Monday, 17 December 2012

AMERICAN BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT in Berkshire


AMERICAN BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT
Photo by Dave Hutton

After finally connecting with this cryptic Nearctic species on the Isles of Scilly this year I could not get too excited by the MEGA ALERT that notified me of the presence of another last Thursday. Mind you, with the rare opportunity of seeing one on the mainland, under two hours from home and being offered a cheap day return by a mate, the temptation became all too much.

The crew of Snapper Richards, Jules Allen and Dave Hutton met up at Alvecote Pools early this morning for our trip down south. After scooping the odd early morning Red Kite around the Stokenchurch area of the M40 we soon arrived in the leafy west London suburb of Horton. After getting signed in by the friendly security guys we were then allowed access to Queen Mother Reservoir, a huge 1970's concrete bowl filled with water pumped directly from the River Thames.

After a short stroll in the winter sunshine we were all enjoying stunning close up views of the bird as it picked away through the organic flotsam along the eastern shoreline of the reservoir. Unlike the bird I had on St Mary's in October this particular individual was extremely confiding and completely unconcerned by its throng of admirers. The fact that it was not associating with any skittish Meadow Pipits probably helped too. Those birds can be a bad influence on any rare Anthus that makes landfall in Britain. 

Can you see the AMERICAN BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT?
It's that brown blob at the bottom, in the middle!

It is hard to believe that up until the year 2000 there had been just four records of AMERICAN BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT in Britain. The first individual was an immature male that was trapped on the remote outpost of St Kilda, Outer Hebrides on the 30th September 1910. Amazingly during the autumn of 2007 an influx of at least eleven birds were witnessed in Britain and Ireland and they have been annual visitors ever since. Evidence suggests that the species is increasing its range in Greenland but surely the fact that we are getting more familiar with the subtle identification features means that this species will be recorded on this side of the Atlantic on a more regular basis. 

AMERICAN BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT
Queen Mother Reservoir, Horton, Berkshire - 16 December 2012
Photo by Dave Hutton

After studying the pipit for a while we decided to check out the rest of the area to see what was around. Highlights included a distant Long-tailed Duck, 6 Goldeneye, 4 Red Kite, Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and 2 Peregrine. There was also a report of an immature Red-necked Grebe but try as we might we failed to locate it. With the constant din of plane after plane taking off from nearby Heathrow Airport we decided to move on to a more relaxing location for a spot of peace and quiet.

The impressive backdrop of Windsor Castle.
Through the scope we could just make out HRH cleaning the windows!

After a short drive to the village of Wraysbury it was not too long before we were hearing the raucous calling of our next target species - Ring-necked Parakeet. After a short walk along the historic Magna Carta Lane we were soon watching the comings and goings of around twenty extremely vocal birds. Yes, I know this exotic looking Indian species has no right being part of our wonderful, natural British avifauna but I always enjoy paying them a sneaky visit when I am in the area. They are magnificent looking birds and full of character, on par with our native crows, jays and magpies. I challenge the most sour-faced British birder not to show at least a hint of a smile whilst watching them.

So a thoroughly satisfying day all round with another twenty or so Red Kite on our journey home and all for just ten English pounds each. Austerity twitching at its very best!

Monday, 17 September 2012

Blue-winged Teal x Northern Shoveler hybrid in Northamptonshire

Whilst sunning myself at relatively dead Middleton Lakes RSPB news of a BLUE-WINGED TEAL came through from Daventry Reservoir. Having not seen too many examples of this American species in Blighty, I decided to travel the short distance over the border into Northamptonshire to take a look at it. Upon arrival the bird had not been seen for over two hours but after a quick scan from the dam I managed to pick up an interesting looking duck in the distance feeding amongst the vegetation. Typically as I moved further down near the cafe for a closer look the bird quickly swam out of view into the sanctuary of Lovell's Bay. My immediate reaction from the brief glimpse was that it did resemble a BLUE-WINGED TEAL but there was definitely something not quite right about it. I needed an even closer look.

Blue-winged Teal x Northern Shoveler hybrid
Daventry Reservoir, Northamptonshire.

As I approached the small crowd that had gathered around the other side of the bay, there were already whispers of it looking more like a hybrid than a pure BLUE-WINGED TEAL. With the bird now showing reasonably well the bill looked a little too large from the side profile. When viewed head on however the spatulate bill looked much more like that of a Northern Shoveler. As it lifted it's head there was also a large amount of orange on the underside of the bill, again suggestive of Northern Shoveler. There was also a hint of orange along the cutting edge of the bill. In addition, the pale loral spot was not too obvious and neither was the pale eye-ring. The open wing was viewed very briefly and this seemed to look good for BLUE-WINGED TEAL but I unfortunately I failed to get any shots to confirm this.

Blue-winged Teal Northern Shoveler hybrid
Daventry Reservoir, Northamptonshire.

With Lee Evans on site the disappointment of 'dipping' a local rarity was made a lot more bearable with his entertaining outbursts of "Someone's dumped their duff duck!" and "The bloody thing can't even fly!". He was even heard to shout "This place is cursed!", no doubt in reference to both this dodgy duck and last year's 'Greater Greenlegs' debacle.

More images of this 'educational bird' can be found here

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Wildlife at 'The Cottage' - Spring & Summer

Well that seems to be it folks. The 'great British summer' is well and truly over judging by the strong north-westerly winds currently hitting the side of our exposed little, cottage as I write these words. With the nights now drawing in I thought I would share some of the wildlife highlights from our small corner of North Warwickshire over the past few months.

