Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Secret Twitches

Hoopoe - Sand Point, Somerset, Monday 29th October 2012

I’ve been a bit quiet in the blogosphere recently, and as 2012 was drawing to a close, I figured I should tie up a few loose ends on the blog. I’ve been wanting to write up the last couple of birding trips I did for a couple of months now – not least because I saw some fantastic birds, learned loads of new things, and had a few japes. Both trips were with my friend Joel, otherwise know as the Secret Twitcher.

The first trip was a proper planned, four-day, whole-of-the UK job. Setting off from West Yorkshire at stupid o’clock on Saturday 27th October, we were at Kilminning, Fife before dawn. It was large site, and while I was stumbling around a large patch of wild rose, Joel picked out the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler we’d come looking for. A cracking bird, with a big bill, really pale throat, long tail, feeding low down and calling frequently. We were on a mission so we didn’t hang around too long – just long enough for me to string a potential Common Rosefinch. A drab bird with a plain face and streaky body, it had what looked like the remains of red fruit around its bill – difficult to fully see in the foliage. I suspect it was really a poorly young Greenfinch or some such, possibly with this new strain of avian pox, which would explain why it was so moribund.

After a brief stop to check out some Black-throated Diver and Velvet Scoter on the Forth, we headed for Whitburn Country Park, Country Durham. The target bird here was a Dusky Warbler. We spent a few hours staring into bushes before Joel could no longer ignore the reports of Little Auk passage, so he went off sea-watching (and got his tick – nice one). I went a refound the Barred Warbler which had been around earlier in the week, then re-joined the Dusky search.

By this time the light was fading and there was only me and a young birder looking. She heard the call and saw it low down. Thankfully she called me over (very grateful for that) and we soon found it higher up in the branches. I really wasn’t expecting it to be 4 metres up, but it looked so different than anything I’d seen before. Like a dark chocolate Chiffchaff, with milky coffee under parts, and a long, milky supercilium. It was slim and active – often hanging upside down to feed on the underside of leaves. Was that the Dusky? The (re)finder was pretty certain, but I wasn’t so sure – I’d never seen one before and couldn’t remember all the salient ID points (yes, the shame).

Anyway, it was dark by now, and we had to decide where to go. There weren’t any more “good” birds in the north of east, so after a bag of chips we headed south west and spent the night in… Bristol. Good grief, I was tired after that drive. I shouldn’t talk about my driving on this trip – it was shocking. I don’t think I ever recovered from the lack of sleep I had at the start. Fortunately Joel did the lion’s share. Before finally falling asleep I looked up Dusky Warbler in the books we’d brought, and checked out some You Tube videos. Oh yes, it was Dusky Warbler alright – nailed on. Happy as I was to have seen one, got the tick, learned something new, etc., I was pretty gutted that I’d gone looking for one without doing enough research first. D’oh! Note to self for next time...

On Sunday 28th we spend a rainy day on Portland Bill in Dorset, looking for the Isabelline (Durian) Shrike, which had obviously left (or died) over night. Fascinating place though, despite the big dip. Regardless, we still had time to head up to Sand Point near Weston-Super-Mare and see the Hoopoe on the beach, didn’t we? Plenty of time, even though it was getting very dark before we even arrived… Must be the bad weather… Oh wait, didn’t the clocks had gone back the night before? D’oh! So anyway we got really wet running around the beach in the dark in the vain hope of seeing a Hoopoe. Fail.

Our luck was in on Monday – the Hoopoe showed nicely first thing. Result.

Hoopoe - Sand Point, Somerset, Monday 29th October 2012

A European Bee-eater was reported at Swanage, back in Dorset – another UK lifer for us both – so we headed off. It was a long journey, and the lack of reports made us decide to head elsewhere, when it was suddenly reported again. Thanks to the satnav and some very helpful people on Twitter, we got to the right place just in time. I sprinted (which soon became jogged, then crawled – need some exercise) up the hill while Joel paid the parking (sorry I ran off mate – I didn’t think). We managed some decent views of the juvenile in a tall copper Beech tree, before it flew. Some more views around the top of some Scots Pines and it was off. Brief, but worth it.

There was still time for a dash west to Bolt Head, Devon for Siberian Stonechat. Bit off an odd one this. We arrived at Mid Soar in a hailstorm, and as the weather cleared a pale stonechat showed itself around the field. The other newcomers were happy with the ID, and the locals and others already there didn’t disagree. But I for one was not happy with the ID – it looked like a pale Stonechat, similar to many I’d seen before. The rump didn’t seem pale or unstreaked either…

So, after everyone bar one other birder had left, the Siberian Stonechat eventually showed. No problems with the ID here. A lovely young bird which positively shone, with a striking rump too. A lifer for us both.

