Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Caspian Tern - Acre Nook Sand Quarry, Cheshire, 26th July 2013

Caspian Tern, Acre Nook Sand Quarry, Chelford - Friday 26th July 2013

I got some very satisfying views of the Caspian Tern in Cheshire on the evening of Friday 26th July. I nearly got better views of it in Staffordshire, at Rudyard Reservoir, where it had been all day, but it flew strongly NW just five minutes before I arrived...

The bird had roosted at Acre Nook Sand Quarry on the previous two nights, some 11 miles to the NW in Cheshire. So after trying to explain how to get there to a satnav-less fellow latecomer, I said "Follow me!" and set off.

The traipsing through unfamiliar territory after a tick, in convey, in fading light, in desperation, is one of the joys of twitching. If you connect at the end of it, of course.

And, yes, the Caspo had arrived before we did. It was sat amongst a gull roost of Lesser Black-backed, Common, and Black-headed Gulls, with Lapwing, Curlew and Starlings too. And, boy, did the tern stick out?! It was a bulky, muscular thing, dwarfing the BHGs and Common Gulls, looking similar in size to the LBBGs.

The key feature was that bill. A massive orange-red carrot, visible with the naked eye, even at distance in poor light. The black cap had a white/speckled area at the front, suggesting a young bird. It flew a couple of times, allowing us to appreciate the size and strength of the bird. Very impressive.

It had a good wash and preen, and I got some crappy record shots (handheld digiscoped with my iPhone) as it loafed. A worthwhile trip for a cracking bird.

Size comparison: Lesser Black-backed Gull (left) with Caspian Tern

Before seeing this one, I was starting to get worried that Caspian Tern was becoming a bogey bird for me. I've never dipped one, just not seen the ones I should have...

I was in the car park at Welney WWT in July 2009 when news of a Caspo on the reserve came through. Unfortunately, I was just leaving (with White-rumped Sandpiper "in the bag", thank you very much), not arriving. I could have gone back, if I wasn't with my family, who had had their fill of the reserve and wanted to get home. I'd had my allotted time and my wife was in no mood to give me any more...

More recently, a Caspian Tern flew over twitchers watching the Rock Thrush at Kilnsea, East Yorkshire in April. Meanwhile, I was on a training course in Manchester, thus missing *two* much-wanted birds... So there was double the joy when seeing this beauty in Cheshire.

Blogs about terns always provide an opportunity for a pun or three in the title, but I resisted… Well, until the last paragraph. One good tern deserves another (apt, after seeing the Bridled Tern earlier this month), or Terned out nice again, or Look what's terned up now! (they are lame. though), or maybe Tern on, tune in, dip out (not appropriate in this case, fortunately - with apologies to Timothy Leary), or Tern, Tern, Tern (perhaps most apt, as it's a song by The Byrds, although I think I need a third tern tick before using that one).

Monday, 22 July 2013

Birding the Latitude Festival 2013?

Kraftwerk, Latitude Festival 2013, Southwold, Suffolk - 20th July 2103

Well, no, but I bet you’d achieve quite a list if you tried. Latitude Festival is staged at Henham Park, Southwold: only a 30-mitute bike ride to the birding site of Minsmere, and even closer to Dunwich and Westleton Heaths, Corporation Marshes at Warberwick, and the coast at Southwold. Good birding pedigree.

I did see a few Wood Pigeons flying over the site on the Saturday we were there, and my 8-year-daughter called out a Red Kite only to find it was a high-soaring Herring Gull (good shout all the same). I was only there for one thing, and it wasn’t the birds. It was Kraftwerk. But more of that later…

Comma, Little Waldingfield, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

We (me and the family) stayed the weekend at Little Waldingfield, near Sudbury in Suffolk. Lovely place. The weather was hot and sunny, so I spent Friday outside, en famille, walking and kind-of looking at wildlife. Sparrowhawk was the bird of the morning, high over the village, but the insects were more rewarding. Nothing rare, just common species, and all really enjoyable to see in a rural setting on a hot summer's day: Red-tailed Bumblebee, Soldier Beetle, Seven-spot Ladybird, Small Tortoiseshell, Large White, Comma, Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Large Skipper, and a possible Southern (or Norfolk) Hawker.

Probable Wood Pigeon egg, Little Waldingfield, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013
Soldier Beetles, Little Waldingfield, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

It was so hot by the afternoon we needed to dip our kids in some open water. We weren’t near the coast, but the River Stour at Bures on the Suffolk/Essex border was perfect.