Bird Sightings

On the 2nd April our first male Yellowhammer of the year was heard singing. Despite our rural location this is unfortunately quite a scarce breeding bird in the Seckington area. Around this time the resident pairs of Red-legged Partridge and Grey Partridge became more noisy, trying to out call one another during dawn and dusk. The odd Skylark was also far more vocal and first few pairs of Mallard started to arrive looking for potential nest sites. On the 10th the first Chiffchaff appeared in the churchyard. On the 14th the first Swallow arrived and a single Lapwing passed through. On the 21st the first pair of House Martin appeared. Around the same time the resident Little Owls started to get more active and showed well from the kitchen window at times.

On the 1st May the first few singing Blackcaps arrived around the garden and on the 8th I was awoken by a particularly obliging Garden Warbler. On the 10th the local pair of Tawny Owl started calling again much to the agitation of the Little Owls. On the 12th a pair of Coot arrived on the small farm pool as did a pair of Moorhen. On the evening of the 14th whilst driving back from Alvecote, a magnificent Short-eared Owl flew over the lane just south of the village. A quick call to Nadia at home resulted in her grabbing her binoculars and rushing outdoors in order to add the species to our garden list. On the 18th the first Hobby of the year showed an interest in the growing flock of hirundines and on the 25th a stunning Red Kite circled the village for twenty minutes in the heat of the afternoon. On the same day our first two Yellow Wagtails of the year passed overhead.

A pair of Grey Partridge hide in the pasture next to the garden.

To our surprise the first Common Swift of the spring did not appear until the 5th June, on the same day a Song Thrush appeared on the other side of the village, alas another local scarcity. On the 9th June more late migrants started to appear at long last with both singing Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat heard from the garden as were two Reed Bunting. On the same day five Lapwing passed through and a small family party of Linnet appeared. Sightings of young passerines were few and far between throughout the month but at least two broods of Mallard ducklings fledged, one of which from a neighbours beetroot patch.

Going into July the most successful breeding species seemed to be the local populations of Jackdaw and Starling with a few broods of House Sparrow and Stock Dove appearing mid month along with a family of Pied Wagtail. A juvenile Coal Tit was a surprise around the feeders on the 7th. A few large gatherings of Common Swift gathered to feed over the cereal feeds throughout the month, often as a storm was approaching. Unfortunately this declining species no longer breeds in the village since the steeple in the local church was renovated in the early 1990's.  During the latter part of the month a rather noisy pair of juvenile Tawny Owls hung around our house for a few weeks, after no doubt being driven off from their parents breeding territory nearby.

Little Owl - A daily sight or sound around 'The Cottage'

Going into August it was evident that both Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Green Woodpeckers had bred successfully nearby, with juveniles of the former appearing at the feeders nearly every day at some point. On the 4th of the month after an evening downpour it was evident that there had been a fall of common migrants. I was thrilled to find a juvenile Common Redstart in the garden next door followed by a second around the edge of a nearby cow field. The best was yet to come though. Whilst washing the dishes I happened to glance up to see what I initially though was another perched on the garden fence. Imagine my delight when I lifted my bins to find a juvenile BLACK REDSTART sitting there. Luckily it hung around the house on and off for the rest of the day feeding in the car park and even in the guttering of the cottages at one point. The neighbours were pretty impressed with their rare visitor as was Nadia who managed to rush home from work to see it. 

On the 15th of August  a couple of juvenile Common Whitethroat and a juvenile Blackcap hung around the garden for most of the day gleaning insects from the rose bushes. On the same day a juvenile Willow Warbler also appeared often perching up to dry off on our washing line after feeding in the damp vegetation.  Towards the end of the month a couple of Hobby became a regular sight over the garden. Some impressive aerial displays were witnessed as they tried unsuccessfully to grab the odd hirundine. As the fields nearby were harvested good numbers of Rook moved into the area to feed and the odd Raven made a welcome return to the area too. The first young Little Owls also appeared at this time from the two or possible three breeding pairs we have around the village.

Butterfly & Moth Sightings

To be honest the butterfly situation around the garden is hardly worth mentioning. Other than a few Holly Blue, the odd Brimstone, a few Small Tortoiseshell and a late influx of Peacock and Red Admiral it has been a pretty desperate. The wet summer weather has no doubt had a huge impact on our moths too however we have still enjoyed a varied selection, some of which are posted below.

For my 40th birthday Nadia bought me a moth trap, an item of equipment I have always wanted but never got around to buying. I always thought they were really overpriced for what they are but now I have been bitten by the 'moth bug' I reckon they are worth every penny.

Easily the most numerous species over the summer was the Dark Arches followed by the Large Yellow Underwing and the Common Footman. There were also good numbers of Heart & Dart during July which were replaced by huge numbers of Common Rustic throughout August.  

Leopard Moth
Just a single specimen on 5th July.
Buff Arches - 9th July 2012
A scarce moth with just three records this summer.
Buff-tip - 9th July
Just seven individuals were recorded throughout July & August.
Poplar Hawkmoth - 28th July
Never numerous but quite regular around 'The Cottage'.
Elephant Hawkmoth - 25th July
Just five records of this stunning species throughout the summer.
Swallow Prominent - 25th July
Just six records throughout the summer.
Garden Tiger - 27th July
Only two individual were trapped at the end of July.
Ruby Tiger - 1st August
Just three individuals were trapped early during August.

Just over 80 different species of macro moth were recorded throughout July and August with another 20 or so identifiable micros, not a bad haul considering the monoculture of cereal fields that surround us for miles. Other highlights included a single Drinker on the 20th July, a July Highflyer, a few Early Thorn and a Coxcomb Prominent on the 5th July, a Lesser Swallow Prominent on the 28th July and a trio of Yellow-tail on the 25th July.  There were also several Burnished Brass during early to mid July, good numbers of Silver Y throughout both months and a single Plain Golden Y on the 15th July.

