Monday, 24 September 2012

Baird’s Sandpiper and other delights – North Teesmouth, Monday 10th September 2012

The forth and final day of my birding long-weekend, and after all that twitching (here and here) and boating (here) it was a pleasure to just do some straight-ahead bird watching.

This area (comprising Saltholme, Seal Sands, Seaton Snook, North Gare, and so on – part of Teesmouth Bird Club’s recording area) is not too far from where I live, so even after a slow start to the day I was on the beach at Seaton Snook by mid-morning.

The juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper was with three Sanderling, running back-and-forth along the tide line. The birds were very confiding, but it wasn’t difficult to pick out the Baird’s even at some distance. It was the smaller, daintier bird of the group, with an obvious long primary projection, making the bird appear stretched lengthways. The legs looked longer and the bill looked finer than those of the Sanderlings.

With closer views the bill could be seen to curve downwards slightly. The breast was a buff-brown and well marked with fine lines of dark streaky spots; whereas the belly was off-white with a clear distinction between the two (c.f. Pectoral Sandpiper). The coverts were scaly brown/black/buff, with dark primaries extending beyond the tail. There was a hint of a buff supercilium behind the eye, with darker areas on the ear coverts and crown, and there were two buff lines from the nape down to the mantle.

When running it shot along like the Sanderlings on fast black legs, but when feeding it probed less frequently. It did occasionally find something of interest and would probe and peck at it for some time. In flight, the wings were long and thin, and appeared two-coloured: buff-brown on the coverts and greyish on the flight feathers.

There was no doubting this was an attractive, distinctive, and characterful bird.

Baird's Sandpiper, Cleveland - Monday 10th September 2012

Sanderling (left) and Baird's Sandpiper, Cleveland - Monday 10th September 2012

Sanderling, Cleveland - Monday 10th September 2012

After I’d had my fill of that lovely bird, I spent the rest of the afternoon at Saltholme RSPB, starting at the rather conveniently sited Phil Stead hide (in the car park, so you actually get some birding in before going through the gift shop).

After some minutes I managed to rustle up one of the moulting Garganey that were hiding in the reeds. These birds are often unobtrusive, even in spring and summer, when the male is in full breeding plumage and doing his thing. The eclipse plumage is a subtle thing, best picked out by looking for the softly-streaked head pattern. Nice supporting cast of Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Egret, Gadwall, Teal, Mallard, and Coot was flushed briefly by a passing Merlin. And there was another cloud of Goldfinch coming and going too – seen so many this year, lots of good-sized flocks. Also, a Brown Hare came a sat in front of the hide for 30 minutes.

Brown Hare, Saltholme RSPB - Monday 10th September 2012

After a quick snack - and two Kestrels, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Coot, Mallard from the visitor centre - I finished off down at Saltholme Pools hide. I nice, close Black-necked Grebe was the highlight, though I could only see one of supposed two. A bit thin on waders today, but numbers of ducks building  nicely: Wigeon, Shoveler, Pochard, Teal, etc.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Baillon’s Crake, Rainham Marshes RSPB, London – Sunday 12th September 2012

Baillon's Crake, Rainham Marshes RSPB, London -
Sunday 9th September 2012 (photo: John Foster)

Yes, another twitch. I don’t even feel ashamed to admit it now, I’m too far gone…

Sunday 12th was another nice, warm sunny day and I intended to spend the day in Cleveland, check out the Baird’s Sandpiper on Seaton Snook and "do" Saltholme RSPB. I’d had a lie-in because the previous day had been a long one, and the Airedale Otters bat walk went on til late. I set off around 10:00 for the Northeast, but soon came home after realising I’d forgotten my phone (and spilling coffee in the car while looking for my phone …grrr).

While refilling my flask, a message from BirdGuides came through saying the Baillon’s Crake in London was showing again, and showing well too. I’d written this bird off in terms of trying to see it: a long drive was needed just for the slim chance of seeing a bird that seemed to show only in the early morning, and only then for an all-too-brief moment. Too much of a gamble, I reckoned. But, when this message arrived, I’m afraid my inner twitcher took hold…

…so, I arrived at Rainham Marshes RSPB around 15:00, with the sun beaming and a bit of a breeze blowing. Someone shouted from the visitor centre that the Baillon’s was showing now, so I hooked up with a local birder and we power-walked round to the Shooting Butts Hide.

