Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Frog Duck

28 February 2012
Hooded Merganser, Whetsted Gravel Pits

Marcus Lawson found a female Hooded Merganser at his local patch, Whetsted Gravel Pits, two weeks ago. I thought history had repeated itself the next morning when I arrived after the coldest night of the winter to find the lake frozen over and the duck departed. This was identical to the situation when the first Kent record arrived on a lake near Chilham in 2005. At the time the bird was widely considered a likely escape and when it returned after the thaw news was not broadcast. However, after a bird at Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, from 23rd October until 1st November 2000 was deemed acceptable as the first British record by British Birds Rarities Committee, they reviewed the Kent bird and surprised us all by accepting it as the second official record. 

Late Sunday evening it emerged that the Whetsted bird was back, but I didn't see the message on my phone until I arrived at work on Monday morning. When it was confirmed as present on Monday I decided to try my luck on Tuesday morning - after all the weather was now mild, surely no chance of the lake freezing over... 

I arrived at 06:45 and walked out along the footpath, racing past another birder to ensure a quick get away. It was a longer walk than I anticipated and I really didn't need my winter coat. I crossed the ditch over the wooden bridge and just as I was about to set down my tripod I accidentally flushed two Coot and another small duck from the near bank - it was the female Hooded Merganser and fortunately it landed just off shore, skulked back into cover and then decided to hunt for breakfast. A smart and distinctive little duck, it gave good views and enabled a short video of its un-ringed right leg and two complete wings. I watched it for a while and then decided to walk back to the car to get to work.

Well as the Chilham bird has now set a precedent, lets see what happens with this record..... 


The Stour Valley

26 February 2012
Common Snipe, Stodmarsh/Grove Ferry

After an early hours finish we decided a long walk was in order today. We started briefly at Elmley, along the track, scanning for the Rough-legged Buzzards that have frequented the area over the last few weeks. Just a couple of Marsh Harrier, a Kestrel and a male Peregrine sat on a gate were the raptorial highlights. A huge, noisy flock of Linnets around a set-aside seed field showed the benefits of giving over a small patch of land. Along the field edges, Mandy enjoyed watching the many Brown Hares, and it was beautiful to hear the signing Skylark heralding the beginning of Spring (not quite but it felt like it in the blue skies and warm sunshine).

We then headed to Stodmarsh to walk the loop, out to Grove and back along the River. I decided not to take the scope, but to carry the camera only. This made walking more comfortable but it would have been handy at certain places. As we walked our 6 mile route the amazing amount of management work undertaken here over the winter became apparent. Some of the habitat, particularly the water meadows, look the best I've ever seen - well done to Natural England, I'm sure your efforts will be rewarded and appreciated throughout the spring and summer by both the birds and the birders.

Male Marsh Harrier
The other thing that struck me was the number of Marsh Harriers - at least seven birds, with much calling and talon grappling overhead. Mandy decided to see how many species she could identify without assistance (or even a book) along the walk. The Marsh Hide provided views of a variety of waders and duck, and although Harrison's Drove proved quiet it looked promising for the Spring migration. We stopped briefly to see the Konik Horses that keep the vegetation under control, which were unusually close. 

Konik Horse

The new Green Hide (now renamed David Feast Hide) added a few more species, but Mandy was most excited when she identified Bearded Tit on call, and then saw this stunning male bird hop up the reeds.

Bearded Tit
She also noticed for the first time the two curled uppertail covert feathers of the male Mallards sleeping in front of the Hide.

The curled upper tail coverts of the male Mallard
The walk along the River added many more species, though the highlight was the Water Meadows: 9 Ruff, 4 Dunlin, 4 Black-tailed Godwit and at least 20 Water Pipit. We strolled back down the Lampen Wall, seeing and hearing Water Rail, but unfortunately no Bitterns. A lovely walk in beautiful weather. Mandy identified an impressive 42 of the 56 species seen on the walk - I hadn't appreciated just how much she had picked up over the years! Not sure I could do as well identifying plant species around the garden...

