Wednesday, 2 July 2014

More Twitching: Black Scoter and Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle, Ashdown Forest, East Sussex - Sunday 22nd June 2014

Lunchtime walks along the river and the frustratingly-rare trips to the patch haven't exactly set my birding pulse racing recently, so... Yep, twitching is on the agenda again (when isn't it?). This time, for two proper megas in the space of a week.

First up, a male Black Scoter on the North Sea off Redcar, Cleveland (or "North Yorkshire", if you're one of those birders who likes to include birds from other counties on your Yorkshire list). An after-work twitch on Tuesday 17th June, arriving in good time to join 50 other birders struggling to get a decent view.

As I looked for a suitable spot to pitch up, I asked along the line, "Getting good views?". "No!" was a common response, along with, "Not seen it yet...".

Just offshore was a Common Scoter flock of around 200 birds, bobbing up and down in the waves. I soon realised why people were struggling to pick out the Black Scoter. The swell was such that the birds were only in view about a third of the time, and that's when they weren't diving. At any one time a quarter of all the birds were facing away form the shore, and each time the sea calmed momentarily, the Scoters would take a nap and tuck in their bills.

It took me around ten minutes to get on a candidate, and another five to dismiss it; but soon after I came across the real deal. The stonking yellow-orange bill on a jet black male standing out like a beacon next to the half-sized orange bills of the Common males. I managed a couple of good views and it was lost to view.

I walked on and met a birder who'd been there an hour and not seen it, while his mates stood by crowing about the great views they'd had while not helping him get on it. After a few minutes I got my best view of the beauty, sitting serenely at the back of the left-most flock on a calmer sea. The Black Scoter's bill structure was more obvious now, as were the contrasting areas of black on the Common Scoter bills for comparison. I called out the position, and birders to my right confirmed they were on it too. I went to point it out the unlucky birder still stood with his smug mates, but the bird dived as I gave out directions and I didn't see it again. I hope that fella's luck improved after I'd left.

Birders watching the Black Scoter, with varying success
Redcar, Cleveland - Tuesday 17th June 2014

The Scoter flock stayed offshore another day, but that's all. It'll probably turn up further north sometime over the summer, but it'll take an eagle-eyed birder to pick it out.

The Black Scoter was some comfort to the pain of missing out on the Short-toed Eagle, which had been seen in Dorset and Hampshire earlier in the month, but had recently reappeared in East Sussex. I'd been too busy working, and being a super dad, and doing BTO surveys, and running RSPB kids events (and being smug) to be twitching eagles down south. Until Sunday 22nd June that is.

I arrived just before 06:00 at Gills Lap car park in Ashdown Forest (famous as the real-life inspiration for Hundred Acre Wood in Winnie the Pooh) to a sunny, warm, clear morning. Perfect for eagles. I scanned the trees on view, drawing a blank, as the crowd swelled. I changed position a few times in order to check different areas and skylines, and few others headed off to check the trees elsewhere. I kept reminding myself that large raptors tend to be late risers, so no tension…

Around 08:20 news came through that it was perched some 2.5km to the northeast. There were some confused looks - could it be seen from the car park? - until a few of us started off up the road to the northeast, when the 150 or so birders strung out along the road like the peloton on a Tour de France mountain stage.

Someone called out a soaring raptor up ahead. "That's it!", called several overeager listers. It clearly wasn't. Too dark, too small, too Buzzardy. It floated on flat wings as it came closer, and revealed itself to be a Honey Buzzard. On another day I'd be happy to spend all morning watching it, but not today.

Up ahead, the view from the road was obstructed by trees, so a few of us headed down into the valley until we reached a point where we could survey the valley. We could now see the birders viewing bird, a kilometre across the valley. After a couple of minutes I picked out the Short-toes Eagle sat on top of a large pine. Excitement and relief all round.

Short-toed Eagle, Ashdown Forest, East Sussex - Sunday 22nd June 2014

The pale head, with its flattened crest, stuck out clearly from distance. Closer inspection through a zoomed-in scope revealed the yellow eye and dark iris. The wings were a mid-brown with pale patches of the secondary coverts (and perhaps immature feathers still to be moulted). The bird shifted occasionally in the tree, allowing us to get a good appreciation of it's bulk.

After 45 minutes or so, the bird flew. It flapped strongly and soared on thermals, right at our eye level. It slowly but surely it gained height and came closer, until eventually it was low overhead, circling and gaining more height. The underwings were so pale, and the wing shape distinctive especially with wrist/alula jutting forwards. The tail look short and wide, with clear barring. It let its legs hang down a couple of times, allowing a good view of the talons. And, yes, it really did have short toes.

It eventually headed up the valley, toward Gills Lap and I finally decided I should take some photos rather than just gawp at it.

Short-toed Eagle, Ashdown Forest, East Sussex - Sunday 22nd June 2014

Once it was over the brow and out of view, claimed back up the hill to find 200+ smiling birders. Seems everyone present got a good view. As I arrived at the car park, you could just see the Short-toed Eagle going over the southeast. A few latecomers were getting out of their cars, many with excited kids, hastily assembly tripods. The bird news services reported no more sightings that day, with the exception of a disputed one at 16:30. Fortunately, the bird stuck around the area for another week. Until it seemingly reallocated to the New Forest on 30th June, where, at the time of writing, it continues to give good views.

Online, I'd noticed some birders expressing surprise that the eagle was often seen roosting in pine trees. My experience of Short-toed Eagles is limited to just one sighting in Spain. I found that bird sat in a pine tree, in a habitat almost exclusively of pines. That bird also, acted like the Sussex bird: when it took flight, it gained a little height then headed straight for me, gliding directly overhead. Glad I got to repeat that experience.

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