And what a lovely nice big hide it is too, and full to the rafters with birders and their gear. The more eyes looking the better, I say. The bird had shown a few times apparently, but few people in the hide were getting on to it. Sounded like this was going to be a challenge.

Not long after arriving I bumped into my friend John Foster, who’d been in the hide during the 15:00 showing, but he hadn’t got on to the bird. John had to leave before seeing it, but came back twice over the next couple of days and got decent views, and even the photo above. Nice work, John, and thanks for letting me use it. You can find more of John’s photos here and read his blog here.

There were few birds to be seen apart from Little Grebes and feisty Coots, with Little Egrets and a Peregrine further out over the reserve. Everyone’s concentration was focused on the long grass at the back of the first channel of water’s in front of the hide.

At one point, probably around 18:00, I saw a small rail/crake species fly out from the back of the grassy area and land on the far bank (further back and to the left of the red generator, for anyone who’s been to the hide). At least, I think that’s what it was. No one else said anything, and I was too timid to pipe up. And when someone called out “Baillon’s!” and pointed to the near shore, I dismissed this earlier sighting altogether.

I rushed down the right-hand end of the hide, and standing on tip toes, using two blokes in front of me as arm rests, I got on to it. Yes, sideways on, just a few inches into the grass, a rich brown crake with strong white spotting. Result! Okay, I didn’t cover myself with glory in the melee, and the views weren’t great, but it was the bird all right.

But the best views were yet to come. At around 19:15, as the light faded and we were reminded the hide would shut in 15 minutes, a young guy picked it the Baillon’s again, halfway up a thick blade of grass some ten metres from the last sighting. It wasn’t possible to see all of the bird at one time, but by moving along the hide it was possible to see just about the whole thing.

What first struck was it was remarkably small, and it obviously wasn’t weighing down the grass it was perched on. The grey face and bill were clear from my initial vantage point, and through my scope I could just make out the eye, looking red-brown. The under parts were also grey with some speckling on the breast and barring on the flanks. The upper parts were more obscured, but the chestnut brown down the nape and mantle was clear, as well as some of the white spotting and streaking I’d seen during the earlier sighting. A great bird to see and learn from.

Interestingly, a two-bird theory has developed online after apparent differences were noticed in photographs of the bird(s). This is something I though might be possible, even before I’d seen what looked like two separate birds. With evidence of breeding from several sites across the UK this summer, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise that birds bred at Rainham. Apparently, Marsh Frogs, which are present at Rainham, have a very similar call to Baillon’s Crake. So if any were heard calling in this obscure corner of the reserve late at night, they may have been disregarded. Hopefully these will be the first of many.

Finally, I must say a big thank you to the staff and volunteers at Rainham for their generosity and hard work for opening the reserve early and until late so that twitchers like me had a chance to see this bird. Special thanks to warden Howard Vaughan, who implored me to run to the hide when I arrived ("Go, go, go!"), and who waved us off with a smile as we all left happy in the dark. Cheers.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Bridlington Skua Cruise – Saturday 8th September 2012

The first of two RSPB Skua and Shearwater cruises off Flamborough Head I planned going on this year. A lovely day: in fact, the weather looked too nice. The sea was as flat as a pancake, which didn’t bode well for good birds…

I got to the harbour-side at 08:00 and sat near the gangway, attempting to stake my place in the queue (but still managed to be bustled out to the way by some Johnny-come-lately, older-and-so-should-know-better birders when we all went for the boat). Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones were on the sea wall north of the harbour, and Guillemot was very close in to where I was sat waiting.

The North Sea mill pond - Saturday 8th September 2012

Some of the Yorkshire guys from the Bird Forum were meeting for this trip. Not being sure of where I’d be coming from beforehand, or going to afterwards, or even if I’d be there at all, I decided not to join in with the car sharing. Or maybe I’m just an unsociable bugger.