Common Blue Damselfly, Bures, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

Blue-tailed Damselfly, Bures, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

Banded Demoiselle, Bures, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

Mute Swans, Bures, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

Later we went to Flatford Mill – hone to a Field Studies Centre, and somewhere I have considered studying for a while. This place is idyllic…

The Hay Wain, Flatford Mill, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

Black-tailed Skimmer, Flatford Mill, Suffolk - Friday 19th July 2013

As for Latitude Festival itself, we were only there as day visitors so I can’t vouch for the weekend as a whole. But, the Saturday we were there was great. Most of our time was spent entertaining the kids (I’ve got quite a graze on my arm from one of my trips down the helter skelter), but we did see a couple of bands. I enjoyed Hot Chip, on just before Kraftwerk, with their so-uncool-we’re-cool vibe. Perfect for the mix of punter at the festival (sort of youngsters who’ve raided their parents’ record collections and parents with a lifetime of obscure gigs under their belts). 

We spotted Neon Neon were performing with the National Theatre Wales, and so quickly joined the queue (my wife has a Gruff Rhys fetish). The show - Praxis Makes Perfect - was excellent. It was the story of the millionaire communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, his battles with Soviet Russia, his friendship with Fidel Castro, and ultimately his death in Italy trying to blow up a pylon. All a bit bonkers and great.

Luke gets into the Kraftwerk vibe

I’ve liked Kraftwerk since I was a kid, when my older brother used to play their albums over his home-made, in-house radio station (which had an audience of two: me and my mum). I still remember like it was yesterday going to Boots in Ashton-under-Lyne with my pocket money to buy Kraftwerk’s Computer Love / The Model double A-side.

As with all things Kraftwerk, the show was immaculate: the synthesised tones pure and sweet, the 3D visuals simple yet striking, the songs pristine moments of understated pop. So much of their set sounded fresh and new, yet was presented in the same form as it was in the 70s and 80s. To say they influenced modern electronic music is a severe understatement: they drew up such a perfect blueprint that few have strayed from it since.

The Robots, Numbers, Computer World, Home Computer, Computer Love, The Man-Machine, Spacelab (complete with a 3D Skylab coming out of the screen to loads of cheering), The Model, Neon Lights… What can I say? Perfection.

Due to tired kids, we had to leave partway through Autobahn, hearing Tour de France in the distance as we made our way to the car park. I could have watched and listened to them all night. Respect to Latitude for putting them on.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Ham Wall RSPB and Shapwick Heath NNR - Sunday 7th July 2013

Many birders have been waiting patiently, and hopefully, for the breeding Little Bitterns at Ham Wall RSPB to begin feeding flights for their young. The reason being the birds are an absolute bugger to see unless they're flying around. In fact, at the time of writing, breeding hasn't been confirmed - it's just assumed because flights have begun.

News of the birds' presence on the reserve was released weeks ago, apparently because the grapevine was already buzzing about it. Staff had seen a male and female and a further male had turned up later. Little Bitterns had attempted to breed here for the last couple of years, but there are still plenty of birders who had seen them - myself and Secret Twitcher included.

We set off early enough from West Yorkshire to be on site by 08:30. Following up the grid reference on BirdGuides (ST444395), we headed west from the car park, onto Shapwick Heath NNR. Wrong. There was hardly a soul here and other who arrived with us had gone east. Still, we had a quick look around - a nice reserve, with insects a speciality. We decided to head back here later, before heading home.

View from the Little Bittern viewpoint at Ham Wall RSPB, Sunday 7th July 2013,  with Glastonbury Tor in the distance.

The Little Bittern "viewpoint" (basically a place on the reserve trial where the foliage is low enough to see across the reedbed) was already well populated when we arrived. There had been some flights before we'd arrived, but lucky they weren't the last. There was a early flight, but it wasn't easy to get on to. After 20 minutes of waiting and searching, I got some decent views - enough to clearly show the difference between the male (basically black and white, with a red bill) and female (more brown and black). The birds looked small for bitterns, but a Black-headed Gull was the only other birth to compare with. The wings flapped at quite a rate, not what you'd expect from a member of the heron/egret family. The way they carried themselves was interesting too: with little or no tail, and a long, thick neck, they looked very front-heavy. The neck seemed to almost droop under its own weight.

There were several flights, low across the reeds, from a particular area going out away from us to the right, then back again. Having said that, there was no reliable pattern, probably due to there being two males. The male(s) performed the best, with one briefly perching up in a sallow. My best and most prolonged view was of a male flying from the back of the reed bed to the presumed nesting area, heading straight at me.

 We'd had our fill and set off to look around the rest of Ham Wall. The main path is a former railway track, which also runs through Shapwick Heath. Bird-wise, it was relatively quiet, as befits mid-July; but there was still plenty of interest. The best was probably my first Green Sandpiper of the year, to the north of the track. Common Tern and Hobby are always nice to see too. Lapwings seemed to be doing well here. Blackcap and Garden Warbler were singing all along the wooded trackside, Amy with the odd Chiffchaff and Cetti's Warbler.

