Friday, 29 June 2012

Little Swift and little sleep

Little Swift, New Brighton, Merseyside - Saturday 23rd June 2012

I did some birding last weekend: two very different types of birding.

On Saturday I was mostly a rabid twitcher, hauling myself out of bed at 02:15 (only 90 minutes after getting into bed) and driving to Merseyside simply for the pleasure of seeing a new bird.

On Sunday I was a duck-counting, data-collecting, patch worker, arriving on-site at 05:45 for the monthly BTO WeBS count at Rodley Nature Reserve.

The new bird was Little Swift (Apus affinis), a bird of Mediterranean Africa and the Middle East, and of Sub-Saharan Africa and India. It was first reported on Friday 22nd, showing very well over the promenade at New Brighton, on the Wirral. An quick-witted birder noted where it when to roost that night, and put the news out. Hoping to get there before the bird woke up, I arrived around 04:15 and was soon told it was still roosting in the same spot – on a window ledge on the second floor of Pier House.

The Little Swift on my camera screen - it's asleep on the 2nd-floor window ledge, above the Pier House front door.

Through my scope I could see the bird breathing and occasionally shuffling on the ledge. The bird looked small compared to a Common Swift, one of which was roosting at the other end of the building. At rest, the Little Swift’s wings and tail did not protrude as much. The main difference was the obvious large pale rump, which was bigger than on a House Martin, and extended round to the flanks. There was also clear pale edging to the flight feathers. The pale fringes were likely due to the bird’s age, making it a juvenile or even a first winter, thus raising questions about its origin – could it have been born south of the equator? Well, I have no idea.

At 05:15 the bird lifted its head up briefly to show its pale, almost frosty face. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the face on film (it was so brief, and my camera didn’t have the battery life to run continually for the 1.45 hours I watched it on the ledge). But, the movement of the bird as it breathes it clear in the video.

The Little Swift eventually left its ledge at 05:55, much later than the Common Swifts, which had been feeding overhead for a good 30 minutes by then. The bird joined its cousins and gradually the flock moved out over the Mersey to feed. The Little Swift had a slightly different flight style to the Commons, with more mid-air stops (the tail could be seen to fan out at the bird applied the brakes) and upward lurches. The short tail helped you to pick the bird out too, and the white rump was easy to see from the side as well as the back/top.

One bizarre incident at the twitch was a bloke emerging from the beach with an adult Great Crested Grebe under his arm, asking all the birders if anyone wanted to take it of his hands. He’d driven passed earlier, at about 05:30, asking in a comedy gruff voice, “What yer lookin’ at?”, and then took his three or four dogs for a walk on the beach. Not sure if his dogs had attacked the grebe in the first place, but he was concerned they might eat it. He seemed (understandably) confused that none of the birders (nature lovers, surely?!) wouldn’t take the bird; perhaps not understanding that most of them were likely to be long-distance twitchers who didn’t want an injured grebe in their car for 2-3 hours as they drove home.

It was good to meet up with Secret Twitcher, another early riser from West Yorkshire, and be able to admit our twitching urges without fear of ridicule. Hopefully we’ll arrange shared travel on some future twitches, and save some money.

By way of mitigation for the fuel costs and general grubbiness of twitching, I was out bright and early on Sunday around Rodley, doing the monthly WeBS count and all-bird survey. Always a pleasure to tour this place at dawn, or thereabouts, although we were very late this month by our standards, starting at 06:00.

Highlights were large numbers of warblers around (Willow and Sedge Warbler, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, all in good numbers, but no Reed Warblers…), the breeding Common Terns, and my first Little Owl of the year.

Northern Marsh-orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella), Rodley NR, Leeds - Sunday 24th June 2012

But, there weren’t many waterbird chicks around, which is sad but understandable after the bad weather we’ve had, and we didn’t see any Blue Tit, Chaffinch, or Willow Tit (a reserve speciality).

Suffice to say, I was very tired at work on Monday (having expended the last of my energy shouting at the TV on Sunday as England were knocked out of Euro2012). But, by Tuesday I was awake enough to make the trip to see the Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) at Cley.

A lovely, smart bird, feeding around an island on the North Scrape from the Swarovki Optik hide (in poor light, by the time I got there). Smaller and more delicate than a European Golden Plover, certianly "leggier", and with an apparent stumpy rear end (the tertials extend further down the primaries, giving the impression of a shorter winged and shorter tailed bird). Even from a distance it looked very striking: velvety black face and breast with a thick white border to the uppers, quite Grey Plover-esque.

Because of the poor light, and the fact I left my digiscope adapter in the car, I couldn't get any good photos. But here's a record shot.

Pacific Golden Plover, Cley Marshes NWT, Norfolk - Tuesday 26th June 2012 

Some beautiful Black-tailed Godwits too, and an immaculate Spotted Redshank in full slate-black summer plumage close up. Stunning. The obligatory Barn Owl was around too, and gave great close views as I headed back along the shingle to the car.

