Monday 24 December 2018

2018 Round-up

2018 could best be described as the year of two halves. The first six months were marked with some fantastic birding highlights and the second half - well, it was a nil-all draw at best.

After a truly dismal 2017, I was determined to enjoy my birding more in 2018."Less is more" was the mantra. I may not go out as much but when I would, I would enjoy it.
And so with the new year barely fresh out of the box I already had a lifer when a Hume's Warbler was found at the Shangri-La cottage in east Norfolk on 7th January (A visitor to Shangri-La).
Hume's Warbler - January 2018, Waxham, Norfolk
A very smart and very confiding male Black Redstart at Sheringham brightened up the latter days of January (The Black Rodney).

Male Black Redstart - January 2018, Sheringham, Norfolk
And at the end of the month, a winter trip to Tenerife provided a nice cast with the Canarian forms of Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Goldcrest and Robin as well as the wonderful Blue Chaffinch. The latter was harder than expected due to snow and ice in the mountains but I got there in the end (Winter birding in Tenerife).

Male Blue Chaffinch - Las Calderas, Tenerife - January 2018
February was a normal enough month and in mid-March this beauty turned up at Snettisham (Snow in north Norfolk).

Snowy Owl, Snettisham, Norfolk - March 2018
I had this bird tagged already as "Bird of the Year" - but better was to come!

At the end of March, Nick Watmough and I took a week long trip to Western Sahara, primarily for Golden Nightjar, Sudan Golden Sparrow, Cricket Longtail as well as some desert mamals such as Sand Cat and Fennac Fox. However, for me the highlights were the concentrations of migrant passerines around any little patch of greenery and fresh water. I could have spent the entire week at the water tower at Tachaktant and at a place called Mijk Farm.

Western Olivaceous Warbler

Western Subalpine Warbler

White-spotted Bluethroat

White-spotted Bluethroat
It took five blog posts to write up this epic trip in full. If you've nothing better to do this Christmas then feel free to read them (Western Sahara - part one).
It felt like I was hardly back in England when the next trip popped up. A long talked-about visit to Tory Island off the coast of Donegal for Corncrakes. We timed our trip to match with their immediate arrival and relatively little nettle cover in order to maximise chances of photographing them. I was hopeful but not really expecting too much. However, I'd barely set foot on the island when I had the shot I wanted in the bag - a calling male perched on a lichen covered wall with a background of nettles. 

Corncrake, Tory Island, Donegal, Ireland - May 2018

I don't think I really bettered this shot all weekend but I had a great time trying. Tory Island and its Corncrakes got into my system and I'm sure to be back.

Meanwhile back in Norfolk, a relatively lack-lustre spring (for me at least) finished well with a Moltoni's Subalpine Warbler on Blakeney Point. 
The summer was marked by the usual doldrums and some quite unbelievable temperatures (37oC one Friday in late July was too much for most people). I spent much of time just keeping the local birds going with cool, fresh water. They had survived the "beast from the east" and now had this inferno to endure!
In August I ticked Stilt Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs and Semi-palmated Sandpiper - but bemoaned the poor views of these species versus my Irish experiences with Nerarctic waders.
Early August started with this smart Wryneck in Kessingland, Suffolk.

Wryneck, Kessingland, Suffolk - August 2018
Thereby followed a long run of westerlies and a cancelled return trip to Cape Clear was particularily upsetting. East winds late in October and November promised much and did deliver some good birds such as Brown Shrike and Stejneger's Stonechat, although I'd have loved better views of the Shrike.

Stejenger's Stonechat, Salthouse, Norfolk
And it's always good to see a Shorelark.

Shorelark, Happisburgh, Norfolk - November 2018
The King Eider at Sheringham rounded off my year's birding, after that I more or less hung up my bins and turned towards work and studying. Which, incidentally will continue to be my focus until next April's trip to Kuwait!
Meantime, my "2018 Bird of the Year" goes to Liam - the true King of Tory!!

