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.