Sunday, 29 September 2013

Cutting a dash

Kneeling in the mud at Ferrybridge this afternoon, with just the Med Gulls and a couple of Sandwich Terns for company, everything suddenly went up. I looked around expecting a Peregrine but when a flock of squealing waders came past, the source of the panic became apparent - a Merlin in rapid pursuit.
Merlin, Ferrybridge
The view was typical: a fleeting one of a dashing rear end just out of range for my 400mm lens. So I was surprised when it turned and landed out in the open on a nearby rock. It wasn't long before it set off again on a hunting foray along the water's edge. All the waders scrambled once more except one solitary Dunlin with nerves of steel - or cataracts, one or the other.
I think a juvenile as these are said to be browner on the back and uppertail coverts without the greyish cast of adult females
I watched as, at first, the Dunlin looked up as if to say 'You can't be serious, can you?' before realising the Merlin was deadly serious. It took evasive action sufficiently late for its pursuer to end up in the water with wet trousers and empty talons. Like I said in this post last month, Ferrybridge is always worth a stop...
The imperfect hunting technique might also suggest a young bird
Swineham hadn't produced much to write home about in a couple of brief visits yesterday and this morning, so this afternoon, before the Ferrybridge pit-stop, I headed for Portland. A Common Rosefinch, trapped and ringed on Friday but not seen since, had resurfaced near the Observatory. I jammed in on it within a few minutes of arrival when it sat briefly atop a bramble, stuffed a few blackberries and disappeared again.
Common Rosefinch, Portland Bill. Aka Scarlet Rosefinch, though this one obviously wasn't.
This was the first I'd seen in Dorset - so not just the blackberries that were a little tart today. Another Rosefinch spent the winter in a Broadstone birder's garden, but after too many hours kerb-crawling the Hamworthy Hoopoe I thought I had caused more than my share of net curtain twitching so didn't ask to visit the stakeout at the time. Good not to have to wait too long before catching up with this one then.
See here for an 'in the hand' shot on the Portland Obs website (post for 28th September)

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

After a hard day at the office...

...I like nothing more than dashing off to Portland to photograph birds. Nick Hopper asked me what I was going to call this blog post as I stood with him and finder Joe Stockwell snapping a ridiculously co-operative Melodious Warbler at Portland Bill after work this evening. My choice of title honours a promise extracted to give him some credit for the first shot below, as the Melodious sat up and posed in response to a manful bout of pishing. Tribute thus paid, I am scraping together what little credit remains for myself for the other shots. Minus that which goes to Joe for finding it of course. And a share for the nice people at Canon, without whom none of this would have been possible.
Melodious Warbler, Portland Bill
This shot shows the shorter primary projection which helps distinguish Melodious from the similar Icterine Warbler
The upperparts are also browner compared to the more grey-green Icterine
Quite a chunky bird, it moved deliberately at times making it relatively easy to photograph
Portland wouldn't be Portland without a Wheatear
The Melodious was faithful to the same small patch of Tree Mallow throughout

Monday, 23 September 2013

One that got away

After one high profile victim this week, Britain's cats almost claimed another less celebrated one from under my nose yesterday. This was in the form of what I believe to be a Field or Short-tailed Vole. We were staying with friends in Kent this weekend, in a house with three resident felines. How pleased I was to see them.

I think this is a Short-tailed Vole, on account of it's short-tailed, vole-like appearance. Presumably a young one given the small size.
After our host's boozy 50th birthday party on Saturday, we were lazing around the house nursing morning after feelings when what I assumed to be one of the children's remote control cars buzzed across the floor towards my feet. Instinctively I picked them up without really looking and thought nothing more of it. A minute later, and several mums and daughters were jumping on the sofa shouting 'MOUSE!!!'
We named the vole Jesus, as he was persecuted by the cat but rose again the next morning
Safely captured under a glass with a 50th birthday card slipped beneath, the vole was released apparently unharmed in the garden, where it sniffed the air and crapped on the card before shuffling across the drive to the lawn. It had apparently been brought in by one of the cats the night before, liberated once and re-trapped by a persistent tabby. Now why couldn't the one which caught the Great Snipe have been so gentle?
The best I could manage of the Spotted Crake at Oare in a brief visit.
After all this excitement, there was time to visit a favoured old haunt in the form of Oare Marshes, where I just caught the back end of a showy Spotted Crake before it ceased to be showy. A 1,000+ flock of cackling Blackwits and a couple of close Ruff were a bit more obliging.
A typical scene at Oare Marshes in September
A lot more heavily trafficked now than when I was a regular, it's been a while since Oare was considered one of Kent's better kept secrets. I've seen Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Baillon's Crake, Long-billed Dowitcher, Red-necked Phalarope and Temminck's Stint there over the years, and with Tufted Puffin also on the site list, I suppose it was bound to leak out eventually.