Liam - King of the Tory Island Corncrakes

Sunday 14 October 2018

Autumn doesn't love me anymore

I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that autumn is overrated! I don't think this year is quite as bad as 2017 was but its pushing it close.
Last weekend a much anticipated return trip to Cape Clear Island fell apart in spectacular style at the last minute. Instead of looking for nearctic vagrants and enjoying some creamy pints, I found myself scouring east Norfolk in vain for Yellow-browed Warblers. The best that could be pulled from Happisburgh were three Bramblings and a Snow Bunting. I'm not knocking those birds but everyone else seemed to tripping over YBW's yet we couldn't find one for love nor money.
This weekend I didn't bother to go out until Sunday, on Saturday that warm southerly wind was blowing a gale and I figured it would be better to wait until the gust stopped.
I started at Happisburgh once again although I'm losing faith in that place. It is a beautiful village and I love visiting it but it feels like I'm expecting too much from it. The area around the coastwatch buildings, the path leading up to that, the trees around the cricket pitch all look good and attract migrants. The churchyard looks very promising but I've only ever seen a Black Redstart in there. And yet, I've never done any better than finding Firecrests, YBWs, Black and Common Redstarts, Pied Flys and Whinchats. It does produce some decent birds like Pallas's Warbler, Black-headed Wagtail and Great Grey Shrike, its just not me who finds them.
Anyway, en route to the coast watch I kept an ear and eye out for the YBW that had been reported earlier in the morning and was fortunate to see that in the sycamores of the last garden before the coast watch. Unfortunately it was very mobile so no photos but still the first one of the autumn for me at last.
The coastwatch seemed very quiet until I nearly trod on this Short-eared Owl. I don't know who got a greater fright, me or it? Still a smashing bird to see. It flew into the nearby field and hunkered down against the strengthening west wind.

After Happisburgh I decided to walk Horsey Gap to the pipe dump. Apart from a few Goldcrests it was quiet and very windy. RBA reported a YBW at the pipe dump but I couldn't see anything there except for a few Magpies and Pheasant. I decided to walk towards the Shangri-La cottage and check the first set of trees along the path as they seemed to offer a little shelter and I managed to find a Yellow-browed in there. Probably the same bird that was reported from the pipe dump. This time I only heard the bird.
I headed for home feeling a little bit happier having finally seen a couple of Yellow-broweds and a nice SEO - then I heard news from Yorkshire!

Monday 10 September 2018

Autumn begins despite westerlies

Despite the west winds there will still some migrants around. I was in bed early Friday night and up at 5am Saturday morning to go and see the Lowestoft Booted Warbler. I hadn't high expectations for photos as most reports had the caveat 'tho elusive'. However, it was worse than that and the bird had done the usual Friday night bunk and was nowhere to be seen come Saturday morning. A small supporting cast of White Wagtail, Whinchat and Northern Wheatear knocking around the net poles was scant consolation.

Whinchat, Lowestoft denes - 8th September 2018
I checked the tamarisks all the way along the edge of the Bird's Eye factory where I had a couple of very yellowy looking juvenile Willows and two Common Whitethroats. After that I did a circuit around Great Yarmouth cemetery but it was empty.
Sunday I took a little lie in and didn't get out until 10am. I hate missing the best part of the day but I needed some sleep. This time I decided to walk Winterton dunes, its a big area to cover but usually has migrants. I started well with this pretty little Spotted Flycatcher.

Spotted Flycatcher, Winterton dunes - 9th September 2018
Then I walked the bushes around the totem pole. I flushed a bird off the deck just on the edge of some bushes that looked like a pipit. It didn't call and that alone had me thinking it wasn't a M'ipit. Because of where it was I figured Tree Pipit or Olive-backed (although its a little early for OBP). Anyway, I eventually pinned it down sitting quietly in a low branch - Tree Pipit it was.

Tree Pipit - Winterton Dunes
Both of those encounters put a spring in my step. However, I walked all the way from the totem pole to the concrete blocks without seeing anything else. Before the plantation things picked up again with four Whinchats, a Lesser Whitethroat and two Common Whitethroats. A relatively uneventful return walk to the car with just one Whinchat, Marsh Harrier and two Stonechats.
After a sandwich break I decided to head to Kessingland where the Wryneck was still present. I had directions from Rob Holmes to the spot although it was quite a walk from the village to sluice with all my gear (and having walked Winterton already) - I was pretty 'cream-crackered' by the time I got there.
However, the bird was showing really well - a little distant for photos but any closer and I doubt the bird would have been so showy. It was a really crisp, fresh-looking individual. Stunningly cryptic plumage when viewed up close. I stayed there until 6pm before tiredness and hunger pangs caught up with me.

Wryneck, Kessingland, Suffolk - 9th September 2018

Saturday 25 August 2018

Frampton comes alive

Winds are a bit westerly so no fall of Scandanavian drift migrants this bank holiday weekend. However, a Stilt Sandpiper across the Wash at RSPB Frampton Marsh was more than tempting, so I decided to brave the bank holiday traffic and go twitching.
I should have left early but I'd put in a long week at work and so choose to give myself a lie-in instead.
Unfortunately though, as well as the heavy traffic on the 'orrible A47 and A17 stretch, I also had to contend with harsh, direct light hampering my photography efforts.
Still, despite all that I was very taken by this fine wader. I had never seen one before, anywhere! Despite south-west Ireland being pretty good for American shorebirds, I think the last record there was in 2003 and overall in Ireland I think there are only 14 records (or thereabouts). In UK I think around 35 - so a pretty rare bird all in all.

