Friday, 30 December 2011

Deserted Desert Wheatear - 30th December 2011

Desert Wheatear - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, East Yorkshire, 30 December 2011

No birding so far this Christmas holiday has made indiebirder a dull boy. So when I got the chance to have a morning out on my own, I jumped at the chance to get to the east coast at RSPB Bempton Cliffs for a bracing walk and, with luck, a gander at the long-staying Desert Wheatear.

There are few birds round Bempton in winter, compared to the overcrowded cliffs and overwhelming smell that accompanies the auks, gannets, kittiwakes, and fulmar in summer. Not many birders here in winter either – the place felt deserted when I arrived at 09:00. But still, there were loads of Tree Sparrow around the visitor centre and Linnets in the fields on the day I was there. A few Skylark and Meadow Pipits in the fields, Jackdaw and Carrion Crow, and the plentiful Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove population made up the full avifauna. Oh, and a Desert Wheatear.

Desert Wheatear - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, East Yorkshire, 30 December 2011

 Desert Wheatear - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, East Yorkshire, 30 December 2011

 Desert Wheatear - Bempton Cliffs RSPB, East Yorkshire, 30 December 2011

It took a while to locate, giving me time to take the sea air; but once it was out in the open it showed very well. A peach of a bird – much more clearly marked than I imagined. As a birder pointed out to me, it looked exactly like the pictures in the guide books.

I failed big style on the music front on this trip. My wife had cleared the car of CDs recently, after my daughter had developed a healthy (in my view) appetite for early Black Sabbath and insisted on playing Masters of Reality during every journey. The radio let me down badly. On Radio 2 there was Richard Madeley describing a Steely Dan track as “preeeeeety good” in a whispered mid-Atlantic accent during the song’s outro; and then there was a documentary on Carole King’s brilliant Tapestry album, but the inane questions from Johnnie Walker, and the defensive answers from Carole, detracted from the actual tracks. Rubbish. Then the Hagen String Quartet played Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major Op.130 for strings, with Grosse Fuge finale. It nearly gave me an epileptic fit in the frantic middle bit, but not in a good way. Not the best twitching music I’d heard, but I’m off to No Hands at the Bradford Polish Club tonight. Always a treat.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Feeding Frenzy

Winter must be nearly here - the bird feeders in our new garden (new-ish: we only moved here in March) were very busy this weekend. On Saturday the were twelve species feeding on the seeds from just one feeder, all at the same time: Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Robin, Dunnock, Blackbird, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Collard Dove, and Wood Pigeon - either on the feeder or on the ground below.

Also in the garden at the same time were: Starling, Mistle Thrush, Wren, and Magpie, with Carrion Crow and Jackdaw on the roof opposite, and Black-headed Gull overhead. All this from just a couple of minutes looking through the kitchen window while the kettle boiled: 19 species in all. We struggled to get that many in a whole year in the garden of our last house! The garden list stands at 30 species now, after the flock of 15+ Fieldfare that flew over on 9th November.

Seeing so many birds on our feeder reminded me of my trip to Dumfries and Galloway with the family during the cold January of 2009. We had a week in a cottage on the edge of a farm near Kirkcudbright. During our stay I put a feeder up on one of the farm buildings near the drive, and recorded the birds that came to it.

Before the feeder was up (Sunday 18th) I’d seen a maximum of 2 Chaffinches in the drive area (I didn’t record any other seed-eaters). On the first morning after the feeder was up (Tuesday 20th), there were 6 Chaffinch, 1 Greenfinch, and 1 House Sparrow on/below the feeder. On Wednesday 21st, there were 8 Chaffinch, 1 Great Tit, 1 Blue Tit, and 5 House Sparrow. By Thursday 22nd: 17+ Chaffinches, 10+ House Sparrows, plus Blue and Great Tits present (no numbers recorded).

It’s interesting (well, to me anyway) how, after the feeder is first put up, the Chaffinch and House Sparrow numbers practically doubled from one day to the next. It’s also interesting that the Greenfinch numbers didn’t increase – perhaps the seeds were not suitable. Also the Tit numbers didn’t increase significantly (not that I recorded anyway); maybe the larger finches and sparrows intimidated them. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay long enough to see when the bird numbers levelled off.

Looking back at my notes from the time, I noticed that I didn’t record the birds on the feeder on the last morning. This is because I left before dawn to go birding at Loch Ken - nearly putting the car in a ditch on very icy roads in the process. It was that morning I found probably the rarest bird I’ll ever find: a Snow Goose. It was with a very flighty Greylag flock on the banks or the River Dee at Glenlochar. I managed to photograph it through my scope before they all took flight.

Snow Goose - Glenlochar, Dumfries and Galloway, 24th January 2009

I did plenty of research into this bird after I got back, to find out if this was known locally as an escape (it wasn't). I also discussed it with Chris Baines on the Dumfries and Birding Yahoo Group, before I was happy it was the real deal. Local birders seemed happy it was genuine, and the sighting even got a mention in Bird Watching magazine - it certainly was the high point of that holiday.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

November WeBS counts

This Sunday, 20th November, was the monthly BTO WeBS count day, and I duly arrived at Rodley Nature Reserve at 07:45. It’s been a mild month, but the reserve thermometer read 4C, and the fog was very, very thick (just like last November).

Still, we managed to pick out some goodies, including a new reserve record of 64 Gadwall, with 58 on the main lagoon (Stop press: now up to 72 by 23rd November). The annual winter Linnet flock must total 300 at the moment, though it breaks up occasionally and is very mobile, making it difficult to count. Up to a couple of hundred were in the trees near the manager’s garden at one point, and the clamorous twittering sounded very evocative on a misty November morning.

58 Gadwall are on that water, somewhere – Rodley NR, 20th November 2011

Other highlights were three Snipe on the duck marsh, a lovely male Goosander on the Lagoon, a Willow Tit by the visitor centre, six Siskin near the car park, and a few sightings of Roe Deer, and some very red Blushing Bracket Fungus.

Blushing Bracket (Daedaleopsis confragosa) – Rodley NR, 20th November 2011

Later, I spent the afternoon with my children in a misty Northcliffe Woods. Plenty of Nuthatch about, and Wood Pigeon, Jay and Carrion Crow. Not much else, despite my kids keeping a diligent lookout.