Mammal Sightings

We are quite lucky in that we seem to have healthy numbers of Brown Hare around Seckington. Adults are seen on a regular basis from the kitchen window all year round but quite a few leverets were noticeable around the end of June and the beginning of July. The odd Red Fox is occasionally seen prowling at dawn and dusk and judging by the amount of road casualties, Badger must be numerous in the area although not spotted as yet around The Cottage.

We also have a thriving population of Hedgehog around the village with up to three adults coming to feed around the garden at night throughout the summer. One very tame individual seems to arrive earlier in the evening, often in broad daylight to secure the best treats at the base of the bird feeders. Towards the end of August a number of tiny youngsters also appeared.

Moving onto bats, we have a pair of Common Pipestrelle around the garden during warm, still evenings and at the very end of August we were invaded by a small group of Noctule Bats. These monsters show really well before dark dive bombing Dung-flies over the cow fields next to the garden.    

adult Hedgehog around the bird feeders in broad daylight.
juvenile Hedgehog in the dark.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER in Dorset

Last Monday evening Josh Jones tipped off The Black Lark Around Night Club (a little Facebook group of cutting edge birding degenerates) that a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher down in Dorset might be something a little more interesting and a whole lot rarer.  Upon seeing the original images on the Brett's Goosey Ganderings blog it appeared that the bird in question possessed tertials which seemed to show a certain degree of barring. The bird definitely warranted closer scrutiny and the following evening it was confirmed as a SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER.

I can hardly believe it has been nearly thirteen years since I travelled up to Cleveland to see Britain's first ever specimen of Limnodromus griseus.  Even more remarkable though is the fact that it has taken the same number of years for the second one to turn up.  With such a large space of time between appearances, most of my birding pals still needed this American wader for their lists and so I decided to join a few of them on their jaunt down to the south coast.

After the long drive through fog, murk and mist we finally hit a sun-drenched Lodmoor RSPB reserve near Weymouth at around 10.00am.  Luckily for us, the target bird had decided to wave goodbye to it's elusive nature and was a whole lot more obliging than it had been over previous days. After a quick stroll along the western route of the reserve we picked up the rarity immediately as it stood roosting between a pair of probing Common Snipe.

juvenile SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER - Lodmoor RSPB, Dorset
Photo thanks to Aidan Brown

Even with the bird in 'standby mode' it was relatively easy to rule out Long-billed Dowitcher with the fine light conditions showing up the buff barring in the dark centres of the tertials nicely. It's 'longer billed' cousin shows tertials with completely dark centres framed with pale edging in juvenile plumage. A similar degree of barring can also be found in the inner greater coverts and the inner median coverts in juvenile SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER. There is an over-lap in bill lengths between the two species however we also noted a warm wash to the breast and a very dark cap with rufous streaking on this particular bird. Juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher should show a greyish breast and the crown should not be as dark and prominent. It should also fade into grey on the rear area of the crown.

After a while the bird began to become more mobile as it was disturbed by several other bird species however it always stayed pretty close to the accompanying Common Snipe. The bird also flew a short distance on several occasions however none of us heard it call when it did so.  Also on this part of the reserve there were 5 Ringed Plover, 2 Oystercatcher, 4 Black-tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper,  and Green Sandpiper. Several Sandwich Terns also flew in to rest amongst the small flock of Black-headed Gull as did an adult winter and a first summer Mediterranean Gull.

After watching the bird for over ninety minutes the rest of the group started to get twitchy. There was talk of us having to drive up to east London for a juvenile BAILLON'S CRAKE! All of our party still needed this for Britain except me. To be honest I was actually quite relieved when news filtered through that it had not been glimpsed since first light. Instead we headed over to the Isle of Portland for our second American treat of the morning. In a small ornamental garden in the middle of Easton a beautiful, yet slightly worn MONARCH butterfly had been spotted feeding on a Buddleia.

male MONARCH butterfly - Easton, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo thanks to Dave Hutton

Upon arrival, this king of migration showed well feeding amongst the numerous Red Admirals, often chasing them off from his favourite food source. There was also a single Painted Lady butterfly, my first of the year and a few Silver-Y moths taking advantage of this temporary source of nectar. It is amazing to think that this insect could have crossed the huge expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Over a number of generations this remarkable creature migrates the entire length of North America from as far north as Canada down to parts of Mexico. This particular individual can be sexed as a male by the spot called the androconium in the centre part of it's hind wing. On the photograph above they can just be seen about half way down, on either side of the abdomen.

male MONARCH butterfly - Easton, Isle of Portland, Dorset
Photo thanks to Dave Hutton

We then headed down to Portland Bill for a quick look around the area. With not a great deal of excitement out at sea we turned our attention to a spot of land based birding. There were few highlights other than a curious Little Owl peering out at us from amongst the boulders of the Bird Observatory quarry. There were also at least a dozen Northern Wheatear, a family party of Stonechat and a mass of Silver-Y moths in the area. Before heading back to the Midlands we made a quick detour back into Weymouth for a top notch fish and chip dinner. The Sea Chef on King Street comes highly recommended.

Portland Bill - Isle of Portland, Dorset

So another enjoyable day out with the crew consisting of Rich Challands, Stevie Dunn and Mike Feely, our driver for the day. Cheers Mike!  Also great to see Steve Richards and his lovely wife Paula down at Lodmoor RSPB too.

The crew at Portland Bill!
From Left to Right - S Dunn, A Archer, R Challands & M Feely

As usual there was plenty of good humoured banter flying around throughout the day however quote of the trip goes to Mike 'Mikipedia' Feely with the following: "Arch, please can you shut your window, the pressure difference in the cabin is interfering with my hearing!" You would have thought he was piloting Concorde over the Atlantic rather than driving a VW Golf down the M5!