Ruff alongside the road at Oare Marshes

Friday, 20 September 2013

A post mortem

After resisting the temptations of a showy Great Snipe at Spurn on Sunday, further positive news on Monday and gripping photos on-line proved too much, and I booked a day's leave on Tuesday. As I had to be back home by five p.m., waiting on news wasn't really an option. So the plan was: drive through the wee small ones to be at Kilnsea for first light, bag crippling views of the Great Snipe and be on the way home before elevenses.

I arrived with the first rays of the sun to find I was the only soul there, but by the time I had got my boots on and prepped my camera two local guys had turned up. One, a warden for the area, gave me a tantalising tour of all the locations where the bird had been feeding and roosting the previous day. The other walked through the caravan park where it was last seen to look for it there. My companion explained how tame it had been and how he was surprised a cat or fox hadn't taken it already.

The underwing pattern of the Great Snipe. If it was walking around your boots on Sunday or Monday, you may not have got to see this feature.
Then his CB radio bleeped into life and I hoped beyond hope that I mis-heard the words which crackled out from the speaker: 'Great', 'Snipe' and 'dead'. I hadn't, and then there it was: lying prone under the kids trampoline in the garden of Warrenby Cottage, on whose drive it had spent much of the previous two days. Not eaten, just mauled, almost certainly by a domestic feline as a wild predator surely would not have wasted the carcass. Had a cat crossed my path at this point I am not sure I would have been responsible for my actions.

If I have hit a lower ebb in fifteen years of pursuing rare birds my admittedly poor memory can't recall it. But before self-pity really took hold I had to remind myself that while I may have just voluntarily sacrificed a few hours sleep and a day's holiday, the poor old Snipe had paid a much heavier price for its unintentional appearance on these shores. Suddenly Spurn felt dismal and cold, and after a phone call home, which was met with a mixture of sympathy and mirth (mostly mirth), and more supportive calls from Steve and Paul, who knew I was thinking of going - thanks guys - I hit the road.
I'll spare you a picture of the front of the bird, which is where the cat really did the damage.
If I were more superstitious I might have taken more heed of the omens: before setting off I had a worse than usual bout of dip-somnia, the sleep disorder induced by fear of travelling for a rare bird but not seeing it. I also had a pretty uneasy feeling about the whole venture generally, but for no better reason, I told myself, than that I was retracing my steps to the scene of a mega-dip earlier in the year for a Rock Thrush.

The parallels were uneasy: both birds in their third day at Spurn and on both occasions I had to get back for late afternoon commitments so either had to go first thing and have a chance, or not go and have no chance. I even used the same parking space at the Bluebell car park. I have been consciously taking more risks to add to my British list as it grinds to a halt, but perhaps I'll rethink my twitching strategy, and revert to my previous policy of only going for sure things which have stuck around for ages where I can't possibly fail.
This was on my doormat when I got home. Probably for the best that Tiddles wasn't in my shed.
Looking on the bright side, which the therapist recommended, returning to work on Wednesday I found myself at the Staff Awards ceremony, where I received a certificate, on paper of a reasonable grammage as well, for completing a 2 year diploma. Regular readers may recall frequent references over the last 6 months to how birding became an essential displacement activity to avoid knuckling down to finish some assignment or other. It didn't seem to do me any harm, as they threw in a special medal for achievement in the process, a sort of 'best in breed' for my cohort, I think. This perked me up a bit: at least I got one thing right this week.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A just reward

