Sunday, 30 November 2014

Well there wasn't much else to do.....

30 November 2014

Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve

On a rather grey and misty day we didn't venture out until early afternoon. Mac wanted a walk to get some fresh air and we needed to pop into Sevenoaks to get some food for dinner. I suggested Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve for a stroll, convenient as not only is there a nice network of paths around the lakes, and a few birds to look at, but there had also been an immature American White Ibis on the reserve for the last week or so. Presumably an escape from a zoo or bird park I had not been to see it, despite the proximity to home, so this seemed like a good excuse.

We bumped into Martin Coath in the car park and stopped for a chat. Guy Bailey joined us and Ray O'Reilly followed us down the path. I was quite surprised by the interest especially when Martin told me Steve Gantlett had been to see it - maybe I should have been more interested after all?

We walked the nature trail and made our way to the area Guy had described, past the gate at the far end of the trail to the north of the east lake. We took the long path and meandered our way there seeing six Egyptian Geese on a small island. 

Egyptian Geese
The large field held a big flock of Canada Geese, and Long-tailed Tit's called from the Alders. Just past the field we found a small group of birders including Chris Bond watching from one of the fishing platforms. The juvenile American White Ibis was sitting unobtrusively on a branch next to a Grey Heron. It was initially asleep but soon woke up and preened, stretched and had a feed around the roots of the tree. It picked up a couple of branches and moved them around, presumably to open a feeding area rather than to build a nest. 

The American White Ibis roosts on a horizontal branch with a Grey Heron 

It had a good poke around at the base of the tree

A Little Egret flew in to the trees over head and called loudly, and a flock of 22 Common Snipe flew overhead. After about half an hour the Ibis took flight and flew to the bank behind its perch where it fed around the fallen trunks, pulling out several large worms.

The Ibis flies to the bank

It fed around the fallen trunks, finding several worms

We walked back to the car park, having a scan of the lake on the way. A Little Grebe, 3 Great-crested Grebe, Tufted Duck, Greylag Geese, Common and Black-headed Gulls and about 40 Lapwing. A couple of Goldcrest and a Treecreeper were seen along the path and a Chiffchaff called from the woods. A nice walk and an interesting bird, regardless of where is came from.

The American White Ibis is a native of the United States, coasts of Mexico and Central America. Adults are all white with black wingtips, with red bills and pink legs. Juveniles are brown above, white below with pale bills and greyish legs. The breeding range extends along the mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast of the United States south through much of the coastal New World tropics. Outside the breeding season their range extends further inland in North America and includes the Caribbean, Colombia and Venezuela. The population is known to fluctuate and colonies are highly mobile; censuses across Texas, Louisiana, Florida and the Carolinas yielded a count of 166,000 breeding birds in 2001 increasing to 209,000 in 2004. Birdlife International state 'this species has undergone a large and statistically significant increase over the last 40 years in North America (589% increase over 40 years, equating to a 62% increase per decade; data from Breeding Bird Survey and/or Christmas Bird Count: Butcher and Niven 2007).

The species is known to wander and has been seen across the US well outside of its normal range. According to Rare Birds of California vagrants that probably originate from the Baja California Sur and central Sinaloa southward populations occur casually in the Southwest. This species also occurs in the Southeast, from Virginia southward, and along the Atlantic coast of Middle America and the West Indies south to northern and western South America. Vagrants presumed to originate from Atlantic slope populations wander very rarely, but somewhat regularly, to the Northeast, southeastern Canada, and the central United States. Especially far-flung records come from southwestern Manitoba, North Dakota, Washington, Oregon, southern Idaho, Utah, and Clipperton Atoll.

However they are also kept in captivity in Britain and Europe and there have been previous records including a Spring adult a few years ago near Sandwich (18 & 19/04/05).

Pale-bodied Brent Goose

29 November 2014


Dark-bellied Brent Geese
How lovely was it to be out in the sunshine today! I parked along the seawall at Leysdown and walked out to the hamlet at Shellness, along the beach then onto the shell covered point. I returned along the landward side walking out to the Swale reserve to check the grey goose flock then back to my car along the sea wall. There was a very light easterly breeze, the sun was shining and it was very peaceful. 