STOP PRESS:  Today, Britain's third SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER, another juvenile was found on Tresco, Isles of Scilly.

SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER in Great Britain 

Previous records of this species in Britain are as follows:

1999 - Aberdeenshire - juvenile at Rosehearty from 11th to 24th September (relocated to Cleveland).
1999 - Cleveland - juvenile at Greenabella Marsh & Greatham Creek from 29th September to 30th October (same as Aberdeenshire).
2012 - Dorset - juvenile at Lodmoor RSPB from 3rd September to present.
2012 - Isles of Scilly - juvenile on Tresco from 9th September to present.

Monday, 4 June 2012

RED-FOOTED FALCON in Derbyshire

After yesterday's complete wash out we decided to lounge around the garden today and take advantage of the fine weather . There was plenty of weeding to be done and we were keen to see what wildlife was lurking around the cottage. It has been pretty good from the garden over the past few weeks with our first sightings of Short-eared Owl and Red Kite as well as a displaying pair of Hobby and a pair of Yellow Wagtails collecting nesting material.  There have also been both Grey Partridge and Red-legged Partridge in addition to our resident Little Owls and Tawny Owls.

Our priorities suddenly changed however when news of a RED-FOOTED FALCON filtered through this morning.  I have seen quite a few in England over the years however the species was high on Nadia's 'wanted list'. As it was located just twenty-five minutes up the road at Willington Pits we decided to make a move for it as soon as it was pinned down.

Upon arrival the bird could be seen with a bit of patience every now and then as it fed on flying insects along a small section of the River Trent. It would also show perched up on a series of fence posts occasionally where it showed well despite the distance and the bouts of heat haze.  All I need now is for it to fly south into Shakespeare's County and I will be well chuffed.

RED-FOOTED FALCON (first summer male)
Willington Pits, Derbyshire
Photo by Paul of
EREWASH VALLEY WILDLIFE

This excellent Derbyshire Wildlife Trust reserve also provided us with a couple of Hobby sightings in addition to Kestrel and Common Buzzard. There were also a few pairs of Common Tern in the area as well as a good selection of singing warblers.  We also enjoyed good numbers of the stunning Banded Demoiselle damselfly around the reserve entrance. 

Saturday, 2 June 2012

EUROPEAN ROLLER in East Yorkshire

After all the excitement on Tuesday regarding the WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER in Cleveland, there was another bird that I was dying to see. Unfortunately the EUROPEAN ROLLER that was located on the very same day at Spurn had disappeared before we had chance to nail it. My fingers were crossed for the remainder of the week in hope that it would be relocated further along the east coast..... and on Thursday it was.

And so this morning whilst I lay in my slumber at 5.30am I received a text from Dan 'Public Enemy' Pointon to say the that the vibrant visitor from Southern Europe was still present. By 6.30am my partner in birding crime Snapper Richards was knocking on the door and after a quick breakfast he, myself and Nadia were heading north.  Just before 9.00am we were stood on a sunny, country lane on the Yorkshire coast admiring one of the most stunning species of bird out of nearly 600 to have ever grace the British Isles.

EUROPEAN ROLLER - Aldbrough, East Yorkshire
Photo by Adam Archer

My only other experience of ROLLER was way back in the year 2000 when John Scullard and I travelled up to Tyne and Wear to see one feeding distantly around a farm in East Bolden.  Ever since that occasion I had longed for better views and this particular individual duly obliged.  The bird performed exceptionally well around a couple of ploughed fields as it fed on various ground dwelling insects. After a feeding session it would then return to its favourite vantage point in order to scan the surroundings and cough up pellets of any indigestible beetle bits.

EUROPEAN ROLLER - Aldbrough, East Yorkshire
Photo by Adam Archer

With a bird of this stature around it was not too surprising that few other species were picked up during our visit to Aldbrough.  I can just about remember a brief, fly-by Lapwing, a few Common Whitethroat and a singing male Corn Bunting.

EUROPEAN ROLLER
Aldbrough, East Yorkshire
Photo by Sam Viles

Me & Snapper Richards!


Brown-tail Caterpillars on Spurn Point

After all the excitement at Aldbrough we needed to make a decision. Should we journey north to Flamborough and see if the singing Icterine Warbler was still about or should we head south to Spurn and try to find something tasty of our own? Thinking that Flamborough might be heaving with birders we decided upon the latter.

At Spurn Point itself there was nothing feathery to report other than plenty of Common Whitethroats and the odd singing Lesser Whitethroat. There were also one or two Cuckoo amongst the dense clumps of sea-buckthorn no doubt feasting on the thousands of caterpillars that were stripping the vegetation clean. Everywhere you looked there were dozens of caterpillars of the Brown-tail moth, a larvae that are more than capable of causing a whole lot of pain to those that are susceptible to the reaction caused by their irritating hairs. Some unlucky individuals have even needed to seek hospital treatment to ease the pain. In addition there were also good numbers of the larger Garden Tiger moth caterpillar crawling about the place.  Butterfly sightings included a few Small Heath and Common Blue along with the odd Small White and Small Tortoiseshell

Caterpillar of the Brown-tail moth
Spurn Point, East Yorkshire
Photo by Adam Archer

With nothing much happening on the passerine front we then concentrated our efforts on the Humber and the incoming tide. The highlight was a lonely Dark-bellied Brent Goose along with selection of waders in differing seasonal plumage states. These included small numbers of Grey Plover, plenty of Ringed Plover, around 80 Bar-tailed Godwit and numerous Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone.

