Sunday, 26 January 2014

Utter incompetence

26 January 2014


After I awoke I decided to drive down to Folkestone to look for the Pallas's Warbler that had been found there yesterday. It soon became clear that it was a foggy morning and the further I drove east the worse it became.  As I neared Ashford I decided to abort and go to Dungeness initially and to maybe try for the warbler later if the fog lifted. However for some reason as I reached junction 10 I carried straight on down the M20 towards Folkestone - first mistake.

I arrived in the general area but could not locate the site. I drove around, back to the military compound the other side and then back where I started. With the aid of my iPhone and OS mapping I worked out where it must be and found a vacant parking space. I walked back up the road, jumped over the style and headed across a rather waterlogged field - glad I put my wellies on!

I climbed the hill around the base of a small wood just as a flock of Tits and a Treecreeper crossed my path. I couldn't see any birders until I passed a pittisporum hedge, then found four birders looking towards the back of the hedge. I joined them - including Gary Howard and James Hunter. After a quick chat it transpired the warbler had been seen moving through the hedge (while I was faffing around) and this was the area it had showed several times yesterday. I found a suitable spot and waited. After a while I had a wander into the next area of shrubs and trees but found little other than a Bullfinch and some flowering snowdrops. Back to the hedge where I spent another couple of hours - just a handful of Blue and Great Tit and a small flock of five Long-tailed Tit.

I decided to go searching and walked down to the houses across the fields and along the hedges. Still nothing. I walked back to the hedge stopping briefly in the wood. Ian Roberts had told me the warbler had been feeding in the tall pine trees so I stopped and played a snatch of Pallas's Warbler calling from my iPhone. Almost immediately the warbler was calling back, deep within the woods. I called Gary, James and Steve who joined me. We could see something flicking in the tops of a Pine but the light was so poor we could make out nothing. Then the fog rolled back in and we could barely make out the canopy.

With no sight or sound I returned to the hedge. An hour later nothing. Gary and James called it a day, but I stayed on. This time I walked up the steep bank in the wood checking the various pines and ivy covered trees. The light was awful and despite finding a Goldcrest, two Coal Tit and a Treecreeper I could not locate the sprite anywhere. I had by now spent six hours in this small area with little to show for it apart from a few brief calls from the unseen warbler. To make matters worse there had been a good movement of birds passed Dungeness, including a Puffin and a Glaucous Gull.

A passing Sparrowhawk did little to lift my spirits! A couple of flyover Med Gulls were the only other birds of note. With my back and shoulders starting to ache from standing in the mud for hours with my camera on my shoulder strap I threw in the towel and headed home. A very frustrating day, made all the worse when the warbler put on a show on Sunday morning, down to six feet at times.......Not a great weekend.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Was it or wasn't it....

19 January 2014

Hemsted Forest

With reports of a Coue's Arctic Redpoll at Hemsted Forest last weekend I managed to grab a couple of hours there on Sunday afternoon. However it was grey, windy and the few Redpoll we encountered were flighty. We never managed to find the flock or the Coue's. A couple of flyover Siskin and two Crossbill in the Oak tree were some compensation.

The weather today was much better - still, sunny and mild. I managed to tempt Mandy into a walk around the Forest. The main clearing that had hosted the crossbills earlier in the winter was very quiet other than a few singing Robins. We checked the small stand of Alders but found nothing, nor in the clearing opposite where we saw a couple of Redpoll last weekend. We then walked the various paths heading across then out around Chittenden Wood. After a brief spell in deciduous woodland we walked beside an old mixed conifer plantation. It was just before 13:00 and the distinctive sound of a crossbill in flight over the trees was heard. It was quite close, but not visible through teh canopy. The call sounded familiar, yet odd - a distinct double call, 'chip....chip' with a flatter note than normal, and repeated with a gap between. I was confident it was a Two-barred Crossbill, and recordings seemed to confirm the tone and double note (I have since listened to flight call on xeno-canto and am absolutely certain it was a Two-barred). Unfortunately it failed to utter the very distinctive trumpet call. It flew away unseen and could not be relocated, though I don't think it went too far. We looked in the area for half an hour, but with no further sound  and a single crossbill in a large stand of conifers frustratingly gave up and continued our walk back to the car. Further along the path a flock of Common Crossbill flew over, probably less than 10, again unseen. The resonant note and more random 'chipping' contrasted greatly with the bird heard earlier. A single Crossbill overhead later also confirmed my first thoughts - a distinctly different call. Slightly frustrating, but the Two-barred Crossbill is almost certainly still at large in the wider forest. 