Way out west

25 February 2012
Late Friday evening we finally organised a crew for a day in South Wales. The target was the first winter male Yellowthroat (an American extreme vagrant warbler) that had been found near a small town called Rhiwderin, near Newport. We set off from Gary's house in Orpington at 04:45, met Paul Matson on the A3 and Richard Bonser at Stroud, before heading along the M4 in the dark. We arrived just after 07:30 and already a small crowd had gathered on the hillside. As we walked up the footpath the crowd surged as someone spotted the bird in the undergrowth, but it had vanished again by the time we reached them. The bird was frequenting a small area of brambles and scrub beside a stream. On first sight I figured it wouldn't stay hidden for long, but gradually the minutes ticked by and not a sniff. I've seen Yellowthroat in the US, but had not appreciated just how skulking this species can be. It felt like an hour before someone at the other end of the crowd spotted it skulking on the ground under the brambles. The crowd stayed a very respectable distance back and waited patiently. Eventually I saw a movement, and keeping my bins still was stunned by the sudden intensely bright yellow throat that flashed under the bush as the bird turned and skipped through a gap. It was very active, moving ridiculously fast, always low and in the dead grass at the edge of the brambles. I managed a couple of distant brief looks but wasn't happy. Another 45 minutes passed without sight, but it called several times, a repeated tack, but with the quality and ring of a Bearded Tit, from somewhere deep in the bush. Another 20 minutes - nothing. Then suddenly with another 'tac' it flicked into a smaller bramble right in front of the crowd. 

Common Yellowthroat, Rhiwdern, Gwent, 25 February 2012 (photo Gary Howard)
A movement, but no clear view. Then I picked it up flitting along the ground just under the near edge of the bush. More yellow flashes, of throat and undertail, but still no clear view. Another wait and a movement in the grass. Focusing my bins the bird flicked up in full view  into the low bramble cover, sat, cocked its tail, flicked its wings, and gone. It did a couple of circuits of the bush, but never really showed again, then back to the bigger bramble patch. This time it reappeared in its original spot and with some intelligent positioning I managed a prolonged, but distant view as it fed with a Wren and a Robin in more open vegetation.

Common Yellowthroat, Rhiwdern, Gwent, 25 February 2012 (photo Gary Howard)
A couple of Buzzard soared, 'meowing' overhead, the odd Siskin and Redpoll called, but otherwise it was fairly quiet. We decided to call it a day and headed, relatively happy, towards Cardiff. Our plan was to try for the long staying, but irregularly seen Bonapartes Gull at Cardiff Bay. We found the Heliport closed and couldn't find how to access the foreshore. A phone call to Josh at Birdguides provided some information, but still we couldn't get close. After driving all around the area we returned to the Heliport and found some off road parking with access to a creek. We found a flock of some 40 Black-headed Gulls and checked them carefully - nothing. Seeing more small gulls around to the East we walked around the footpath in front of the Sewage Works. Here we found many hundreds more Black-headed Gulls, a couple of smart adult Mediterranean Gulls and good numbers of Pintail along the foreshore on the falling tide. Scanning the gulls on the beach produced nothing. I decided to check the gulls out on the water and soon found a very distant small, dainty and cleanly patterned first-winter gull. It looked good, but was distant. Richard checked my identification and we both agreed it was a Bonapartes. It took flight as if to confirm showing the bright, clean white underwings indicative of the species, but unfortunately flew some way to the east, but not before Richard grabbed a short video. Excellent.


Our final stop was the country park lake at Cosmeston Park on the outskirts of Cardiff. After carefully checking the first lake we eventually located the adult male Lesser Scaup at the far side of the second lake. We managed to get reasonable views through the trees as it fed in the protected bay of the nature reserve, but not as close as we had hoped. I returned to the car and spent a while photographing a presumably escaped Whooper Swan at close range and enjoying the many graelsii Lesser Black-backed Gulls pinching bread from the overfed ducks. We returned home dropping the guys in reverse order and arriving with just 15 minutes to shower, change and arrive for a lovely dinner party at a neighbours!

Whooper Swan
Adult summer  graelsii Lesser Black-backed Gull
Second winter graelsii Lesser Black-backed Gull
Third winter graelsii Lesser Black-backed Gull
Adult winter graelsii Lesser Black-backed Gull

Friday, 24 February 2012

Looking back - Not your typical Dunlin?

5 September 2005
Oare Marshes, Kent

On 5 September 2005 I was out birding with Mark Hollingworth in north Kent. We decided to stop off at Oare Marshes near Faversham on the way home to check through the waders on the scrape. There were the usual autumn waders roosting on the East Flood over high tide, including hundreds of Black-tailed Godwit, over a hundred Dunlin out by the main island, and a mass of moulting Golden Plovers around the small promontory beside the road and viewing area. 