We then headed up to Beacon Ponds where Adam Hutt had found a pair of Pectoral Sandpipers. Both birds were eventually picked up feeding along the seaward end consorting with a single Curlew Sandpiper. Adam advised me that these birds may have been the same pair that departed Westkapelle in the Netherlands at around 10.00am this morning and arriving at Kilnsea at 2.10pm. This means that they would have travelled around 200 miles during this time supported by a moderate south-easterly tail wind.  Other highlights in this area included a Little Egret, a pair of Grey Partridge, around 16 Little Tern and a few Grey Plover including a snazzy summer-plumaged bird.  The newly created wetland area close to the Easington Road looks promising for a rare wader or two in the future but on our visit today the whole complex produced just a single Ringed Plover..... oh and a Red Fox.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

MEGA ALERT: The WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER in Cleveland

When most rare birds are found in Britain you will more often than not find me slumped at my desk, at work, in the middle of Birmingham staring at a computer screen and tapping away at a keyboard. This morning was no exception. First of all a EUROPEAN ROLLER was reported from Spurn Point. I was already starting to get twitchy, wishing I was out birding somewhere along the English east coast. A few minutes later it got worse, a whole lot worse in fact. A WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER had been trapped and ringed up on Hartlepool Headland. I could almost sense listers up and down the country running around like headless coursers. I could almost hear the clattering of a hundred tripods. I could almost smell the acrid exhaust fumes as a hundred birder's cars screeched off towards Cleveland.

After bribing a few work colleagues and pleading with my sympathetic gaffer, arrangements were made and I finally departed the office at around 11.30am. Back at home I was met by Snapper and after a quick change of clothes and a bite to eat we were on our way. Our progress north was a pretty stressful affair. Despite the positive news that the bird was still present around the outer bowling green, we were receiving snippets of information that gave us cause for concern. The bird had shown on and off throughout the morning but had been completely motionless for a large portion of the time. To make matters even more distressing, when the bird had been processed by the ringers it had shown a 'pectoral score' of zero. In other words, the bird was in a dire physical state following its extended migration from Africa.

WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER
Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland
Photo by Martyn Sidwell

After speeding past a very relaxed looking Lee Evans on the A1, we eventually made it on site just before 3.00pm. After a quick dash up the road we quickly located a friendly face amongst the large crowd of twitchers when our pal Steve Nuttall was found perched upon the edge of the bowling green. His very first words to us were "I've got a really bad feeling about this lads!". About a hour before, the bird had seemed to perk up a little and had began to feed around the sparse shrubbery. All was going well until it was chased off by a male Blackbird and it had not been seen since. My heart sank. 

We continued to scrutinise any movement for a further twenty minutes before what looked like a large, grey coloured warbler darted from left to right and promptly disappeared. It had to be either the WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER or a rogue Blackcap. My heart began to race. After a further twenty minutes there were muffled voices across the other side of the green, the bird had been seen again. I rushed across a few yards to my right where I noticed another familiar face. After a few nervous seconds fellow Warwickshire birder Mike 'Dog' Doughty had put me onto the bird as it clumsily made its way towards the top of a bush. There it remained with just its head and shoulders on view. It was looking restless, it was going to fly and after a few seconds it did just that, high over the pavilion, across the tennis courts and over the roofs of some nearby houses.  It was a mixture of sheer delight and relief that we had seen the bird however the brief views were very disappointing indeed. We had to try and relocate it, especially as ASBO original Ian Moore had turned up just seconds before the bird had flown. I will never forget the look on his distraught, little face.

At this stage the crowd started to disperse. Some birders headed home, satisfied with their views whilst others joined in the search. All the while eager birders from further afield were turning up in various states of panic.  After a quick look around the inner bowling green area I mentioned to Snapper that we should try The Croft, a small walled garden nearby where I had seen a juvenile Woodchat Shrike during October 2010.  We had just entered the gates when the rarity suddenly appeared above us perched up in young tree. After brief scope views it then nervously skirted the perimeter of the gardens before flying over the High Street and towards the back of St Hilda's Church. It then flew once more and was lost to view yet again.  Surely it was making its way back to the refuge of the bowling green.

As we made our way along Marine Drive we picked up that distinctive shape of a 'large grey warbler' fly over our heads once again as we approached the entrance to the outer bowling green. As the bird perched up in a sycamore it was evident that we had relocated the WESTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER again.  For the second time that day throngs of birders descended upon the area and before we knew it we were surrounded by scopes and cameras.

The crowd waits in anticipation!

The bird showed on and off for a while before it settled to bask motionless in the sunlight for over a hour. The rigours of its jaunt around the headland had obviously taken its toll on its already depleted energy levels. At least while the bird rested it gave birders of all abilities the opportunity to see it even though it was largely obscured. Luckily where I stood most of the bird could be seen and the majority of the identification features could be picked out quite easily through the scope. Just after 6.00pm we left Hartlepool thrilled with how the day had eventually turned out and ecstatic with a very nice addition to our British lists.     

Phil Locker, 'The Birding Bouncer' was drafted in to control the crowds!

ORPHEAN WARBLER in Great Britain

It has been over thirty years since the last twitchable ORPHEAN WARBLER has graced the British Isles when a first winter male bird appeared on the Isles of Scilly for a week during October 1981. There have been two records since but one was a single day immature bird in Aberdeenshire and another was a suppressed male singing in a garden in Cornwall. Only the original record in 1955 has been attributed to a specific race following the DNA analysis of a single tail feather that was shed at the time. Results showed that in all probability it was of the race hortensis from western Europe.  The full details of all British records are as follows:

1955 - Western Orphean Warbler - trapped at Portland Bill, Dorset - 20th September only
1967 - Orphean Warbler - trapped at Porthgwarra, Cornwall - 22nd October only
1981 - Orphean Warbler - first winter male on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly - 16th to 22nd October
1982 - Orphean Warbler - immature trapped at Seaton Park, Aberdeenshire - 10th October only
1991 - Orphean Warbler - singing male at Saltash, Cornwall - 20th to 22nd May
2012 - Western Orphean Warbler - first summer male trapped at Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland - 29 May only

Although not yet accepted by BOURC, many authorities around Europe accept that Orphean Warbler now consists of two separate species following evidence put forward by Shirihai et al in 2001:

Western Orphean Warbler Sylvia (hortensis) hortensis - This form breeds in North Africa from Morocco to north-west Libya, north through the Iberian peninsula to southern France with small numbers in southern Switzerland and Italy. It spends the winter in sub-Saharan Africa from southern Mauretania and northern Senegal to Chad.

