Sunday, 30 October 2011

Raptor extravaganza

29 October 2011
Gary arrived at my house in the dark at 07:00 and we headed off to east Kent for some migrant hunting. Our first port of call just after daybreak was King George V park in Ramsgate. As we got out of the car several flocks of Siskin and Redpoll flew low overhead trilling, pewing and rattling as they went. We walked into the park with low cloud and light drizzle raising our optimism. The first dog walkers were already in the park but it had not been too disturbed. We checked through the patches of trees along the coast finding three Chiffchaffs and half a dozen Goldcrest. Goldfinches, Siskins, Redpolls, Chaffinch and Meadow Pipits continued to pass overhead and the first small group of Redwings arrived. As we walked back into the open at the northern end of the park six hirundines were feeding actively over the trees - five House Martin and a Swallow. We headed over to the west side and eventually located a very smart Firecrest feeding with a small group of Tits. Back to the central area and a flock of 11 Redwing flew out of the trees, a small flock of Goldcrest teased in the sycamores, but nothing new could be found. We decided on a cup of tea at the small cafe and sat in the sunshine as a few more finches flew by.

Next stop was the Port Regis area of North Foreland. Two Firecrest greeted us in a noisy flock of Tits and Goldcrests beside the golf course and as we walked down the path more crests and tits could be heard around. Overhead Siskins, Redpolls and Skylarks were passing. Four flocks of Crossbills flew over calling loudly, one bird even singing as it passed, but very high up and two flocks completely unseen. Just as we reached the small reservoir a tiny, multiple striped warbler flitted out of the hedge into some weedy vegetation. We both got on it, but it flicked around the corner. Advancing slowly we expected it to reappear but no sign, and despite patient watching over the next hour we just could not relocate it - probably a Yellow-browed as neither of us saw a pale rump as it flew away, but it had appeared quite green and yellow, so we just weren't able to confirm it. Birding can be very frustrating... All the crests and tits were carefully checked until they drifted away into the private areas. Further searching along the road to the sea found probably the same flock but still no phyllosc - another one that got away...


With surprisingly little news coming in from anywhere in the county we decided to head to Sheppey, briefly checking Warden Point (nothing) before driving down to Sheppey. We arrived to find Chris Gibbard just packing up and discovered it might be worth walking out from Muswell Manor. As we started to drive back up the track Chris waived us down - his car battery was flat. After an embarrassing five minutes looking under the bonnet for my battery I realised it was strangely located in the boot! Turning the car around we soon had Chris hooked up and re-started. At Muswell Manor we walked down the footpath until we reached some useful cover vegetation and setup. Several hours later we retraced our steps having had a superb afternoons raptor extravaganza. We had two Rough-legged Buzzard, a Common Buzzard, two Peregrines (hunting regularly), two Merlin, four Kestrel, two Sparrowhawks, three ringtail Hen Harriers, a dozen Marsh Harrier and two Short-eared Owl. 

One juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard gave almost continual views, hovering into the breeze over a nearby field in search of mice. It was pretty successful at catching them incredibly spotting movement from 25 - 30m in the air. We also enjoyed stunning views of hunting Peregrines, one within a few metres chasing a Lapwing, until it realised we were there and the lucky Lapwing managed to escape. An adult male Peregrine then chased away the youngster, and attacked a Woodpigeon missing it by inches as it stooped at incredible speed. 

Hunting male Peregrine Falcon
Later the juvenile was again hunting a Lapwing out by the seawall. After several minutes of chasing the Lapwing was exhausted and the Peregrine simply snatched it from the air. However all the activity had attracted two Marsh Harriers and as the Peregrine dropped to the ground to finish off the hapless Lapwing the harriers bullied it off the prey. As the raptors fought each other for the spoils the Lapwing suddenly took to the air and escaped over the seawall onto the saltings - amazing. Our final close encounter was a Hen Harrier that came down a ditch in front of us and appeared within two metres - not sure who was most surprised, but it gave us a glare as it went away. 