I scanned across the vast mudflats picking up a good range of winter waders - Oystercatcher, Curlew, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Sanderling and Turnstone. I then set off along the seawall where Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit and Skylark were seen. A flock of about 1,100 Dark-bellied Brent Geese flew from the fields and landed on the mud, their evocative gurgling calls filling the air. I spent a while scanning through the flock. It was great to see so many juvenile birds, they clearly had a very good breeding season. I picked out a ghostly pale individual which appeared to be a leucistic bird where the usual black and brown pigments were missing from its plumage. 

I walked further along the beach and scanned the mud and mussel beds for waders and the estuary mouth for grebes. I added Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Redshank to the wader list and saw a distant juvenile Pomarine Skua fly out of the Swale before landing on the sea. A large fishing trawler had been beached on the edge of the mussel bed and from the banging noises coming from within its metal hull presumably to effect some repairs without the cost of dry docking it.

A few Rock Pipit and Skylark flew over as I walked along the concrete sea wall below the hamlet. The shell spit was very quiet, just 8 Linnet flushed from the weeds and none of the hoped for Snow Bunting which sometimes winter out there. I walked back to the Hamlet and scanned the rising tide for grebes. About 25 Great-crested Grebes were floating in on the tide, and I eventually found a single Red-throated Diver. A juvenile Pomarine Skua, perhaps the same bird as earlier, flew into the Swale and continued until lost to view towards Harty. It had a half-hearted swoop over some feeding Black-headed Gulls and then seemed a bit perturbed when about 30 of them chased after it. As I scanned back along the water 11 superb Little Gull (9ad and 2 juvenile) flew into the Swale. I decided to give it half an hour, but other than the Pomarine Skua flying out of the Swale, 2 Guillemot and 3 Teal it was rather quiet, but still very pleasant in the warm sunshine.

I walked out to the edge of the Swale reserve where a flock of about 100 grey geese included 30+ White-fronted Geese, which also seem to have enjoyed a productive breeding season. A pair of Stonechat appeared in the reeds and a large flock of Lapwing and Starling flushed from the pools as a Peregrine cruised overhead.

Back at the Hamlet another Stonechat appeared on a close bush and a few Meadow Pipit were feeding around the pools in the car park. The walk back down the seawall was broken by a scan through the Brents which were back on the mud. The pale bird again stood out before it flew with the flock back onto the field to feed.

The return walk was largely uneventful, though another close Stonechat and a couple of Kestrel gave good views in the sunshine. I was soon back at the car, but rather than stop at Capel Fleet I drove on to Elmley. I drove the length of the track stoping briefly for a scan from Kingshill Farm. The marshes below the farm were literally covered with birds, thousands upon thousands of them. A huge flock of about 2,500 Golden Plover was packed onto a grass island, and probably double that number of Lapwing. Teal and Wigeon were everywhere and their calls filled the air. In addition there were large numbers of Starling and of course about half a dozen Marsh Harrier.  I also managed to add Black-tailed Godwit to my tally of waders as one flew onto a distant pool. It was a spectacular sight. I couldn't find any Long-eared or Little Owls around the farm.

I drove back down the track scanning the posts around the 'White Gate' (well there used to be a white gate there). A couple of Common Buzzard, several Kestrel and five Marsh Harriers. The wet fields held more Lapwing, Curlew and Starling, and as I neared the end of the track I caught sight of a Short-eared Owl hunting in front of the setting sun. I drove out towards the gun club where the light was much better and found two of these stunning owls feeding reasonably close to the road. I enjoyed views for about 15 minutes before calling it a day and returning home. Not a bad day, at all.

Dark-bellied Brent Geese head for the fields to feed

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A truly unique birding experience

Early Summer 2014

Somewhere in southern England

One weekend back at in the early summer I visited a site somewhere in southern England. It wasn't that I was lost or didn't know where I was, just that I was looking for a very rare breeding bird - the wonderful Honey Buzzard. There are estimated to be between 100 and 150 pairs in the UK, they are secretive and sites are generally kept quiet to avoid the risk of the very precious eggs being stolen by some selfish (and illegal) egg collector, unbelievably even in 2014 this continues to be a real threat to our rare breeding bird populations.

