Sunday, 28 April 2013

Spurned

The laws of diminishing returns have really kicked in with my British list and new ticks are getting harder to come by. I've just gone six months without one, which is a record in my 15 year birding career. So a Rock Thrush at Spurn this week was too much to resist. Being a diligent public servant I was unable to leave Dorset's Council Tax payers to fend for themselves on Thursday or Friday, and needing to be back in Dorset for 1800 on Saturday evening meant that waiting on news that morning was not an option. It was a case of go and give myself a chance, or stay at home and have no chance.

Wheatear at Spurn: nice, but no champagne
So after an early evening kip I left home late on Friday night for the long drive north. My small circle of potential lift-sharers had either seen Rock Thrush, gone already or had more sense than to accept the offer of a lift, so a solo trip was on the cards. Not that I minded, it's sometimes good to be alone with one's thoughts, terrible singing and flatulence.

Yellow Wagtail: also nice, but still no champagne.
I was expecting a big crowd but was surprised to find I was only the second birder on site when I arrived at 0400. There was still room in the small car park at the Blue Bell by the time the sun came up, suggesting that many others were waiting on news before committing. Spurn was bitterly cold but wrapped up warm and full of optimism I scoured the area anyway. The Rock Thrush's favoured field held nothing but Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears. The neighbouring caravan parks which it had frequented held, well, mainly caravans. And neither was it on the beach, where failed sea defences lay broken and mangled like twitchers' dreams.

At least I wasn't the only one. I left shortly before this lot threw themselves off Spurn's low cliffs like so many lemmings.
By mid-morning there was still no sign. At this point a twitch can become something like a bad relationship: it's obvious it's over but still difficult to leave. But I had set a deadline of midday and stuck to it before retracing my steps down the motorway network to the south coast.

Grasshopper Warbler, Cogden
A big dip wouldn't be a big dip without missing something good at home so it was absolutely no surprise that a twitchable Red-rumped Swallow spent the day in Weymouth. So the less said about Spurn the better, and to happier thoughts of a brilliantly showy Grasshopper Warbler which was reeling in the scrub back on the Dorset coast early on Friday morning. There. Feeling better already.

Grasshopper Warbler, Cogden

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A broad church indeed

Lest any non-Dorset birders be tempted to visit the county on the strength of the recent ITV series 'Broadchurch', I thought I should correct a few misconceptions the programme may have created, randomly interspersed with some bird photos taken on the Jurassic Coast this weekend.

1. The whole series was completely unrealistic: the sun never shines that much.

Male Whinchat, Barleycrates Lane, Portland, Sunday 21 April. OK, I admit it, the sun does shine now and again.
2. We don't all talk like lorry drivers' sons from the Forest of Dean. Well I do, but then I am a lorry driver's son from the Forest of Dean. But Dorset is a different dialect altogether. It's always been a mystery to me why actors depict anyone from west of Basingstoke in a non-specific Wurzel accent, and then proceed to hop from Norfolk pig farmer to Zummerzet carrot-cruncher without so much as a by your leave. But then I didn't go to RADA, where they are presumably taught that. Good job the sublime David Tennant was spared the indignity by being allowed to be Scottish, though I'm sure he would have carried it off.

Meadow Pipit, Barleycrates Lane, Portland, Sunday 21 April.
3. Nor do we occasionally lapse into clipped Home Counties tones when we forget to stick with our non-specific Wurzel accents, like some members of the cast who shall remain nameless, Sophie out of 'Peep Show'. An increasingly high proportion of us are in-comers from the Home Counties anyway so we talk like that all the time.

An old Cock Linnet - plenty of these in Dorset to make the DFL's* feel at home
(* Down From London)

4. Statistically speaking, you are far more likely to come across one of these on a Dorset beach that the corpse of an 11-year old child:

Something of a fall of these on Portland this weekend. Come on dog-walkers, bag it and bin it.
5. The locals don't make a habit of forming impromptu, pitch-fork waving mobs to conduct witch-hunts, other than for certain kinds of renewable energy development. It's the 21st century, and we believe in the due process of law like everybody else. And besides, everyone knows that ducking the suspected witch in the river is the most scientific way of establishing guilt or innocence.