The surprised Hen Harrier checks us out

And away to continue its hunting undisturbed
A superb few hours birding watching Golden Plovers, Skylarks and Lapwings in abundance, several Little Egrets and Grey herons in the fields and a couple of Green Sandpipers in the ditches all enjoyed on a sunny autumn afternoon. 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Weekend string....

Saturday 22 October 2011

I easily resisted the two mega birds 'available' this weekend - a stunning male Siberian Rubythroat on Shetland and at the opposite end of the country a first-winter male Scarlet Tanager in Cornwall. The wind was freshening overnight from the south and I figured a seawatch at Dungeness would be the most appealing relaxation. Having had a very hard week at work I was in no mood to be woken by the alarm or to make arrangements to meet anyone, figuring I'd just go when I woke up. As it happened I was up quite early and arrived at the fishing boats on the shingle peninsula at about 07:45. I was surprised to see none of the locals already in position, though Tony Greenland was parked along the road. There were hundreds of birds in the Bay, mainly Kittiwakes, Gannets and auks (Razorbills and Guillemots). Overhead flocks of mainly Goldfinch were twittering to the south, and totaled over 1200 through the morning. A few small groups of Siskin 'pewed' as they departed the country often directly over my head. It was magical, just the kind of birding I enjoy - loads of visible migration in all directions - weird that nobody was around to share it? 

Goldfinch flocks flew south throughout the morning

Sometimes flocks contained the odd Redpoll, Linnet or Siskin

Merlins were out hunting the finch flocks
There were loads of Pied Wagtails along the beach and later a few Swallows (16) and three very late Sand Martins flew out to sea on their long journeys to Africa and hopefully to return next Spring. Alternate scans of the sea and the land produced a few skuas passing by - 8 Great Skuas and 4 Arctic Skuas including the greyest and most barred juvenile I've ever seen, and a Balearic Shearwater that sheared in from the west, turned around and headed back again. An Arctic Tern and four Common Tern fed briefly and two Merlins looked for unwary Goldfinches along the coast and out to sea. The resident Glaucous Gull fed offshore with some Kittiwakes giving nice views in the morning light. 

juvenile Arctic Skua
Red-throated Diver
Glaucous Gull and friends
After a couple of hours Martin Casemore (aka plodding birder) joined me. We are both off to Antarctica in a couple of weeks time and we used the opportunity to discuss camera settings and to practice my albatross technique on the passing gulls. Martin's advice was very helpful and coupled to the results of different settings should put me in a good position when that first Wandering Albatross comes cruising past the boat... An adult Little Gull, 6 Red-throated Diver and nine Common Scoter flew by.

At about 10:30 we were chatting about recent photographic opportunities including the recent Grey Phalarope at Coldharbour. Martin had seen the Brighton bird, which also gave superb views. At that precise moment I looked down my scope and picked up a small grey, pale wader low over the sea - it landed momentarily on the water surface and I said 'I think I've got a Grey Phalarope'. It took flight and vanished the wrong way into the bay - damn. Another one on the 'birds that got away list'. Within ten minutes as I was scanning inland for finch flocks Martin called 'Grey Phalarope' - this time there was no doubt as it flew right past us, landing briefly on the sea before continuing to the west. We made a couple of calls to alert Dave Walker and Mark Hollingworth before continuing with our seawatch. Within five minutes I picked up a second Grey Phalarope heading in from the east. This one sat on the sea for about five minutes, but flew just as Dave and Gill were coming along the track (fortunately a further three were seen later in the day). As Dave and Gill walked up the shingle a lone, large, pale pipit flew low over their heads, calling just once. Dave instantly shouted 'Richards Pipit' and we turned in time to see it head over the next fishing boat, clime and head off towards France. Only my fourth ever in Kent. Had Dave not been so sharp I in no doubt I'd have seen it but too late to identify it, the call just adding to the frustration.