Eastern Orphean Warbler Sylvia (hortensis) crassirostris - This form is actually split into three 'subspecies'. The form crassirostris breeds in Slovenia and Croatia south through the Balkans to Greece and east through Turkey as well as Armenia, north-east Libya and Israel. The form balchanica breeds in southern Transcaspia, Turkmenistan, Iran and Jordan and east through to Pakistan, Afghanistan and north to the Tien Shan Mountains in south-east Kazakhstan. Not a great deal is known regarding the breeding area of the form jerdoni however it apparently winters in the Indian subcontinent.

The recommendation for splitting the Western and Eastern forms was based upon DNA differences, upperpart tone, undertail pattern, bill biometrics, the extent of the dark hood in adult male's, the whiteness of the underparts and the differences in song.  It may well prove impossible for BOURC to assign the other historical British records to race however most Spring records probably relate to hortensis

Monday, 28 May 2012

GREY PLOVER at Alvecote Pools

After thirty-odd years of working my local patch I have only ever had the odd brief, fly through Grey Plover and all of those sightings have come from the Staffordshire side of the complex.  I was therefore thrilled to bits to hear one call this morning whilst scanning Mill Pool and even more excited when the bird, a magnificent summer-plumaged individual dropped down to feed on the tiny exposed spit. After initially becoming the victim of a bit of Lapwing bullying the bird managed to hold its own and settle down for the day.

Grey Plover - Mill Pool, Alvecote Pools SSSI, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer 

After spending most of the day feeding on and off around the sandy spit on Mill Pool the bird eventually got pushed off by a group of Black-headed Gulls early this evening. It then fed around the grassy margins of the same pool until I left the site at around 8.30pm.  It was great to enjoy the bird to the maximum whilst being drenched in the warm, spring sunshine.

Grey Plover - Mill Pool, Alvecote Pools SSSI, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer 

The only disappointment of the day was missing an Osprey pass through whilst I was having my lunch at about 2.30pm.  Other highlights however included another batch of Lapwing chicks around Teal Pool and a Ringed Plover and a single Common Sandpiper again around Mill Pool.

Lapwing - Teal Pool, Alvecote Pools SSSI, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer
Ringed Plover - Mill Pool, Alvecote Pools, Warwickshire
Photo by Adam Archer

Monday, 21 May 2012

EUROPEAN NIGHTJAR in Warwickshire

Ladywalk signage..... with Peacock butterfly

After suffering the unbearable pain of toothache and popping more pain killers than Michael Jackson once did when he stubbed his toe, I lay there in bed this afternoon feeling very sorry for myself indeed. My misery was even more deep as I had missed two excellent local birds over the weekend. Firstly a Sanderling dropped in at Alvecote Pools on Saturday, a much needed 'patch tick' and secondly a male Bluethroat sang its heart out at Doxey Marsh in Staffordshire all day yesterday. This would have been a blinding additional to my regional species tally.  Needless to say, both birds decided to depart before I made it back from Norfolk.

Then the phone rang. It was a text message from the self-proclaimed 'Voice of the Tame Valley', Tom Perrins. A European Nightjar had been found just down the road at Ladywalk Nature Reserve. Despite hearing and seeing loads of these birds over the years in the neighbouring County of Staffordshire, this was a species that was mega rare in Shakespeare's County of Warwickshire.

European Nightjar - Ladywalk WMBC Reserve, Warwickshire.
Photo by Adam Archer



 

Within a few minutes we were on site and watching the bird from the hide as it roosted in a silver birch tree on the opposite side of Rudd Pool. This was not the usual favoured heathland habitat of this species, however I have seen European Nightjar in stranger locations. Around this time last year I witnessed the unbelievable spectacle of a bird singing from lamp posts on a busy retail park just outside Barnsley in South Yorkshire. At one stage I even had to flush the bird as it rested in the middle of the road completely unaware of a fast approaching bus!

European Nightjar - Ladywalk WMBC Reserve, Warwickshire.
Photo by Dave Hutton

I then headed around to a different viewing position where the bird showed closer but a little obscured. Whilst we stood admiring the recent arrival from sub-Saharan Africa it gave us a short rendition of its distinctive churring song. It was amazing to witness the throat gently vibrating away as it emitted one of the strangest sounds the natural world has to offer. To make the whole experience even better I did not feel the pain of my troublesome tooth once..... nature is the greatest cure!  

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A Morning on Cannock Chase

A nice relaxing Sunday morning stroll around Cannock Chase this morning provided a much needed fix of Spring migrants. After the appalling weather over the past few weeks, the sun was shining and the birds were certainly making the most of it.  The obvious highlights were the recent arrivals from the African continent who choose our glorious islands to raise their next generation.  At least one Cuckoo was spotted hunting caterpillars on the heathland and at least four Wood Warblers showed well in various parts of the woodland.  A pair of Pied Flycatchers remained elusive and a handsome male Common Redstart sang its heart out high in the canopy.  An added bonus was a flock of 18 Common Crossbill, a few of which performed well feeding on pine cones just above our heads.

