Saturday, 28 February 2015

Armchair ticking

The British Birds Rarities Committee, which assesses the voracity of reports of rare birds in this country, can take quite a while to pronounce with some complex and controversial cases taking years, even decades, to conclude. So it was a relief to see it take less than a year to rule on a couple of special birds which I saw in April last year. First of these was a Baikal Teal in Cambridgeshire. There could be no doubt about the identification of this bird, only the origin, but the Committee was clearly satisfied with its provenance, so my slightly superstitious decision not to add it to my Bubo list until it was deemed acceptable seems sort of vindicated. And now gives me the pleasure of adding that most effortless of things to my list, the armchair tick.
Baikal Teal, Fen Drayton, Cambridgeshire, 2nd April 2014
On the same day as it ruled on the Baikal Teal, the BBRC also accepted my own record of Northern Harrier on Portland, I think just the 7th accepted record of the hudsonicus sub-species of Hen Harrier in Britain. My footnote in Dorset birding history thus seems secure, and Ref No 5637 will forever have a place in my list of portentous numbers which I really should remember, but probably won't. My account of how it was found and identified remains far and away the most popular post to have appeared on this blog, with 1,800+ page views to date.
Male Northern Harrier, Portland, Dorset, 21st April 2014
Speaking of armchair ticks, after a recount, I have also gained another half dozen on the 2015 photo year list, by virtue of not counting birds photographed in an earlier post. Maths never was my strong point. On the up side, this brings the total up to 120. On the down-side, it means that the Waxwing loses its crown as the 100th species to appear on the blog this year, and has to hand it to a scabby Greylag Goose (or, if I recount in the strict chronological order the photos were taken, Bittern, which is a bit more respectable).

With no holidays planned for a few months though, a busy year ahead, and bearing in mind that when I have bothered to tot up a year list in the last few years I haven't breached the 250 barrier, realisation is already dawning that I am not going to be pulling up many trees, tally wise. Still, it's early days so I'll persevere, despite dipping on a local Great White Egret, re-re-re-re-refound and photographed very nicely by Steve Smith today. I scrambled, but it didn't hang around, hence returning to the comfort of the armchair.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

A rousing finale

We arrived back in Dorset last Saturday after a family holiday in Suffolk which left me free on Sunday morning to trawl Dorset for some minor rarities and photo ticks for the year list. The forecast was to turn nasty by mid-morning so I started reasonably early at West Bexington, hoping to see the 3 Cirl Buntings which had been reported on and off. I was fortunate to bump into Mike Morse on arrival who showed me to the right spot. The first bird we saw was a Sparrowhawk so that didn't bode well, but after not too long a wait the Cirls flew in to the far hedge as Mike had predicted. Birders are being asked not to use the permissive footpath which goes close to their favoured hedge so we watched from the coast path and I managed a few record shots from distance. Possibly the worst photo tick on this blog this year. But this is a top bird in Dorset, a county tick for me and, more to the point, it's identifiable so passes all the necessary tests for inclusion here.
Sparrowhawk, West Bexington (#116)
A very heavy crop of the male Cirl Bunting (#117) at West Bexington
Raven, Abbotsbury (#118)
Next stop was Abbotsbury where a Greenland White-Fronted Goose has spent much of the winter - not a photo tick this year on account of it being a race of White-fronted Goose, several of the nominate race of which I saw earlier in the week in Suffolk. But still a very good bird down here, and the first I had photographed of this species in Dorset. A Raven over provided an easy photo opportunity. The Black Guillemot in Portland Harbour was my next target, and I soon located it, still distant but closer than on previous visits, and certainly close enough to get a passable picture by the low standards I have set so far in this post.
Greenland White-fronted Goose, Abbotsbury
Now here's a test for the ethics of the photo year list: the white blob with black on top far right is a drake Scaup at Abbotsbury Swannery. The dark blob with white blaze on the face far left is a snoozing female Scaup. I know they're Scaup, you know they're Scaup, but should I 'count' them for the photo year list? No, even I have standards.
Black Guillemot, Portland Harbour (#119)
A close Pale-bellied Brent at Ferrybridge was nice, although the rain and wind had picked up by the time I got there. Again not a photo tick on account of it 'only' being a sub-species of Brent Goose. Finally, there was just time to catch up with the Golden Plover flock at Maiden Castle for one last photo year tick (also the first I have photographed in Dorset) before heading back to Wareham for Rangers' U-12s final game of the season. Although arch rivals Swanage and Ringwood have games in hand and on form should finish above Wareham, we look likely to conclude the season as top scorers and can finish no lower than third, so well done lads - and thank you for letting me have my weekends back.
Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Ferrybridge. Compare to...
...Dark-bellied Brent Geese
Golden Plover, Maiden Castle
Golden Plover, Maiden Castle (#120)