With Dave and Gill now in place the whole Antarctica crew were together for only the second time this autumn. Dave's radio crackled into life announcing that the Penduline Tit was showing at Hanson Hide. Neither me or Gill had seen it and as I was by now quite cold we headed off to warm up and hopefully get some views of this smashing little bandit-masked tit. On arrival it was out of view, but apparently still present and sure enough within ten minutes it flew out to the reed mace to feed, spreading white fluffy seeds in the wind. A couple of Marsh Harriers and a Sparrowhawk kept the roosting ducks and Golden Plover on their toes. Around the Willow Trail 2 Migrant Hawkers and 4 Common Darters proved the temperatures here were higher than inland.

Penduline Tit, Dungeness RSPB

This appears to be the same returning bird, originally ringed at Icklesham

We headed back to the sea where a juvenile Pomarine Skua flew past and an interestingly pale Peregrine flew out to sea. I decided my time was up and bid my farewells heading home to widen the footings for the new wall which should start to be built on Tuesday. Another example of weekend visitors getting lucky....

juvenile Pomarine Skua, showing the distinctive double white wing flash

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Back in Kent

Sunday 16 October 2011 - I had promised Mandy that I'd finish the footings for the new garden wall, so after watching New Zealand beat the Aussies I headed outside with my trusty spade and wheelbarrow. I had about 20m of footings to dig and set about the process. Within 5 minutes the phone rang - Barry Wright called to say there was an Isabelline Shrike at Cliffe. About twenty minutes later and I'd hit a really hard patch of soil and was making little progress when Barry called back to say he was watching it - a stunning male with full black face mask. I carried on digging. By lunchtime I had finished and after a bite to eat I drove over to Cliffe and walked out to the small admiring crowd. The Shrike really was a stunner.


I watched the bird for several hours, always at some range. It was great to see Gary, Barry, James and Andy - I hadn't seen them since yesterday!  It was also great to catch up with John Young, Geoff Burton, Frank Cackett, Gill Hollamby and Dave Walker among others enjoying this very smart bird. Only 30 days to go..... ;-)

This shrike proved typically educational and thought provoking. The full black face mask  appears to rule out isabellinus (which usually shows pale lores), but the lack of contrasting plumage tones and particularly a white supercilium mean it isn't a phoenicuroides. Reference to the Shrikes book (Norbert Lefranc and Tim Worfolk) suggests it was most like speculigerus, which has recently been included with isabellinus under Daurian Shrike, though previously in the book was included under Turkestan. The rusty crown and contrasty remiges, with buff/peachy flanks and a distinct white wing patch seem to support this ID. This was the first adult male for most of the observers and with little experience and a range of variability there is much to learn.

Reference to Panov's paper which includes photos of several races and both species seems to confirm this bird as speculigerus. Has this race been recorded previously in the UK?

Rufous-tailed dip

On Friday (14 October 2011) morning Gary called and we arranged to meet up on Saturday for a day out in Kent. The wind had gone round to SE on Thursday morning and instantly dropped numbers of eastern vagrants along the coast from Yorkshire to Kent. An amazing mid-week tally of five Red-flanked Bluetails appeared, mainly in ringer's nets, with others including a bird at Shuart Farm in Kent on Friday. The wind did not look so good for the weekend but there must surely be a chance of something rare lurking out there, waiting to be found...

Late on Friday afternoon I received a text from Gary - 'Norfolk...?'. I texted back, 'Why?' and was somewhat stunned when the reply came back 'Rufous-tailed Robin'. This second British record and incredible mainland find had just been discovered somewhere on the north Norfolk coast. It took another hour for the full news to be released, just in time for a lucky few locals to get to the site and get reasonable views of this incredibly skulking stunner. It had been found by one of the Punkbirders, a group of very hard working patch watchers who day-in, day-out trudge their patch of coast in the hope of one-day finding that elusive sibe mega - and today they did!