Northcliffe Woods, Bradford – 20th November 2011

Unfortunately, I couldn’t do my other WeBS count, on a section of the River Aire where I work, until Tuesday – a day later than usual. The WeBS species seen were: 62 Mallard (35 males; 27 females). 2 Kingfisher (good to see numbers holding steady), 2 Goosander (female/imm), 5 Moorhen, and 65 Black-headed Gull. No Dipper, unfortunately. My friend surveys the section immediately upstream, and he had three Dipper the day before.

The other highlights were 18 Pied Wagtail on the house roof opposite Dowley Gap sewage works, with at least another 10 on the filter beds; circa 20 Siskin in beach tree near the Bradford Rowing Club; 2 calling Great Spotted Woodpecker; plus Nuthatch, Treecreeper, and around ten Goldfinch.

The most productive area was in (and under) just one London Plane tree between the bowling green and river at Salts Sports, Saltaire. In this tree were: 10 Redwing, 1 Fieldfare, 2 Mistle Thrush, 6 Blackbird, 1 Jay, 2 Bullfinch, 2 Treecreeper, 4 Wood Pigeon, 1 Chaffinch, 1 Robin, plus a mixed Tit flock of Long-tailed, Great, Blue and Coal Tit. There may have been more, but I just couldn't keep up with them all…

Monday, 21 November 2011

Greater Yellowlegs, Hauxley Nature Reserve - Saturday 19th November 2011

Greater Yellowlegs, Hauxley Nature Reserve - 19th November 2011

I had a drive up the A1 through the foggy darkness this Saturday morning, to see a lovely American rarity: a Greater Yellowlegs.

This was one I really didn’t want to miss; not only is it a beautiful bird (think a more graceful Greenshank), but they don’t get over this side of the pond very often. In fact, this year has already had one, for three day in Cornwall in September, but I was never in a position to get to see it. Another had been reported earlier, but this had turned out to be a Greenshank. I think a lot of birders learnt a lot about “Greaterlegs” (and Greenshanks) during that episode, even the ones like me that didn’t go and see it.

This one was the real deal, a juvenile that had been watched and photographed by many people since first being identified a week earlier. It then spent the week commuting between three reserves at the northern end of Druridge Bay: Hauxley Nature Reserve, Druridge Bay Country Park, and East Chevington NWT Reserve.

I arrived at Druridge Bay CP at first light, where it had been last seen the evening before, only to get a message that it was being watched from Eric’s Hide at Hauxley. Two minutes’ drive and two minutes’ jog later I was at Eric’s. As I entered, the bird then flew up calling, going north to the hide I’d just passed. After some comedy running by ungainly blokes in wellies carrying unwieldy tripods, scopes and cameras, we all raced into the spacious Wader Hide.

Before long bird ambled nonchalantly around the corner. A slightly slender Greenshank with a finer bill; perhaps with a jerkier gait, and lots of head bobbing and tail flicking, And its legs were so yellow in the early morning sun! Cue lots of good-natured pushing to get a good view (everyone got one), and lots of mummers of appreciation between the camera clicks. The bird flew a couple of time while I was on site, giving good views of its reduced white rump (cf. the massive white triangle on a Greenshank).

No missing those legs.

The bird was finding plenty to eat.

The Greaterlegs seemed oblivious to other birds and birders.

The bird was seen in the area again today at Cresswell Pond NWT, but flew south early afternoon. Maybe the fog, which I guessed was keeping it around longer than most had predicted, had cleared enough. Hopefully it’ll be found further south in the country, so more people can get a look at this beauty.

Here's some video I took of the bird. It's not the best video of this bird (not by a long shot), as it was filmed with a Canon Ixus compact camera. Hopefully it shows how good the views were for the birders present, and gives a flavour of the atmosphere in the hide (lots of cameras going off). It was a beautiful morning. In the last few seconds the bird flies off, calling as it sets off.

I had an hour or more in the hide, during which there was quite a turnover of viewers. I remain surprised by the brief views many people seemed happy with; then they were off to Holy Island to see the Eastern Black Redstart I guess.

I drove south for a mile and parked up at on the coast at Hadston Links, from where I spent a lovely 90 minutes of lazy seawatching: two Red-throated Divers, a small flock of 15 Common Scoter, lots of Common Eider, another diver heading north, Shag going south, plenty of gulls, the odd Guillemot (that could have been Razorbills) going in all directions, the odd Oystercatcher flying south, plus Redshank and Sanderling on the beach.

A brilliant morning of birding in fantastic part of the country; rounded off with a journey down a sunny A1, listening to the excellent Wire Tapper 27 thinking how lucky I am.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Hume's Leaf Warbler - South Gare, Cleveland, Saturday 12th November

Teesmouth from South Gare, Cleveland - 12th November 2011

I’d been itching to try out my new binoculars all week last week. They’d arrived on Monday 7th and I’d not been able to look at anything more than the birds on my garden feeders in the early morning gloom before going top work.

Next weekend – Sunday 20th – is the monthly WeBS count day, so I knew I’d be getting some good patch birding in then. But this weekend I had the second half of Saturday to go birding and break them in. So what better than to use my new bins on an east coast Phylloscopus leaf warbler on autumn passage? Phylloscopus humei to be precise: Hume’s Leaf Warbler. That’s exactly what these Minox 8.5x42 HG APO binoculars were made for!

A Hume’s had been reported on Friday 11th in a gully at the end of South Gare, Cleveland. It was still around on Saturday morning, and I arrived early afternoon. I was lucky – I didn’t have to wait more then five minutes for it to fly up from a bush right in front of me.

The bird showed really well for the 90 minutes I watched. It gave a birder like me - with no previous experience of this species - an easy lesson in identification. It looked like slightly chubbier than a Yellow-browed Warbler, less sleek and perhaps smaller. The bill looked smaller, but this could have been due to the plump-looking body. The supercillium looked paler, perhaps ending sooner behind the eye with a slight upwards point. The upper parts were certainly greyer than on a Yellow-brow, and there was only one clear white wing-bar, rather than two. The under parts were a shade darker, though the bird looked quite bright when in the harsh bright sunlight.

It moved spritely through the bushes in the little ravine, with the birder having a great view from above as it popped up into the late afternoon sunlight. I spent half my time fielding questions about the bird from passers-by and dog-walkers – maybe I looked the most approachable...

