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 AndalucĂ­a, Spain, last year, including several in the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, and some in the fir trees in a playground in TrevĂ©lez - 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...