Don't worry, in the unlikely even of a corpse being dumped on the beach overnight, the local Ravens will clean it up before you've got your swimsuit out of the tumble-dryer. This one was on Portland, Sunday 21 April.
6. Local papers don't go in for the sort of sensationalist journalism depicted in the drama. You could go on a killing spree, and they would probably go with traffic congestion as the front page lead. Unless the killing spree resulted in, or was provoked by, traffic congestion, in which case it might get a mention as a contributory factor.

Redstart, Barleycrates Lane, Sunday 21 April.
7. Hard-nosed Fleet Street reporters don't weep at the funerals of murder victims, like the otherwise convincing moral vacuum played by Vicky McClure. They're far too busy trying to hack into the voicemail accounts of the deceased. Allegedly.

Female Linnet, Portland, Sunday 21 April.
8. The slogan of the Dorset Tourist Board is not 'I hate it here. I hate the sand. I hate the stupid people. I hate the way they work. I hate their bloody smiling faces. I hate the never ending sky' (DI Alec Hardy, Episode 2). Though I'm thinking of getting that printed on mugs and selling them on-line as souvenirs. Leave a comment if you'd consider buying one. It's a sort of market test.

Willow Warbler, Portland, Sunday 21 April.
9. Your trip to the Dorset coast is unlikely to end with an ever-so-slightly anti-climactic ending which leaves you strangely dissatisfied despite thoroughly enjoying everything which went before. Like my visit on Sunday, it's far more likely to end on a high with you jamming in on a rare bird like a Serin. Though hopefully you'll get better pictures than I did. Enjoy your visit.

Serin, West Bexington, Sunday 21 April. A vocal but mobile bird, this was one of two brief views, and the only one which allowed even a bad photo to be taken.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Bang

Migrant warblers hit Swineham yesterday like one of those planes hitting the ocean that you see on Youtube. Or perhaps they had been landing more gracefully and I just haven't been there to notice. Either way, 15 singing Sedgies was quite impressive. They won't all stay, but it was a great way to see my first of the year. Chiffcaffs weren't far behind, then Reed Warblers back on territory; Blackcaps and Willow Warblers joined the chorus but in smaller numbers.

Sedge Warbler at Swineham - my first of the year
Reed Warbler at Swineham - another year tick
A promising sunrise gave way to cloud for the next couple of hours, but I wasn't complaining. It was still and mild, and we haven't had a lot of that lately.
 
Dawn breaks over Bestwall

One of a couple of dozen Med Gulls heading south over Holton Lee on Saturday
The afternoon was earmarked for family time, and a trip to nearby Holton Lee. As well as the boring stuff there is a bird hide there with well stocked feeders which is popular with photographers. I'd never been, but Claire was happy to drop me off in this Dad-cr├Ęche while she and the kids checked out labyrinths, plant sales and the endlessly fascinating home made jam stall.

Female Great Spotted Woodpecker at Holton Lee

Nuthatch at Holton Lee
The hide was pretty good, despite the presence of large numbers of civilians, with a selection of garden birds coming to the feeders plus a few of the bigger beasts which tend to hang out at these wildlife diners. A Kingfisher on the pond was a bonus for me and many punters who had never seen one before.

The feeding station at Holton Lee attracts a Pheasant...

...and other visitors like this Brown Rat.
A quick look at the heath was quiet at first but then an Osprey soared over some trees nearby. I say nearby, but as the autofocus struggled and I switched to manual I realised that it was quite distant, just a very big bird!

Kingfisher at Holton Lee
Just as good at fishing, but bigger: Osprey over Holton Lee
Which reminds me, another one was fishing in the mouth of the River Piddle at Swineham last weekend, and I didn't even blog about it. That's the trouble with Dorset birding sometimes: just too good to write it all down.

Another Osprey over Swineham last weekend
 Just after this the Osprey plunged into the mouth of the River Piddle and headed off with a decent-sized fish

Friday, 19 April 2013

First flush of spring

In a recent post I put the PC World Drain in Poole on a list of Dorset's migration hotspots - this was half-joking, but it's rapidly earning the sobriquet. Effluent-loving ringers, who have been unnerving the local hobos by hanging out in the bushes there this winter, had already confirmed it as the Sibe Chiffchaff capital of England. Today, in addition to the expected spring migrants it turned up a Redstart, a Grasshopper Warbler and, best of all, a Subalpine Warbler, seen by just two lucky souls. This first eluded the nets, then all the other local birders, for the rest of the day.

