Saturday, 17 March 2018

Dropping in for a chat

I joined the ranks of the unemployed this week for the first time in 27 years. In case you were worried there, don't be, I wasn't fired from my job at the council in disgrace: fortunately, unlike many of my colleagues in cash-strapped local government, I was able to leave at a time of my own choosing, and I shall return to full-time employment as early as next week. But more on that later, the week between jobs provided an opportunity yesterday to get out and about with the camera.
Northern Wheatear at Maiden Castle yesterday
The morning light was better at the Bill earlier in the day, but the Wheatears more distant

A female was with the male on a dung-heap at Maiden Castle
A second, less well marked bird at Portland Bill
It being mid-March, as the first summer migrant birds had been trickling in all week, there was one species in particular on my mind: Wheatear. Rising early I negotiated the road works onto Portland and hit the Bill slopes just as they were being kissed by the rising sun. The immediate reward was two male Wheatears. Seeing these long distance migrants from Africa catching the morning light was a tonic and appeared as proof that spring was winning the battle with winter, despite the forecast for weekend snow. Skylarks singing overhead seemed to prove the point. An obliging male Stonechat on the slopes and a Black Redstart in the Bill quarries completed an attractive trio of chats for the morning.
Female Black Redstart
A presumed migrant in the Bill quarries
Male Stonechat - often obliging around the Pulpit Inn
Skylark at Portland Bill
A brisk southerly saw rough seas crashing around the obelisk at the Bill's southern tip, so much so that the Purple Sandpipers which are often directly below had been pushed up to almost eye level, providing unusually good photo-opportunities. They were rather more successful at dodging the spray than I. I headed up to the more sheltered Church Ope Cove to dry off and look for Wall Lizards - more on them in a later post - and was treated to my first photographable butterfly of the year: a Peacock which basked briefly on a warm rock.
Purple Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
The Bill was taking a bit of a pounding on Friday
Peacock at Church Ope Cove
On the subject of butterflies, the return to gainful employment mentioned above starts very shortly in the form of probably my dream job at Butterfly Conservation, the national charity dedicated to saving butterflies and moths, which is based here in Dorset. If you're not a member already, you obviously should be: they do great work for our hard-pressed Lepidoptera. And now there is the extra incentive that by joining you will be keeping me too busy to clutter up the internet with so-so photos :-). Speaking of which, here are a few more chats to end with - and why not!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

A look back at the beast

In the excitement of blogging about patch Hawfinches, I almost forgot to recount everything else I saw during the cold snap in the Swineham/Wareham area a couple of weekends ago. In truth, there was nothing spectacular, but plenty of common or scarce species were turning up in unusual locations, some surprisingly easy to see as the harsh conditions forced them into gardens or otherwise into the open in the search for sustenance. The highlights were a Firecrest in my postage stamp of a town centre garden, and an icicle-clad Spoonbill on the main gravel pit at Swineham. Sadly, two of this last species were found dead in recent days in Dorset: one had presumably succumbed to the cold, the other, which had two broken legs, was thought possibly to have snapped them trying to free itself from ice. An illustration of the harsh impacts of the freeze which, judging by the death toll chronicled on social media, befell many individual birds over the course of a few days. And a reminder to put some food out for the garden birds if the coming weekend's forecast of snow materialises.
Adult Spoonbill - I have never seen one with icicles on the breast feathers.
Black-tailed Godwit, one of several hundred on the frozen fields at Bestwall.
A few dozen Curlew were also present.
Fieldfares were in the gardens of Wareham.
Redwings were everywhere, including my town centre garden and this one in the town's churchyard.
Blackbirds were among the other thrushes in the churchyard.
Normally shy Song Thrushes seemed unusually bold in the cold.
Not a great view of a Water Rail - but any view is a good view in the thick reeds at Bestwall. This was one of three of this species out in the open.
This was the only reasonably sharp photograph of the Firecrest in my garden I could manage, snatched through foggy glass with shaking hands!
The first time I have seen ice floes coming up the River Frome!
Swineham Point inundated by a very high tide - Redshanks, Skylarks, Meadow and Rock Pipits were attempting to feed on the ice here.

