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…