There were no other birds in the ravine, but there were some great birds nearby – all of which I missed. A Black Redstart had apparently been frightened off by birders/photographers/dogs (take your pick) before I arrived, and I couldn’t refind it. A look across the water didn’t turn up the reported Black Guillemot, and the Long-eared Owl that had apparently dropped in by the road back inland kept hidden from me and the others looking for it.

It was a great little bird to see – and the new bins performed beautifully (going to have to get better at focussing them quickly though). Nice little trip – regardless of missing all the supporting cast.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Birding Leeds Damnation Festival? Err, no.

But I did get over to Spurn to see an Isabelline Wheatear, before then heading off to Leeds to enjoy the delights of beer and grindcore at Damnation Fest

Damnation is a one-day festival of heavier metal held each year at Leeds University Union, this year on Saturday 5th November. My plan for the day had been to go birding first thing with the local bird group, the Bradford Ornithology Group, but after some mix-up with the car, I couldn’t get there for the start time.

But, as luck would have it, an Isabelline Wheatear had turned up at Spurn late the previous day. So by the time my wife had brought my daughter back from her violin lesson in the car, I was all ready to set off to the east coast.

I arrived at the Narrows on Spurn at 12:30 and in no time at all I was on to the bird: flew past me northwards in a gently undulating way, landing maybe 15 metres away. A pale, upright wheatear, the colour of the damp sand it stood on, looking long-legged and quite graceful. It wagged its tailed as it ran around the flotsam on the western beach, occasionally stooping to pick at insects. In flight you could see the extra white on the rump and tail (as opposed to the common-in-these-parts-in-Autumn Northern Wheatear), with the black looking like more of a band than a full inverted T.

I checked the other ID features (admittedly, many of which I’d only learnt that morning, but that’s the point of twitching – seeing, and learning about, something new). The wing coverts were the same colour as the mantle, there was a clear dark line through the eye (the supercilium was feint), and then there were those longer legs, short tail, and upright stance. A lovely bird.

Since the bird landed near me around 50 other birders had come up the track to join me from where they’d been watching it earlier. The bird had been getting people running up and down the beach, and occasionally over to the eastern beach, all morning. I stuck around the same area, getting great views each time it came back; the best being as I was leaving – it landed not five metres from me.

Waiting for the Isabelline Wheatear to fly back -
Spurn Point, East Yorkshire, 5th November 2011

This was an impulsive, smash-and-grab twitching job, but made up for missing the local bird walk in the morning. Anyway, Isabelline Wheatears tend not to stick around more than a day, so to me it was a no-brainer for me to twitch it.

I headed back just as the first bands were coming on stage back in Leeds, and I arrived at Leeds University Union about 16:00. And immediately got lost. The place has certainly changed in the, ahem, 20 years since I left the Uni. It took me ages to get my bearings and find all the stages and my friends, and the bar, etc.

Damnation is an interesting festival, with a relatively low-key line-up this year. I guess I enjoyed meeting friends and have a laugh as much as seeing the bands, but the ones that stuck out were Doom (sounding more powerful with their old-school crust than many of the younger bands on show), and Godflesh (always going to be my favourite band, even though this performance wasn’t a patch on the one at Supersonic last year. JKB left the stage at the end looking unhappy, most likely because of a technical glitch mid-set threw their focus - word of advice Justin: get a decent roadie. I'll do it for free if you want. But great to see them all the same). Here's a picture of them, sort of, from the mosh pit:

Godflesh, Damnation Festival, Leeds - 5th November 2011

It was good to meet up with some old friends and see some bands I haven’t seen in years. Plus seeing the Izzy Wheatear gave me an excuse for a few extra (too many) beers…

Monday, 31 October 2011

Pallas’s Warbler and Firecrest at Kilnsea, East Yorkshire - 28th October 2011

Looking west towards Hull from Kilnsea - 28th October 2011

I took another day off work on Friday 28th October, giving me another chance to catch up with some migrants on the east coast. The plan was to spend the morning around Spurn and the afternoon treating the kids to a meal in Leeds and trip to Tropical World. Everything went swimmingly.

An early start (05:00) and I was in the Crown and Anchor car park for 07:30. I hadn’t been out of the car two minutes before the high-pitched squeak of Goldcrest came from the bushes. Two Goldcrest made their way along the hedge from behind the smokers’ shelter, and with them was a superb Firecrest. Its size, its striking facial stripes, those bronze “shoulders”, and of course the fiery crown stripe, always make this bird a joy to see.

If I had to choose a favourite bird, it would be the Firecrest, ever since I saw my first ones near Carcassonne, France, in 2006. I saw my first in the UK near the local sewage works while on my way to work on 21 January 2007 – an overwintering bird that was perhaps overshadowed by the presence at the same time of an American Robin just 400 metres away! I found lots of them while on holiday in Andalucía, Spain, last year, including several in the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, and some in the fir trees in a playground in Trevélez - Europe’s highest village – on the southern flanks of the Sierra Nevada.

My daughter and I did some drawing the later in the day. I drew a Firecrest, for which she drew me a “Well Done” sticker…

Firecrest - 28th October 2011

While at the car park I saw a few other birds of note, not least a very late Swallow going south, directly overhead, a small group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese, also heading south, loads of Redwing, Fieldfare, and Blackbird, and lots of Blackcap plus the odd Chiffchaff.

I actually got a “lifer” while at Kilnsea: a lovely Pallas’s Warbler. While I was in the churchyard, looking into the garden at Kew (between the Crown and Anchor pub and Kilnsea Church), another birder called me over, saying he thought he had it. Flitting between the branches, not much above head-height was a small, olive-green warbler with a clear, wide, yellow supercilium (more orangey near the bill), and a very obvious black eye-stripe. It also had one clear yellow wing-bar (the bird was very flighty, and so the wings were difficult to see for any length of time) and it spent a lot of its time hovering hummingbird-like when searching for food. It didn’t catch the crown-stripe, but did catch hat looked like a yellow rump. The other birder was adamant he’d seen this.