Treebeard (left) meets Nadia (right)!

Other highlights included my first Garden Warbler of the year, numerous Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Willow Warbler and single sightings Common Whitethroat and Tree Pipit.  The best of the resident bunch of woodland specialities included Sparrowhawk, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Goldcrest.

Unfortunately I am unable to provide exact locations of my sightings due to the continued risk of egg-collectors operating in the area. Whilst out in the field at this time of the year please remain cautious of what information you pass on to folks. Already this Spring there have been instances where a known local egg thief has been targeting scarce breeding species.  If you witness any suspicious behaviour then please gather as much information as possible, including detailed descriptions of the individuals concerned and take a note of car registration numbers if possible.  Do not hesitate to pass this information onto the Police at the earliest opportunity. 

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Possible ATLAS FLYCATCHER in Yorkshire!

The 'Birding Emperor of East Yorkshire'; Sir Brett Richards located a funky looking first summer male ficedula at Flamborough last Saturday and Mmmmmm it looked to be a pretty interesting bird indeed.  With no sign of it on Sunday it was then relocated along Lighthouse Road on the Monday. At this stage the mystery bird was caught and processed and then released nearby amidst the wooded ravine of South Landing.  The measurements taken fell within those expected of ATLAS FLYCATCHER but a bird of this particular age is not safely identified on plumage alone. With this in mind a few precious feathers that became loose were safely collected in the hope that DNA analysis could clinch the identification for certain.  Other possibilities are that the bird is an Iberian Pied Flycatcher or maybe a hybrid Pied x Collared Flycatcher.

Throughout the week the bird's identity was discussed at great length, see Surfbirds for one of the best internet discussions.  With other ATLAS FLYCATCHERS being claimed elsewhere in Europe this Spring: two in mainland Italy, two on Sicily, one in Spain and another dodging the trappers on Malta, surely this increases the probability that we could have a British first on our tick-hungry hands?

The Funky Flamborough Ficedula... but what is it?
Photo by Steve Nuttall

With the debate continuing I eventually cracked under the immense pressure and managed to take the afternoon off work this afternoon. I had a good feeling in my bones that this bird could be the next 'big one' and I did not want to miss the possible opportunity of a lifetime.  The journey from Birmingham to Bridlington (via Coventry) went smoothly enough and just after 3.00pm we arrived on site.  Initially the bird was quite elusive but after a bit of perseverance we eventually enjoyed superb views of it along the south east side of the valley. At one stage it called continuously for about a minute as it fed close to a roosting Tawny Owl. It was not reminiscent of the sharp hwit call of the familiar Pied Flycatcher but was more like a subtle hweeet type sound.  Happy that we had witnessed all of the prime features for ourselves we then made our way back to the car park via the seaward end of the ravine. As we climbed the steep hill I picked up the bird yet again and even closer views were obtained this time.

..... and so we all await the results of the DNA analysis with baited breath!

If you have an opinion on what you think this intriguing bird actually is then please feel free to vote in the poll on the right hand side.....

ATLAS FLYCATCHER... the story so far!


Back in the days the humble Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca was spilt into four different subspecies. The race that breeds in Britain and other areas of northern and western Europe is F. h. hypoleuca and known as European or Western Pied Flycatcher. Further east the race F. h. sibirica or Siberian Pied Flycatcher breeds east of the Ural mountain range. Down in south west Europe the race F. h. iberiae or Iberian Pied Flycatcher has a localised breeding range in southern Spain and Portugal. The final race in the group was F. h. speculigera that breeds across the Mediterranean along the Atlas mountain range of north west Africa.

The structure above was then revised during 2001 when the DNA diversity of the 'black & white flycatcher' complex was studied in more detail.  The news at this time surprised most birders when it was discovered that Semi-collared Flycatcher was the ancestor of both Pied Flycatcher and Collared Flycatcher and that these were more closely related to each other than either of them was to Semi-collared Flycatcher. In addition it was also realised that the 'race' breeding in north west Africa was both phylogenetically and morphologically distinct. As a result of this conclusion the authors of the study recommended that this form should be treated as a separate species and named Atlas Flycatcher. The genetic distance of this 'new' species suggested that genetically it was further diverged from both Pied and Collared Flycatchers than they actually are from each other.

Atlas Flycatcher arrives on its breeding grounds at the end of April. It has been recorded on migration in Senegal and Algeria and there is just a single winter record from the Ivory Coast.  Back in 2003 Graham Etherington and Brian Small mentioned in their Birding World identification article that there was a possibility as with all trans-Saharan migrants that there was a chance of spring overshoots occurring in Britain and north west Europe.  They also stated that the end of April or the beginning of May would be the most likely period for their arrival here.  Could their prophecy come true over the next few weeks?

STOP PRESS - 12 May 2012


The DNA results have now been received!  Martin Collinson and his students at Aberdeen University have concluded that the bird is actually a European Pied Flycatcher.  Surely such a shocking announcement as this should have been televised live on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

BLACK-WINGED STILTS in the West Midlands

Whilst sat scouring over some dull scientific paper regarding the Herring Gull and the theory disproving it as being a 'ring species' a sudden text message woke me from my dribbling coma. It was no other than Jules Allen and he was messaging me via the medium of SMS, it had to be important and it was.... not one but two BLACK-WINGED STILTS at Clayhanger!

Since 1987 this is a species that had taunted me to the point of madness. A very mobile pair of birds had turned up at my patch, Alvecote Pools at the end of May of that year and were soon witnessed mating. They then relocated just a short distance away to a couple of flooded fields where their presence was kept secret just in case they stuck around to breed. Unfortunately I was too busy levering Volkswagen badges off cars and getting out of my spotty, teenage face on Thunderbirds around this period of the 1980's. By the time I heard about them from my old science teacher, they had long disappeared.