So we left Gary's at 03:30 picking up Barry Wright, James Hunter and Andy Lawson in Dartford. Arriving at Warham Greens we parked in the hastily arranged field with about 150 other cars, in the dark, pre-dawn. It was freezing cold, only 1C, but the crowd gathered at the end of the track where the day before the Robin had been found. 
The crowd waits patiently as dawn rises - it was a VERY clear night...
Just after dawn five birders walked slowly down the track hoping the bird would be present. However it had been an incredibly clear, and incredibly cold night and the mood in the crowd was not optimistic. After half an hour of patiently waiting we were allowed into the fields either side of the track, but the bird was not to be seen. 

We spread out down the field looking into the hedge to the right

There were lots of birds moving - like a whole autumn in Kent in one morning. Redwings, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds were outnumbered by huge flocks of Starlings arriving from the east and heading along the coast. Chaffinch's and Brambling's fed in the lane, Siskins and Skylarks flew over and even a Lapland Bunting or two called overhead. It was a beautiful crisp morning, still and sunny with crisp views as far as the eye could see. While chatting to Jerry Warne a small pipit flew in calling - a thin, shrill 'tzzseeeep' like a Tree Pipit but without the raspiness - surely an Olive-backed? The bird flew low overhead and seemed to drop down behind the hedge. We rushed over and found Andy and James stood in the right place to have seen where it went - but they were chatting to an old friend and had missed it. A walk around failed to relocate it and we had to assume it had simply carried on. Damn!

News came through that a Red-flanked Bluetail had been caught at Holme and the crowds soon diminished. We decided to try Wells Woods, hoping at least for a Yellow-browed Warbler. We split up and me and Barry found a small clearing in the Dell where a flock of Long-tailed Tits was feeding noisily with a couple of Goldcrest. We soon heard a Yellow-browed Warbler but couldn't see it. Another 30 minutes passed and as I walked back into the clearing another birder spotted the bird, but it flew just as I lifted my bins. I called the others and began trying to relocate it. Barry joined the hunt. We followed a small trail and came out under a willow. As we looked through the other side a crowd had gathered and pointed into the bush we were standing under - with a little patience the stunning, little striped gem appeared and fed unconcernedly around us, occasionally calling - cracker! Over head more Redwings, Skylarks and Blackbirds, plus a Redpoll and a couple of Siskin. A few more Brambling were mainly heard in the trees.

We next tried Stiffkey where a Bluethroat had been found earlier. After a lengthy walk in the warm sunshine we arrived as a birder tried to relocate it out on the marsh. We watched as he tried each bush but we only saw the Stonechat that had been accompanying it. A valiant effort that deserved a better outcome. We headed back to the car and then drove along the coast to Holme. Arriving at the site it was apparent that the Bluetail had been tricky, moving around a large area of pine trees at pace, never stopping anywhere for long. Fortunately as the sun sank in the sky it moved into another area of the NWT reserve and began to feed in the open below some bigger trees. Great views were obtained of this absolute gem of a bird. Back in the day these things were near mythical - the thought of seeing one was merely a dream, and even then required a lucky visit to the Shetlands. Then in 1993 the unbelievable happened when one was found in the small valley at Winspit in Dorset. Since then they have become regular and even expected autumn vagrants - over 30 were found last year alone! However I still just love them - perhaps due to that mythical status, but I've now seen six, including three in Kent and would never turn down the chance to see another.