Soon it was gone. I was pretty chuffed with the bird as a Pallas’s, but still wanted better views before ticking it. It wasn’t a Yellow-browed Warbler, the black eye-stripe and orange tone to the front end of the super made that obvious (I only recently saw my second Yellow-browed Warbler, while at Flamborough 12 days earlier). Fortunately, after some searching, it was relocated in Church Field, and me and 20 or so other birders all got decent enough views (and photos) to confirm it.

Looking south towards Spurn Point from Kilnsea - 28th October 2011

I had a quick look out over the estuary at the waders - mostly Knot, Redshank, and Curlew - before heading to Leeds for lunch with the family. On the way I listened to Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3. Some wonderful music form various Finnish composers: most notably Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus arcticus (Concerto for birds and orchestra) Op.61 (with taped birdsong, including Curlew, Skylark and Whooper Swan), and Kaija Saariaho's Notes on light for cello and orchestra (Translusence). Brilliant stuff, and perfect for a bright, clear, cold day, post-birding.

So, not bad for a morning’s work: a lifer, taking me to 288, and another 2011 tick, taking me to 212 for the year so far. Having bought an old, decrepit house in need of much work this year, plus having started an RSPB youth group, and having been so stressed at work I’m now on medication for depression, plus having two brilliant kids taking up a lot of my time, I think I’ve done well getting to see what I have so far this year.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Birding Blackpool Illuminations?!

Yep, it’s that time of year again - the now annual family trip to the west coast of Lancashire, to the tacky glory that is Blackpool.

As a child I’d come here with my family at least once a year here for holidays, short breaks, to stay with friends, and of course to see the Illuminations.We often stayed in a friend’s caravan just inland at Great Eccleston; it was here, as an eight-year-old boy, I first watched a Lapwing perform its distraction display, pretending to have a broken wing, trying to lure a Carrion Crow away from the Lapwing’s nest.

Starlings, Blackpool, Lancashire - 24th October 2011

Well, there was no birding on the agenda this year, just a quick trip over the Pennines with our two youngsters to go on a pier, ride on a tram, and enjoy the lights. Fortunately, my kids are trained well. At dusk, while we were on the North Pier, my three-year-old son started shouting and pointing to the sky – at the fantastic flock of Starlings that were circling over our heads. There was a huge pulsating mass of dark arrows, wings hissing as they passed close.

The birds created some great shapes, and my six-year-old daughter said, “It’s just like we've seen on the TV! Now they’re making the shape of a seahorse!” The main group would break into several smaller ones and create new shapes; at one point, one of these groups landed on the beach to form a large black pool…

Starlings, Blackpool, Lancashire - 24th October 2011

What a lovely bonus: my kids were so excited by the whole spectacle. And they liked the illuminations too…

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Pallid Harrier at Saltholme RSPB, Cleveland, Saturday 22nd October

Another autumn weekend and another opportunity to see a great bird. This time, a Pallid Harrier at Saltholme RSPB, Cleveland. An eagle-eyed local birder found the bird on Thursday 20th and suspected it was a rare Pallid, not the more usual (but lovely all the same) Hen Harrier. Props to him – an excellent find. It being a completely new bird for me I rearranged some weekend jobs and set off early on Saturday 22nd to Saltholme.

If you've never been to Saltholme, I highly recommend it. There’s more then enough habitat to keep any birder, general naturalist, or family occupied for a whole day (great map here). I love it, if for no other reason, because of the wonderful views I got of a pair of Water Voles about three metres away in a pool by a path in bright sunshine last year.

After an hour or so of looking around Dormans Pool (with a fair few other birders), we hadn’t relocated the bird. There was a good chance it was still in the area, and I wanted to have a look round the reserve proper, once it opened; so I decided I’d try my luck with a pair Richard’s Pipits pone the coast at Boulby first. Then I could be back at lunchtime and do some more looking.

The view from Tees Transporter Bridge , Cleveland, 22nd October 2011

So over the ace Tees Transporter Bridge, and out to Boulby. The directions the finders gave said the pipits were in the first field east on the radio mast. Well, this caused a bit of an argument between me and the other couple of birders I met on site! The coast here ran east-west, not north-south as your instincts tells you. So, the field between the mast and the sea was not the field to the east, it was to the north. But did the person giving the instructions know this? I tried to explain this to the other two, while they each had their own theories…

But, I spent a pleasant couple of hours with one of the birders on the cliff tops looking in vain for the pipits. I did find a Ring Ouzel while there, so that was bonus. The bird looked tired as it sat almost motionless on the cliff top, until being mobbed by some Jackdaws. It has a darkish bill and lots of pale grey in the wing, plus the white breast band shining brightly in the sunshine.

The view from Boulby Cliffs, Cleveland, 22nd October 2011

I went back to Saltholme and as I drew into the car park I noticed some birders pointing over to the fire station and Bottom Pool. I raced across and the birders told me they'd seen a ringtail, but weren’t sure what type. We waited for a five minutes, all scanning the horizon for clues, while many others birders came across to join in. Then, there it was – a long-winged, white-rumped, juvenile harrier, with a pale orange breast and (most strikingly) a pale neck ring with big thick dark borders, clear with the naked eye. A Pallid Harrier! Get in!

Mobbed all the while by Lapwings and crows, it quartered the surrounding area giving great views – none better than those got by the people in a passing car. The harrier flew at their eye level by the road, no more that ten metres away, as the car occupants understandably stopped to watch.

After that, anything else was a bonus, so I didn’t mind at all dipping on the Semipalmated Sandpiper that had been reported from the Saltholme Pools hide. Plenty of Dunlin around to have a close look at, goose numbers building up, gulls in various plumages to analyse, and some lovely finches on the feeders.

I also got a great view of my first Fieldfare of this winter. It had been chased of the deck by a Lapwing and landed on a nearby fencepost. I checked the plumage and a quick gander at my BirdGuides reference app told me it was a first-winter bird - I’m learning!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Ducks and Dipping

I took a couple of days off work this week. I really needed a break after being stressed enough by work and things that my wife sent me to the doctor. He gave me some beta-blockers to calm the slightly manic tendencies that I'd recently developed. Hmmm... not good. Having said that, I guess I've got little to be stressed about compared with many people in the World today.

So, two days off work (holidays). I reigned in my more ridiculous plans (helicopter to Scilly anyone?!), and decided to to go birding along the east coast, setting off late enough to have something resembling a lie-in. As for the birds, things didn't work out brilliantly.