We had been there for about an hour when I noticed a lone Dunlin standing among the Golden Plovers around some shallow water and exposed mud. It instantly looked odd - very long billed for sure, but the scapulars too showed a quite unusual pattern to the more typical races that regularly migrate through Kent, and can often be seen side by side (Calidris alpina alpina, C. a. arctica, and C. a. schinzii). Sometimes on quiet autumn days I study the various colours and forms trying to pick out the different races - this was no ordinary Dunlin.

There are currently ten recognised races of Dunlin worldwide and while it is sometimes possible to confidently assign birds to a race in breeding plumage it is very difficult with extralimital birds that are moulting. What was clear was the large size and robust structure of this individual, which interestingly chose not to mix with its congeners. The longest billed are also the most rich chestnut backed races - hudsonia and pacifica both found in the USA. However to assess bill length on a lone bird and without being able to measure it in the hand is truly subjective - but it really did look very long indeed. Its moult cycle was clearly delayed compared to any other Dunlin present, showing a near complete black belly patch and a number of old chestnut summer lower scapulars. Also apparent were extensive black streaks on its undertail coverts - suggested as a feature of C. a. hudsonia, but clearly shown by several other races including those encountered in the UK.

Richard Chandler, in his wonderful 'Shorebirds of the Northern Hemisphere' depicts a wide range of Dunlin races photographed on there breeding ranges. The photos presented and a search online suggest this bird is most similar to either the American hudsonia or Siberian sakhalina, but what do you think? I'd be interested for any informed opinion.

Odd Dunlin, Oare Marshes, Kent, 5 September 2005
Long billed and long legged
Long black streaks on undertail coverts
Remnants of summer chestnut scapulars
Rich chestnut scapulars, but moulting heavily
Not associating with the other Dunlin
Look at the bill on that!

At least it was sunny

19 February 2012
A late night dinner party that ran into the early hours resulted in a more tardy start to the day than planned. I had toyed with the idea of a twitch to Wales for the stunning Yellowthroat, but in the end rightly decided it was too much and opted for an unusual lay in. 

I awoke to a beautiful sunny day - it would be rude to stay in. I headed off down the M20 planning to drive to Dover for the long-staying Kumlien's Gull but at Ashford I turned off towards Dungeness, deciding to spend some time scanning around Walland Marsh for the White-tailed Eagle that had appeared briefly on Tuesday and again Thursday. I started at the western side of the marsh driving the lanes and scanning the skies all around Brenzett and Fairfield. I found loads of Buzzard, far more than I realised were in the area, picking up at least eight birds. A Marsh Harrier, two Peregrine and a couple of Sparrowhawks kept me motivated, but were not the giant prize I had in mind.

After an hour or so I drove along the Royal Military Canal to Rye and then around to Brenzett, back across the marsh to Lydd then on to Scotney where I briefly met Martin Casemore, saw a couple of White-fronts and a Marsh Harrier, and then drove to Rye. I'd kind of given up and was walking out to the hide on Castle Water when my phone bleeped to tell me I'd had the right idea, but chosen the wrong marsh - the Eagle had been seen heading south over Saltwood on the eastern side, just near to Hythe. Well having put in the effort I decided to try again and drove across Walland and onto Romney Marsh. I checked around Ivychurch and Newchurch, bumped into a Great-white Egret briefly which I couldn't relocate, and then ended up below the hill at Port Lympne, hoping the smell of meat put out for the zoo animals might attract the Eagle. Nope - just an Elephant or two!

By the end of the day I'd seen very little, driven miles, and not found a single bird to even point the camera at on perhaps the sunniest, most photogenic day of the winter! Maybe next weekend...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Looking back - The first Western Palearctic Wilson's Snipe

31 October 1985
Lower Moors, Isles of Scilly

The first Wilson's Snipe for Britain and the Western Palearctic, Lower Moors, Scillies, 31/10/1985 (Ian Lycett)

'British Birds' reported that 'October 1985 was the best-ever month for observations of rare birds in Britain and Ireland' Dawson, I and Allsopp, K Brit. Birds 79: l-17,January 1986. In recognition BB placed their regular 'Recent Reports' feature at the front of the journal rather than in its traditional position towards the back - and it took up 17 pages!