As we left the harbour we all got a good look at the Kittiwakes on the outer harbour wall. It wasn’t long before we had our first good bird: a Black Guillemot. I say “we”, but I think Martin Garner of Birding Frontiers fame was the only one to see it well. There was some consternation on the boat that the sighting wasn’t properly divulged at the time, but I was watching Martin as he spotted it and subsequently confirmed the ID and I don’t think there was much more he could do. Maybe he could have asked the boat to be stopped, but I’m not sure he felt that was in his remit. I think the only people who were really bothered were county listers who needed it for their Yorkshire list (I don’t keep one), and those needing for their life list (they should try northwest Scotland for birds in their fantastic breeding plumage). It wasn’t even a year tick for me, so I smugly kept my gob shut.

Anyway, there are plenty of accounts of this trip and opinions on the above tyke Tystie that I won’t bleat on about it any more. I won’t into much detail about the birds here, other than the on lifer I did get on this trip: Pomarine Skua.

It was called quite early as an Artic Skua, I guess because the spoons (the twisted, elongated tail feathers) weren’t obvious as it approached. But when we all got a good view… whoa! It was a Pom, and a stonking adult in breeding plumage.

It came in close and circled the boat a couple of times, maybe as close to 10 metres. Close enough and long enough to really take in all the identification features. This was a large, powerful skua. It had a very dark brown hood covering the face to below the bill line - not just a cap. The neck was a strong yellow colour. The line between the dark uppers and pale under parts was broken and mottled. There was a strong, mottled “necklace” and a powerful, two-tone bill. And there were the tail “spoons” of course. It eventually sat on the water and allowed us to approach. Taking flight it flew around the boat again and sat on the water, before finally heading off. Better views than I’d ever thought possible of a Pom off the Yorkshire coast.

My friend Andy texted me to gloat about the great views he was getting of this bird, not realising I was on the same boat and had in fact been waving to him across the deck! Anyway, he got some great pictures, which he’s generously allowed me to use here, so I’d better be nice! There are more of Andy’s photos on Flickr here.

Pomarine Skua - Saturday 8th September 2012 (photo: Andy Kisby)

Pomarine Skua - Saturday 8th September 2012 (photo: Andy Kisby)

Getting good views of the Pom - Saturday 8th September 2012

The skua action didn’t stop there. We had some great views of juvenile Arctic Skua and both adult and juvenile Great Skua. Nice to see so many. After all the skua fun, the other birds were just padding, but we had some good one given the calm weather and westerly wind. At least three Common Scoter, Common Tern, Arctic Tern (great views of an adult and juvenile), Sandwich Tern, Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin (the auks in juvenile and winter plumage), lots of plunge-diving Gannet, Fulmar, and a distant Balearic Shearwater. I got on this last bird, and it was certainly dark, with a loose-winged flight action, but I couldn’t pick out much more than that. The other birds I got from on board were: Herring, Common, Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed, and Greater Black-backed Gull, Kittiwake, and Shag, with four or five Red-throated Divers flying north past us as we came back to Bridlington. I think one or two other species were seen by others.

The Bird Forum guys decided to head off to Tophill Low NR. I would have joined them, but it was in the wrong direction if I was going to help out at the Airedale Otters bat walk in Bingley at 19:00. So I decided I’d pop into to Fairburn Ings RSPB on the way home.

I headed for the Lyn Dyke end of the reserve. It was quiet, with few birds or people around, but it was a lovely afternoon to spend watching the world go by. Through my scope I watched a male Gadwall in extreme close-up as it preened in the bright sunshine. Fantastic: such beautiful plumage. A late Chiffchaff was singing, and I heard Willow Warbler calls from the hawthorns. It was a nice way to break up the monotony of the journey home.

The bat walk later went well too, with lots of Pipistrelle and Daubenton’s bats to entertain the kids; and my daughter Rowan having a great time staying up late with her friend running around St Ives in the dark!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Double Dowitchers!