We finished the day at Holkham walking along the edge of the woods. A flock of Tits contained just a couple of Goldcrest and other than Song Thrush and Blackbirds we couldn't find any vagrants. Still a lovely end to the day with skeins of Pink-footed Geese overhead. We returned quite happy after a most enjoyable day, despite the dip.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Autumn mothing

Weekend 8/9 October 2011
After a days birding on Friday I worked in the garden on Saturday and with continuing blustery westerlies continued the effort on Sunday. I moved several tons of soil both days as we re-shape the borders and raise the levels in the back garden. However I ran the moth trap on Friday evening and again on Saturday, though checking the weather an hour later realised it was to be a wet night, so I brought it in, checking for any quick catches. I had hoped for a Merveille Du Jour, but no luck Friday. I had checked the trap on Saturday night and found a few moths. As I went to put the trap away there on the lid was a stunning green, black and white beauty... Nice end to the weekend. On Saturday morning (after England crashed embarrassingly out of the World Cup with the worst first half performance of all time) the best of the catch was a Large Wainscot (first for my garden) and a stunning Dotted Chestnut. There was also a selection of the common Sallows, always nice to compare.

The stunning Merveille Du Jour

Barred Sallow

Pink-barred Sallow


Dotted Chestnut

Friday, 7 October 2011

Close but no cigar...

Friday 7 October 2011. The Sandhill Crane has spent all week in Suffolk, making it a nervy week at work especially when it decided to fly south on two mornings, only to return to its favoured field. The wind has been strong westerly all week and it seemed unlikely it would migrate, but today the wind was turning NW (well NW north of us and WNW in Kent), and that might be enough to encourage its departure south. It might also produce a reasonable late autumn seawatch so I booked the day off work.

I arrived at Reculver later in the morning than hoped and the wind was blowing a good force 5. At the Towers (an old Roman Fort that provides shelter from northerly winds) I met Marc Heath, Derek Smith, John Cantelo, Chris and Matt Hindle. There had been little moving and the next two hours was no different - just a Brent Goose, an Eider, 15 Teal and a few Arctic, Sandwich and Common Tern. At 10:00 I headed over to Grove Ferry to look for a Jack Snipe that has apparently been showing in front of Feast Hide over the last few days. As I arrived a message came through that the Crane had flown high to the south at 10:25! A quick check of the hide produced nothing and I raced back to Bishopstone where Marc and John joined me in a two hour sky and sea watch. Needless to say we didn't pick up the Crane but 7 Great Skua and 2 Manx Shearwater, plus a handful of Gannets proved some seabirds were moving.

At about 14:00 Chris Hindle phoned to say Matt had found a Grey Phalarope on the Coldharbour Lagoon, so we headed off to have a look. With some careful positioning stunning close views were obtained of this smashing little wader - presumed to be an adult due to its clean grey mantle. However reference to books suggests that the small black patch at the base of the hind neck and the black centred tertials indicate it is in fact an advanced first winter.

I walked back to the Towers with Derek and spent the next hour seawatching. A stunning adult male, fully-spooned, Pomarine Skua was the undoubted highlight. Nine Great and two Arctic Skuas, 31 Gannet, 12 Sandwich and 30 Commic Tern flew west into the stron westerly breeze. 3 Little Egret flew in from miles out to sea and headed off inland.

I drove to Seasalter for a check of the waders and mouth of the Swale. Four Great and three Arctic Skuas, 3 Gannet and a handful of Arctic Terns flew by, while large numbers of Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Oystercatcher, and a few Bar-tailed Godwit and Curlew fed on the mud. The highlight here was a Short-eared Owl that flew in off the sea, mobbed by a bunch of inquisitive Herring Gulls.