On Monday I went to South Shields to see the Lesser Scaup on Marden Quarry, Whitley Bay. Bit of a journey, but the idea was to then go down the coast. I saw the bird, getting close views of a nice, small, brown juvenile, loosely associating with Tufted Ducks. Probably forced over by all the hurricane action we had a month ago. Seemed to be settled and feeding well - it may well stay for the winter.

I then received a message that a Red-flanked Bluetail - a real must for me - had been seen at Flambourough again, after being reported over the weekend. So off to South Landing to stare into a bush for a hours and see... nothing. I knew I should have come here first, then gone up for the duck. Anyhow, I had some good banter with other disappointed birders.

On Tuesday, I took the kids to school, then did my monthly BTO WeBS survey along the River Aire. Really nice to do this without having to nudge myself along as I usually do (so as not to be too late for work). Good to see a Kingfisher - not been too many about after the hard winter - but I was surprised there were no Goosander on the river yet. Annoyingly, whatever time of day, week, or year I do this circuit, either I'm, or the birds I'm recording, are harassed by a dog owned by some selfish dog-owner (who then smiles at me). I have no problems with dogs - I really like them - it's stupid owners who do not understand the words "please keep dogs under control" that wind me up.

So, the inevitable message came saying the Red-flanked Bluetail was seen again at Flamborough. Grrrr, I had to go a try for this, and stupidly I did. I knew all along it wouldn't show when I got there. Before setting off I grabbed a CD and took the washing out of the machine (brownie points). Of course, the RFB did not show, despite me and several others grilling just about every bush on the headland. My UK year-list ticked over to 207 with the Yellow-browed Warbler I picked out of a very mobile Goldcrest flock. And, yes, I heard the RFB did eventually show after I'd left, in the one area none of us were checking earlier. D'Oh!

Anyway, I had the new mix tape (well, CD) my mate sent me, as a primer for the Damnation Fest we're going to in November. Some great stuff by Caspian (a bit like Explosions in the Sky), God is an Astronaut (better than I remember them live), The God Machine (a welcome blast from the past - "The Love Song"), Jesu (the lush "Losing Streak"), my old faves Godflesh (the timeless "Love is a Dog from Hell"), Celan, The Mire, Gojira, the slightly ridiculously-named Astrohenge, etc, etc. Some great stuff in there if you like your music slow, fast, loud, quiet, and down-tuned. Helped me forget my disappointment of dipping the RFB.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Solitary Crane

It's been a great autumn for American rarirties in the UK. Well, I'm not so sure the Yank birds are happy about being blown across the Atlantic and finding themselves in Blighty, but Britain's twitchers are. And, err, that includes me.

The big one (in more ways than one) was a Sandhill Crane - a bird of North America and north east Asia (and most definitely not of Britain). This leggy beauty had spent a week or so in Aberdeenshire, delighting the birders with the time, dedication, and petrol money to get there to see it (i.e. not me). Then, on the 26th September, it started making its way south along the east coast. It took a week to get to Boyton, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, where I eventually caught up with it. It had come tantalisingly close to where I live during that time (well, within 2 hours drive), but once it had settled in Suffolk, the next step would be France and the opportunity to see it in the UK would be lost.

Before the Crane, I went to see a Solitary Sandpiper - another american bird. It spent a week at Humblescough Farm, Nateby, near Garstang, Lancashire. The farmer, Rob Cornthwaite, deserves great credit for first finding and identifying this bird, and then inviting everyone to see it. Not an easy bird to ID from distance: sort like a cross between a Common and Green Sandpiper, but the long, long primary projection, smallish head (making the bill long longer), and the finer barring on the tail/rump all made it a clear-cut ID.

Here are my less-than-brilliant record shots of the Sandhill Crane:

Here's some video too, a bit shaky because I filmed it through my scope without an adapter (my usual camera still isn't working after getting wet on that seabird trip in September).

And here's my really great shot of the Solitary Sandpiper:

Err, yeah, a bit of an ID challenge eh?! I should stick to drawing...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Sabine's Gull at Grafham Water - September 2011

Sabine's Gull - Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire, September 2011

Gulls aren’t every bird-watcher’s cup of tea. If it’s not the noisy Black-headed Gulls spoiling the peace and quiet of a day at the wader scrape, or the brutish Herring Gulls trying to steal your chips at the seaside that puts people off, then it’s the near-impenetrable plumage puzzles they pose.

But there is a definite beauty in them, that is perhaps more obvious in the smaller gulls like Little Gull and the rarer Sabine’s Gull (Larus sabini). In Britain, Sabs Gulls (as many birders call them) are most often seen off the west coast during their passage in early autumn. And they don’t hang around for long on their journey south. So in most years they are not an easy bird to connect with. But autumn 2011 has been different.

The Atlantic hurricane season has started early this year, with Irene and Katia. It seems lots of birds, particularly American waders, have been brought over to the UK by the storms. This has also produced a prolonged period of westerly and southerly winds, in which early migrants heading south (like Sabs Gulls) have been caught.

I’d never seen one of these beauties before, so this autumn has proved to be a good opportunity. Most of the Sabs Gulls inland this year were juveniles, and while they do have their own appeal, it was an adult that I most wanted to see.

The nearest one was at Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire: a bit of a trek, I admit. But with the added bonus of a Grey Phalarope there too, I thought the journey was worth it to see this beauty.

Sabine's Gull - Grafham Water, Cambridgeshire, September 2011

It took me a while to walk around the reservoir to find it; but there it was, feeding with four Black-headed Gulls just off the shoreline - the only bird in the group still with a dark hood. Compared to the Black-headed Gulls, it looked more delicate, perhaps most similar to a Kittiwake, but with the dark grey hood, bordered with a black line, and a black bill with the striking yellow tip. During its floaty flight the bird showed its striking black/white/grey wing pattern. Lovely.

As well as the photos I managed to get some video too (all taken through my binoculars, so not great quality).

