Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Sand Dunes and Sand Hills....

Friday evening, 23 September 2011, and with Mandy working I'm thinking about options for the weekend. A quick text to Gary Howard asking if he fancies a trip out to West Sussex for the Pallid Harrier, results in a simple reply 'Sandhill...'. A half-hearted text back, expecting that he's already on his way north, asks if he has any room in the car and five minutes later I'm driving over to his house in Orpington. A quick chat with his wife Jen and the two boys and we decide that the Discovery 4 wins over the Discovery 3. Paul Matson agrees to drive and we begin an almighty adventure, the likes of which Jeremy Clarkson would be proud. We head off at 21:00 and drive through the night. A good run other than the obligatory traffic jam at midnight on the M6 (bizarre). Along the way we check the time of sunrise, which turns out to be prophetic as we pull into the car park at Loch of Strathbeg RSPB Reserve just south of Fraserburgh in NE Scotland, a whole ten hours later.  Paul and Gary shared all the driving and still had energy to race into the crowded visitor centre.

Within a minute of arriving we have our quarry sighted - Britain's third ever Sandhill Crane. Over the next 45 minutes we watch it chasing Herons, Lapwings and anything else that comes too close. Thousands of Pink-footed Geese are flying in and out and the wild sounds are breathtaking as the flocks whiffle their way into the fields. Suddenly the Crane takes flight and for a while circles around with some Pink-feet. It heads off low to the north and we are soon in pursuit hoping to find it feeding in the local stubble. We check out the area where it spent yesterday afternoon and using the Land Rover's off-road ability check all manner of minor roads and tractor trails. We head back towards Starnafin and bump into a birder coming the other way. He tells us the bird has just been relocated and we follow him through the village to a car park. Sure enough out in the stubble field the Sandhill Crane is feeding. We manage to get closer by following a footpath and gradually the birders begin to gather. The sun came out showing off the beautiful subtlety of its brown and grey plumage and highlighting its red crown and pale face. A really superb bird. 

A local, walking her dog accidentally flushes it and away it goes over the town. After a further 30 minutes driving and scanning we opt for a return to Loch of Strathbeg. A cup of hot chocolate was most welcome and a scan of the pools from the visitor centre reveals a few smart Greenshank and a Spotted Redshank. Checking a small group of Dunlin I pick out a Pectoral Sandpiper, a scarce American wader, and point it out to Gary and Paul. As I do so it flew across the pool and putting the scope back on the flock I find not one but two Pectoral Sandpipers!  They showed quite well in super light before walking out of view. Scanning the flock of Pink-feet reveals five Barnacle Geese in the distance and the reserve is alive with duck, Golden Plover and Lapwing. A female Peregrine flew over and a female Merlin was seen nearby. What a beautiful place and the RSPB staff were fantastic - thank you.

We decided to begin the long drive south, stopping at the wonderfully named Blackdog just to the north of Aberdeen. This site gained fame earlier this year when Britain's first White-winged Scoter was found. The day after it disappeared a Black Scoter was discovered alongside up to five Surf Scoter in the huge rafts of Common, Velvet and Common Eider. While the White-winged had long-since departed the Black Scoter, its almost as rare american cousin, had stayed for the summer. After some considerable effort scanning through the rafts of sea duck, Guillemot and Red-throated Diver (some still sporting summer plumage) we located the drake Black (my second new bird of the day) and watched him courting the female Common Scoters. Try as we might we couldn't locate a Surf Scoter, but a single Velvet and a Red-breasted Merganser were picked out. This is a stunning stretch of sand dune coastline and I can honestly say I have never encountered such friendly golfists - smiles and hellos replaced the usual moans and groans. Beautiful sunshine and stunning scenery, with huge numbers of loafing sea duck made for a most enjoyable afternoon. 

At 15:20 we headed for home enjoying the spectacular scenery around the Firth of Forth and the Dundee coasts, through the southern Uplands, before the sunlight faded. A consistent 10 hour return journey and we were all very tired, but very pleased with our short-long adventure.  

