in and the light was as good as gone - which was also true of the Little Auk which had been sitting on Salthouse duck pond - pity as I subsequently saw some excellent up close photos of this bird, never mind!

Monday 16 November 2015

The hieroglyphs

Wet and windy weather, dark mornings and even darker evenings. Hard to resist the lure of a local Hoopoe isn't it?
Add to fact that the bird was practically in Norwich too - well Crostwick to be precise but only a fifteen minute spin from home. I got there around 11am and the bird was feeding about thirty feet away from the fence, which incidentally was as close as it got. Photographing it was tricky though, the fence was high and those in the know had brought crates or wooden blocks to stand on. I had to stand on the tips of my toes and balance my lens precariously on the fence. And being November the light was pretty poor. But I managed some okayish shots in the end as it fed around the horse paddock. This was the first Hoopoe I've seen in the UK. I must have seen five or six in Ireland and all of those have been late March / early April overshoots.

At one stage the Hoopoe started to get a little grief from a local Magpie. But it was having none of that and put its crest up a couple of times to show he wasn't moving from his paddock.

After an hour or so of standing on toes and with the Hoopoe showing no signs of coming any closer, I took off towards Felbrigg Hall to look for the juvenile Glossy Ibis. A bit of hike over towards the lake (the last time I visited there was a for a Red-rumped Swallow in April 2014). The Ibis was in the paddock at the rear of the lake, feeding busily among the rushes and boggy ground.

Glossy Ibis, Felbrigg Hall NT, Norfolk
A brown bird against a brown background - not great shots but still another UK tick.
So, a Hoopoe and an Ibis together. Not Egyptian hieroglyphics but mid-November in Norfolk!

Monday 2 November 2015

A good Chat to round off the autumn

A little bit of a hiatus from birding following my Fair Isle trip, partly because I wanted to and partly because I had to. The break was good but it did mean missing out on a few good days of birding in Norfolk when Red-flanked Bluetail, Isabelline Shrike, Olive-backed Pipit and Hume's Warbler were all on offer. Anywho - the weekend before last I had a chance to steal away for a few hours so I decided to head over to Caister-on-Sea for a very fine male Siberian Stonechat. I had not seen Siberian Stonechat before, there are 8 Irish records and 370 British records to date. This particular bird was not assigned to either maurus or stejnegeri and it is presumably hard to assign it to either race as well. When I got there the bird was showing well but distantly. It had a favoured perch atop a gorse bush along the edge of one of the fairways at Caister golf course. It made frequent sallies from this perch to catch flying insects when it showed its nice dark underwing coverts. Sadly I didn't get any photos of that though. It looked like the bird wasn't going to come close but once or twice it was flushed by passing golfers and that seemed to push it back down the fairway and deeper into the gorse which meant it came closer to where birders were standing. I took up position and waited for the golfers to pass and managed to obtain some reasonable shots both of which showed its clean rump nicely.

Male Siberian Stonechat, Casiter-on-sea, Norfolk, 25th October 2015
Last weekend then I was out on Sunday for the day. The thick early morning mist had burned off by 11am and it turned into a exceptionally beautiful autumnal day. I birded around Happisburgh for the first hour or so but failed to see any migrants at all. I thought there was an outside chance of Pallid Swift or Desert Wheatear and a reasonable chance of Siberian Chiffchaff, Firecrest or Black Redstart. At Happisburgh I had none of those but did a little better later in the day at Horsey Gap where I had two female type Black Redstarts. One was hopping around the roofs of the buildings beside Waxham Sands caravan park (and was a little distant for any meaningful photos), the second bird was in the compound just past the car park (a spot I've always thought would hold a Black Redstart sometime). This bird was a lot more obliging.

Black Redstart, Horsey Gap, Norfolk - 1st November 2015
I have a feeling that's it for the autumn. The winds are southerly all week and then swing west before the weekend, not great for the east coast. Something might turn up but I won't hold my breathe. Having said that its not been that bad of an autumn. From mid-August to the first of November I've had many of the scarce migrants you would expect such as Lesser Whitethroats, Pied Flys, Common and Black Redstarts, Whinchats and whole bunch of Yellow-browed Warblers. I've also had two Bluethroats, a very fresh Icterine Warbler, at least two Barred Warblers and several Common Rosefinches. Throw in a Blyth's Reed Warbler that got me my first Birdguides Photo of the Week and my first UK Pallid Harrier and top it off with three lifers in Thick-billed Warbler, Western Bonelli's Warbler and Siberian Stonechat and it hasn't been all that bad really!

Sunday 11 October 2015

Fair Isle - Part eight

An early start this morning. Up at 5am for the ferry at 6am. It was dark and cold as i stood on the pier while they loaded a car onto the deck.

I reckon I have pretty good sea legs. I was only ever sea sick once and that was in a force ten gale on the southern Atlantic Ocean. But I had been warned that the Good Shepherd can be rough so I was expecting the worst - especially over four hours to Lerwick. As it happened it was fine, when I wasn't below decks dozing I was up in the wheel house or out the back looking at Tysties (Black Guillemots), Fulmars (including some dark ones) and Bonxies.

The bog door on the Good Shepherd - someone has a sense of humour

Sumburgh Head Mainland in the background
We sailed to Lerwick between Mainland and Bressay which afforded nice views of the Iron Age broch.

Broch, Bressay, Shetland
Arriving in Lerwick
At Lerwick I picked up a rental car but got a little lost looking for the local Tesco to buy lunch. I stopped and asked a local for directions who just so happened to be Dennis Coutts, President of the Shetland Bird Club. Dennis was very kind and sent me in the right direction, I was sorry afterwards that I didn't take a bit more time to chat with him.
For the rest of day I birded around Sumburgh Head, Sumburgh Lighthouse, Virkie Willows and the Pool of Virkie. At Sumburgh Hotel I had two YBWs in the garden.

Sumburgh Hotel gardens
At Sumburgh quarry I had a Lesser 'throat and another Lesser 'throat around the lighthouse compound.
By now the early start was catching up on me. I went back to the hotel and had a kip, but it didn't last to long. I was woken by a text from James Lowen "Thick billed Warbler quendale if you still on shetland". Holy cow!!!!
Within ten minutes I was parking up at Quendale mill and ten minutes later I had Thick billed Warbler on my life list. Like everyone else there I had flight views only. A large babbler-like / shrike-like bird, long-tailed, seemingly short winged and quite rufous. The light was almost gone so we all called it a day. Credit must go to James Lowen for texting me, the bird was gone the next morning and if it hadn't been for James's message I'd have missed it.
The next day I birded during the morning around Boddam, Virkie and Levenwick. The weather was beautiful but the only birds of note were two YBWs and a few Willow Warblers. I returned to the hotel and spent the afternoon trying to get some nice shots of YBW in the sycamores of the hotel garden.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Sumburgh Hotel Garden
At 5pm I dropped the car back to the airport and flew to Aberdeen where I overnighted. The next day my flight to Norwich was delayed by nine hours but I passed the time in the airport by reading Eric Dempsey's excellent book "don't die in autumn".
So that was Fair Isle for me. Would I go again? Yes, of course, but you pay your money and take your chance. You could score big-time on Fair Isle and see some amazing birds or see very little at all or somewhere in between, which I think is where I was placed. The best birds I had were actually on Mainland (Western Bonelli's Warbler and Thick-billed Warbler). But I was part of an unprecedented arrival of Yellow-browed Warblers, got some great shots of a Blyth's Reed and spent time in a truly awesome part of the world. And the autumn is not over yet - not by a long way!