I had a ridiculous, brilliant, and tiring few days of birding/twitching last weekend, after getting agreement from Mrs Indie-Birder for me to disappear for four days. I’m playing catch-up with the blog at the moment, so here’s a quick account of day one.

Friday 7th September: The plan all along had been to spend a long weekend on the east coast, picking up those usual September migrants around Spurn and Flamborough Head, and hoping for something more interesting to crop up. But, with the wind coming stubbornly from the west all week, it came as no surprise that East Yorkshire was quiet, whereas the South West was full of American goodies. Long-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, etc, etc, and most of them lifers for me. Now when Britain’s only second twitchable Short-billed Dowitcher turned up in Dorset earlier in the week, the die was cast.

I set off later than I wanted, but arrived at Lodmoor RSPB in Weymouth around 10am. What a beautiful morning, hot, sunny, slight breeze off the sea… Yes, yes, but what of the bird? “No sign”… Well, I’d made my choice and I was here now. I’d even brought a toothbrush and enough clothes for four days. I wasn’t going home empty-handed.

Lodmoor was good to me last year, when looking for another Yank wader: Stilt Sandpiper. Okay, I spent an afternoon then looking at nothing but Juncus grass, but that bird showed brilliantly in the end. I clung on to this thought as I stared intently at the Juncus grass hoping the Black-tailed Godwit that kept passing the gap I looking at would suddenly shrink and develop shorter legs and some tertial notches…

Waiting, watching…

Then an eagle-eyed chap picked it out, just where it had been last seen briefly at dawn five hours earlier. After this, it stayed in view all the while I was there (another 2.5 hours). It wasn’t exactly close, but at least it was relatively still, allowing us to all check those salient ID points:
  • Dowitcher? Yes.
  • Short bill? Hard to tell, the Long- and Short-billed types have overlapping bill-lengths.
  • Juvenile? Crucially, yes. Paler, buffier chest and flanks than the richer coloured adults, and with scaly upper parts.
  • Tertials, tell us about them. The tertials looked black with bold orange notches, a bit like tiger stripes.
  • Good enough for me!
Now off to Slimbridge WWT to see the Long-billed Dowitcher, to contrast and compare…

I arrived at the WWT headquarters a fair bit later than I expected. Why? One obvious clue would be: I don’t have a sat-nav. Anyway, it was still a gorgeous day, and so a stroll around here would be lovely. After dodging the zoo animals, I arrived at the Zeiss Hide to find the sun right behind the area where the waders were feeding. With a little help from some regulars, we picked out the LBD feeding with Black-tailed Godwits. The other wader (godwits, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, and Snipe) made it very easy to pick out on size and gait alone. It looked scruffy, obviously in full moult. This made picking out the finer ID points a little trickier, but it was clearly a moulting Dowitcher, and the one we all agreed was the Long-billed Dowitcher.

Right then. Good work all round. Successful trip. Very happy. Now I just needed to get home. I had to be at Bridlington harbour for 08:00 the following day to catch a boat

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

It's a family holiday in Spain, not a birding trip...

I had a great holiday in Spain at the end of August – just me, Mrs Indie Birder, and the two kids (Miss and Master Indie Birder, I guess). We stayed in a small casa on an olive farm in what felt like the middle of nowhere (near Rasquera, about 30km due north of the Ebro Delta). Plenty of good birding to be had, lots nature reserves about too, although the rural Catalans aren’t all bird lovers…

The weather was great: at times scorchio, but with a cloudy couple of days and a bit of rain thrown in to take the edge off the heat. This was no birding holiday; but with nowt else to do than swim in the pool, I spent the odd hour wandering around the olive groves looking for stuff.

Wood Lark, Crested Lark, and Hoopoe were the most interesting of the birds around the farm. The other birds are the kind of things you’d expect on a farm in Britain in the summer: Goldfinch, House Sparrow, Starling, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Swallow, Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blackcap…

Wood Lark, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

These olive farms make for a dry and desolate habitat, especially after a long hot summer and when most of the breeding is over. The birding is tough here on a hot afternoon, I can tell you. There had been some fires this year, and the evidence was clear from out front door: charred trees within 15 metres of the casa.

