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…


  1. Norfolk and back in a day, you must be bonkers!!

    1. I once did Lincolnshire (Frampton Marsh for Oriental Pratincole), Norfolk/Cambs border (Welney for Bluethroat), and Derbyshire (Ilkeston for Great Reed Warbler) in one day, and still found time to dip an Iberian Chiffchaff at Potteric Carr in South Yorkshire. It was an ace day. And I got the Iberian Chiffchaff the following week... ;-) Can't see me doing too much more of that running around. Well, not until Autumn migration hots up and I find I can't resist it!

  2. Wow thats a productive day, my furthest was bempton, spurn, home the other week! If you're going anyway and want some company drop me a text always willing to share fuel costs etc and a good days birding!

    Went to north cave & blacktoft with wakefield rspb other week had a great time, corn bunting at north cave singing away very obliging, blacktoft was incredible with 15 snipe in the open, spotshank (10), greenshank (3), ruff (5), green sandpiper (3), Water rail - that was all from the marsh hide! Looking forward to Autumn i've not been out a lot lately and looking forward to seeing some migrants! Got osprey (at last) in the Lakes last week though which was nice. Got the skua cruise soon which should bring me past my target of 150, currently on 147, think I might go for 175....!