Thursday, October 20, 2016

Siberian Dream

Sunday 9 October and news came in of a Siberian Accentor (Prunella montanella) on Shetland – the first record for Britain. This is not a bird I thought I’d ever see here but just four days later another was found, this time on the mainland near Spurn in East Yorkshire on Thursday 13th. It was still there the following day. I had to go. So, on the Saturday my wife, our 21-month-old son and I set off on our second Siberian twitch of the year.

We hired a car and arrived at Easington in the early afternoon when the bird had begun to roam more widely than its favoured location of a school yard in suburban gardens adjacent to a gas terminal. While estimates the previous day put the number of birders up to 1400, there were just 50 or so watching now but the bird had flown behind a couple of fences in the gas works and was being rather elusive. Eventually it revealed itself, feeding like a Dunnock, but more furtive in its movement and a lot more colourful! After a couple of hours it returned to the moss-covered tarmac in the garden by which time the light was fading. Here it fed continuously just a few metres in front of us, sometimes in the company of a couple of Dunnocks (Hedge Accentors). In comparison with the common and widespread species, the Siberian stray appeared to be a smaller and neater bird. With a hungry toddler needing fed we headed to our hotel in Aldbrough (nearer locations were booked out) just up the coast, with a stop for fish and chips in Withernsea. We got an idea of just how many migrants were around when a brief look in a couple of trees in a small play park on the promenade here were dripping with Goldcrests, a Yellow-browed Warbler and a couple of Song Thrushes. 

Following a great sleep in a four-poster bed and a big Yorkshire breakfast we set off back towards Spurn on the Sunday morning. Problem - it was absolutely chucking it down, and it continued for most of the morning. The forecast was good for the afternoon so in the meantime we birded around Kilnsea and Spurn and as the rain eased, the magic happened. Birds everywhere. In a couple of hours we saw Pallas’s Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Radde’s Warbler and Dusky Warbler. Many other scarcities were being reported and the area was full of common migrants including thrushes, Robins, Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs. By two in the afternoon it was a different day with a big blue sky beckoning us back to the Siberian Accentor for better photographs. We enjoyed a couple of hours watching and photographing it before we had to set of home. 

Over the weekend, two further Siberian Accentors arrived in Cleveland and Durham, with a fifth in Northumberland a day later, a sixth on Fair Isle on 20 October. Six records in a week of a bird never seen in Britain before! These were part of unprecedented influx of 103 birds (as of 20.10.16 across Northern Europe and is generally thought to have been caused by persistent easterly winds produced by a high pressure system over Siberia and Fennoscandia. This is more than three times the number previously ever recorded. Perhaps some other factors were responsible such as misorientation at the point of departure from their breeding grounds. Whatever the cause, a number of other Siberian vagrants including Siberian and White’s Thrush, Pine and Black-faced Bunting, and Easter Crowned Warbler made this one of the most memorable autumns ever. For those of us less fortunate to travel to the extremes of the British Isles, the accentors in north-east England at least gave many another chance. It will be interesting to see what happens in subsequent years. Of course, we may never see another like it in our lifetime. I’ll certainly remember this year for our family trips to see both this and the Siberian Rubythroat. If our young son grows up to become a birder, he’ll only wish he could have remembered!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Birding trip report from Cádiz province, Spain

I've uploaded a trip report from Spain in April.

This was another university field course trip based around the small town of Zahara de los Atunes, situated on the Costa de la Luz in the Strait of Gibraltar in Cadiz province in south-west Spain. Much of the time was spent around Zahara de los Atunes, Barbate and the Valle de Ojén in the Parque Natural de Los Alcornocales. Some time was possible for birding but in general the following notes document the observations at the various student study sites.

Highlights included Balearic Shearwater, Night Heron, Great Egret, Purple Heron, Northern Bald Ibis, Greater Flamingo, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Black-winged Kite, Purple Swamphen, Little Bustard, Collared Pratincole, Pomarine Skua, Slender-billed Gull, Audouin's Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Razorbill, Puffin, Black-eared Wheatear, Iberian Chiffchaff, Western Bonelli's Warbler, and Ortolan Bunting.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Rainham Marshes Patch Listing 2016 March

March, the transition between winter and spring…..depending on the weather. March saw just four additions to bring my personal total to 107 as I waited for the start of the spring migrants at the month’s end. Our Bird Race team fared better with seven additions (including Goldeneye, Ruff & Bearded Tit) to 111. 

