Monday, 30 April 2012

Black-winged Stilt, Frampton Marsh RSPB

Black-winged Stilt, Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire -  April 2012

A new bird for me, and what a stunner!

A male Black-winged Stilt (though sexing these isn’t totally straightforward), believed to be the same one that was first spotted in Wexford, Eire, on 30th March. This bird has moved steadily east, being seen across England in Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, and west Lincolnshire, before settling at Frampton Marsh RSPB on the east coast.

I arrived quite late in the day, but the sun was out (briefly) and I got some great views having only walked a minute from the car. The bird was sleeping on a distant island, but the identification wasn’t a problem. These are pretty unmistakable. The legs looked ridiculous; but the bird itself is very pretty, enhanced by the smudgy thumbprints on the dainty head.

As I waited for the Black-winged Stilt to wake, I had some great views of a hunting Short-eared Owl, which at time passed close to the stilt. In fact, the stilt woke briefly as the owl passed once – see my video below (at 0:58 seconds). The stilt eventually woke, and I got some lovely views and the photos and video below.

After the BWS had flown off, I had a look round the reserve. As well as early morning, dusk is one of the best times to visit most reserves, and this is certainly true of this one. There was hardly anyone about, and the sun cast a beautiful warm glow over the place. I’d visited here once before – early morning visit on 15th May 2010 to see an Oriental Pratincole. I was impressed with the place then – it’s one of the better RSPB developments.

Among the other birds I saw on the reserve was a striking male Ruff, and an unfortunate female with a broken wing. A Ringed Plover was close enough to the reach out and touch – I counted at least seven, A couple of Wellow Wagtails were a nice addition to the year list, but despite my efforts I couldn’t locate the Garganey or Whimbrel. Well worth the trip though.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Bird of the year?

It’s April, and so it’s perhaps a little early to be talking of my ‘Bird of the Year’; but I think this just might be the one…

I’ve been lucky enough to see 190 species (using BOU taxonomy) already in 2012, and quite a few sub-species and likely escapes. Amongst these have been super rarities like Common Yellowthroat, Bufflehead, and Western Sandpiper, bogey birds like Little Auk and Richard’s Pipit, and just straight-ahead stunners such as Dark-eyed Junco and Golden Pheasant.

But none on the above sightings compare to the joy of seeing Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in my local wood over the past few weeks. And not just one – a pair.

My Lesser Spotted Woodpecker doodles

There are many reasons why the “Lesser Pecker” is a special bird for me. Firstly, it’s a dapper bird with striking ladder-back markings, the male looking particularly spiffy with his little red cap. They have a distinctive call and a characteristic style when moving around the branches.

Secondly, it’s quite difficult to see - in West Yorkshire at least. It’s undergone a 75% drop in numbers during my lifetime, and is now limited to the south of the UK, with the stronghold in southeast England.

Even if one is present, it’s a difficult bird to pick out. It’s only 14cm long, and can easily hide in the thinner upper branches. Once the foliage grows on the trees you can all but forget seeing it, unless you are know of the nest site.

A few years ago I developed a mild obsession with seeing the male in the woods near my office – a bird that was reported almost daily on my own bird club’s blog. I spent many a morning (and many an afternoon) listening to the drumming and high-pitched call, often just above my head, and not even catching a glimpse of the bird. I struggle now to find the words to describe the frustration I felt…

My notebook from the time details a ten-day period when I made no less than twelve trips to try to see it, including four lunchtimes in one week. I wince now at the times I ran round in circles trying to pin down that squeaky-toy laugh that it has for a call, feeling like the bird was mocking me! Oh yes, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was once the bogey bird for me.

Of course, I eventually saw one, on a rainy Saturday morning in 2008. It was the 12th April, four years ago today. I’d been out searching for two hours and was quite wet and about to give up.  As I slowly dragged my feet my across the wood towards home, I saw a pair of Blue Tit flutter from a birch tree up towards a larger beech. Following them was a slightly bulkier black-and white bird, which swooped onto the trunk of the tree. Immediately I picked out the laddering on the back and caught the jerky miniature-woodpecker movement. A female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! I struggle now to find the words to describe the relief and happiness I felt…

I’ve had several sightings since, of both male and female Lesser Spots in those woods. mostly this year. And the great thing is, I feel almost as happy with each sighting as I did that first time.

UPDATE: Only a couple of days after writing this (14th April 2012), I found another Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - this one in Farnley, North Yorkshire. This one was truly "self-found", being in a wood I'd never visited, or even heard about, before. Chuffed to bits, as they say.