A nice day out and the Phalarope was stunning, but where has the Crane gone...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Three strikes and out

While we were in Scotland an immature male Pallid Harrier was found at Cliffe Pools in North West Kent. It showed well and went to roost. After the grueling ten hour drive home (and I was just a passenger) there was no way I would be up at dawn, so I hoped it might hang around. It was seen leaving roost but it disappeared off to the east and I got on with my day. However a few hours later and news came through that a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper had been seen on the Flamingo Pool at Cliffe. This is the first Semi-P in Kent since the one I found (aged just 15) at Elmley way back in July 1984.  I convinced Mandy she needed a walk in the countryside and half an hour later we were bumping along the pot-hole ridden track towards what was once the Coastguard Cottages near to the Thames. We parked up and walked around towards the pool meeting the finder Rich Bonser along the way. He described finding the bird and then watching as it flew into the main wader roost where it could not be re-found. We watched for about half an hour and then the waders began leaving the roost. Several stints flew over us and out towards the Essex side of the Thames. Gary arrived with his wife Jen and two sons. As it was Jen's birthday we spent some time in the beautiful autumn sunshine chatting and catching up while the twins found various weaponry along the seawall. We checked on the way back for the harrier but it had not been seen for some hours and we soon gave up. 

Monday evening and the harrier reappeared at the viewing mounds. I decided that should it be seen on Tuesday afternoon I'd get away early from work and try again. Sure enough mid afternoon it was back and I left Reigate at 17:00. I managed to get to the viewing mounds just before 18:00 but the bird had not been seen and despite much scanning it did not come into roost. It was great to catch up with some old friends - Dave Hale, Alan Fossey, Bob Knight and Frank Cackett - all of whom had some influence (greater or lesser) in my formative birding years.

On Saturday morning, just as England were beating the Scots in a hard fought northern hemisphere clash at the Rugby World Cup, the juv Semi-P was found feeding along the Thames shoreline off East Tilbury on the Essex side. Just after 14:00 news came through that as the tide rose it had flown towards Cliffe - surely worth a try. A call from Andy Lawson suggested it was not obvious in the roost but he asked for some help on site and I duly obliged. We found a small roost on the back of the middle pool and another at the back of Flamingo - both distant and in the haze a challenge, but we found vantage points and did our best. I stayed until the birds began flighting back out to feed, but no sign. Four Curlew Sandpiper, three Ruff, a Common Sandpiper and a Kingfisher were the best of the sightings. Andy Appleton told us about the first time he ever saw a Little Egret, back in the early eighties when they were proper rare he waited seven hours for a sighting at East Tilbury! I turned 90 degrees and pointed out seven in one minute - how times have changed!

Sunday was Mandy's birthday and I had booked lunch at a new restaurant at Folkestone called Rocksalt. It has already gained much praise and it was well justified - superb food and a lovely setting right on the harbour wall. We had a short walk at Capel Le Ferne beforehand to work up an appetite, seeing three Wheatear and a Redstart. After our fantastic meal we drove to Bockhill and walked down to the farm and then out to Hope Point. Mandy encouraged me to sit down on the clifftop and just enjoy the serenity of the place - amazing blue skies, sunshine and hardly a breeze, with the white cliffs contrasting with the blue shimmering sea - wonderful. A flock of 40 Swallow swirled overhead and out to sea and a flock of Goldfinch flew past. A small flock of Linnet were hanging around the bushes below the golfcourse and the occasional 'chack' from a Blackcap suggested other birds hiding in the thick cover. Out of the corner of my eye something flicked into the top of a blackthorn. I raised my bins and it looked interesting - interesting enough for me to walk down the side of the bushes for a closer view. This confirmed my initial suspicion - it was a juvenile Red-backed Shrike. I called Mandy over and we managed to get a couple of brief views but it was not approachable. We kept our distance and it occasionally came up on top of the bushes or caught a passing insect. I texted Nigel Jarman and Phil Chantler to alert them and Nigel soon joined us, gaining several distant views of it feeding or perched on top of the bushes. A nice way to end the weekend.

News came through at lunchtime that the Aberdeen Sandhill Crane had made it to Boyton Marshes, in Suffolk, just north of Felixstowe - this could be a nail biting, exciting (or frustrating) few days.....

Some moths from Friday night:
Silver Y

Mottled Umber

Blair's Shoulder Knot

Pink-barred Sallow

Autumnal Rustic

Green-brindled Crescent