Late news of a Great Snipe at Spurn on Saturday was insufficient to tempt me into breaking promises to family and self to have a lazy day on Sunday at home. Besides, I reasoned, Great Snipe is notoriously elusive, prone to flushing and rarely seen other than in flight. This one was none of those things as it turned out, but my decision was made: home it was. So we watched movies, I entertained the kids (with a little help from an Italian plumber called Mario) and even attained that pinnacle of decadence for a busy Dad, in my house at least: an afternoon kip.
Juvenile White-winged Black Tern at Swineham
With most of the day frittered away thus, it was only a matter of time before I went stir crazy, so with the light starting to fade I thrashed it down to Swineham on the bike. The weather was atrocious, but I went more to burn off some energy than in the hope of seeing much. That said, a Black Tern had been reported earlier, so I took the camera just in case. After a couple of scans of the pits I could see what I presumed to be the Black Tern at the far end. By the time I got there the bins were too wet to be of much use, so with the rain still lashing down, I whipped out the camera, protected from the weather by its long hood and the dinky raincoat I bought it for Christmas, and started rattling off shots as the tern hawked up and down.
This shot shows the white rump and darker saddle, contrasting with paler wings - neither feature as obvious as depicted in some field guides but apparently to be expected for a bird in advanced juvenile plumage
The few images I reviewed were pretty trashy and I didn't know if it would stick around so I just carried on shooting in the hope the autofocus would do its job, without really looking at the bird or giving much of a thought to the ID. (Note to self: take enquiring mind as well as camera into the field). Fellow Swineham mud-skipper Marcus Lawson then honed into view. We hailed each other across the pits and he started walking towards me at a pace which suggested I should be having a closer look at this bird.
Crucially, Black Tern would show a large black smudge at the wing-join
Scrolling further back revealed a couple of decent shots, and as Marcus pointed out the lack of a black shoulder patch, and voiced the possibility of White-winged Black Tern, we could see that several images showed a narrow white rump, and some contrast between a darker saddle and paler wings. My brain had turned to mush about the diagnostic features by this point, but fortunately Marcus had both the composure and the confidence to call it as a 'probable', a judgement later upgraded to 'definite' following further consultation with photos, field guides and local experts. Only the second record for Poole Harbour, it was a great patch tick, a just reward for staying local and another quality bird on my 'by bike' list.
The light was so low that the camera was selecting an Auto-ISO setting of 1600-2000, so I was lucky to get any kind of shot.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The audacity of hope. And some sand.

If you don't know the history of the Ferrybridge Little Tern colony in Dorset, it's a long and chequered one, which lurches between tragedy and triumph - but mostly tragedy. Cared for by diligent wardens, committed volunteers and dogged conservation bodies since the 1970s, the colony looked on its last legs at the end of the last decade, plummeting from 100 breeding pairs in 1999 to 10 in 2009.
Adult Little Tern in flight - often heard before seen
Adult Little Tern
Bad weather, predation and disturbance all contributed to the decline, and substantial amounts of time and money were thrown at the problem to the extent that the price per productive egg in some years would have made a FabergĂ© one look a bargain.
Juvenile Little Tern
The parent bird was constantly back and forth with fish for this one, so good to see that food didn't appear in short supply either 
I had the pleasure of sitting on a grant-giving panel locally, and every year an application would come in for more cash to ensure the sustainability of the colony. It didn't seem to be helping, so much so that some less bird-friendly members of the panel started wondering aloud if these avian scroungers weren't just a bit too welfare dependent. But at the risk of sounding like Barack Obama, (or, to raise the piety level a notch further, the RSPB), you can't put a price on hope, and the years of investment, dedication and experimentation seem to be paying off: breeding pairs were up this year to 25.
Juvenile Little Tern having a scratch
This young Little Tern was rapidly heading for 1st winter plumage
Better still, over 30 chicks got away this summer, as many as in all of the last three years put together. The success has been attributed in large part to the strategic placement of little piles of sand in hanging basket liners for the birds to nest on. This keeps the eggs a bit warmer than they otherwise would be on the chilly pebbles of Chesil Beach. Simple, but effective.
Adult Little Tern in flight
Ringing recoveries show that 'our' Little Terns winter in West Africa.
So with this jolly post as my tribute to the Terns and their guardians I think I've pretty much cleared the backlog from a trigger happy August. These pictures, taken one sunny evening last month, are now so old that their subjects are probably half way to west Africa by now. They should be there by October. Let's hope they arrive safely, and come back next year.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Summer's last hurrah

