Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Pacific Diver and Penduline Tits - January 2015

For various reasons I'd never seen Pacific Diver or Penduline Tit in the UK (or anywhere). Both are rare here - particularly Pacific Diver with only six records since the first in 2007 - but I've missed decent opportunities to see both species in the past. That first Pacific Diver spent over three weeks on a flooded gravel pit not far from where I lived, but I wasn't really twitching then so didn't go for it - D'oh! And I've somehow managed to dip Penduline Tit several times, including once on my honeymoon. Pendulous Tits (as my wife likes to call them) were starting to develop "bogey bird" status.

So, after feeling ill (and in pain and worried) over Christmas and New Year, I was very grateful to feel well enough to make the trip to the south west over the weekend of 10th-11th January in the hope of connecting with both, with birding friends Chris and Joel.

We arrived in Penance around 08:40, after a long, long drive. We thought the weather wasn't too bad, after heavy rain and 60mph winds with stronger gusts had been forecast. Over the preceding few days the Pacific Diver had been reported mostly from Jubilee Pool, near the harbour, so we started there.

Three Purple Sandpipers showed very well on the rocks below our feet. It's always a treat to see these beauties, especially so close.

Purple Sandpiper - Penzance, Cornwall - January 2015

On the sea, on the sea, was a winter-plumaged Slavonian Grebe. The grebe wasn't too perturbed by our presence as it constantly dived around the rocks - clearly a favoured feeding area as the water was much much choppier further out.

Slavonian Grebe - Penzance, Cornwall - January 2015

Out in the bay, the Gannets and Shags were the most numerous species, along with Herring, Black-headed and Great Black-backed Gulls plus Cormorants, Turnstones and Oystercatchers.

We searched for any diver species we could find, mostly finding Great Northern Divers with their large bills, head and neck shape, diffuse grey and white plumage, and overall large size. There were some Black-throated Divers too - most closely related to the Pacific Diver - though I only saw one well over the whole weekend. These have smaller bills, a smoother head shape withe more white of the cheek/ear coverts, a distinctively curved neck, a sharper edge to the darker mantle and white underparts, plus a diagnostic white flank patch.

After three hours we needed a break (well I did). Then after another half-an-hour viewing from Jubilee Pool, we relocated to the end of the harbour, by the small lighthouse. The view was similar from here, but we were closer to St Michael's Mount and could see more of the Penzance shore and Long Rock. A male Eider kept close company as we scan the far side of the bay.

The area to the west of the harbour on St Michael's Mount had proved interesting all morning; we'd collectively spotted several divers over there and a small small of Common Scoter. Before long we had an interesting diver in our scopes.

This bird appeared less bulky than a Great Northern, with a curved neck more reminiscent of a Black-throated Diver. Crucially, there was no white flank patch. We spent some time making sure this was the case, as the bird change its position in the water, preened, flapped, and looked around, as it drifted towards the southwest. The bill was small - accentuating the head shape - and was held in a slightly elevated position, similar to the haughty pose struck by Red-throated Divers. But the facial plumage (with the dark feathers extending down below the eye), the white feathering (restricted to the front of the throat), and the neck shape (bendy and snake-like) ruled out Red-throated Diver.

To my eyes, the dark grey of the head and nape looked slightly brown; and when viewed from behind, the nape seemed to widen out slightly. The throat clearly had darker feathering under the chin, but at that distance we couldn't make this into a clear chin strap. Despite this, we were quite happy with the ID as a Pacific Diver.

It was mid-afternoon now, and we headed off to Helston Boating Lake to look for a Ring-billed Gull. I'm not up to much when it comes to gulls, whereas Joel clearly is. The bird wasn't present, and we concluded it had probably already gone to Helston Loe Pool to roost.We did, however, stumble across a Whooper Swan amongst the Mutes, which was a surprise.

We headed for the water treatment plant across the road, where in January three years earlier I found probably the earliest Swallow of 2012. We found Chaffinches and Redwing searching through the leaf litter, and than Chiffchaff after Chiffchaff. After viewing the trees and perimeter fence one just one and a half sides of the compound, I estimate we found c20 Chiffchaffs. Among them were a few candidates for Siberian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita tristis), with one particularly white and grey individual sticking out. Unfortunately, we couldn't hear the call to be certain, but it was the most striking Chiffchaff I'd ever seen, amongst a few which were ID'd as tristis. Several others had cold, pale brown uppers, with buff underparts. The variation was remarkable, and, I suspect, more noticeable than in when the birds are in summer plumage. Of course, it's unusual (for me) to be able to see - and directly compare - so many Chiffchaffs in one view.

My first two Goldcrests of the year joined the mix, and with that we went to the pub...

I had a slow start the following day (I wasn't complaining, after that long drive), and met the other two down at the harbour, hoping for a another view of the Pacific Diver. They hadn't been able to pick it out, and a quick look by me didn't bring up anything other than the Common Scoters from the previous day.

Conscious of the time it would take to get home, we headed off hoping to get the Penduline Tits at Darts Farm RSPB, in Topsham, Devon. We didn't have massively high hopes for these, thinking that several hours of patient observation of a reed bed would be needed, just to catch a glimpse. How wrong we were. A 40-second walk from the car park and we were watching three Penduline Tits feeding on reed mace in glorious winter sunshine in full view.

The birds were tiny, and have a plumage that blends in well with the reed stalks and heads. But their busy feeding action threw up discarded cotton (which help the seeds disperse by the wind) from the reed mace seeds, giving away their presence. On closer inspection, the birds were grabbing the cotton tufts with their feet, while they nipped off the seed and then released the cotton to float away. They were very nice birds, and it was great to finally break my duck and see them well.

Penduline Tits - Darts Farm RSPB, Topsham, Devon - January 2015

Also in the reeds were a around three Chiffchaffs (saw more on this January weekend than I do on a summer walk in Chiffchaff breeding habitat) and a pair of Stonechat.The adjacent arable farm was clearly planted to encourage the Linnets and Stonechats we saw. Darts Farm is certainly a nice little patch.

The nearby wet meadow had a flock of Canada Goose, and a large group of Dark-bellied Brent Goose. Joel told me a Black Brant had been reported with the flock, and he quickly picked it out. The bird was darker overall with much less contrast between the neck, belly and mantle plumage. The pale flank streaks were a well-defined bright white, unlike the the more diffuse markings on the Brents. The white neck collar was also stronger and reach further around the neck.

With that we made the long journey north. The weekend was rounded off nicely as Man Utd lost to Southampton, much to the delight of the Man City and Leeds fans in the car... ;-)