I guess the most interesting things around the farm were the insects: things like Ephippger, Blue-winged Grasshopper and Nosed Grasshopper. Plenty of butterflies too: Large White, Wall Brown, Mallow Skipper, Common Blue (I think), and Swallowtail. Plenty of moths (Hummingbird Hawk-moth being the best), and loads of dragonflies, though I struggle to ID these well.

Wall Brown, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

Mallow Skipper, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

One (sneaky) reason for suggesting we come to this area was the chance to visit the Parc Natural del Delta a l’Ebre (that’s the Ebro Delta Nature Reserve). Now then, this is a really great place for birds, even if my trip was during the quietest time of the year. During the week I managed to charm my way to two visits, one with the family and one without, both to the northern side of the delta.
As we drove through the rice fields, the draw of the place became clear. There were Whiskered Terns everywhere: sat of wires, hovering over the roadside ditches, swopping over the car. And Little Egrets and Squacco Herons flew up from hidden dykes as we passed.

I took the family to El Garxal on the north-eastern tip of the delta, where the highlights were Greater Flamingos, Black-winged Stilts and Glossy Ibis. It’s very educational to see these birds in breeding, non-breeding and juvenile plumage side-by-side, allowing for lots of comparison and learning. Well, that’s what I thought; the kids seemed to get a bit bored after a while. We met another family here, whose kids really interested in the birds, which was rather refreshing.

"Daddy is hogging the scope again..."

 Greater Flamingo, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

I reckon Spurn could benefit from having one of these running between the Crown & Anchor and the Point.

We set off for Canal Vell, further west, and got lost. Again. It’s easy on this massive delta, and most of the relevant signs were tiny and hidden. When I finally got there the wind was up, which made birding from the top of the observation tower difficult. Few birds around too, I reckon because of the time of year; but a Slender-billed Gull and another Greater Flamingo was worth the effort. Better still, there were some Audouin’s Gulls in the fields by the track, allowing for great views.

 Audouin's Gull, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

 Audouin's Gull, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012
(same bird as above in different light - notice how much darker the wings look)

 Observation tower at Canal Vell, Ebro Delta, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

The strong wind meant the dragonflies were clinging on to the vegetation for dear life, but photographing them (with my crap camera) was difficult. I only managed a few decent shots among the blurred ones as the dragonflies were shaking so much in the wind. Any ID help here is much appreciated.

 Yellow-winged Darter (male), Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

 Yellow-winged Darter (female), Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

 Ruddy Darter (male), Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

I returned to the Delta on my own on a rainy morning later in the week, visiting Les Olles on the northern edge near L’Ampolla. The undoubted highlight (possibly of the whole trip) was finding a family of Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio): two adults and two juveniles. Despite their bright colouration, they weren’t easy to pick out as they poked out the reeds in the gloom and skirted around the water under the overhanging vegetation. The poor light and worse equipment meant I couldn’t get a decent photo…

 Purple Swamphen, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

There were plenty of ducks at Les Olles, and the commonest seemed to be the Mallard; but this being duck moulting season, I felt obliged to check every bird in case there were other eclipse ducks hidden in there. With the exception of the odd Pochard, they were all Mallards. Or I’m rubbish at eclipse ducks, which is quite possible.

One downside to this place were the observation tower with the ramps for wheelchair and pushchair access: great idea, but there's no attempt to hide the observer from the birds. No roof and a really low wall. I had to crawl up it and peek over the side on my knees - and I still flushed half the birds. The other half left when a family joined me on the tower a couple of minutes later.

The other was finding all the shotgun cartridges around the reserve.

Les Olles, Ebro Delta - Note the shotgun cartridge under the sign

Of course there’s great birding to be had inland in Spain, and our one trip into the mountains produced a Short-toed Snake Eagle. It was sat at the top of a tree at the roadside on the road from Rasquera to Cardó. It flew as we pulled over, but gave some great flight views, long enough for me to get a good look and jot down some notes.

 Looking for eagles in the Serra de Cardó...