The long summer seems finally to be coming to an end, in these parts anyway. Time, then, to celebrate it with a wash up of some Lepidoptera seen on holiday in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly last month.
Clouded Yellow never perches with the wings open but this pair were attempting to mate near The Lizard (the 2nd individual can just be seen behind the leaf). By focusing in the right area and setting a high shutter speed I was able to catch the open wings as it flapped.
An even luckier shot of a Clouded Yellow in flight
A more typical view of Clouded Yellow
Clouded Yellow
A small proportion of female Clouded Yellows are of the rare white form helice - this one was on Peninnis Head, St Mary's. While superficially similar on the underwing, the difference becomes more obvious in flight - see Nick Hopper's excellent open-winged shot here on the Portland Obs post for 29th August. 
Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Kynance Cove
Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary between The Lizard and Kynance Cove
Wall, The Lizard
Wall, The Lizard
Small Copper was one of the commonest butterflies on Scilly during August
Common Blue were also plentiful
And, to come full circle, another stunning Clouded Yellow, this one of 20+ on St Mary's in the short walk between Porth Hellick and the airfield.

On the subject of the airfield, the landing strip on St Mary's is pretty small: as you can see, barely room to swing an Otter.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Waders And The Lost Lark

The title of this post came out of a ridiculous game we played to pass the time during an August holiday on Scilly, putting bird names into song and film titles. Winning song entries included: Coot 66 and If You Wanna Be My Plover by The Spice Gulls (suggested by George, aged 10); Dove Is In The Air; (Girls Go Crazy 'Bout a) Sharp-tailed Sand; and Kittiwake Me Up Before You Go-go. You get the idea.
Juvenile Dotterel photographed on Bryher in August
Having milked songs to death, we progressed to film titles (Starling Wars, The Spotshank Redemption, etc etc). Fittingly, giving Ian Fleming's inspiration for his most famous character, the James Bond movies provided a rich seam of potential (Goldfincher, Skylarkfall, Mooncraker...). You'll be playing it yourself soon, mark my words.
I was too early for Dotterel on a trip to Scotland in spring, and wasn't expecting much in the way of landbirds on Scilly in August, so this was a bonus
After driving each other quite mad with a week of this, our last day saw us on Bryher, where a juvenile Dotterel and a Short-toed Lark had been seen on Shipman Head Down. This is a large area of heather-clad high ground at the north end of the island, with convex slopes on all sides. I wandered around for an hour failing to find either bird, and was on the point of rejoining the family on the beach when I stumbled across the Dotterel on the path a few yards from where I had started looking.
The Dotterel with the sea in the background
Dotterel are often confiding but I had to be patient and stay low to gain this one's confidence enough to get close, and despite sporadic cloud cover, the constant feeding action of the bird and my own chronic indecision about camera settings, I was eventually able to get some decent shots.
I posted a square cropped version of this shot on Birdguides a couple of weeks back which proved quite popular - photographer Artur Stankiewicz commented he'd like to see more of the background - so here you go Artur 
The Short-toed Lark eluded me, although it was still present later in the day, but I wasn't complaining. With a hatful of rare seabirds and a Dotterel under my belt, I saw better birds on this trip than on some of our late October visits to the islands.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Warbling around Portland

The weekend before last I twitched Portland to add Icterine Warbler to my Dorset list. The bird was in the vicinity of Eight Kings Quarry, which is in the vicinity of the Eight King Pub, and was keeping company with some Willow Warblers. They weren't the only warblers in the area: the pub was hosting a Cask Ale and Cider Festival for the weekend, at which I don't think it was compulsory to drink both, though judging by the singing some had.
A yee-haw band was cracking out country classics, so it was definitely the first time I've twitched a bird to the strains of Me and Bobby McGee. It had been raining in Purbeck in the morning so, with my windshield wipers slapping time, I headed west where the forecast was better. The weather improved the further from home I got, to the extent that the Icterine positively shone in the sunshine. Difficult to miss, especially as finder Brett Spencer was pointing a dirty great lens at it when I arrived.