Thursday, 22 September 2011

A couple of local reservoirs and a VERY distant stint...
Tuesday evening and Mandy was at a Pilates class, so I decided to stop at Bough Beech Reservoir on the way home from work. It was a very dull evening and I wasn't surprised to find myself alone on the causeway. A quick scan of the muddy margined North Lake revealed 3 Green and 1 Common Sandpiper, a skulking Snipe and about 30 Teal. The main reservoir was quieter though a Jackdaw chasing a Common Sandpiper around proved entertaining and 2 very distant Black Terns were feeding by the dam. I was just considering leaving when Miles Wheeler arrived. We had a lovely chat, catching up on the last few months. I was amazed to hear it was Miles's 50th Birthday this Friday - Have a very happy birthday mate. The light by now was appalling and two Buzzards circled up over the wood as if to wave me on my way.

Back home that evening and I saw a report that the long-staying (six days) Temminck's Stint at Weirwood Reservoir near East Grinstead, was now thought to be one of the much rarer American Least Sandpiper, or mega Asian Long-toed Stint. I checked the SOG website and found Nigel Driver's account of his developing thoughts over the last two days. It sounded interesting, so I headed to work on the lookout for developing news. By lunchtime reports were saying probable Least Sandpiper still, present. I considered going for a look after work, but was pretty busy in the afternoon and got distracted in a couple of meetings. I sat back at my desk just after 17:30, picked up my iPhone and was stunned to see I'd missed three calls and had a text message - apparently it had been re-identified as Britain's third (and first since 1982) Long-toed Stint!!!! Fortunately Weirwood, traffic permitting, is only 30 minutes from my office and unlike yesterday it was a bright sunny evening. 

I arrived at 18:15 and was soon watching this tiny wader out in the distance on the reservoir. With my trusty Kowa TSN883 Prominar and a 60x lens I could just (and I mean just) pick out the long yellow legs, pale supercilium and contrasting dark cap. I watched it mainly standing stationary, but occasionally feeding with an odd crouching/tipping action. It was horribly distant and the light was fast disappearing. Birders were arriving all the time and rushing, panic stricken to get even a glimpse - some must have arrived too late....and could they honestly tick those views?

So eventually I dragged myself away, a little unhappy with the views, and that it just wasn't possible to get closer. I've seen both species in the US and Thailand, which helped to provide a frame of reference, but it would have been so nice to see it better. Perhaps tomorrow....
17/18 September 2011

I came down with man flu very suddenly on Friday afternoon and overnight became worse (much worse). I was awake at 05:00 so decided to turn off the moth trap, get some headache tablets and go back to bed. I hadn't slept well and after clearing the trap I headed back to bed for the next 20 hours. Sunday wasn't much better, but at least there was plenty of sport on TV. I watched the Ireland v Australia game - what a result, and then the England v Georgia match (those Georgians a hard guys) and then an afternoon of touring cars. So no birding, despite a Pallid Harrier in Essex all day Saturday and generally lots turning up. However I sat in the garden for an hour on Sunday. I could hear a Common Buzzard calling in the wood, and eventually (well just after I'd gone back indoors) it flew over the garden and circled up on a thermal. Two Siskins flew over calling and Chiffchaffs could be heard continually. However over the last two weeks we have been entertained by the regular appearance of upto three Hummingbird Hawkmoths and they continued to dazzle as they fed on the Verbena. I also managed a few shots with my new macro lens, though hope to do better when I'm not feeling so dizzy with flu.


Looking for nectar

Hummingbird's view of Verbena bonariensis

Centre-barred Sallow

Brindled Green


Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Shearwater surprise

10 September 2011 Dungeness

While my fried Daniel Lopez Velasco was out with his great Spanish pelagic birding friends breaking new ground off the north coast of Lanzarote finding Black-bellied Storm Petrel and no less than 4 (yes FOUR) South Polar Skuas, I had to make the best of a days birding at Dungeness! However Dungeness, unless we sometimes forget, is a great migration site by British standards with the opportunity to watch significant visible migration on land and sea.  

The series of fast-moving Atlantic low pressures, off the back of the recent US hurricanes at least raised the prospect of a few seabirds and todays lull in wind activity suggested at least some migration would be evident. Gary Howard was up for a day out, and if all else failed there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper just over the county line at Rye in Sussex.