So despite me seeing several of these gangly freaks in Britain before, I had never connected with a single one within the entire West Midlands region.  After negotiating my way out of Birmingham City centre then across to Seckington to collect my scope and then back over to Walsall it was nearly 6.00pm. During all this time I was paranoid that some dog-walker or chavvy teenager might saunter through this heavily disturbed area and flush the rarities before I arrived. Luckily though the constant heavy showers over the past few days had probably deterred most members of the public from taking an early evening stroll. As I picked my way along the muddy track towards the swag I caught a glimpse of a stilt in the distance, quickly followed by the second bird.

The pair of BLACK-WINGED STILTS
Clayhanger Marsh, West Midlands.
All photos courtesy of Mark Rayment

Both birds then continued to show well as they fed hungrily around the pools, often calling and making short flights to alternative feeding areas. Also in the same area was a handsome Black-tailed Godwit, a mobile Oystercatcher and a pair of Lapwing, not bad for a site wedged into a heavily built-up urban area.  After a while a few familiar faces started to turn up. Snapper Richards arrived straight from work without any optical equipment whatsoever. Luckily for him I had brought along Nadia's pair of girly Leicas for him to use as a temporary measure (see photo below).  Jules Allen and Tom Perrins then followed up the rear just in the nick of time. As they extended their respective tripod legs both birds called, took flight and headed off high in a south-westerly direction.

BLACK-WINGED STILT
Clayhanger Marsh, West Midlands.
BLACK-WINGED STILT
Clayhanger Marsh, West Midlands.

We all then converged on the Mere to see if they had gone to roost on one of the islands there. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Continental duo but whilst I was checking I did manage to pick up my first pair of Common Tern for the year.  Other birds of interest included a trio of unseasonal Goosander, a pair of Swallow and a singing Willow Warbler.

Adrian Edmondson adds a new species to his
Staffordshire list!
Former MP Robin Cook & the Rt Hon. Ed Miliband
just about made it before the birds flew!

The BLACK-WINGED STILT in the West Midlands

The Clayhanger pair become the first ever record for the West Midlands County however there have been a fair few sightings in 'Staffordshire proper' over the years. A full list of sightings for the entire wider region is as follows:

1968 - Belvide, Staffordshire - one bird from 11th to 16th June.
1986 - Larford, Worcestershire - one first summer bird from 14th to 16th June.
1987 - Alvecote Pools area, Warwickshire - an immature pair from 28th May to 4th June.
1987 - Belvide, Staffordshire - two juveniles from 1st to 7th September.
1991 - Croxall Pits, Staffordshire - adult male from 28th April to 13th May.
1995 - Blithfield, Staffordshire - two adults on 11th May.
2006 - Upton Warren, Worcestershire - one bird on 21st to 22nd May.
2012 - Clayhanger Marsh, West Midlands - on 19th April.

STOP PRESS:
The Clayhanger birds are now present 120 miles north of Pelsall at Leighton Moss RSPB in Lancashire (as at 20th April 2012).  Will they settle down to attempt breeding or will they move again?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Alvecote Springs Into Life!

An enjoyable stroll around the patch this morning produced some cracking Spring migrants. In the Mill Pool area we stumbled upon our first Common Swift of the year along with a pair of House Martin among the small groups of Swallow and Sand Martin. At least 3 Willow Warbler were in full song along with the same number of Blackcap.

Over on the Staffordshire side of the reserve the highlight was a handsome male Common Redstart feeding amongst the apple trees in the Old Orchard.  In a field nearby, a small flock of 5 Northern Wheatear were present. One of the birds (see photo below) stood out from the rest in that it was slightly stockier and had a brighter buff wash over most of it's underparts. It is possible that it could have been of the race leucorhoa, one of the true miracles of migration. It is amazing to think that these birds are more than capable of making the arduous journey from sub-Saharan Africa to their breeding grounds around the coasts of Greenland. 

Possible leucorhoa Northern Wheatear
Alvecote Pools, Staffordshire
In addition, the semi-resident drake Hooded Merganser was spotted on Pretty Pigs Pool along with the usual Mute x Whooper Swan hybrid.  Other marvels of nature included a pair of Grass Snake basking in the sunshine and a recently built Long-tailed Tit nest.... awesome!

Friday, 6 April 2012

COMMON CRANE in Staffordshire

The Common Crane has become a bit of a local bogey bird for me over the years, especially as I painfully missed out of one flying over my old house in Polesworth one morning when I was brushing my teeth!  Earlier in the week my good pal Snapper Richards managed to add the species to his County list when one made a brief appearance near Cannock.  I lived in hope that it would reappear somewhere within the West Midlands region and thankfully it did.  The only issue was that Britain's first twitchable   THAYER'S GULL had been found just a few hours drive away in North Lincolnshire. It was a tricky choice!

After a few wrong turnings I finally managed to locate Radford Meadows just south-east of Stafford and after a quick stroll along the canal the target bird was soon located. Even at some distance a crane is not a bird you can miss!  The bird showed well as it grubbed around in the damp meadow but it always remained safely out in the middle of the reserve hence the poor record shots below.

COMMON CRANE
Radford Meadows SWT, Staffordshire 
COMMON CRANE
Radford Meadows SWT, Staffordshire
Another highlight was a pair of rather elusive Garganey. They favoured a narrow brook that was hardly visible from the towpath but luckily they chose to rest up in small reedy area that was viewable for a brief period.  Other birding highlights included the odd singing Chiffchaff and on the mammal front a Red Fox and a pair of Brown Hare.

Garganey (female & male)
Radford Meadows SWT, Staffordshire