Afterwards I tried for some Nightjar at one of the Norfolk hotspots, without success, and spent the long journey home wondering if it was worth it. Well, I got the bird (a lifer, and a stunner at that), saw some other beauts too, and got my year list to 250. So, a hesitant yes; but if I’d dipped… Got home very late, and was falling asleep at work again the following day…

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Honeys and High Rollers

And the odd Wobbler.

European Roller, Aldbrough, East Yorkshire - 11th June 2012

I just returned from an ace family holiday in East Anglia, which turned into a minor tick-fest. There were three new birds for Britain for me, bookending a great nature-filled holiday with the kids.

On the way down from West Yorkshire to Cambridge we called into the Welbeck Raptor Watchpoint, near Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire. I’ve heard that Honey Buzzards show here in warm weather (it was mild, but overcast, on the day we visited), but even then long waits are required between appearances. I was very lucky, then, to arrive when one was showing, high over the trees in the distance. The same one (probably) showed again a few times over the next 40 minutes.

A second bird showed better for around five minutes, slowly circling higher then moving off to the west, giving me the opportunity to really appreciate its attributes. Rather helpfully, a Common Buzzard joined it for a minute, allowing a direct comparison of structure and flight characteristics. The Honey Buzzard appeared smaller-headed, yet longer necked. It had a large, long, fanned tail, and appeared generally darker below, but with pale “armpits”. The clincher really was the soaring style – flat wings with long, slightly drooping outer primaries.

We spent the spent the first half of the week around the north Norfolk coast, based at The George at Cley. All the hours of fun and work getting my daughter into nature is paying off now she’s 7 year’s old. We went out on to the marshes on one evening and she found an impressive list of birds all by herself, many of which I had to wait years to see! Barn Owl, Little Egret, Avocet, Spoonbill, Marsh Harrier…

Rowan watching a Barn Owl at Cley Marshes

Rowan's impressive list of species at Cley from her notebook

The kids enjoyed so much we went back the next day; but this visit was cut short thanks to my 3-year-old son falling into the sea. No harm done though…

Luke watching Avocets from the East Bank at Cley

Later we went to Titchwell RSPB – a brilliant reserve for kids, families, and hardened twitchers alike. One highlight was a group of Little Gulls roosting with Black-headed Gulls on an island on the freshmarsh close to the path, allowing good comparisons. The kids enjoyed the beach, bringing back razor clam shells and the odd dead starfish, and my daughter found a recently fledged Robin on a twig right by the path – I remember the excitement of being so close to wild birds when I was kid.

I started the next day with a pre-breakfast walk around the marsh beside Cley windmill. The Barn Owl was hunting again, and among the Reed and Sedge Warblers I found a bird looking and sounding suspiciously like a Marsh Warbler. I only saw my first of these the week before, so I’m not claiming the record; but that sighting has made me grill each Acrocephalus more than I would have previously.

Seal watching at Blakeney Point, Norfolk

We went seal watching around Blakeney point, then on to Southwold, Suffolk, for a few days of extreme-weather camping, Before we finally gathered up the shattered tent poles and flailing guy-ropes three days later, we had a great time exploring the coast south of Southwold.

Walberswick Marshes, Suffolk

Drinker Moth Catepillar Philudoria potatoria - Walberwick Marshes

Rowan and I watching Stone Curlews at Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk

Luke starts his minibeast survey at Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk
Luke examines the bumblebee he found

Back to Norfolk for a couple of decent nights sleep in Cromer. Luckily for me someone found a Blyth’s Reed Warbler at Warham Greens on our last afternoon. Excellent. I bribed Mrs Indiebirder with some child-free time as I took the kids on the Poppy Line. This bought me 90 minutes listening and watching the BRW while the kids snoozed with mum in the car.

Anyone fancy waiting for a Blyth's Reed Warbler to show?

As I walked down to the marsh path at Warham Greens, all the birders who were leaving told me how long I’d likely have to wait for a good view – “give it a couple of hours and you might get a glimpse” was the gist of it. But, sometimes, it’s my turn to be a jammy get, and that time was today. The bird showed well soon after I arrived, and luckily I was stood where I could see it well. The views were brief but clear, long enough to see a slim bird moving along an elder branch, with grey/brown uppers (much duller than Reed Warbler and shade paler than Marsh Warbler), a three-quarters supercilium (across the lores and stopping just after the eye), and a slightly flicked-up tail. Result!

That night I was again the designated driver, so my wife could booze. All building up brownie points… I cashed them in the following day as we made our way back home. A quick(?!) two-and-a-hour diversion to see the European Roller at Aldbrough, East Yorkshire. What a corker! No point me describing this, just look at the pictures (loads of better ones on the internet, of course, by proper photographers with proper gear. These are just my lo-res digiscioped efforts with a Samsung NV15 point’n’click).

A great vacation - Norfolk never fails. All this brings my 2012 year list to an unlikely 247 (previous best: 216 in 2011), with some glaring gaps still to be filled in. My British life list is now 316. I wonder what 317 will be...