I arrived fairly early and found somewhere with a view across some fields to a woodland, setup my scope and started to scan. I had been expecting a calm morning with blue skies, but arrived to find a clear white sky and a fair breeze - not ideal, but after making the effort I decided to give it an hour or so. After about half an hour a typical grey adult male Honey Buzzard circled up from the woodland. It soon returned into the wood and was lost to view low over the canopy. I continued to scan and after another half hour of seeing Common Buzzards, Kestrels and the odd Sparrowhawk I picked up a Honey Buzzard drifting in from a distant ridge. As it came closer I could see it was a female, which began to circle over the nearby woodland. 

At that point a black male bird flew in and began circling around the female, both birds performing wide circles over the woodland. This attracted the original grey male to rise up and join the two birds. All three then began to circle. The grey male made it clear it was his territory and his female, circling around and keeping the other bird at bay, though never aggressively.  The female seemed to enjoy the attention, but whether the black bird was a challenger or a previous year's offspring I'm not sure. There was none of the typical, and quite amazing, wing-clapping display, where the male birds fly up high then raise their wings vertically clapping them together as they fall, before swooping up and performing the clapping again, and again. 

Instead the three birds flew low, literally just over the trees and fields, the two males in wide circles around the female. Sometimes the grey bird took centre stage, sometimes it left the black one to circle the female. This truly incredible display often brought the birds right over my head - and I mean so close I could see their yellow eyes without optics! Sometimes they would look down at me as the passed, but rather than be spooked of fly away, they would turn and come back for another look. Repeated close fly by's and amazing views just kept coming. The spectacle went on for more than half an hour, and I can honestly say was one of the most memorable birding experiences I have ever had - anywhere. 

Eventually the birds drifted away over the woods and were lost to view, leaving me with some wonderful never to be repeated memories. Birding in Britain can still be so very surprising and exciting.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Scaly sentinel

22 November 2014

Chilham, Stodmarsh and Elmley Track

After a fairly late start I drove down to Branch Road in Chilham where a Great-grey Shrike had been showing during the week. News yesterday was of just a brief sighting late in the afternoon and I arrived to find nobody else around. I walked along the road to the small bridge and scanned the river valley, fields, hedges, woods and wires. No sign, so I walked further along the road to the Sports Centre and checked the football pitch hedgerows. As I returned to the road another birder arrived and we walked back along to the bridge. I was scanning the valley when he said 'Here it is!' and I turned to find it sitting on the wires right beside the road. It was a new bird for him and he was rightly chuffed. It sat on the wires looking into the field and flew down occasionally to catch some insect prey from the ground before returning to the wire. A couple of times it flew into the small hedge along the road and despite cars driving by did not come out. It returned to the wires and fed in the hedge along the edge of the sports field, before suddenly flying over us and into the large wood on the opposite side of the road.

Immature Great Grey Shrike, Chilham
Showing considerable scaling on its rest and lacking the distinct white
supercilium of an adult
I also took a few hand held digiscoped shots through my Swarovski ATX95

There were surprisingly large numbers of Blackbirds in the hedges, and feeding with Mistle Thrushes on the mistletoe berries on the edge of the wood. After enjoying good views of the shrike I was unsure what to do. I decided to try Stodmarsh, unsure how open the reserve was. The path along the Lampen Wall is open to the Tower Hide, but not beyond. I sat in the Reedbed Hide for a while watching the rain fall. There were good numbers of winter thrushes along the paths and in the woods with 30 Fieldfare, 20 Redwing, 2 Song Thrush, and 30 Blackbird seen. A few Bearded Tits and Water Rails called unseen in the reedbed, three Marsh Harriers hunted and a Sparrowhawk land in a nearby Willow. The lake held huge numbers of Cormorant, 30 Shoveler, 2 Tufted Duck and a Pochard but little else. In the wood a roving flock included about 10 Redpoll, 15 Goldfinch, 10 Chaffinch, a Treecreeper and 3 Goldcrest among the usual Tits.