Stilt Sandpiper, Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire - 25th August 2018

Sunday 5 August 2018

Not so distant memories

Last weekend I paid a visit to the north Norfolk RSPB reserves of Snettisham and Titchwell. I like Titchwell very much, Snettisham not much, anything I've ever seen there has been distant. The purpose of my trip was to see the Semi-Palmated Sandpiper at Snettisham and the Lesser Yellowlegs at Titchwell. The former being only the 6th Norfolk record, so a good bird indeed for the county. I was fortunate and managed to see both birds. However, while I was very pleased to have connected, truth be told, I drove back to Norwich feeling a little nonplussed.
I've seen five Semi-P's in Ireland and all bar one have practically been running around my feet. Lesser Yellowlegs, I've only seen two in Ireland, one on the estuary mudflats at Rosscarbery, Cork and the second bird in a small pool on The Cunnigar, Waterford - that bird was often too close to focus the lens on. That's often how waders are in Ireland - and I confess to be really missing that!
I'v dug through my files and produced a few Semi-P images - great little birds and so photogenic!

Ballycotton, Cork - November 2010

Ballycotton, Cork - November 2010 (same bird as above)

Ballycotton, September 2011
Garretstown Beach, Cork - September 2012
Ballycotton - September 2008

Sunday 29 July 2018

The trip to Tory - part three

We were all a little late starting the following morning, we birded around West Town before breakfast and were entertained by a spate between two Corncrakes as one tried to steal another's nettle patch....all good fun! This Wheatear posed for me on the way back back to the B&B.
Male Wheatear, West Town, Tory Island, Co. Donegal
For the remainder of the day we birded the eastern side of the island. We walked around Anton's garden (which the previous spring had a Baltimore Oriole) but Tree Sparrow's were the best there.
We enjoyed some spectacular views from the the cliffs on the north easterly side of the island.

After that we settled down for an afternoon of sea-watching where Rob managed to dig out a White-billed Diver!
We made our way back to West Town after that stopping briefly at the harbour to scan through what was scavenging on the tideline. Plenty of summer-plumaged Turnstones, Pied and White Wagtails and a single Iceland Gull. Before dinner I gave the Corncarkes one last go and managed some further views and photos.

Pity about the background!

Keeping a beady eye out for me!

Dinner that night was very quiet - I think everyone was simply shattered. We caught the ferry back to Donegal the next morning (where we added Glaucous Gull to the trip list with one on the beach at Magheraroarty). After that we drove back to Knock via the splendid scenery of Glenveigh National Park and the Barnesmore Gap before boarding our Ryanair flight back to Stansted and home to Norwich.

Monday 21 May 2018

The trip to Tory - part two

The next morning we were all up and out by 7am for more Corncrake photography and to check for migrants. On Tory, the most obvious place to check is the famous 'Magic Bush'. It has previously hosted such mega rarities as Paddyfield Warbler and Collared Flycatcher. However, this morning it was a lot more modest with just Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. A Corncrake sang from the nettles clumps in the adjacent paddock (we called him Peadair!). 

The famous 'Magic Bush'
We stopped for breakfast at 9.30am and then met up at the pier for 10.30am where Rob had organised a boat trip to look for White-billed Diver.

Our vessel for the day - The Laura Dean

The boat took us east along the southern edge of Tory and rounded the cliffs at the easterly end which is called Tormor. We had great views of the many Puffins on sea as well as Razorbills, Guillemots (including some ‘bridled’ birds) and Kittiwakes. After that we headed out into the sound between the Donegal mainland and Tory Island itself to look for White-billed Divers. Despite the numerous pairs of eyes on board, we struggled to see anything. We had Ger Murray with a scope on the island guiding us via mobile phone to a diver that was 600 metres or so in front of us but we couldn’t find it. I guess between the pitching boat in a heavy swell and the bird itself diving, we missed it. By 2pm we were all getting a little despondent and some were getting a little queasy when Polina livened up proceedings by chucking bits of her baguette off the back of the boat. This brought in a good few hungry gulls including one 3 cy (?) Iceland Gull and then several very brutish Great Skuas. We all ended up chucking our lunches away just to keep the show going – I even sacrificed a bag of Tayto Snax!