Eagle-eyed Rowan

It was also in La Serra de Cardó we saw the lovely Two-tailed Pasha butterflies, the enjoyment of which was only spoiled by the fact they were feeding on a really stinky cat turd.

Two-tailed Pasha, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

We went for a boat trip along the Ebro from Benifallet to Miravet. From the quayside I got close views of Squacco Heron (in it’s proper habitat, not like the one I saw in Northumberland, which died the day after), plus Grey Heron, Little Egret, Common Sandpiper, White Wagtail, and Kingfisher.

So, yeah, not bad for a family holiday, and definitely not a birding trip…

Sand Lizard, Catalunya, Spain - August 2012

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

It was a dark and Stormie night…

'Stormie' as in European Storm-petrel; the weather was actually really nice. It was also a starry, starry night, with the Milky Way putting on a good show over Flamborough Head during the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Moth and Storm-petrel night.

European Storm-petrel, Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire - Sunday 12th August 2012

I’d never seen a European Storm-petrel before, so this even gave me a good chance to see one and the opportunity to look round Flamborough Head or Spurn during the day. But, I threw that opportunity away because of the massive hangover I had, so I arrived around 18:00, not long before 20:00 start time.

I’d driven to the coast listening to Sparks’ seminal album Kimono My House, which is one way to get rid of a hangover. If you haven’t heard Sparks’ early stuff (this was their third album of 21, so far), it’s a bit like listening to Queen, Goldfrapp and Wild Beasts all at the same time. Which sounds a fair bit like their later stuff, too; but this album is probably their most “rock”. It’s pompous, loud, cheeky, ridiculous, and great – and it’s influenced loads of great musicians. The journey took no time at all.

I wandered aimlessly around the Head for a couple of hours watching the Gannets and gulls off Thornwick Bay, some Whinchats and huge flock of Goldfinch at Thornwick Pool, a lovely Linnet pair at the Lighthouse, and Curlews and Oystercatchers at South Landing.

After standing around at the car park at South Landing until 30 minutes after the event was due to start, the well-meaning but slightly shambolic YTW staff finally did their introduction. This was mostly about where their offices are, some stuff about other events, issues with printing brochures, some knowing nods to other YTW staff, etc. It then turns out the ringers didn’t want us to watch them catch and ring the Storm-petrels. Then, the moth-trappers said we were about 90 minutes early to start trapping, so we could do the stormies (if we could see them) or the moths – but not both.

Seriously, can’t these people (the YWT staff) get training in how to run an event? I run RSPB events (unpaid, not like this lot) and the first thing to remember is these events are for the attendees – and they are not interested in what the staff got up in the regional office last week. They want to know about the wildlife they are (hopefully) about to experience. Please, learn some customer service guys.

Okay, that’s enough ranting. As darkness fell we piled over to Thornwick Bay. Cue lots of comedic headless chicken activity until we found where we should go. We stood a short distance back from the beach and listened to the repeating sound of a European Storm-petrel song, which was sort of like listening to a distant, distorted Labradford album – not at all unpleasant to my ears.

Eventually a bird was caught in the mist-net. The ringers took about 20 minutes to remove it, and a further 10 to process it. Then they brought it up to the few of us still left waiting to have a good look. I’ve heard these birds are small, but I was really surprised at just how small. The ringer didn’t appear to have a bird in his hand at all until he opened his fist and there it was. A slightly weird chimera  of Fulmar, Pigeon and House Martin.

We all had another wacky-races dash in the dark back to South Landing, so the moth-trappers there could have a look. Then we walked down road/slipway to the beach, like a scene from Close Encounters, to let the little beauty go. It was placed on the concrete, and shuffled around on its weak feet that are set way back on it’s body. Then, with a flight action reminiscent of a Hammer Horror plastic bat on the end of a string, it took flight and disappeared into the night as we cheered it on its way.

European Storm-petrel, Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire - Sunday 12th August 2012

I spent a further 45 minutes learning about moths (so much to learn!) before remembering I had work in the morning and really should get going. Not a bad evening out.