By the roadside at the end of the reserve we found dead badger (in good condition). Always a sad sight, and unfortunately the only sight I've ever had of these creatures. Thanks to those greedy, bloodthirsty bastards Owen Paterson and Richard Benyon, we'll all be less likely to see one alive in future. To help stop the cull, please add your name to the petition here.

 Badger, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

Close up of Badger claw

I’m a total dude when it comes to insects (some might say I'm a total dude when it comes to birds too, and they may have a point), but I'm trying to get to grips with butterflies, moths and dragonflies this year. Well, at least get a bit better. Both Ham Wall and Shpwick Heath gave us opportunities to test our ID skills.

 Banded Snail, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies were everywhere, with scores of them along the paths. Where there were nettles we would find the black, silver-spangled caterpillars of the Peacock butterfly. We could see where the caterpillars were up ahead, form the waiting Carrion Crows on the path. For some reason many of the caterpillars were making suicidal dashes across the tracks.

Peacock butterfly larva, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

There were a few Meadow Brown and Large White too, and smaller numbers of Ringlet and Speckled Wood. The butterfly highlight was a bright yellow Brimstone in a glade on Shapwick Heath. Understandably, there weren't so many moths around, though I did manage a photo of this distinctive Barred Straw:

Barred Straw, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

Ham Wall clearly is a great reserve for dragonflies, and we were obviously here on a good day. Shame my ID skills aren’t up to much. We did see Brown Hawker, Emerald Damselfly, Red-eyed Damselfly, Azure Damselfly, Banded Demoiselle, and probably Common Hawker and Blue-tailed Damselfly.

Azure Damselfly, Ham Wall RSPB - Sunday 7th July 2013

On Shpwick Heath we came across on of the several Great White Egrets seen recently, showing well. On the same pool were some 27+ Black-tailed Godwits.

Great White Egret, Shapwick Heath NNR - Sunday 7th July 2013

I struggled a bit in the car up the M5/M6 on the way home, as the sunshine blared through the window (as most of the rest of the UK was in the grip of Murray Mania). A top day out, spoilt only by me forgetting to bring my cap - it was one warm day.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Bridled Tern: Looks like I was one of the lucky ones…

I managed a weekday, post-work trip to the Farnes last week, with Secret Twitcher, for the Bridled Tern on Inner Farne. We did well getting there with plenty of light left, given it’s a three-hour journey to Seahouses from my house.

The weather worsened as we headed up the A1, and was we were greeted by filthy rain by the time we got to the harbour. Our mood wasn’t helped by the fact the bird hadn’t been seen since around 2pm, but we were here now, so we had to give it a go. It had returned to roost on Inner Farne around 8pm the two previous nights, so there was still time.

I bumped into Chris Bromley, who seems to get everywhere thanks to his granddad and his mum Angie. Successfully twitching Baikal Teal, Dusky Thrush, Roller, Greenish Warbler, Rose-coloured Starling, Pacific Swift, White-throated Needletail and more in the last two months is taking the concept of “mum’s taxi” a bit far! Good on her – she deserves a medal (or at least a certificate from the UK400 Club).

We travelled over on Serenity II from Farne Islands Boat Tours, skippered by Andrew Douglas. Serenity II is a catamaran, so we were there within 20 minutes. Loads of birds on the trip over: Herring Gull, Great Blacked-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull, Kittiwake, Shag, Gannet, Fulmar, Guillemot, the odd Razorbill, and large numbers of Puffin, Eider, Arctic Tern, and Sandwich Tern as we approached Inner Farne. Picking out Common Terns wasn’t easy from the boat as it bounced around the swell in the rain, but I came across a couple while scanning the terns on the island.

There was a crowd of around 60 forlorn-looking birders on the quay as we arrived. None of these had seen the bird, and their boat was due soon… The conditions were poor, with rain on your bins and scope within seconds. We scanned the terns coming into to roost on the rocks – mostly Arctics with some Sarnies. Most of the birds overhead were breeding adults bringing food to their chicks further up the island. A few waders around too: Turnstone, Knot, Oystercatchers and Ringed Plover.

The Glad Tidings arrived to pick up around half the birders who’d had enough after a 5-hour vigil without seeing the Bridled Tern. Some were very reluctant to go… The boat pulled away and we continued our search from the slipway, when a shout came up form one of the wardens – “It’s here, in the roost!”. I rushed over to stand behind him and tried to pick out the bird to no avail. The Glad Tidings was called back (the shouting causing some of the terns to take flight, which worried me because the BT might fly off).