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Scrambling for some baguette

Great Skua joins the melee

Great Skua
We returned to Tory Island at 5pm and spent the remaining hours between then and dinner with the Corncrakes where I managed to get a few more decent shots – I think it was the same bird from the previous day (which at this stage I had christened Liam). He was craking loudly from a small clump of nettles in the corner of a little paddock just off the main street of west town. After a lengthy wait he broke cover from his nettle bed, paused briefly on the stone wall before slipping over the other side and out of site. He seemed to have a circuit and I figured that if you waited in the one spot for long enough, he’d eventually pass your way.

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
That night we had dinner in the hotel which was relatively quiet at first but, a combination of a stag do, a bunch of first Holy Communions and a reception for the Donegal Rose (who happens to be from Tory Island) meant the place was jammed by 11pm.

A thorn amongst the Roses!

Good and all as the atmos’ in the hotel bar was, I knew that one more beer might be the tipping point, so we baled out at around 11.30pm and headed back to the B&B. I slept soundly until 7am although Nick was once again awakened at 5am by the Corncrake at the rear of the B&B – can’t say I’d be too upset with that type of alarm call. (we incidentally decided that this particular Crake was called Padraig).

Sunday 20 May 2018

The trip to Tory - part one

I had often thought about a trip to Tory Island to see and photograph Corncrake but had never gotten around to it. Each year would pass and I'd leave it too late to organise a trip. However, this time I had Robert Vaughan working on me and he did a very effective job at talking me into going - and how glad I am that he did!
Tory Island is about ten miles off the north Donegal coast. Its about about three miles long and half and mile wide. Approximately one hundred people still live there and as its a Gaeltacht region, Irish is the main language spoken. Its one of the few remaining places in Ireland where its still possible to see Corncrakes. I had never seen one in Ireland (in fact last summer in Latvia was the the first time I ever saw one although I had heard them on a number of occassions in Sligo, Donegal and Latvia). We visited from the 4th to 7th May coinciding our time there with the initial arrival of Corncrakes and relatively low cover thereby improving our chances of seeing them.
On the morning of the 4th May, Nick picked Polina and I up at 4am. P snoozed in the back while Nick and I caught up on the latest birding gossip. We fortified ourselves with a hearty ‘full English’ at Stansted Airport before boarding our flight to Ireland.
We arrived to a dull and windy Knock, picked up our rental car and drove north towards Magheraroarty, Co. Donegal with plenty of time for the 4pm ferry to Tory Island. We stopped for provisions in Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo – stocking up with Tayto Cheese and Onion (what else!!).
We were welcomed to the pier at Magheraroarty by the sounds of flight displaying Rock Pipits, several Swallows moving through as they headed north and two almost summer plumaged Great Northern Divers snorkelling in the harbour.

Great Northern Diver, Magheraroarty, Co. Donegal

The crossing to Tory was pretty bumpy to say the least! Nick picked up a single Sandwich Tern but otherwise apart from a couple of Manxies, Kittiwakes and Gannets, it was uneventful bird-wise.
At Tory harbour, two male Eiders slept on the rocks as the ferry pulled in. We gathered our luggage together and trudged through West Town to our B&B.

Polina trudges through downtown 'West Town'
As we passed a small derelict cottage by the road, a Corncrake started ‘craking’ from the other side of the stone wall. 

I stopped to listen and suddenly realised he was sitting only fifteen feet away on the stone wall of the cottage. Fortunately, I had my camera with 100-400mm lens on my shoulder so I managed a few shots before he slipped down the wall and into the nettles. Talk about being lucky! Even though it wasn’t with my 500mm prime, a couple of the shots were pretty good. I could have turned around and gone home happy at that stage if I wanted.

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal - 4th May 2018
We dropped our stuff at the B&B and Polina and I headed back to the same spot to try for more Corncrake shots while Nick birded the west of the island. 

Waiting for Mr. Crex!

Polina also waiting for Mr. Crex
We didn’t have any further luck with the Corncrake and at 7pm we called time and convened to the local pub for refreshment.
We were joined by Rob Vaughan and his partner Sara and also Irish birders Brian McCloskey and Ger Murray. Despite the long day we stayed in the pub until nearly midnight (it was only getting going at that stage!) and enjoyed some great craic and birding gossip over a few creamy pints.

A cheeky pint of the black stuff!

A little later - L-R: Brian McCloskey, Ger Murray, Sara Sirtoli, Rob Vaughan, Polina Kasapova and Graham Clarke