Despite walking some 7km around the trails we did not hear a single Redpoll anywhere in the woods. Other than the common Tits and a few Goldcrest it was pretty quiet, but a lovely walk in the much-appreciated sunshine. A brief wait in the clearing failed to produce any more crossbills and time soon ran out.

First seawatch of the year

18 January 2014


Dave Walker received his reward on Monday for many hours staring out to sea at Dungeness when a super adult Ross's Gull, even sporting a collar, flew past him in a flock of Black-headed Gulls along the point. Unfortunately (actually fortunately for me as I had a very busy work schedule) it was never seen again despite many of the locals putting in a lot of hours through the week. With the wind going South Easterly overnight and blowing onshore at Dungeness and high around midday I decided to arrive a little later and watch as the tide came in - well you never know your luck. I actually arrived just as Plodding Birder and Dave drove away, about 10:30. I started with a thorough grilling of the roosting large gulls - just lots of the usual Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls. I then walked out to the fishing boats choosing the ones opposite the roost rather than right down on the point, as the gulls often feed along this stretch. 

A menacing adult Great Black-backed Gull
It was instantly apparent there were a lot of birds around - and I really mean a lot! While there was no real passage of birds the sea was literally fizzing. There were many hundreds of auks, Kittiwakes and Cormorants feeding offshore and flying close along the beach as they moved along the incoming tide. On every scan I could count well over 100 Guillemots flying past, in flocks of over 40 birds, and there were two distant feeding frenzy's offshore containing many hundreds each of Kittiwake, plus smaller numbers of Gannets.

Two Guillemot, one in summer plumage and the other in winter plumage, two Black-headed Gulls,
an adult Kittiwake and a Cormorant - the movement of birds was a constant feature
Guillemot riding the waves

Scanning the sea for the next three and a half hours produced some additional excitement in the form of two Great Skua, 8 Little Gull, 5 Mediterranean Gull, 50 Brent Geese going north and a Wigeon south. There were also constant views of Red-throated Divers feeding and flying, Great-crested Grebes and the odd Razorbill. Given the recent events in Dorset I checked every single auk very carefully indeed...

Great Skua
I also carefully checked every group of Black-headed Gulls just in case, but to no avail. To be honest there were so many birds the chance of getting on everything that passed by was small - later proved when Dave Walker asked if I had seen the Balearic Shearwater that flew by just after midday. I worked out this was just as a flock of large gulls started feeding along the tideline and I checked them for anything unusual and photographed some of the closer birds. Oh well, can't see everything....

Black-headed Gull - adult in winter plumage

As the large gulls moved along the point Mick Southcott and Richard Hill arrived and we moved further along the beach to check the flock. Despite much effort we could not find a Caspian Gull anywhere, not even when I checked the roost on the way back to the car. Still I enjoyed photographing the various gulls as they flew by.

A third-winter Herring Gull snatches a meal

Another third-winter Herring Gull - of the European race argentatus shows a very dark head
A first winter Herring Gull - this shot shows how each feather overlaps to create the wing 
A first winter Kittiwake sheers on the wind
Some great views as they fed along the shoreline
Adult Kittiwake

Adult Kittiwake 
A stunning adult Little Gull shows off its beautiful wing patterns
An adult Mediterranean Gull - one of five that flew past 
Mediterranean Gull glistening over the sea
A passing shower created a stunning rainbow
I drove round to the RSPB reserve where I had a brief chat with Dave, Gill Hollamby, Steve Broyd and Owen Leyshon, before I finished my day at Scotney. There was a large flock of flighty Lapwing here, but the geese were very distant over the back and despite some effort I could not find anything unusual among the Greylag, other than a Great White Egret and a Little Egret. Another of each was also seen at the southern end of the ARC. With the cold really getting into me I called it a day and returned home happy.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A hybrid Egret at Harty Ferry

Back on 9 November I saw the 'Cattle Egret' at Harty Ferry that had been reported over a number of weeks. It was feeding on the Saltmarsh as it had been throughout its stay. Unfortunately my views were brief and distant and it was raining heavily. At the time I thought it looked odd. My initial views were obscured but it looked very long necked and upright. In flight it gave the impression of a Little Egret like bird with a yellow bill. It even appeared to show black legs and yellow feet. However it was feeding in the muddy ditches on the saltmarsh - odd behaviour in itself for a Cattle Egret and I thought this might be due to mud. It also showed a dark tip to its bill which I put down to the same, and its bill looked a bit long for a typical Cattle Egret. I did return home and questioned whether it might be the eastern race coromandus, which is known to have a longer neck and bill, but my views were inadequate.  I therefore read with interest the article by Birdguides this week where photos of the bird suggest it might be a Little x Cattle Egret hybrid. Based on my limited views and a review of the images which confirmed all I thought I had seen seem to confirm this opinion. A very interesting bird indeed and further evidence that we should question everything and take nothing for granted.