We spent the night in Torquay, which looked like the Côte d’Azur in the dawn sun on Tuesday. We were off to Broadsands for the Cirl Buntings (a lifer for the Secret Twitcher), which weren’t too difficult to find (although a scope is recommended if you don’t fancy walking up into the fields – may be easier in winter).

Next stop Dawlish Warren, for sunshine, sand, sea, and a Bonaparte’s Gull. This took some finding, and some other birders found it first. I think I had it in flight about five minutes earlier – flying away from us along the groyes. A smaller bird than the Black-headed Gulls, with a more tern-like flight. We did get a great view in the end, as it came right at us – thin black bill, thin black trailing edge to the wing, grey extending up the neck. Lovely. We also picked out a Mediterranean Gull too. Another Secret tick.

Then, the last bird – a tick for me this one – Lesser Yellowlegs at Ernesettle Creek, near Plymouth. Took a bit of finding too, but really stuck out as soon as I saw it (after pushing noisily through a hedge – great field skills eh?). A little cracker – had dirty legs when we first go it (still obvious what it was), but then had a quick wash and - bang – the yellowest yellow you’ll ever see.

A great few days, with a great birder. And we didn’t die while I was driving. Phew.

The next trip was a long one-dayer on Saturday 15th December. We were hoping to get as many of possible from Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll (Suffolk), Penduline Tit (Cambridgeshire), Buff-bellied Pipit (Berkshire), and Falcated Duck (Oxfordshire). Starting from West Yorkshire, we needed an early start…

The Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni hornemanni) had been proving very popular for a few days, and there seemed little chance of that abating. The Hornemann’s is the definitive Arctic Redpoll – a big snowball of a bird, as opposed to Coues's Arctic Redpoll (C. h. exilipes), which is more difficult to separate from Mealy Redpoll. I’d seen the latter, and although the Hornemann’s is not recognised as a separate species, this bird looked too good to miss.

We arrived at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, around half-an-hour after dawn, and already there were birders on the beach. The bird showed beautifully, down to three metres, in good light. Annoyingly, my camera battery ran out before I could take any shots of the bird – grrrr. It was large for a Redpoll, with a smaller-looking bill, a large buffy head, a big white barrel chest, some soft flank streaks, a massive white rump, and a long tail. Google “Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll Aldeburgh” or just take my word for it: this was a stunning bird. It was great to see it so close and take so much in - a great start.

 Spot the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll

Off to Ouse Fen RSPB in Cambs to try for that most elusive of birds, Penduline Tit. We learned something here too: Reed Warblers can make a call that’s not dissimilar to Penduline Tit. Two birds flew over (against the sun) and made a down-slurred call, and me and Joel were on them straight away – sounded just right for Pendulines! An hour grilling the reeds where they’d landed came to nothing, and we were eventually called over to another area where the Pendulines had just been seen – yes, our birds were Reedies… The Pendulines didn’t show to us, so we left, mindful of the bigger prize of Buff-bellied Pipit…

There had been only negative reports of the (probably-plastic) Falcated Duck (formerly) at Farmoor Reservoir in Oxon, so we gave over the rest of the day to the pipit. Queen Mother Res is just inside Berkshire, just outside the M25 west of Heathrow Airport – although London birders still call this London (a bit like claiming sightings from Saltholme in Cleveland on your Yorkshire list I guess).

The reservoir is a big, typically concrete-sided thing, and the pipit was (when we arrived) about a kilometre away form the car park. We walked briskly to the bird - the walk back was much slower, as the pipit was steadily making its way towards the car parks, and we just followed it! This was one obliging creature, allowing some great views (I spent a few minutes cursing my dodgy camera again, and could only take shots with my phone).

 Spot the Buff-bellied Pipit

I’d seen a Buff-bellied Pipit (or American Pipit as the Yanks call it) once before: in California the previous December. That bird looked paler and more clearly marked than this one, possibly because of the sub-species and the massive difference in light quality. Buff-bellied Pipit is most similar to Rock Pipit. I’d done my research this time, and could pick out a few differences. The outer tail feathers were bright white – we got great views of these – whereas they are greyish on Rock Pipit. There was no hint of a dark eye stripe and the slightly off-white eye ring was a complete circle (not two semicircles as on Rock Pipit). There was little or no colour contrast between the mantle and wings, and the head, nape and mantle markings were feint. I’m sure there are more ID clues, but that was good enough for me. British tick number 334 (and number 272 for the year).

Big thanks to the generous Berkshire birder who arranged access at this normally permit-only site, and stayed out in all weather making sure everyone got to see the bird – nice one.

Another very satisfactory day’s birding. Hopefully have a few more good twitches like this in 2013 (plus some self-finds, patch ticks and garden ticks).

1 comment:

  1. Wow sounds like some trip! 272 birds is very impressive! Love the Hoopoe photos too, jealous much!