No one could pick out the bird, and the warden’s initial certainty seemed to be waning. He found the bird he was looking at again, but decided it was Sandwich Tern stood behind some seaweed… Birders were just now disembarking from the Glad Tidings, only to be told not to bother. Apologies from the warden and glum faces all round…

The rain was not abating – my boots were overflowing with water, and I was really starting to feel uncomfortable, but I was here and really wanted to find this bird. At around 19:50, just as the Glad Tidings was reaching Seahouses I imagine, another waterproof-clad warden piped up to tell us they were cold and wet and wanted us to leave in the next ten minutes. The call went out to Andrew on the Serenity II in the bay to come in. We had ten minutes to get this bird. I immediately started to grill everything on the rocks to the north quay again.

We were running out of time. The warden was still talking about boats tomorrow morning, when a very dark-winged bird suddenly flew in right in front of me, banking to the right. I looked like a Manx Shearwater with a long tail or something. “Wha..?!” I said to myself, as I realised what I looking at. “It’s there!” shouted a more quick-witted birder stood to my right. “It’s here! It’s here!” I joined in, pointing furiously.

Oh, the joy, the relief, that spread through the group. The Bridled Tern swooped around the bay in sync with a Sandwich Tern, the slate grey/brown wings really sticking out amongst all the white and pale-grey wings. This was a big tern and a real beauty. It had long, pointed wings, with a long tail, a thick black bill, and those cool go-faster eye stripes. A very nice bird.

Eventually it landed on the rocks to the south, and we all go decent views while it was on the deck. I don’t think many photographers got great shots, the rain increasing as the light faded. It flew up again before landing again, but the bird melted into the flock and I couldn’t relocate it – I never managed to get it in my scope.

I grinned the entire trip back to Seahouses, despite being drenched and my jeans plastered to my legs feeling like kelp on a muddy beach. A great twitch.

Inner Farne from Serenity II as we left the island - grinning all the way.

The Bridled Tern has been terrorising birders around the North East ever since. It was seen randomly on Inner Farne again the following day, for brief moments, Since then it’s been seen all over the shop – Cresswell, East Chevington, back and forth, then down to Saltholme and back. It was almost certainly roosting on Coquet Island during this time, where landing is prohibited. As I write, a Bridled Tern was seen passing Flambourgh Head, heading south. Heads up at Spurn. And Gib Point, Holme, Blakeney, Cley, Sheringaham…

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Icky Melody

I’ve dipped a couple of Icterine Warblers in my time, and so when the chance came for a settled one in Broom Wood, off Tiln Lane, Nottinghamshire (an hour from my house), it seemed rude not try for it…

I arrived (for my first visit…) on Friday evening (21st June), being told by birders leaving the site that it was singing and showing occasionally. I spent two hours on site as the bird made the odd rattle and squeak from deep cover, but didn’t show (for me) at all. The nearest I came to seeing it was it moving in some sallow late on in poor light.

Identifying warblers by their song or calls alone has always been a test for me. It’s not that I don’t know their calls (although that’s true of the rarer ones, of course), it’s that I often can’t actually hear them. My hearing is rubbish. But I could hear something from this bird, and it didn’t sound like the full song.

Other –better – birders, with better hearing, were muttering that they hadn’t heard it sing properly; but at that time no one was suggesting a mis-identification… So I sloped off home, putting this down as another Icky dip.

I awoke of Saturday morning to find that other (better) birders had been questioning the ID, and it was now being called as a Melodious Warbler. I had no chance to going at all on Saturday, and could only get there on Sunday if I missed helping with the dawn WeBS count at Rodley NR.

Well, I ducked out of the WeBS, and headed back to Notts, arriving before 7am. What a difference 36 hours makes. The bird showed almost immediately, singing its heart out – and continued to do so, on and off, for the next 90 minutes.

The shortish primary projection of Melodious was plain to see, as were the browny-green upperparts, but an obvious pale panel in the wing still suggested Icterine. Overall, the bird didn’t seem as big as I though Ickies were meant to be – a notion backed up by other birders I spoke to.  The head didn’t seem as angular or the bill as big as I’d expect on an Icky, and (from photos of the bird) the legs are clearly brown. The underparts were a lovely Mediterranean yellow…

It even showed well enough for me to take some phone-scoped shots with my new iPhone 5:

Melodious Warbler, Tiln Lane, Retford, Nottinghamshire - Sunday 23rd June 2013

The best thing (for me) was that he was pumping out his song loud and clear. There’s a lot going on in that song: all sorts of warbles, zizzes, rattles and scratches. The higher, thinner notes of Icterine did seem to be lacking. All in all, a really great learning experience.

It must be said that the birders who had first seen the bird and called it an Icky hadn’t had brilliant views, maybe hadn’t heard the song so well – and to top it off, I’d heard the bird had responded to tapes of an Icky! Respect is due for simply finding such a skulking and misleading bird in such dense habitat.