From the West came 7 small Canada Geese in Donegal, an American Wigeon on St Agnes, Ring-necked Duck on Tresco, 3 American Golden Plover, 2 Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a Semi-palmated Sandpiper, several Long-billed Dowitchers and a Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, 2 Wilson's Phalarope, and a White-rumped Sandpiper. A stunning black-masked Sora graced Pagham Harbour, while American passerines included 10 Red-eyed Vireo's mainly in the south-west, a Philadelphia Vireo and American Redstart in the same Irish wood, three Northern Parula, a Wilson's Warbler in Devon (still the only British record and surely one of the biggest all time blockers), a Common Yellowthroat, 2 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 2 Blackpoll Warblers, a Bobolink, three Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, an Indigo Bunting, a Common Nighthawk, a staggering seven Yellow-billed Cuckoos, a very rare Black-billed Cuckoo, 2 Grey-cheeked Thrushes, an Ovenbird, and two Scarlet Tanagers in the same bush at Firkeel four days apart! Staggering. October 1985 has entered British birding folklore.

It also happened to be the first year I visited the beguiling Scilly Isles, off the south-west tip of Cornwall. As I was still at school my first week on these magical islands had to be half-term, and in 1985 that was the last week of the month. With Ian Lycett I arrived on 26th October, just after some of the star birds and most of the birders had left. Despite this we had a fantastic week watching a stunning Yellow-billed Cuckoo on our own feeding right under our noses along the edge of a cabbage field, a very smart Rose-breasted Grosbeak, an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and a European Bee Eater that spent much of the month in residence around the islands. 

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Tresco, Isles of Scilly

31 October was our last full day on the islands. Birding had quietened down and we decided to visit the hide on the small Lower Moors reserve, overlooking a muddy pool. Quietly opening the hide flap we were delighted to find a number of Common Snipe roosting and feeding at close range. We both had cameras with mirror lenses (remember them) and decided to spend time using up the remaining film. Talking with Chris Heard earlier in the week he had said that many of the Snipe on the islands were a different race to those usually encountered on the mainland and explained they could be picked out due to their more yellow toned plumage. I was therefore keen to try out the theory and gave each snipe a good grilling. He was right. There clearly were two different colour types apparent among the birds and we were able to assign them to either sub species Gallinago g. gallinago or Gallinago g. faeroeensis

As I looked more closely I noticed an unusually black and white snipe sitting asleep with some more typical Common Snipe. It stood out, even asleep, due to the thick black flank striping on a white background extending right onto the belly; the cold toned upperparts with largely black upper scapulars marked with tiny white spots at the tip; black centred lower scapulars with whitish streaks along the lower edge; whitish back stripes rather than the more usual yellow and brown tones, and black centred coverts marked with twin white spots at the tip. While we were unsure what it was, it was striking enough that we spent the next hour and a half photographing and watching it. I remember discussing the possibility that it was an American race (as it was back then) bird. We even alerted other birders to its presence, but nobody seemed very interested and we were soon flying back to Cornwall at the end of a magical week full of great birds.

1st winter Wilson's Snipe, Lower Moors, Isles of Scilly, 31 October 1985 (Ian Lycett)
When the bird awoke it was even more striking with its extensive zebra striped belly and blackish upperparts. It began to stretch showing a very narrow white trailing edge to its secondaries, and the white tips to the greater and median coverts created a distinctly different pattern to Common Snipe. At one time it stretched its wings upwards to reveal densely barred black striped underwing coverts and axillaries, the black noticeably wider than the white stripes. It lacked the blocks of white usually shown by Common Snipe up the centre of the underwing. It really was a most striking bird.

Unfortunately it was a dull day and we only had fairly basic camera setups and slow film resulting in some images not being as sharp as we would like. It also meant that fewer shots were taken than perhaps would be today with throw away digital technology. Although we have several shots of it stretching and preening we never captured, or kept, images of some crucial features - not realising the true significance of the find until many years later.

Over the years as more has been learned and understood about the identification of (and its promotion to specis status) Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata, and more records have been claimed and proven (particularly on the Scillies) it has become apparent what we had actually discovered way back in 1985. 

Stretching to reveal the extensive barred underparts (Ian Lycett)
Sleeping again (Mike Buckland)
Feeding with its commoner mates (Mike Buckland)
A little bit of preening (Mike Buckland)

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Blue and grey

11/12 February 2012
Burrowes Pit, Dungeness RSPB, view from Scott toward Makepeace hide 12 February 2012 
11 February 2012
Saturday began early and very cold. Late Friday afternoon Marcus Lawson had found a female Hooded Merganser on his local patch at Whetsted on a gravel pit fortunately viewable from a local footpath. However overnight the temperature had plummeted to a winter low of -10C which, in an amazing repeat of the last Kent record, resulted in much of the water freezing over and the bird departing ahead of my arrival. Marcus called me just as I arrived to say it was not there, so I headed down the road to check Pembury Water Works (where I found a Shoveler and two Little Grebes) and then to Dunorlan Park in Tunbridge Wells (where the lake was all but frozen over with a horde of Greylag Geese and Mallard plus two very smart, and very cold looking Mandarin huddled around the remaining small pool), but no Hooded Merganser.