Gary picked me up at 06:30. Just before he arrived two Hummingbird Hawkmoths were feeding on the Verbena in our garden, but literally as his car appeared on our drive they flew off. This was not a good sign... We arrived at Dungeness about 07:30 and went straight to the Hanson Hide, hoping the storms might have brought in an American wader. No such luck, but 2 cronking Ravens flew over from the Water Tower. Not that many years ago this would have been a Kent mega, but with three or four pairs now established in the county they are almost expected in some places. Still great to see and the pursuing Crows showed off their immense size and stature. About 750 Sand Martin were feeding low over the water and a juvenile Arctic Tern was unusual on the pit. Next we headed up the RSPB track and immediately found the Cattle Egret feeding in a recently mown field. Just as Gary started to photograph it he stupidly said - 'it looks settled' and it immediately took flight - nice flight shots though!

Cattle Egret, Dungeness RSPB, 10 September 2011

We walked around the reserve to the Dengemarsh Hide and immediately added our third egret species of the day - the now resident Great-white Egret, alongside several of its much smaller cousins (Little Egret). A scan through the ducks located a Pintail and three Garganey. High tide was around 11:00 so we headed down to the beach for a sea watch. The rising and turning tide off the point often produces the odd close shearwater or skua so we timed our arrival perfectly. Within five minutes of sitting down beside the fishing boats a Sooty Shearwater flew E close inshore. I called Mark Hollingworth who was further along the Point and he said it had been slow but steady all morning with as many as 20 Balearic Shearwaters flying past. Mark was heading off for lunch and handed us the baton for keeping the totals.

There were good numbers of Common and Sandwich Tern, Gannets and the occasional group of Common Scoters. Sand Martins and Swallows were heading out in huge numbers with maybe 750 birds in flocks over the next hour and a half.

Scanning from right to left I picked up a small shearwater approaching from the east, and noting its dark back and white underparts called it as a Manx. However it looked compact and straight winged for that species and the dark upperparts met the white underparts along the side of the face in a straight line, without the usual white curl behind the eye. I called Gary to get on the bird as it looked interesting.

It continued on its path, about 400m offshore in good, crisp light. At this point I half expected it to show a sullied brown breast, pale belly and dark lower belly, and undertail, but instead it showed clean white underparts from chin to its undertail, but instead of being white like a Manx the under tail coverts  were dark brown! The underwing too was white with a thick dark rear edge and a distinct dark cross bar on its armpit. The upperparts were very dark brown and contrasted strongly with the whitish underparts, but not black and white like a Manx. Along its rump and tail the dark adjoined the underparts in a straight line, lacking the white peg shown by Manx behind the wings. As it turned away it showed a distinctly pot-bellied, not the 'who ate all the pies' look of Balearic, but distinctly 'full'. Surely this was a Yelkouan Shearwater?

Within fifteen minutes a typical pale Balearic Shearwater flew by, slightly further out and in harsher light, but still the jizz was distinctly different (chunkier, rounder and more pot bellied) and the plumage less contrasting, followed ten minutes later by a dark phase Balearic that showed well before landing on the sea. 

We stayed for a further half hour but the number of birds dropped noticeably with just the odd Black Tern and Arctic Tern feeding off the Point and a single distant juvenile Arctic Skua passing by.

We headed to the Observatory where we chatted with Dave Walker and Gill Hollamby and enjoyed Barry Banson's guidance on moth identification as he shared his overnight catch with a couple of visitors. Gill decided to join us on a trip to Rye for the Buff-breast. As we passed Scotney Gill, from the back seat of the car, shouted 'What's that!'. Glancing up an Osprey was flying along the edge of the pit. Gary stopped the car in the layby and jumping out to grab the camera, the bird flew low over our heads and strongly off to the south.

Osprey,  Scotney, 10 September 2011

We arrived at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and walked out to the pool where the Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been showing. Unfortunately our luck ran out as the bird had been spooked and had not returned. We waited for several hours, enjoying excellent views of Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the close pools, and avoided stringing the juvenile Ruff on the distant pit. A closer look revealed two Little Stint feeding around the edge of the pit at great range - as ever grateful for my wonderful Kowa TSN 883 scope and a 60x lens!

juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, Rye Harbour, 10 September 2011

juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, Rye Harbour, 10 September 2011
juvenile Dunlin, Rye Harbour, 10 September 2011

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Kentish Baby Bitterns

Juvenile Bittern, Stodmarsh NNR, 4 September 2011

3 and 4 September 2011

Moth trapping Friday night produced 63 moths of 24 species. Nothing earth shattering, but 2 smart Feathered Gothic, another Mullein Wave, 4 Flounced Rustic and 3 Square-spot Rustic, a pair of Orange Swift, plus the usual array of Yellow Underwings (Large, Lesser and Lesser Broad-bordered). 