On the way home I stopped at the Elmley track hoping for some owls, but the rain started to fall and I had to settle for 4 Common Buzzard, 6 Marsh Harrier and a big flock of Lapwing and Starling. With the forecast for Sunday looking horrendous this is probably the end of my birding for another week....

Monday, 17 November 2014

Good birding

16 November 2014


The wind was blowing from the SE at dawn, but was fairly light, so with the chance of finding land birds I started at Galloways before the MOD closed the road. Three Stonechat and a male Marsh Harrier were the highlights, and evidence of birds arriving overnight was apparent with at least six Blackbird, a Song Thrush and four Robins along the fence line and in the bushes.

Next I drove down to Dengemarsh Gulley and walked down the gorse to the concrete pillars checking everywhere for something scarce. A couple of Goldcrest in the Gulley plus a few Robins and Blackbirds. Several flocks of Goldfinch flew south, one containing at least one Siskin, a flock of Linnet and a small group of Greenfinch. A Peregrine called from the power lines. I scanned offshore and was a bit surprised to see about 30 Gannet feeding rift along the shoreline, with maybe double that in total. Driving back up the track produced another six Blackbird, a Redwing, two Song Thrush and five Robins.

A brief scan over the floods revealed a Great White Egret and two Little Egret, and a flock of 200 Wood Pigeon flew south high overhead. With Goldfinches flying south in small flocks I decided to drive around to the Point, stopping briefly to check the gulls in the small fishing boat roost. Noting a small group of sea watchers sheltering behind the fishing boats I decided to continue to the lighthouse and head out into the trapping area checking the gorse and moat before moving into the Desert. 

Two Goldcrests in the Lighthouse Garden with another in the gorse suggested arrivals, and there were at least five Wren around the low bushes. Blackbirds were flushed regularly with smaller numbers of Song Thrushes bursting from the bushes. Robins were everywhere in small numbers. The Moat held a small Tit flock, two Goldcrest and three more flew over. Goldfinch, Linnet, Chaffinch and Greenfinch flew overhead in small flocks with occasional groups of Meadow Pipit. 

The Desert was relatively quiet, not helped by the many dog walkers. I bumped into David Walker who spotted two House Martins flying along the shingle bank heading north. More Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes were seen and Goldfinch, Siskin and Linnets flew overhead. Two Sparrowhawks circled over the trapping area. Walking back along the edge of the flooded bushes I heard four Chiffchaff and saw a few more Goldcrests. As I chatted to David again a flock of 40 Brent Geese flew south along the beach. 

I decided to have a sea watch, slightly late in the day, but with the hope of seeing the Grey Phalarope that seems to have been hanging around along the beach. I wasn't really expecting to see much but on my first scan picked out a distant, loose flock of Little Gulls. My next scan revealed an even bigger flock which encouraged me to carry on scanning for an hour (11:00 - 12:00). A total of 237 Little Gull flew past, some quite close and a Black-throated Diver came close as it passed with its smaller Red-throated cousin for direct comparison. A total of 15 Red-throated Diver, 1 Shoveler, 6 Teal, 92 Kittiwake, 25 Mediterranean Gull, plus good numbers of Gannets. Despite regularly scanning the surf line I didn't find the Phalarope, but enjoyed the passage of birds. 

With the cold wind starting to get into me I headed to the ARC Hanson Hide which quickly produced five Goldeneye, including a stonking drake, a juvenile Smew, a Slavonian Grebe and lots of common ducks. The Willow Trail was very quiet with a Chiffchaff and Goldcrest. After chatting to Mike Puxley I drove onto the RSPB reserve and checked the gulls from Dennis' Hide. A very dainty and incredibly black backed Lesser Black back drew my attention, its small rounded white head and yellow legs looked very interesting, but I got distracted when a distinctive white head appeared in the distant roost in front of Makepeace Hide. I was soon grabbing my camera from the car and rushing down to the hide, where fortunately the stunning 1st winter Caspian Gull was showing well with three Yellow-legged Gulls (ad, 3rd winter and 2nd winter). I managed to gran some images and a little video before the flock took flight.

1st winter Caspian Gull - What a beauty!