Within hours of the last snowflake, the onset of spring seemed to resume: temperatures were back up to double figures and this Dunnock was belting out song as if to declare it had survived the harsh conditions.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The real beast from the east

It seems to take an extreme weather event to get me out to my local patch at Swineham these days, and with the combined impacts of Storm Emma and the 'Beast from the East' bringing unusual blizzard conditions to Dorset, I felt sure it would be worth a look on Saturday morning. The walk from home to the gravel pits takes me through the graveyard of Wareham St Mary Church, the gate to which was frozen stuck. To circumvent this I stepped over a short wall and flushed a chunky finch from beneath a Yew Tree - Hawfinch!
Female Hawfinch - note the grey panel on the secondaries
Female Hawfinch
The Hawfinch invasion has been a remarkable event in British birding this winter with birds turning up across the country following a failure of the seed crop on the continent, particularly in eastern Europe where they would normally spend the winter. As the photos show, the Hawfinch has an out-sized head and bill: evolution's answer to a nut-cracker, it is said to be capable of exerting 50kg of force. That's what I call a beast from the east!
Male Hawfinch - note the more steely grey bill, richer colouration in the head, blue panel in the secondaries and all black primaries
The male stayed stubbornly in the shadows apart from this brief pose on the churchyard wall
I let my fellow Swineham irregular Trevor know about the rare visitor to our manor and as we waited for the first Hawfinch to reappear, a distinctive call behind me betrayed the presence of a second. Trevor soon located it as it dropped to feed on the ground. The next challenge was to get a photograph - easier said than done with this very shy species, especially given the amount of people wandering past the graveyard.
A good view of the powerful bill...
Note the crinkly primary feathers in this rear view
I eventually managed some decent shots by standing on the road which runs alongside the graveyard, hiding behind a parked van and peering over a chest high wall to find the female feeding on the ground just yards in front of me. This odd behaviour (mine, not the Hawfinch's) attracted the attention of several passers by so the bird was soon disturbed by their innocent enquiries about what I was doing.
This morning I went for the subtle approach, staking out a quiet corner of the graveyard and later lying sniper-style beside a low wall with a good view of one of the feeding areas. It's a good job the gravediggers weren't on duty, I think I might have ended up buried alive. Not that it did me much good, the 'over the wall' shots were still the best of the lot.
Cracking seeds foraged from the ground

Saturday, 24 February 2018

White-wingers in Weymouth

I have often wondered whether the island outside the Radipole Lake visitor centre has hosted more rare birds per square metre than any other piece of real estate in the country. If it didn't before today it took a step in the right direction when an exquisite adult Ross's Gull, present in the area since Wednesday, paid a visit. This high arctic species is a great favourite amongst British birders, making very occasional appearances on these shores. The last one I saw was in neighbouring Devon, a tatty juvenile bird, a contrast to today's dapper adult.
Ross's Gull as it flew from Radipole Lake towards Weymouth Bay
Ross's Gull breeds in Siberia, Greenland and northern Canada
Only the 3rd occurrence in Dorset and the first since 1974
Son George and I had been dropped off in Weymouth by his mum and had planned to get the train home so thanks are due to the Mitchells for getting us back to Wareham, and to the kind chap from London who gave us a lift from Lodmoor to Radipole when the Ross's Gull was relocated there in the early afternoon. George is not a huge fan of birding, but he enjoyed the people watching. Desperate twitchers screeched to a halt in the Radipole Car Park wild-eyed and breathless, muscling their way to a good view like sharp-elbowed parents getting their kids into the best schools. Within minutes of seeing the bird, he observed, they were transformed into grinning idiots, generously offering new arrivals a look through their telescopes and slapping the backs of their travelling companions.
Wing-stretching in the harsh light of mid-afternoon...
...followed by a yawn revealing a Black Guillemot style gape
Note the short red legs
Earlier at Lodmoor, while we had been jogging on the spot to keep the cold at bay, hoping the Ross's Gull would drop in there, a couple of rather more substantial white-winged gulls had provided some good practice for finding the right exposure with the camera: not that I'm complaining, it was lovely crisp weather, but white birds in dark landscapes in the midday sun? Not easy.
The whiter of the two Glaucous Gulls at Lodmoor - note the pale iris
This is the more mottled of the two Glaucous Gulls - note the beadier dark eye
And here both Glaucous Gulls together - the one on the left a particularly fine specimen
With Thayer's, Ring-billed, Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls all being seen at Blashford Lakes just over the border into Hampshire, intrepid birders who left Weymouth in the early afternoon could have clocked up double figures in gull species in a single day. We were quite happy though to stick around Weymouth, enjoying a major Dorset rarity and a handsome selection of waders on display at Lodmoor.
Lapwing, Lodmoor
Common Snipe, Lodmoor
Spoonbills, including a Dutch-ringed Bird, Lodmoor
Ross's Gull, Radipole Lake