The Grey Phalarope was a juvenile, and unlike the only other one I’d seen previously, this one was feeding on the shoreline rather than picking food from the water surface while swimming. Another bird with delicate beauty. Yep, definitely a trip worth making.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Flamborough and Spurn, East Yorkshire - 10th-11th September 2011

Fin Whale at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire - 11th September 2011

Some months ago my friend and I booked this trip, based around an RSPB Skua and Shearwater Cruise from Bridlington. Alas, the winds weren’t quite with us – mainly warm southerlies rather than the northerlies and easterlies that would benefit the east-coast birder in September. That’s not to say we didn’t see anything interesting though…

We set off nice and early, to a soundtrack of In on the Kill Taker by Fugazi, and at 08:00 we joined the queue in the mild breeze on Bridlington Harbour. There were a few birds around to help us get our eye in, including 16 Common Scoter flying past.

The boat trip itself was very wet. It didn’t rain, apart from a brief bit of mizzle, but the sea was choppy enough to give those sat near the prow a good soaking throughout the voyage. I wasn’t smug that I had my waterproofs on. Really.

Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire - 10th September 2011

The bird highlights were: three Sooty Shearwater; two Manx Shearwater (including one very close on the water); maybe up to double figures of Great Skua; six Artic Skua; Eider; Black-throated Diver; Fulmar, etc. Some excitement came when we got on to a slim, long-winged, long-tailed, dark skua. A Long-tailed Skua would have been a great bird for the trip (and a life tick for me), but photos proved it was a juvenile, dark morph Artic Skua.

After a quick gander at three Purple Sandpiper on the sea wall north of the harbour, we went up to Flamborough Head and bashed the bushes, ravines, and stubble fields, including a futile search for a reported Red-breasted Flycatcher. A bit too windy for many birds to show.

Common Darter at Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire - 10th September 2011 (photo: Lyndon Marquis)

Then off to Spurn for the night, via Hornsea Mere, while listening to Big Black's Rich Man's Eight Track Tape really loud. We couldn’t pick out any Little Gulls on the mere, but we really didn’t stay late enough until the roosting birds turned up. We did get on to a probable Black-necked Grebe, but it was a bit distance to claim. Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, and Common Sandpiper was nice though.

We tried for the Semi-palmated Sandpiper at Beacon Ponds before we went to the Crown and Anchor in Kilnsea. We maybe two pints too many in the pub, meaning we got up later than most of the other residents at the Obs. The road down to Spurn Point was still closed to motor vehicles, so we decided to walk the 3.5 miles, while keeping an eye out for birds (not a bad idea when birding, I find).

There were few birds along the spit, for a September day, mainly due to the wind direction and strength: Wheatear, Tree Sparrow, Yellow Wagtail, plus House Martins, Swallows and Meadow Pipits moving south, and the usual waders on the western side.

On the seaward side of the Point we came across the most fascinating wildlife of the trip, albeit a dead specimen. A Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) carcass had been washed up that morning. It was a 20-foot long juvenile. It had originally beached and died across the estuary at Cleethorpes earlier in the week. Most of the black outer skin had gone, but it was quite a sight to see a practically fully-formed whale and get to study the whale's baleen up close.

Fin Whale at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire - 11th September 2011

Fin Whale at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire - 11th September 2011

Fin Whale at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire - 11th September 2011

Fin Whale at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire - 11th September 2011

We strolled back up to the Obs, and after calling in at all the usual places around the Triangle, we went back to Beacon Ponds to see if this Semi-p dropped back in again to roost. It didn’t, but we got a good couple of hours grilling the waders that did come in - very educational.

Fledgling Swallows at Canal Scrape hide, Spurn NNR, East Yorkshire - 11th September 2011

Unfortunately, we had to leave to get to West Yorkshire before it got too late, but a very educational and interesting weekend all the same. Special thanks to Lyndon for driving.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Wryneck, Doncaster, South Yorkshire – Wednesday 7th September 2011

I’d never seen a Wryneck before, so that was stimulus enough to go and see the bird reported at Lakeside, Doncaster, South Yorkshire yesterday. The fact that I’d dipped Wryneck a couple of times before, and in particularly annoying circumstances, meant I was determined to make the trip.

I had the motive, means and opportunity: my wife didn’t need the car, my friend was “working from home” and wanted to come too, and I’d planned leave work early anyway - to go a look for a new pair of binoculars. So, all I needed was for the bird to show…

At 17:45 we arrived on site – at the top of a man-made hill made of extracted soil from the adjacent man-made lake – to join 15 or so other birders. The bird was apparently in the scrub in a small plantation of maybe ten trees on the leeward side of this hill, and viewing was from the path above We learnt that the bird had shown less that 30 minutes earlier. It had been flushed by a jogger, but had shown well at times. Promising.

Unfortunately, it didn’t show soon, and most of the assembled birders, maybe 20+, decided to call it a day by 19:00. In fading light around 19:15 both Secret Twitcher and my friend noticed a small brown bird drop in around the base of a tree. Five pairs of eyes searched the small area for some 20 minutes. Eventually, in the murky twilight, I spotted a movement in the grass.

At first glance it looked like it might be a small rodent, or maybe even a lizard, but the grass just seemed to be writhing. I called the others over. I could just make out a dark jagged pattern, like an exotic snake’s markings, which twisted and bent. Then the bird flicked its longish tail and looked up, seemingly right at me (its eye seemed bigger and bolder than shown in the books), and I knew it was definitely a Wryneck (Jinx torquila).

Well, that’s what I call cryptic plumage. Lovely shades of light and dark brown with greys and yellows, looking just like drying grass, sandy soil, and fallen leaves. There’s every chance that several of us had seen it earlier, and the bird had just faded into the background. I kept losing it while staring right at it. It had been reported for the first time earlier that day, but could easily have remained hidden for days.

It was smaller than I’d imagined it would be, but then I didn’t see it out in the open. It’s a shame we didn’t get better views, but as it was a lifer for most of us present, I think we were all happy to see it t all. With the trips to the east coast I have planned for this autumn, there’s a decent chance I’ll get to see another this year.

So that takes my British life list to 282, and my British 2011 year list to 199. I have a boat trip around Flamborough Head booked for this Saturday, followed by another day at Spurn, so a Sooty Shearwater or Common Rosefinch will do nicely to tip the year list over 200…

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Spurn, East Yorkshire – Saturday 27th August

I had an enjoyable day at Spurn NNR last weekend, in the company of Martin Garner. Martin runs Birding Frontiers and this trip was in the company of four other birders on one of his “Spurn Discovery Days”.

I arrived around 07:30, before the tour started, hoping to have a look around by myself first. I’d hoped to arrive earlier still, but I accidentally woke the kids before I left and had to entertain them before their mum got up!