Lesser Yellow Underwing

Green Carpet

Square-spot Rustic

Feathered Gothic

However the moth highlight of the weekend came in the form of a day-flying Hummingbird Hawk Moth. These stunning little creatures are immigrants from the Continent. In some years they arrive in large numbers, but this year they have been quite scarce. They feed by hovering over a flower, such as Verbena boniariensis, extending their long proboscis to suck up the nectar, giving them the appearance of a small Humming Bird. Fortunately this one came back a few times over the weekend and I managed to grab some photos.

On Saturday evening while checking out the days bird news I learned of a very special event in east Kent. So just after dawn on Sunday I headed off to the Natural England Nature Reserve at Stodmarsh, near Canterbury. There had been some rain overnight and the water laden vegetation gave me a good soaking. As I walked along the path to the Marsh Hide I knew I was the first this morning, flushing some duck from the pools and gathering many sticky spiders webs across my face! I climbed the steps to the hide and very carefully opened the door. As I sat down I could already see one of my quarry. For the first time Bitterns have successfully bred on the reserve, having been heard calling over the last few springs, and wintering in increasing numbers. Natural England have done a huge amount of work to improve the habitat specifically for this species and finally it has paid off. They have raised three young which have been showing well in front of the Marsh Hide for the last few days. Over the next couple of hours two juvenile birds showed quite well, occasionally together, feeding in the low iris beds. 

Suddenly the adult female (mum) flew in from the left of the marsh and landed in the reeds. The third, previously unseen juvenile flew out of the reeds to the right of the marsh and joined its mum, followed by the two birds in front of the hide. The family of four together, presumably near the nest site. Amazing that fledged young, able to feed themselves, still had such an attraction to their mother and presumably free food. It was a real privilege to watch this family of Bitterns. I recalled the first time I ever saw one - at Minsmere in 1984 - I waited four hours in the Island Mere Hide to get a brief flight view. The next year I returned and waited another four hours to see a head and neck extend out the reeds and a bird flying rapidly away from the hide. The species, the subject of a focused conservation effort, has enjoyed an amazing success over the last few years, with breeding in 2009 recorded at an incredible 55 sites with 82-100 booming (that describes their deep, booming song) males. This year they have bred at two different sites in Kent - fantastic news.

I left the Bitterns and walked to the mound at Grove Ferry via Harrison's Drove Hide and David Feast Hide. Not a great deal to see other than a handful of Green Sandpiper and a Greenshank. A juvenile Spotted Redshank was asleep at Paddy's Marsh and a couple of Greenshank flew over the main lake at Stodmarsh. I decided to try Oare Marshes on the way home, but with the tide out there were few birds on the East Flood. 2 Spotted Redshank were relatively unusual and a Hobby was hunting over the fields to the west of the road. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Svennson, Jonsson and Gustafsson

27-29 August 2011 - Falsterbo, Sweden

Earlier this week Mandy said she would like to get away for the Bank Holiday weekend for a well-earned break. Talking with Laurence at Dungeness he had raved about his visits to Falsterbo - the opportunity was too good to miss. Finding a smart boutique hotel in Skanor I had soon convinced a quiet weekend on Falsterbo was the ideal tonic and flights were booked.

We flew Easyjet from Gatwick on Friday evening landing in Copenhagen at 20:30. Accessing the rail network is easy and we were soon heading over the impressive bridge to Malmo in Sweden. Due to some delays on the train (its not just Britain) we decided to grab a taxi to the hotel and arrived at about 23:00. The hotel had left out the key and we soon found our room and settled in for the night. I awoke early just after dawn. However the sky outside was a shocking sulphur yellow - weird. Suddenly lightning was flashing everywhere and an amazing electrical storm erupted. After about 20 minutes torrential rain began to fall and soon flooded the street outside, but fortunately was short lived. I was dressed and out within minutes and headed out of Skanor toward the sea. Instantly I could hear Tree Pipits - they were everywhere and their calls were almost overwhelming. The first bird I saw was a Common Rosefinch which flew low overhead calling, followed seconds later by a Red-backed Shrike in the road. The fields to the left were literally full of White and Grey-headed Wagtails and to the right a flock of excited Meadow and Tree Pipits. I walked to the beach and out to some isolated bushes which held many Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats, before returning to the hotel for some breakfast.