Is it or isn't it?

11 January 2014

Ramsgate and Elmley Track

The identification of a Yellow-browed Warbler present at Ramsgate Cemetery since late December had been much debated during the week, after Nigel Jarman raised his concerns that it looked, and more importantly sounded, like a Hume's Leaf Warbler. Interestingly the day it was originally found we were walking at West Hythe when Chris Gibbard called me to say he had seen the bird and that he and Craig Sammels thought it looked and sounded odd for a Yellow-browed. We discussed the features and Chris described the call, and we concluded that it was more than likely a Hume's. Messages were spread to alert the Kent faithful but at the end of the day it was still being put out as a Yellow-browed by those who had seen it, and continued to do so until early this week.

Despite seeing one last weekend at Dungeness the continuing debate made this bird interesting and it was also giving good views at times, unlike the mouse-like, bramble groveling, ground hogging bird at Dungeness. With the sun shining we set off mid morning and arrived at about 11:00 to the clear calling of a Hume's Leaf Warbler. Well debate over, so I set about trying to photograph this showy, but incessantly moving, tiny waif. Anyone who sees the great photos on Birdguides or Surfbirds and thinks all you need is the equipment should think again - this bird was very challenging for those of the photographic bent. It flicked and flew, in and out of dense vegetation and even when in a seemingly open tree the shadows and branches made life difficult to get even a fix on it, let alone a steady shot. When it did appear in the open it would often be just around a corner or slightly obscured. When a sharp image was achieved the bird was often looking away or moving. Eventually a set of reasonable images was achieved, only time, effort and a lot of luck could improve further. Excuses over - here are my best....

I love Photoshop!


Looked greener in the sunlight    
Very grey headed and naped 

A view of the its wings - dark centred tertials   
A hint of a central crown stripe  


It was brighter than the ghostly Dungeness bird, showing a distinct grey head and contrasting greenish back and wing. However the supercilium faded behind the eye, not sharp like a typical Yellow-browed and the median covert wing bar was very faint. It lacked the typically contrasting plumage of Yellow-browed, but the clear give away was the call - still disyllabic but down slurred and lacking the strident pitch of its commoner cousin. It called regularly and occasionally repeatedly, but not frequently. A couple of Chiffchaff were also seen around the Hollies and Holmoaks.

After a spot of lunch in Ramsgate Harbour at the excellent Mile's, we drove to Foreness and walked along the beach to find the resident flock of Snow Bunting. We soon found 42 of these delightful birds which gave reasonable views on the Dunes and up on the cliffs when flushed by dog walkers. We also found a Brown Rat feeding along the base of the cliffs and a few Fulmars already on their nests.

A Brown Rat feeds quietly along the cliffs
A Northern Fulmar on its nest
A smart male Snow Bunting shows well on the cliff face
Female/immature left and male right
Much more approachable on the cliffs
And some interesting flint perches
Feeding on vegetation on the cliff sides
With the sun setting rapidly we broke our journey home along the Elmley entrance track. A superb Barn Owl gave awesome views to the assembled crowd near the farm over the rough grassland. A Brown Hare ran past and several Marsh Harrier quartered the marsh. As we drove out a couple of Little Egret flew to roost, a Buzzard sat on a post eyeing the many Rabbits and a Short-eared Owl gave brief distant views. There are many thousands of Lapwing out on the flooded fields - lets hope that Dutch Caspian Plover comes and joins them.....

Always stunning
Quite a dark collared individual
Dropping onto a mouse in the long grass

The moon was very visible all afternoon - here from Foreness beach

Monday, 6 January 2014

Happy New Year!

5 January 2014


After seemingly endless days and nights of high winds and pouring rain my 'year list' (I don't really keep one, but use this to serve a point) stood at 9 species. All had been seen or heard in my garden and on a normal day I could easily triple this total without too much effort from my kitchen window.

I decided not to venture out on Saturday though in the event the weather was not as bad as predicted. Instead I opted for Sunday. Gary initially was unable to join me but changes to his plans meant he picked me up at 07:00 and we drove down to Dungeness. It was surprisingly icy on the way down and even in the Discovery we had to be careful on some bends. We arrived to a stunning, still and beautifully clear dawn. A Common Buzzard and 2 Kestrel from the road, and three Little Egrets were feeding in one of the many flooded fields. A stop at the ARC and the water was mill-pond still. The only sounds were the Wigeon, Teal and Gadwall calling from the southern corner. We scanned around the pits. A juvenile Black-throated Diver was soon located on New Diggings. An immature male Smew flew across towards the RSPB and a Great-white Egret flew in calling loudly. Goldeneye was soon found in teh flocks of dabbling ducks. As I scanned through a familiar sound wafted overhead. I heard it a second time before I put a name to it - White-fronted Geese. A superb flock of 24 birds drifted over us and across the fields. 