Anyway, I ended up chanting to other birders for an hours rather than birding – as usual – so didn’t see much. Apart, that is, form the constant movement of Swallows and the occasional Sand Martin overhead, all heading south. In fact, throughout the day I noticed there were Swallows on most of the wires around the areas the visited, resting up before heading on.

Swallows at the Warren, Spurn NNR, East Yorkshire - 27th August 2011

After meeting Martin, and discussing the finer points of aging Swifts, we tried some sea watching from the dedicated hide behind the Warren (if you’re unfamiliar with Spurn, here's a very useful map). No easy first thing on the east coast (i.e. looking in to the sun), but we saw 8+ Great Skuas and 7 Common Scoters among the Gannets.

Sea Watching Hide, Spurn NNR, East Yorkshire - 27th August 2011

We wandered over to Clubley’s Scrape, and although it was devoid of birds, it was good to visit part of the reserve I’m unfamiliar with – the whole point to the day really. In the air we saw Stock Dove, Common Snipe and Meadow Pipit, and an attractive Wall butterfly.

Wall Butterfly, Spurn NNR, East Yorkshire - 27th August 2011

Before leaving the Warren area, we were invited to watch some of the guys from the observatory as they ringed some of the Tree Sparrow flock we’d been watching earlier.

Juvenile Tree Sparrow, Spurn NNR, East Yorkshire - 27th August 2011

The birds we were shown were juveniles, partway through their first complete autumn moult (something juveniles of only a few species do). One young bird’s original tail feathers were almost completely worn away. This feather weakness is attributed to a poor diet while in the nest. One new, full-length tail feather was present.

Juvenile Tree Sparrow, Spurn NNR, East Yorkshire - 27th August 2011

Canal Zone and the Humber were next, allowing us to compare Curlews and Whimbrels on the intertidal mud. During the day we saw a great range of waders on the western side of Spurn, including Knot, Ringed Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Ruff, in addition to the Curlew, Whimbrel and Snipe. Not bad. Plenty of Shelduck, Little Egret, and Teal out there too.

A Pied Flycatcher in the garden of Cliff Farm (interesting name, as there’s not many cliffs around here) was a great to watch. The highlight of the day for me was soon to come: a Wood Warbler in Kilnsea churchyard. An absolute peach. One of my favourite birds (with one of my favourite calls). I’ve been lucky with this bird this year, having seen and heard several already, but I’m always happy to see more. Unfortunately I missed out on seeing the bird in the hand when it was ringed later - I was too busy chatting to the YWT staff… Some nice pictures on the Spurn Sightings page for August 2011 though.

A bright Spotted Flycatcher was another nice migrant to see, also in the churchyard.

We made our way back around the Triangle and called in at Canal Scrape. More Swallows on wires here.

Swallows at Canal Scrape, Spurn NNR, East Yorkshire - 27th August 2011

We headed for Sammy’s Point – a real migrant trap when there are easterlies blowing – calling in at a farm near Easington churchyard first. Then partway towards the Point itself, to check out the wader roost from Chalk Bank Hide. We ended the official session with some more sea watching from the Narrows – an area that was inundated by the sea only a couple of days later, damaging the road). From here: Kittiwakes on the groyne and Whinchats in the scrub, plus Arctic Skuas heading south and a Manx Shearwater going north. The Swallows by now were heading north, possibly to wait for the morning to make the journey over the sea.

Another hour’s sea watching from the hide was all I could fit in before having to head home. A really enjoyable day with the Birding Frontiers guru – something I would recommend to any birder, especially those that have yet to visit this fantastic site.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Duding in Dorset and Devon

It’s been a week since my family and I returned from our holiday down in Devon and Dorset, so I better get a crack on if I’m going to write a blog about it…

This summer’s family holiday in Dorset (in a tipee, no less) and then Devon (in a caravan) gave me the chance to go in search of a couple of birds I’d never seen in the UK or abroad: Dartford Warbler and Cirl Bunting. I’d spent some months reading up on the area and planning my early morning jaunts to likely sites. Unfortunately, my wife had forgotten I was a birder (again) and seemed surprised when I revealed my modest plans to see these species while in their national hotspots. So, with my plans scaled back somewhat, I ended up spending a lot of time on the beach and in café’s feeling like a bit of a dude*, wondering how I was going to get to see anything.

(*dude - a posh bird-watcher, who doesn’t really know all that much about birds
- Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book, Bill Oddie, 1980)

Day 1 – It appeared to be starting quite well. During the six-hour journey from Bradford to Dorset, I persuaded my wife that it was a great idea for all the family to visit Lodmoor RSPB near Weymouth, to see the Stilt Sandpiper that was reportedly there. I spent two hours at staring at some mud. I did a Green Sandpiper on the mud. For about five seconds. Some nice Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher and Lapwing, and the usual gulls, crows and ubiquitous Little Egrets too, further west on the reserve, but no unusual North American waders. Meanwhile the kids spent two hours on the very pebbly beach, apparently loving it.

My wife was particularly happy: she thought we’d “done” the birding now, so we could get on an enjoy the rest of our holiday…

Day 2 – Studland beach, near Poole harbour. Ah, getting closer to Dartford Warbler territory here, but not close enough. We walked through the woods and dunes to Littlesea Lake, some lovely Butterflies (Speckled Wood, Comma, Large White, Common Blue), plus a Black-tipped Skimmer and a Sika Deer by the lake.

Day 3 – I spent some time enjoying the birds on our campsite (Longthorns Farm – highly recommended, if you don’t mind tanks driving past until midnight every night), including ace views of Pied Wagtail family groups bobbing around, a couple of fat Mistle Thrushes, and cool low-flying Swallows. We got to Arne RSPB late afternoon after another day on the beach (not my favourite pastime…) and my two-year-son was asleep. So it was just me and my Dora-the-Explorer daughter Rowan who ventured out to find some Dartford Warblers.

