Friday 29 July 2016

The perfect antidote

We didn't waste much time licking our wounds and soon we were heading south again, this time for the beautiful county of Northumberland. We over-nighted in the village of Beal within striking distance of the historic island of Lindisfarne. Rare American ducks were put behind us as we sought out scarce plants, butterflies and some other avian treats.
After a very decent Lebanese take-away washed down with a wee dram o' Speyside single malt (thanks James Lowen), we hit the hay before midnight. Snoring aside - I slept pretty well!
The next morning we searched around the Snook on Holy Island for the scarce (dare I say rare?) Lindisfarne Helleborine. Fortunately we managed to find several of these pretty orchids - more exciting for James and Nick if I'm really honest but Dark Green Fritillary was a nice bonus for me.

Snook Tower, Holy Island, Northumerland

Dark-Green Fritillary
Lindisfarne Helleborine (crappy iphone shot)

James paps the trifid!

Nick had a go too!
We didn't stay long on Holy Island and our next stop was at the pretty (ahem!) town of Newbiggin-on-sea. A quick scan with the scopes and we had our Roseate Terns. A mix of adults and juveniles. Only my second ever sighting of the species (previously Ballycotton, Cork in 2008) and for James his first since 1990.

Roseate Terns with Common Terns
Next stop was the A189 bridge over the Wansbeck estuary for Bonaparte's Gull. With traffic rushing past on one side and a nice fifty foot drop into the estuary on the other as well as the sheets of rain - I didn't particularily enjoy twitching this bird but at least it was there and it was easy....unlike it fellow countryman the Scoter!

2cy Bonaparte's Gull, Wansbeck estuary
A couple of quick stops for Young's and Tyne Helleborine (both of which I missed in favour of ice cream and minding our gear in the car!). In my defence here, I'm still struggling with Birds, Dragonflies and Butterflies never mind adding Moths and Orchids to the whole confusing mix. I will probably regret not seeing those last two Helleborines but there was a Mr. Whippy nearby for goodness sake!
Our last stop was Bishop Middleham quarry near Durham (where Bee-eaters bred in 2002 no less). We were here for Dark-red Helleborine - which I admit was stunning (well OK - it was nice!) and Northern Brown Argus (or even "Durham" Argus if you like).

Bishop Middleham Quarry, Durham

Dark Red Helleborine

Still harassing the trifids - Orchids!
Northern Brown Argusesssss (Argei?) were thin on the ground - James found two and it didn't matter that they were tatty - still things of beauty really.

Northern Brown "Durham" Argus
After that it really was time to pack up and headhome. We reached Norwich sometime after 10pm that night, one thousand mile round-trip, three UK ticks (Surf Scoter, Bonaparte's Gull and Roseate Tern), two new Butterflies (Northern Brown Argus and Dark Green Fritillary) and some very nice weeds (sorry - last time - Helleborines). Not to mention the great company and craic - we'd almost forgotten about dipping the Scoter......almost!

Thursday 28 July 2016

The most epic of dips

When we were discussing and planning to twitch the WW Scoter in Aberdeen, had I known the bird would be such a head-wrecker, I might not have traveled. But in the end I'm glad I did. It might not be consolation for many after traveling so far but in the end I got more out of dipping on this bird than if we'd found it and ticked it in thirty minutes.....well sort of!
Here's how it all panned out.
At 4.20pm on Friday myself, Nick Watmough and James Lowen departed from Norwich and headed north. Nine hours later we had pitched in to a motel outside Perth and five hours after that at 6.30am on Saturday morning we were back on the road heading for Aberdeen. At 8.20am, as we were pulling into the car park at Murcar Golf Links, news was already on the web that the bird was showing in the scoter flocks off-shore opposite the clubhouse. Half an hour and we'd have this one in the bag and would be settling down to a slap up Scottish breakfast.
However, the best laid plans and all that.............
Seven hours later we had to admit defeat and throw the towel in. During the day we had two candidates for WW Scoter. The first bird we got onto looked pretty good, nice large,white speculum on the wing. Bigger than on any of the other Velvets. Another birder was completely happy with it, ticked it and went on his way. We were, its fair to say, about 70-80%. The shape of the white eye patch was difficult to discern at a distance and the bill shape / colour was tricky too. We scanned from the top of a pillbox on the beach but couldn't really see enough detail on the bill to make a certain identification. Sometime later we got onto candidate number two and this one really did look promising. Again, large square-ish shaped white speculum (which was bigger than any on the Velvets) and even if you lost the bird in the swell and movement of the flock, you could find it again by looking for the large white speculum. Different birders got onto it and the consensus seemed to be that this was the bird. We had all seen it and put the news out. Nick though, ever the competent scientist, wanted proper views of the bill colour and shape to clinch the ID. He returned to the pillbox roof for closer views.

Nick scans from the pillbox
James and I continuing scanning from the dunes but we'd lost the bird now. In the end we never re-found it and following a brief discussion with another birder we had to conclude that this "was not our boy". What we saw of the bill had too much yellow on it and while difficult to discern the profile didn't seem quite right either.

Dunes from Murcar Golf Links

So it was back to the drawing board. By now it must have been 2pm, we had nothing to eat, four hours sleep after a nine hour drive and nothing to drink either. It wasn't getting any easier. We spent the next two hours scanning on our own but couldn't pick out the bird. And the more we looked at the Velvets the more we realised that our initial two birds were probably Velvets also. Drake Velvets would throw me by sometimes showing a large white speculum, especially if the wing was relaxed along the side of the bird or especially if it was preening.
At 4pm we conceded defeat. We were shattered and chances of finding it now were not getting better (especially considering our lack of food, sleep and drink). We retired to the clubhouse of Murcar Golf Club for a very welcome double burger and chips and licked our wounds. James withdrew the sighting.