Before I left I returned to Dennis' Hide hoping the Lesser Black-back was still there, but unfortunately it had flown. A group of six Great White Egret were stood together on the bank with two Little Egret. These once rare birds have become rather common over the last few years with nine counted yesterday on the pits.

Great White ad two Little Egret

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Jamaica Bay and home

4 October 2014

Cape May and Jamaica Bay

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I awoke to a gale force easterly wind with frequent very heavy showers and downpours following a very wet night. With no hope of any movement at Higbee I decided to drive the very short distance to the end of the road and find some shelter for a sea watch. Heading north I soon found an area where I could park with a life guard station that would provide shelter from both the wind and the rain.  Over the next two hours I saw a Great-northern Diver (N), 3-4 Gannets (S), 40 Royal Tern (S), 180 Forster's Tern (S), 35 Laughing Gull (S), Black Skimmer (10S, 1 N), a Ring-billed Gull (S), 3 American Herring Gull (S), 5 Great Black-backed Gull (S), 20 Tree Swallow (N), an Arctic Skua (N) and 25 Sanderling (S). I was surprised given the extreme weather offshore to see an Osprey, 4 Merlin and 5 Peregrine heading out to hunt immediately after dawn. Twice seen actively hunting the Peregrines were chasing Forster's Terns and a Black Skimmer, both unsuccessfully. The Merlins were presumably looking for tired lost passerine migrants, typically flying S at low level.

After breakfast a half hearted look at a very windswept and birdless observatory garden before we turned north and headed towards New York's JFK airport. Before I left home I'd heard about a nature reserve near to the airport, a place called Jamaica Bay. Looking at the map it was indeed perfectly positioned so having made good time we spent a couple of hours around the reserve. 

We first walked out behind the visitor centre on a path that used to separate the fresh water lake to the right and the salt water bay to the left. However Hurricane Sandy crashed through the wall and the path ends after about half a mile. The salt marsh reed bed held a Glossy Ibis, an adult Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, several Great White Egret and five Snowy Egret. 

Glossy Ibis
Little Blue Heron and Snowy Egrets
A flock of Grey Plover were roosting on posts out in the bay. As we wandered along the path a Rufous-sided Towhee, 4 Grey Catbird and a Northern Flicker showed well, a Cedar Waxwing called and several Yellow-rumped Warbler flicked through the bushes. I had really wanted to see an American Bittern during the trip and had scanned suitable habitat all around Cape May, along the coast and at Brigantine without any luck. I spent some time scanning the reeds and sedges to no avail but did find a couple of Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow and a large Red-winged Blackbird flock held an albino bird that was white but still had red wing coverts. 

An albino Red-winged Blackbird in the flock still shows the red wing coverts

I was enjoying the sunshine when Mac said 'I've got a Bittern'. Initially I assumed she was winding me up, knowing how hard I'd looked all fortnight. Then she took the scope and the next thing I was indeed watching an American Bittern, stalking through a shallow channel. It really was an amazing bit of bird finding as you can see from the image below - must be those new Swarovski 8x32 EL binoculars I bought her..... I enjoyed further views while Mac went back to the Visitor Centre to proudly report her sightings.

The American Bittern pokes his head out the reeds
As the sun started to warm the area after the heavy rain earlier a number of raptors appeared. Two Merlin, two Peregrine and two Osprey showed well but the best was a juvenile Northern Harrier that flew up the footpath behind us.

Northern Harrier
A couple of Eastern Phoebe and two American Robin around the visitor centre before we drove along the road and parked beside the shore. I walked back and entered the reserve on the other side of the main road. A small flock of sparrows included 3 Song Sparrow, 10 Swamp Sparrow and 4 White-throated Sparrow.

Around the lake 30 Black Duck, 100 Mallard, 30 Green-winged Teal, 20 Blue-winged Teal, 15 Shoveler, 6 Gadwall, 100 Double-crested Cormorant, 30 Black-crowned Night Heron, 9 Greater Yellowlegs and a single Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Dunlin, 1 Least Sandpiper, 2 Semi-palmated Sandpiper, 3 Laughing Gull and 60 Ring-billed Gull. 