Red-backed Shrike eating an earthworm
After breakfast we walked back to the sea and then south along the coast to the lighthouse at Nabben. More Tree Pipits, Grey-headed and White Wagtails, a few Whinchat, Wheatear and a Pied Flycatcher were encountered. As we arrived at the lighthouse a Caspian Tern flew low overhead calling with a distinct grating note as it went. The prettily painted beach huts along the marram grass clad dunes were a delightful feature.

The lighthouse garden is used for ringing migrant birds. We were shown a Tree Pipit in the hand enabling the hind toes, and subtle plumage features to be noted.

We walked into Falsterbo and found a nice relaxed cafe called 'Kust' for lunch, before walking back towards Skanor to find the bike hire shop, 'Pump'. In the afternoon we cycled along several of the excellent cycle tracks bumping into more Whinchats, a Red-backed Shrike and a Wryneck, 2 Pied Flycatchers, 8 Sparrowhawks and loads of Tree Pipit and Wagtails. An hour scanning the marsh at Nabben produced a nice range of common waders and ducks including a few Goldeneye, Eider and Red-breasted Merganser.

Sunday morning and I was up at dawn cycling to Nabben for a migration watch. Unfortunately a strong SW wind had blown up overnight and stopped most of the movement, but surprisingly 9 Honey Buzzards and 8 Sparrowhawk beat their way out to sea toward Denmark, presenting a rather incongruous sight flapping over the grey and white topped waves. Amoung the small group of locals was Lars Svensson, a good year tick. 5 Little Stint and 6 Curlew Sandpiper were feeding on the marsh and a drake Garganey was loafing among the commoner duck. As birding was quiet I headed back for breakfast. We cycled into Falsterbo at lunchtime to find the bird art exhibition. Walking in to the small gallery I was stunned to find a selection of Lars Jonsson lithographs  on the wall for sale. Mandy had to physically drag me out of the room to prevent me spending a lot of money - what a privilege to see these stunning pieces on show alongside some other beautiful work. My favourite artist was Stefan Gustafsson - his beautiful, simple portraits were simply breathtaking - I just wish I could have got one on the plane home! In the afternoon I explored the north end of the island. Another area of marsh held 42 Spotted Redshank, 35 Greenshank, 43 Wood Sandpiper and 40 Common Snipe. Walking out along the sandspit I located a distant flock of Dunlin but running out of time I couldn't get close. Luckily they took off and flew toward me landing just within range of my mighty Kowa TSN 883 Prominar scope. Scanning the flock I found three stunning Broad-billed Sandpiper just in time before they flew off.

Cycling makes traveling around so much easier

Sweden and Denmark are joined by a bridge
Bank Holiday Monday dawned bright, but the damned wind was still blowing. Back to Nabben at dawn and I was the first on site (just). The locals started to arrive, but birds were thin on the ground and the strong SSW made even scanning the marsh difficult. A couple of Sanderling arrived briefly and a dozen Ruff flew south. A flock of Barnacle Geese flew in from the north, settled briefly with the loafing Greylags and left again just as suddenly. I decided to head back to Skanor for breakfast.

Later we cycled back down toward Falsterbo. Just as we neared the golf club a flock of 15 Honey Buzzard appeared overhead beating into the wind. Some flew right overhead giving close views. They turned seaward and disappeared out to sea toward Denmark.

It was pretty chilly and Mandy struggled to remain enthusiastic. We cycled out to the beach hoping (well I was) that more Honey Buzzards would follow the same line. Scanning back over the woods it was apparent HB's were on the move with flocks of up to 22 birds circling over and heading out to sea. Fortunately a couple of locals with a beach hut had provided some seats behind the hut and out of the cool breeze. I hope they don't mind but we sat there watching Honey Buzzards, drinking a warm beer and eating pistachios - nice!

Over the next hour and a half about 80 Honey Buzzards, a Hobby and 4 Sparrowhawks flew by, some giving excellent views as they weighed up the crossing. 

Watching them beating out across the sea, amongst the Common Terns was an amazing sight.