We drove on to the Observatory giving Dave Walker a Happy New Year wave as we donned our wellington boots. Then we walked out to the trapping area to look for the Hume's Leaf Warbler that Dave had found earlier in the week. Almost immediately we heard it calling loudly, but just could no find a way into the area of bushes due to the incredibly high water levels. After working out that one of the submerged paths was actually passable we found our way to the birds favoured area. A Merlin,a Kestrel and three Siskin flew overhead.

Birders looking for the Hume's Warbler in the flooded Dungeness Trapping Area
The bird had been showing well and it wasn't long before it repeated its performance with some nice views. Despite the early light I fired off a few images expecting to get some better shots later. We stayed for four hours, getting regular views and hearing it call, but just never able to get a clear shot. These turned out to be the best shots of the day. It soon went to ground in a dense patch of brambles and fed almost exclusively on the ground. Occasionally it would start calling and hop into view, but always on the wrong side of the dense tangle.

The Humes Warbler gives good views early on

Despite four hours of waiting it never came our side of the bush
With our feet becoming increasingly cold due to standing in water for hours we called it a day and retreated to the car for a warming cuppa and a bakewell tart (thanks Gary).

Gary demonstrating just how deep some of the wet paths are - you really do need wellies!
We drove back along the beach checking the gull roosts. I located an odd plumaged juv/first winter gull typically on the far side of the roost. I grabbed some dodgy video then we attempted to walk around to try for some photos. However before we got to the other side a few gulls, including it flew away. It was later relocated, but right in the middle of the roost and impossible to get any more images. The two images below are screen shots from the video. Still confused and welcome any ideas?

This slightly odd looking 1w gull had me confused but was lost in the crowd
The spangling on the greater coverts recalls 1w Glaucous but in a darker shade?

Having seen numbers of auks flying past at sea we walked to the fishing boats. A stunning adult Little Gull came flying along the tideline within a few metres of us and we grabbed the cameras for some photo action. It flew up and down giving impressive views and really testing the cameras focus ability in the rather dull light. A number of tired looking Kittiwakes were also feeding here with many being slightly oiled. Offshore 2 Common Scoter, a few Gannet, loads of Guillemot, the odd Razorbill and a brief 1w Little Gull. While scanning I found what must have been a 'Blue' Fulmar but it was miles out. A second normal Fulmar seemed to confirm the identification of the earlier bird. 

Adult Little Gull - what a beauty
Beautiful pink flush on the breast and belly

Typical black underwings

A storm weary juvenile Kittiwake takes a break
A slightly oiled adult Kittiwake gives great views
Superb gulls - adult Kittiwake
While watching the sea Chris Gibbard arrived and said a second winter Caspian Gull had appeared in the roost shortly after we left. After chatting with Mick Southcott we walked back together to try to locate it. There was no sign, but some of the gulls were out of view behind a ridge so I walked around to the other side to check. Again no sign and we spent a while trying to record the ring number on a black colour-ringed first winter Great Black-backed Gull - J4128 - ringed in southern Norway.

Second winter Caspian Gull stands out in the crowd

Just as we were going to leave I noticed a stunning Caspian Gull right in the middle of the flock. It was indeed a second winter and I quickly tried to get Gary on it while I took some images. Just as I moved his scope I noticed it had flown so grabbed some flight shots as it headed out towards the beach. I realised it was going to feed and might show well along the beach. I was soon running and joined Mick by the boats just as we relocated it coming towards us along the tideline.

The Caspian Gull sandwiched between a 1w Great Black backed Gull (upper)
and a 2w Herring Gull

We took cover behind a small fishing vessel and waited for the Caspian to get nearer. The next twenty minutes were spent enjoying incredible views and getting some amazing images of this absolute beauty.

The Caspian Gull drops in on a fish


A call from Neil Burt informed us that the reported Black-throated Diver on Scotney was actually a Great-northern Diver. With the light fading we raced around to get some views of it feeding along the far shore. A flock of Golden Plover and Lapwing contained a few Dunlin. We then drove out across Walland Marsh finding a distant flock of about 40 Bewicks Swan at Caldecott Lane and a lovely Barn Owl to end the day.

Great-northern Diver