The Iceland Gull was still present on the mud on the 1st otherwise it was only the regular wintering species to hold the interest until mid-month. Up to three Jack Snipe (104) appeared and I eventually located one on the Purfleet Scrape on the 17th. Thereafter I managed to observe this species fairly regularly with one on the MDZ scrape on the 25th. In fact the 25th, Good Friday, saw some beautiful spring weather but the hoped for Swallow, Sand Martin or LRP did not materialise. Nonetheless I spent the whole day around there reserve, opening with nine Common Scoters on the river, and ending with a Great Egret (106) first found by Howard earlier in the week, and a singing Blackcap (107) at the visitor centre. Spotted Redshank, Jack Snipe, two Short-eared Owls and Water Pipit contributed to a memorable day’s watching.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby

Being a fairly ‘green’ birder, mainly cycling and using public transport, I normally only travel long distances for one particular bird if it is exceptional and can be reached easily. I will make the 400 mile trip up to Scotland to add anything to my Ayrshire list, particularly if it is showing well for photographs. My last trek (unsuccessfully) was for the Glossy Ibis in October 2015. 

In mid-January a Siberian Rubythroat (Calliope calliope), one of the most-wanted of vagrants to the British Isles, was found by a non-birder in the village of Hoogwoud in Noord-Holland. Hundreds of Dutch birders travelled to see this ‘first’ for the Netherlands. Weeks passed and it was clear that the bird, aged as a 2nd calendar year, was wintering. I realised that this may be my only chance of seeing one in the Western Palearctic and I was really itching to go. 

Together with my wife and fourteen month old we flew from Southend to Amsterdam and stayed a couple of nights at the four star Van de Valk hotel in Hoorn. A couple of days would allow for extended viewing and also make a small family break without too much rushing. 

We arrived late on the 13th but the following day we were all up for breakfast at 06:30, ready for the short drive to Hoogwoud. As we approached the favoured site at Beukenlaan it was clear that area of gardens and greens held a lot of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Robins, Tree Sparrows and a singing Blackcap. After about 30 mins of waiting and talking to a couple of Dutch birders I was beginning to get worried. One guy went off to look elsewhere after three birders from Devon arrived. Not long later we were all rushing around the corner to a small patch of scrub at the end of Het Achterom and there it was. Feeding in a small mossy clearing was this rather plain bird except for the glittering, red throat – almost hummingbird-like in iridescence – topped with a striking white supercilium and submoustachial stripe, black lores and a fine black malar stripe. When you finally see a bird like this that you’ve dreamed about for years, when you see it for real in the flesh, it’s a magical experience. I always think to myself: “so you do exist”. The rubythroat packs a lot of charisma into its small size and its shy, furtive behaviour while foraging in the undergrowth seemed at odds with its unconcerned and very approachable nature once it broke cover and hopped to within a few feet of the gathered observers. I guess the bird is just not used to humans in its remote breeding area. However, a Sparrowhawk passing overhead, the occasional approaching cat and flocks of noisy Jackdaws did see the bird becoming very alert and returning to cover. 

Over the course of the morning its routine alternated between periods of subsinging and preening undercover to feeding forays through the block of low scrub to the mossy patch at the pavement edge. By lunchtime we decided to head for a bite to eat and some general touristy sightseeing. The following morning I returned early to Hoogwoud on my own. Again the Siberian Rubythroat was keeping to the scrub at Het Achterom and while showing very close at times, its position did not allow for images with nice, clean, out-of-focus backgrounds. Still, the mossy patch it frequented provided some more natural looking photographs. I spent most of the morning waiting and observing and at times it was subsinging just a few feet away, concealed in the low scrub, but with the dazzling throat revealing the source of its soft, squeaky warbles. Then it was time to return to the hotel and collect the family. I had one last look. This one could possibly be the last one I’d ever see. The rest of the day we did some more touristy things, visiting Edam and Volendam before our early evening flight. We looked for no other particular birds though there were plenty of quality birds around including Bufflehead, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck and Pine Bunting. We did enjoy hundreds of geese along most of the drives and we had a flock of Barnacle Geese in the fields opposite the hotel. We also noted Great Crested Grebes in almost every canal with pairs displaying in small roadside ponds, even in urban areas. Information updates were obtained from and

No image on this blog or related sites may be used, copied, or re-posted without permission or payment

Friday, March 11, 2016

Winter birds in the Florida Keys

I've uploaded an annotated list for January's trip to the Florida Keys

This was the seventh field work trip to the Keys. Specific birding was restricted to a look around Keys Marine Lab on Long Key before breakfast and short visits to Blue Hole on Big Pine Key and Bahia Honda State Park. Everything else was just noted on the kayaking trips to the field sites in the mangroves around Long Key, Lower Matecumbe Key and Big Pine Key, and the drives along the Overseas Highway. 

Highlights included Roseate Spoonbill, Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Wilson's Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, White-crowned Pigeon, Bald Eagle, and Cedar Waxwing.

A juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) hunting crabs at dusk

No image on this blog or related sites may be used, copied, or re-posted without permission or payment

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Rainham Marshes Patch Listing 2016 – February

As expected after the initial rush of January to see all the regular wintering species, locate the scarcer visitors, and luck-in on the rest, February was always going to be a slower and steady month.  I personally added 12 species to bring my total to 103, with our Bird Race team (The Drift Migrants) reaching 104.