Common Whitethroat in the best sewer in Britain
My children's hobbies rarely dovetail conveniently with mine but this evening they were going swimming in Poole (not in the drain, I should add) so I got a lift and their mum dropped me off at PC World for an hour. By then it was pretty clear the Subalp had moved on but I was keen to see what else was still around anyway. Amid the shopping trolleys, traffic cones and floaters (I'm kidding. There were no cones), there were still plenty of Willow Warblers, plus a few Chiffs, Whitethroats and Blackcaps. Nothing special perhaps, but still quite a special congregation enjoying the micro-climate offered by the drain.

Warm weather brought out this Small Tortoisheshell
 

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Quality time

After Swineham rewarded me so handsomely for a quick and dirty visit midweek, I thought I should take it slower last night. I headed there straight after work and stayed until dark: the equivalent of flowers, chocolates and a meal by my standards.

Brambling: in the open at last
I almost didn't get there at all, distracted on the edge of Wareham by the continued presence of a small Brambling flock, which had been joined by several singing Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers since my last visit. The Bramblings have been tricky to photograph all winter, remaining wary and positioning themselves deep or high in a variety of small trees. With a bit of good light last night, I was determined to out-wait them, and eventually one did perch briefly in the open.

Willow Warbler, Swineham
More Chiffs and Willow Warblers were singing around the pits and while photographing them I met a lady who'd been out to the Point to look for the local Common Seal. She reported seeing a Barn Owl en route and, best of all, a Long-eared Owl in the bushes a few hundred yards from where we were stood. The location seemed as likely a spot as any for Long-Eared Owl, and the fact that the bird remained in the bushes while she tried (unsuccessfully) to get a picture with a compact camera before it was eventually flushed by some other passers-by also sounded more like a Long-Eared than a Short-Eared Owl. The sceptical (and insanely jealous) mind inevitably considers possible confusion between the two, particularly as Short-eared is regularly seen here and Long-eared is something of a rarity in Poole Harbour. So if you're reading this, compact camera-wielding lady, sorry I doubted you, and thanks for the gen.

Chiffchaff, Bestwall Road
The Owl had apparently flown along the hedge line but not gone far so I thoroughly checked some likely locations without success. As dusk approached I waited at the end of the pits which affords a good all round view. A Marsh Harrier came in to roost and a Barn Owl cruised past but that was about it. I had texted news of the report to the nerve centre of local bird news, a.k.a. Steve Smith, who joined me for the last of the light.

Barn Owl, Swineham
Steve phoned just before he reached my vantage point to say he had flushed an Eared Owl from the bushes next to the path, and that it looked too dark for a Short-Eared. Soon after I picked it up heading in my direction, and managed a couple of shots in the half-light. From field views the underwing tips looked pale and barred, the underparts more extensively streaked and the upperparts more uniform than Short-Eared, so we retired to Chez Moore to consume the pictures, field guides and vegetable biryanis.

Underwing pattern shows several bars towards the pale wing tip, not solidly dark tips as in Short-eared Owl
The photographs, which I fully expect to secure at least a commendation in the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, showed enough for us to feel confident about identifying it as a Long-Eared Owl. So my third Swineham tick in a week, and another good bird on the 'walked from home' list (Steve gave me a lift back to the curry house but I walked one way, which is allowed. See clause 4.2, section VIII of 'Walked from Home List Rulebook', as amended 12/4/13).

Long-eared Owl has darker and more uniform upperparts than Short-eared Owl and a richer chestnut patch on the wing


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Patch neglect: treat it mean, keep it keen

A few weeks ago I suggested in this post that fleeting visits paying fickle homage to a patch were unlikely to be rewarded with good birds. Turns out I was wrong: a brief but fruitful visit to Swineham yesterday produced two coveted patch ticks.

Red-throated Diver
Red-throated Diver
The first was a Red-throated Diver. This had been on the gravel pits last weekend while I was elsewhere, but I caught up with it in the Wareham Channel, just off Swineham Point. One had been seen in the area on and off during the winter, often far out in the Channel, but I had failed to clap eyes on it despite several visits.