Arne RSPB, Purbeck, Dorset - August 2011

The warden told us how the Dartford population had dropped by 70% since last year because of the severe winter weather, and therefore the birds were not easy to find this summer. Undeterred, we set off hoping to return with great news of a hitherto undiscovered Dartford Warbler population on the reserve. Things didn’t quite go to plan. We found a pair of Stonechats (“to find a Dartford, first find a Stonechat”, so the saying goes), but not much else. Fortunately, Rowan seemed happy to the free of the car and enjoyed finding all kinds of weird bugs. Alas, while I was watching a Meadow Pipit that was seemingly trying to shoo me away, my scope blew over in the wind. The scope’s focussing mechanism broke! Arrgh! The pipit immediately let out a wittering, cascading call as I ran over to assess the damage, and my daughter said, in a glorious dead-pan voice: “That bird is laughing at you”. Thanks for that, Rowan.

Earlier, my daughter had already made feel foolish while I was “pishing” for birds near some gorse. I was having no success whatsoever, when I realised we were stood right next to a hide. She pointed at a sign on the side of the hide: Quiet Please, it read.

So this was the only Dartford Warbler we saw at Arne:

Dartford Warbler!, Arne RSPB, Dorset - August 2011

It was just as we arrived back at the car park that we realised we’d left the badge a kilometre back up the path. Rowan wanted it back, so… Luckily we got some great views of Sika Deer and Green Woodpecker as we walked back around the reserve, and the badge was found too. Despite being  a quiet day, there was no doubting it is a lovely reserve.

Sika Deer, Arne RSPB, Dorset - August 2011

Day 4 – Hmmm, I was enjoying this holiday up until now. It had rained overnight and the tipee was not as waterproof as I’d been led to believe. I hadn’t slept much because of the rain pouring on my face, and when I got up we found most of our clothes were wet. Then I remembered my scope was still bust. Grrr.

So, let’s all go to town for breakfast while our clothes dry, eh? What could go wrong? While walking through rainy Wareham to a launderette, I managed to knock my BAHA (bone-anchored) hearing aid out of its metal prong that’s drilled in my head. The very expensive, and practically irreplaceable) hearing aid bounced twice then fell down this drain:

Drain, Wareham, Dorset - August 2011

Without it I’m pretty much completely deaf. And silence is not golden, I can tell you, so I wasn’t happy. There was a car packed over the grid at the time too... But while I fell to my knees in the street, cursing my luck, my wife popped into the fishing tackle shop we were next to and emerged 30 seconds later with a long-reach gripper thing. A minute later the hearing aid was back in and working Perfectly. (Well, it was working as well as it has done since someone stood on it in the mosh pit at a Godflesh gig in Birmingham last October…)

The weather cleared and Lulworth Cove was great. I even managed to get the focussing on my scope to sort of work again.

Shore Crab, Lulworth Cove, Dorset - August 2011

Day 5 – Today was the time we were to leave Dorset and head off for a week in Devon. I'd be leaving the prime Dartford Warbler territory. Using all my negotiating skills, I wangled a solo trip to Studland Heath, west of Poole Harbour, first thing in the morning while the rest of the family visited Monkey World.

It was a beautiful morning. No sooner had I walked to the top of the slope from the layby where I’d parked, and I saw a pair of Dartford Warblers! Fantastic! Two bobbing little shuttlecocks, floating from a gorse bush to the heather and thistles. In flight, each bird looked like a tiny grey Long-tailed Tit on the end of a string. The big head, slight body, and long cocked tail were obvious as they perched. Ha! Lovely stuff. Very happy.

So, I was grinning as we set off for East Devon, and even more so when my wife agreed that another trip to Lodmoor RSPB. The Stilt Sandpiper was apparently “showing well” on the western end of the reserve. My luck was in, and I got some great views of that bird and lots of others. Click here for a full write-up with photos and video.

Stilt Sandpiper, Lodmoor RSPB, Dorset - August 2011

Day 6 – Pretty much a birding-free day, as we enjoyed the delights of the West Somerset Railway Association Steam Fair, near Taunton. My son Luke sat awestruck and watched the tractors, while Rowan drove a train: a full-sized diesel shunter from the docks of the Manchester Ship Canal…

Day 7 – Now then, this is how to go birding: from a tram! Seaton Tramway travels between Seaton and Seaton and Colyton (near to where we were staying) and passes through the nature reserves of Seaton Marshes and Colyford Common, along the lovely Axe estuary. You get such a great view over the mashes from the top deck of the trams – they even run special bird-watching-by-tram trips, using the trams as mobile hides. Even though we weren’t on one of these specials, we had great views of Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Curlew, and the ubiquitous Little Egret, plus loads more.

Day 8 – Common Buzzard over our farm in the morning. The afternoon was spent on the beach at Lyme Regis and I managed to sneak off for a while to check out the birds around the harbour. I’d bought Dr Colin Dawes' great book Bird-watching Where Dorset Meets Devon, and he recommends checking out the area around the Cobb.

Me sat on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, Dorset - August 2011

From here, looking west over the shingle, I could pick out at least five Rock Pipits among the Pied Wagtails. Taking a closer look I came across a lovely female Northern Weather feeding on the tideline.

Northern Wheatear, Lyme Regis, Dorset - August 2011

Day 9 – While my wife and kids visited a friend on their farm near Honiton, I went deep into Devon in the hope of seeing a reported Black Kite at Kennerleigh. To cut a long story short: I didn’t see it, despite there being plenty of food for it:

Black Kite food? - Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

But, I did have an excellent few hours at Ashridge Farm. I’ve never seen so many Common Buzzards in one place. Or seen so many Ravens in one place, and so close.

Common Buzzards, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Common Buzzards, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Common Buzzard and Raven feathers, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

The sun was out and I took the opportunity to lie back and watch the Buzzards and Ravens soar overhead and the butterflies flutter through the wheat, while listening to the hoo-weet of the Willow Warblers and the chitter of Swallows. Idyllic.

Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Sunflower, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011

Day 10 – Pecorama! Brilliant, brilliant place. The kids loved it too.

Small Tortoiseshell, Pecorama, Beer, Devon - August 2011

Day 11 – The last chance of the holiday for me to get to see that Devon speciality, the Cirl Bunting. And there are few places better to try than Labrador Bay RSPB, near Teignmouth. Successful? Oh yes – full story, photos and video here.

Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Teignmouth, Devon - August 2011

Days 12 and 13 – Some fossiling at Lyme Regis and whatnot, and then making our way home.

A top, top holiday in fabulous countryside. The family activities were great, as was the birding. Must get back down there again soon.