Cycling around the landfill on the way to work paid off when I located two Yellowhammers (92) in the scrub and grassland on the southern side of the concrete barge bay on the 2nd. It was actually a whole month before I eventually saw a Kingfisher (93) with one flying along a channel at Rainham West on the 3rd. Short-eared Owls and Water Pipits continued to be a regular feature on the reserve but continued searching of the river added Spotted Redshank (94) and Caspian Gull (95) on the 6th.

By the second week, Oystercatchers (96) started returning inland with one downriver on the 9th, however winter was very much still with us as a Grey Plover appeared on the river mud on the 13th. Later that day I found my first really good bird of the year, and a true sea bird. I couldn’t really believe I was seeing a Fulmar (98) but there it was drifting upriver on the rising tide past my living room window. I alerted Howard at mission control and several Rainham birders picked it up a few minutes later. This was only the third record.  After heading the short distance to the visitor centre upon news of a Brambling at the garden feeding station, which I failed to see, an adult Mediterranean Gull (99) was a welcome addition. On returning the following the day, the female Brambling (100) was more cooperative and showed very well at times.

The final weekend of February was all about the gulls. On the 27th I had ‘a nine-gull day’ including a 1st-w Iceland Gull (101), two Caspian Gulls (1st-w + 2nd-w), and a Mediterranean Gull (adult in summer plumage) and the following day, after many winter hours of observation, an adult (winter plumage) Kittiwake (102) flew downriver. February ended with an Avocet (103) in Aveley Bay on the cycle to work.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Rainham Marshes Patch Listing 2016 - January

So, I’m doing a Big Year! Ok, so not like in the movie but a year long list at RSPB Rainham Marshes. As well as my own personal year list for the site, I’ll be bird-racing all year long along with around 40 other teams. 

January the 1st dawned and I was out before sunrise. Howard opened the reserve at 07:00, still in darkness, but with mid-winter songsters ushering in the New Year: Robin, Blackbird and Song Thrush. I initially spent too long hoping to find a Woodcock and after checking off all the regulars on the Purfleet Scrape (including singing Cetti’s Warbler and Marsh Harrier) and hearing Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker along the woodland trail, I arrived at the Ken Barrett hide to see the wintering Dartford Warbler and Stonechats. The Barn Owl was in its regular box and Common Chiffchaff was calling. Further waterbirds and wildfowl were added at Aveley Pools plus a Water Pipit and Short-eared Owl. A Water Rail was seen briefly in a channel at the Shooting Butts Hide and a further two Water Pipits were ‘scoped in the Target Pools. After a long session here I made my way up on to the river wall to view Aveley Bay, finding Rock Pipit and more waders including Black-tailed Godwit and Ringed Plover. A look at the mouth of the River Darent/Dartford Creek provided Yellow-legged Gull. The short winter day was progressing all too fast so I headed to the raptor watchpoint at the Serin Mound but added only Linnet and Pheasant. Then it was back to the reserve centre for a coffee with some other team members where House Sparrow was reliably located at the garden feeders. We then headed back along the river wall, finding Raven, Jackdaw and Grey Wagtail, bringing the first day’s total to 76 species. 

 The next few days before the return to work were slow but the 2nd saw five Dark-bellied Brent Geese (77) on the reserve with another in Aveley Bay followed by even more interest shortly after when four adult Little Gulls (78) passed close by me. They appeared to come off the reserve and fly straight into the bay. At the landfill I added Feral Pigeon (79). Why did it not record this yesterday? On the 3rd a Peregrine (80) flew over the River Thames from Rainham to Dartford Marshes in Kent. Monday the 4th dawned and it was back to work. Cycling along the river wall to catch the train at Rainham I picked up a Sparrowhawk (81) dashing low over the salt marsh at Aveley Bay and then eventually caught up with the Egyptian Goose (82) from the Serin Mound. A pair of Mistle Thrushes (83) were to be the last birds to be added for a while. I was then out of the country for a couple of weeks (in Florida Keys) and by the time I returned, several good birds had been found by others. The rest of January was obviously a slow but steady catch-up. The 23rd provided Lesser Redpoll (84) and Corn Bunting (85) at the Serin Mound and Goldcrest (86) in the scrub along Coldharbour Lane, followed by Bullfinches (87) in the Cordite on the 24th. After a few blank days I eventually saw a Buzzard (88) on Wennington Marshes and two Green Sandpipers (89) over Coldharbour Lane on the 28th. The last weekend of the month saw the fine spectacle of a female Merlin (90) terrorising every small passerine over Wennington Marsh, followed by a wintering Common Sandpiper (91) at the mouth of the River Darent.