The defeated Scoter Squad (Graham Clarke, James Lowen and Nick Watmough)
The other two were understandably dejected. I wasn't too disappointed though. Firstly, I had travelled a very steep learning curve on Velvet Scoters, I had seen a cracking drake Surf Scoter (UK tick), and seen a very interesting Common Scoter with an all yellow bill that James had found. It was a strong candidate for Black Scoter but bill profile was wrong (I have subsequently heard this bird is "known locally" and has the nickname of Duffy Duck!). Also, I had seen the Rossbeigh stejneger's Scoter in 2010 so unless it's split from deglandi then it wouldn't be a tick for me anyhow. I think if we had rocked up and ticked the bird in thirty minutes I certainly would not have gotten too much from that. Most importantly I was reminded of the basic principles of birding and a lot of other things, if you don't have enough good quality data then you can't make an accurate call on something. No matter how far you have travelled to see a bird and how much you want to believe that you have seen it, if you are only 90% then that's not good enough. You need to be 100% certain based on full scrutiny of the key identification features to make an accurate call. If you can't do that and you're not 100% then that's that and you have to let it go - such is life.

Friday 15 July 2016

Below the line

I think maybe everyone who takes bird photos has a hard-drive somewhere filled with thousands of large file digital images that they just can't bring themselves to delete. Recently I was checking through some of these and came across a lot of old images that for one reason or another I never ever processed . Well, some I had processed but quite frankly the end result was......more than a little bit crap. However, back when I first picked up a camera and pointed it at a bird I always cropped the image to within an inch of its life. Now, I'm a little less likely to do that and when I treat some old images this way they look better - or at least a little less crappy. Anyway, sorting through them brought back some good memories (mostly of my time in County Cork) and reminded me that I had since some damn fine birds. Here's a selection of those that at the time never made the cut as well as s few that haven't ever appeared on my blog!

Pied-billed Grebe, Great Island, Cork - December 2010
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Ballycotton, Cork - September 2010
Pectoral Sandpiper, Ballycotton, Cork - September 2011

Wilson's Phalarope, Douglas Estuary, Cork - September 2011

Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Ballycotton, September 2008

White-rumped Sandpiper, Clonea Strand, Waterford - October 2010
Sabines' Gull, Cobh - September 2009

Ivory Gull, Baltimore, Cork - March 2009

Red-throated Pipit, Ballycotton, Cork - November 2009
Swainson's Thrush, Dirk Bay, Cork - October 2008
Arctic Warbler, Cape Clear Island, Cork - October 2009
Melodious Warbler, Old Head of Kinsale, Cork - September 2008
Blackpoll Warbler, Garinish, Cork - October 2009

Northern Waterthrush, Olly Gulley, Cape Clear - August 2008

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Michael Vincent's garden, Cape Clear - October 2010

Yellow Warbler, Michael Vincent's garden, Cape Clear - August 2008
Scarlet Tanager, Garinish, Cork - October 2008

White-throated Sparrow, Lighthouse Road, Cape Clear - October 2008

Ortolan Bunting, Old Head of Kinsale - September 2008

Saturday 2 July 2016

Dalkey's Terns

I'm back in Dublin for the week for the sole reason of taking care of my folks following my mother's hip replacement (now back at home and thankfully making a very speedy recovery). I had a very brief window of time to pop down to Coliemore Harbour and scope the tern colonies on Dalkey Island.

Dalkey Island from Coliemore Harbour - 30th June 2016

For several years Birdwatch Ireland have been putting out nest boxes on the adjacent Maiden's Rock and Lamb Island. Both Arctic and Common Terns breed there and Roseate Terns have bred in the past. More detail here
On Wednesday evening I popped down for an hour and by chance met with Noel Keogh (father of intrepid Celtic Explorer and Cahow finder Niall Keogh). We both scoped the terns out on Maiden's Rock where there was a mix of Common and Arctic Terns. Mostly seemed to be Arctic Terns but there as so much activity it was tricky to make any sort of a count. I could see chicks so some birds have bred. Unfortunately, the fifty or so Arctic Terns that were present on Lamb's Rock last week had since abandoned the area - possibly due to disturbance - rats and goats cause problems and the general public can cross onto that island at low tide.
This year sadly there are no breeding Roseate's present. However across Dublin Bay on Rockabill Island its been a record year with 1,556 breeding pairs. Rockabill is the Europe's largest Roseate Tern colony - more detail on the superb Rockablog
Also around Coliemore Harbour there are several pairs of Black Guillemots nesting in the harbour walls. I'm ashamed to say I used to take these fine birds for granted but with only occasional views of non-breeding birds off the Norfolk coast, I've begun to appreciate how smart they actually are. I went back with the camera for an hour on Friday evening and despite poor light, I managed some shots of a pair that were sitting on the harbour wall, preening and calling (maybe to entice young birds from the nest??).

Black Guillemots, Coliemore Harbour, Dalkey, Co. Dublin
I also had a couple of Ravens overhead, three Common Scoter, several Gannets and a steady movement of Manx Shearwaters on the far side of Dalkey Sound between the island and the Muglins Lighthouse.

Panoramic of Maidens Rock, Lamb and Dalkey Islands and around to Coliemore Harbour