Jack Snipe - shorter bill and shorter, more pointed tail than Common Snipe
Jack Snipe coming in to land
I turned to leave and a small wader burst from almost under my feet - it didn't fly far, but was in the air long enough for me to rattle off a few shots. Brutal cropping of these confirmed my suspicions that it was a Jack Snipe - another quality Swineham tick.

Shoveler

Shelduck
After a few unsuccessful attempts at flight shots recently I was beginning to wonder whether my new 7D camera was as strong on this score as my old 40D. Today provided some reassurance as it captured the Jack Snipe as well as could be expected from distance, and a few other subjects which were a bit closer, albeit in poor light.

Nuthatch
Cetti's Warbler taken at ISO 2000
Similarly, the new camera continues to cope better than the old one with lower light situations, such as the dingy corners of bushes preferred by the local Cetti's Warblers, an arch-skulker ever there was one. There has been some vigorous ditch clearance work in the Swineham area which has taken out a few of last year's preferred haunts for this species, but several were still present and vocal today. A couple of Swallows heading purposefully north hinted at the change of season - the last few days have definitely been rubbish spring days rather than rubbish winter ones. So, a pretty good haul for a mad dash, and all on foot from home. Low carbon, low effort birding at its best.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

A rush of blood

I was out of county on Saturday on family business when two parties of Stone Curlews turned up on the West Dorset coast, and while I expected them to move on overnight, Sunday morning provided a slim chance to get this species on my Dorset list. I went for the pair at West Bexington which had shown well the previous evening, and eventually saw them in a stubble field with the help of the finder Alan Barrett and his fellow patch watcher Mike Morse. The birds were quite distant, but Mike had managed to check a colour ring combination which later revealed that at least one of them bred in neighbouring Wiltshire.

Skylark, Aust Warth
The plan for the rest of the day was to catch up with some other locally rare and scarce birds: Garganey at Radipole, Spoonbill at Lodmoor and Great Grey Shrike at Morden Bog. But then the pager reported a Killdeer in Lancashire. It is one of the iron laws of nature that a good bird will turn up just after my holiday comes to an end, but I thought I might have the jump on this one: it was just before 1100, and I reckoned I could be at the Killdeer site by 1530. Maps and crisp packets, along with reason and judgement, were swept off the dashboard and replaced with a satnav, which I set for Longridge and headed north.

Distant Stone Curlews at West Bexington, Dorset

A while later the pager reported that the bird had flown, but I ploughed on, and half an hour later it was back. I found myself uttering an involuntary 'Come on!'. Another half an hour and it was gone again, so it was clearly not a settled individual. At times like this, decisive action is required, so I pulled into the services on the M5 to procrastinate.

Short-eared Owl, Aust Warth
This second negative report saw my adrenaline levels plummet, the rush slowed and after a reflective cup of coffee I concluded that I might as well dip on Twite at nearby Aust Warth and save a tank of fuel as dip on Killdeer in Lancashire. So dip on Twite I did, and for a couple of hours. It was still a good decision as the Killdeer was not seen again all day, and at least there were Short-eared Owls to enjoy at Aust.
Shoveler, Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset
So with two sets of plans for the day not quite coming off, it was time for plan C: return home via the Somerset levels and try to photograph the long-staying Pied-billed Grebe. This was a bit more successful - the bird came quite close, albeit in poor light.

Pied-billed Grebe, Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset
More impressively, it repeatedly gave its distinctive call, a resonant yodel, puffing out a throat sac which seemed to double the thickness of its neck in the process.

The Pied-billed Grebe puffing its throat out and giving a haunting call
If the Little Bitterns return to breed on neighbouring Loxton Marsh this spring, you might be able to hear their distant dog-like booming at the same time as a Pied-billed Grebe calling - a collectors item for the sound recordists out there.

When wary, the Grebe would lie low in the water and not dive but submerge like a submarine with the body held horizontal - an interesting bit of behaviour
The penalty for all this tarting around was to miss a Red-throated Diver, one of my favourite birds, at home on Swineham Gravel Pits. While still present yesterday afternoon, it had gone by the time I got there at dusk, though a Barn Owl, a Marsh Harrier and a ringtail Hen Harrier were some consolation.

Me and the 'Peat Moor' centre on the Somerset Levels: made for each other
And so it was back to work today, secure in the knowledge that a full diary and an even fuller in-tray will prevent any further rushes of blood to the head, at least until the weekend.