A walk around Folkestone Harbour while we waited for our table at Mark Sargeant's wonderful Rocksalt restaurant produced superb views of a hovering Kestrel lit by the warm sun bouncing up off the sandy cliffs. Two Golden Plover and several Lapwing were feeding when undisturbed on the areas of exposed lawn along the clifftop, and a Woodcock took flight from some scrub, but the undoubted highlight was watching the delightful Mediterranean Gulls cruising along the promenade and cliffs agains the blue sky.

Adult winter
Adult winter
Adult winter
Adult moulting to summer plumage
Third winter
Second winter 
First winter
First winter
Adult moulting to summer plumage

12 February 2012
Having read daily reports of impressive numbers of Woodcock seemingly in every piece of scrub, bush, and woodland around Dungeness I decided to try to get some photos of this skulking and elusive species. A tip off had me start the day on the Long Pits on a dreadfully dull and bitterly cold morning (-6C). Despite immense care and much careful scanning I flushed four birds without catching a glimpse on the ground - very frustrating and I was starting to feel guilty disturbing them in such harsh weather. I stopped looking and headed back to the car just as a blizzard arrived. I walked out to the Hanson Hide only to accidentally flush another two Woodcock from beside the track. The ARC pit was almost entirely frozen, with just a couple of open pools, crowded with Wigeon, a couple of Smew and several Goldeneye. I could hear the evocative calls of Bewick's Swans and could just make out some white shapes through the heavy snow in the most distant pool (27 in total). Nothing was close as the ice extended some way from the bank, though a brief Cetti's Warbler proved it had somehow survived the cold snap. Next stop was the RSPB reserve  where I headed past Burrowes to check the New Excavations and Christmas Dell, hoping for a glimpse of a Bittern. 

I accidentally flushed a Water Rail from the path side, which dropped into the reeds and vanished right before my eyes. Three female Smew were feeding with Tufted Duck at the back of the pool, but there was no sign of any Bitterns so I carefully walked to Scott Hide. Most of Burrowes Pit was frozen with the birds crammed onto the small open areas of water, largely roosting as their feeding areas were covered in snow and ice.

Burrowes Pit from Scott Hide

Makepeace Hide from Scott Hide
Everything was again distant so I walked on to Christmas Dell. The pools in front of the hide were frozen over with just one solitary Little Grebe feeding occasionally in the open pool. 

A Bittern appeared along one of the distant reed fringes, but had no access to the water. It walked along the ice to the corner and disappeared into the reeds. A fox appeared with a snow tipped nose. It sneaked off across the ice and reappeared in the area where the Bittern had walked. Suddenly the Bittern burst out of the reeds; a lucky escape. Birds really have it tough in these wintery conditions.

Walking back to the Visitor Centre I found a second Bittern sitting out in the open on the front edge of the reeds on the New Excavations. It showed well, at one point craning its neck to look back as another Fox skulked along, its silhouette visible through the narrow strip of reeds. A Kingfisher flashed past, hopefully it was able to find somewhere quiet to fish and a Snipe flicked up from the bank onto the ice.

I stopped at Makepeace Hide to check the few large gulls roosting on the ice. An increase in the number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, but nothing else of any note. A smart pair of Goldeneye was feeding just outside the hide along the ice edge. There were a number of Shelduck on the pit, an unusual sight here, and presumably forced off more usual feeding areas by the freeze.

Common Goldeneye, Burrowes Pit

Shelduck, Makepeace Hide

My last stop was at Scotney Pit where the to Pale-bellied Brent Geese (adult and juvenile) were seen distantly with nine Dark-bellied birds. A couple of White-fronted Geese, a good flock of about 60 Skylark, a large selection of the common gulls, and hundreds of Wigeon which were periodically disturbed by a hunting Marsh Harrier were the highlights. Martin Casemore arrived and we decided to look for Woodcock in the small scrubby woodlands from the cycle path. These cryptically camouflaged waders were surprisingly jumpy and despite a couple of good views on the ground any movement resulted in them taking flight. I managed a couple of flight shots as a bird headed past us, disturbed by two walkers. I'd love the opportunity to get close to one of these beauties.