It was soon time to depart and head the short distance over to the airport for the long flight home. It had been a fantastic couple of weeks and I'd seen some great birds. Cape May is a really lovely place for some relaxed migration birding. I recommend it.

Last day blues

3 October 2014

Cape May

My last full day at Cape May began at Higbee's Beach. Another slightly disappointing morning flight in a light North Easterly wind and overcast conditions produced 2 Wilson's Snipe flying south, 2 Semi-palmated Plover going North, 20+ Palm Warbler, 2 Savannah Sparrow, 6 Red-eyed Vireo, 2 Black and White Warbler, 8 Parula Warbler, 4 Northern Flicker, 4 American Redstart, 2 Red-bellied Woodpecker, 75 Cedar Waxwing, an American Robin, 3 Northern Waterthrush, 5 Blackpoll Warbler, 5 Yellow-rumped Warbler, 2 Black-throated Blue Warbler, an Ovenbird, an Indigo Bunting, 5 Blue Jay, 5 Red-winged Blackbird and 30 Warbler sp. A Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Merlin and an Osprey were also seen.

American Redstart
My last walk around the Woods and Fields produced a smart Black-throated Green Warbler, a stunning Golden-crowned Kinglet, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 7 Parula Warbler, 2 Blck and white Warbler, 2 Pine Warbler, a Bay-breasted Warbler, 2 Prairie Warbler, a White-throated Sparrow, 4 Northern Flicker, a Common Yellowthroat, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, 4 Indigo Bunting, 2 Downy Woodpecker, 6 Blue Jay, a Red-eyed Vireo and 2 Yellow-rumped Warbler. Birds of prey included 2 Sharp-shinned and a Cooper's Hawk.

Gray Catbird
Red-eyed Vireo
White-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
A walk around the Hidden Valley after breakfast produced a Red-tailed Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Cooper's Hawk. A flock of warblers was found feeding around the small willow covered pool and included 3 Northern Waterthrush, a Nashville Warbler, 3 Black and white Warbler, a Red-eyed Vireo, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Hairy Woodpecker, an American Redstart and a Lincoln's Sparrow.  The edges of the weedy fields held 30 Indigo Bunting, 6 Savannah Sparrow and 3 Common Yellowthroat.

A brief spell at the Hawk Watch platform produced a few birds of prey: 3 Broad-winged Hawk, 2 Red-tailed Hawk, 15 Sharp-shinned Hawk, 3 Cooper's Hawk, 5 Osprey, 2 American Kestrel, 6 Peregrine, 2 Merlin, 1 Bald Eagle, 10 Turkey Vulture, 2 Black Vulture, 2 Tree Swallow and 3 Great Blue Heron. The lake held the now familiar species of ducks and herons.

With little happening we decided to head back over to Cox Hall, the old golf course just north of the canal. Searching the areas near the lake and around the car park produced a nice flock of birds. At least 14 Eastern Bluebird, 2 Eastern Phoebe, 1 Eastern Wood Pewee, 4 Cedar Waxwing, 1 American Robin, 10 Pine Warbler, 30 Chipping Sparrow, 1 Indigo Bunting, 10 House Finch, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 3 Northern Flicker and 10 Blue Jay. An Osprey, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Turkey Vulture provided the raptor interest.

Eastern Bluebird

Mac found a mouse in the woods
Northern Flicker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Pine Warbler

Red-tailed Hawk
My last walk around Lily Lake was fairly quiet but did produce a Cooper's Hawk, an Osprey, 2 Caspian Tern, 6 Yellow-rumped Warbler, 1 Palm Warbler, 1 Pine Warbler, 5 House Finch and a flighty Dark-eyed Junco. The Belted Kingfisher showed well as did a Black-crowned Night Heron.

House Finch

Winter Wren
Belted Kingfisher
Black-crowned Night Heron
Great White Egret
I finished my tour at the Meadows where a Greater Yellowlegs, 2 Snowy Egret, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, 10 Savannah Sparrow, 1 Song Sparrow, and a few typical ducks.

Greater Yellowlegs
Savannah Sparrow

Snowy Egret