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Buzzing around Norfolk

After a short break in Suffolk last week we made our way up to North Norfolk for a day before heading home to Dorset. I thought Pink-footed Goose would be a shoe-in for the photo list here but while quite a few were seen they were all too far off to photograph unfortunately, even at the normally reliable Lady Anne's Drive. I would surely have found some closer had I driven around the back lanes but after the long journey from Suffolk I feared a revolting family family revolt had I done so. So it was a stroll on the beach at Holkham followed by cake and coffee at Titchwell instead. En route from Holkham to Thornham (for the Twite) though we did stumble across a nice, close pair of Egyptian Goose. Non-native, but tickable.
Egyptian Goose, near Holkham, Norfolk (#113th species photographed in 2015)
Norfolk is a stronghold of this introduced species
Little Grebe on Holkham Park Lake (#114)
Muntjac Deer near Holkham
Earlier in the week when we were still in Suffolk I also nipped over the border to Norfolk look for a Rough-legged Buzzard which has been wintering on Halvergate Marshes. I had not been to this area before but thanks to some gen from James Lowen I found the right viewpoint. After a couple of hours I had seen nothing more exciting than a Marsh Harrier, and being on a deadline I was considering knocking it on the head when one last scan with the telescope revealed a large hovering raptor in the extreme distance. It dropped out of sight but it was enough to persuade me to stick around a while longer and not long after it re-appeared close enough for a few record shots.
Rough-legged Buzzard, Halvergate Marshes, Norfolk (#115)
Rough-legged Buzzard shows a white band across the tail
This bird caused me a bit of confusion when it flew over shortly afterwards - it was motoring on so not really in typical Buzzard/Rough-leg mode, and with a pale head and much white in the closed tail my initial impression was of Rough-leg...
...but on sharing the photos with more expert birders the conclusion is juvenile Common Buzzard. Note the dark 'comma' in the forewing, compared to the dark carpal patch on the Rough-leg, and the longer winged, more Harrier like appearance of the Rough-leg.
So that's the East Anglian trip wrapped up then: five nights, two Counties, and 21 species added to the photo year-list, including some potentially tricky ones - Rough-legged Buzzard, Waxwing, Hawfinch, Twite - all of which I could easily go the year in Dorset without seeing.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

More from the Far East

A couple more posts should wrap up the remaining highlights from our recent East Anglian trip, and, what with it being so flat and wet an all, they are mostly in the waterfowl department. Geese are of course a Norfolk speciality but Suffolk has a few too - the highlight being the wintering flock of Russian White-fronted Geese (race albifrons) at North Warren. These birds sometimes hold a rarer Bean Goose though not this year it would seem. The White-fronts were accompanied by a flock of Barnacle Geese which are considered 'feral' - but then so are the Canadas and Greylags so I'm ticking them for the photo year-list!
White-fronted Goose, North Warren RSPB, Suffolk (#110)
Adult White-fronted Goose in flight
Juveniles lack the black belly markings
Juvenile White-fronted Goose

Part of the wintering flock
Barnacle Geese, North Warren RSPB, Suffolk (#111)
Barnacle Geese in flight
The Konik ponies which do such a good job of habitat management on Suffolk's RSPB reserves 
Marsh Harrier causing mayhem among the White-fronts
Pintail were very close in to the excellent new raised platforms which give improved views over North Warren 
This the female Pintail
A beautiful duck
Skylarks were in song at North Warren
Rook (#112) at Covehithe - we walked down to the beach through vast and whiffy pigfields but it was too windy and cold to look for Shorelarks so we retired to the excellent Southwold pier for refreshments
The faded glory of the church at Covehithe...
...this area faces rapid coastal erosion and a road I remember walking down to look for a White-tailed Eagle many winters ago is now closed as the tarmac is getting munched into the crumbling cliffs

Monday, 23 February 2015

Ton up!

I'm not sure what the run-rate for a 'good' photo year-list should be by the end of February, but I suspect 100 is well below it. Anyway, that's what I have reached and the honour of being the 100th species captured on film digital recording media falls to the Bohemian Waxwing. Naturally, I had to manipulate the order in which I notched up the ticks on my recent trip to East Anglia to bring up the hundred on such a glamorous species, but, let's be honest, it just wouldn't have been the same if it was a Skylark. We spent Friday night on the way back from Norfolk to Dorset in a budget motel at Barton Mills in Suffolk - conveniently close to Mildenhall where the Waxwing had spent much of the previous week. I was able to twitch it whilst the rest of the family were still doing their morning ablutions.
The Waxwing, a first winter bird, was feeding in prime Waxwing habitat - a modern suburban housing estate
That pesky twig spoilt an otherwise perfectly good photo - one step to the left or right and the bird would have been obscured by the vegetation in front of me (I was using a bush for cover) so there was no way around it. And Photoshop would be cheating.
As a first winter bird, the characteristic waxy red tips to the wing feathers, caused by the shafts extending beyond the barbs, could not be seen in the closed wing, but can just about be seen coming through here in the raised wing
So with that landmark chalked up, I am starting to wonder what I might get to by the year's end, whilst not being sufficiently committed or confident as yet to set a proper target. There is still significant potential for work and family commitments to scupper the whole project and leave me wishing/pretending I had never started it. For now, though, it is time to savour the milestone and admire the beauty of Bombycilla garrulous.

To rack up a really good score would require some of our more elusive and secretive species to perform for the camera. So having mobilised the rest of the family after twitching the Waxwing, I persuaded them that a trip to nearby Lynford Arboretum would be fun, more in hope than expectation that I might catch up with one of the Hawfinches that are seen there from time to time. Fortunately one had been staked out near a feeding station and was showing on and off to a small crowd of admirers. The photos were poor in view of the distance and low light but good enough to pass the 'identifiable' test.
I haven't seen Hawfinch (#108) for a few years so it was good to see one on the ground
This bird fed actively in the leaf litter
Check out that conk!
With two of the most desirable species on the British list in the bag there was time for a more leisurely stroll around the arboretum. A Brambling at the feeding station was a bonus and I was able to improve on the photos of Marsh Tit taken in the garden of our holiday cottage on the Suffolk coast earlier in the week.
Brambling (#109), Lynford Arboretum, Norfolk
Marsh Tit, Lynford Arboretum, Norfolk
Marsh Tit, Lynford Arboretum. Norfolk
Copper-headed Pre-teen, Lesser Blonde Chatterbox and Owl-headed Matriarch were three species I was not expecting to see at Lynford
So, not bad for what was supposed to be a travelling day, three potentially tricky species added to the year list and some quality time with the family (who spent the rest of the journey being totally uncommunicative and playing with handheld electronic devices). Oh go on then, one more of that twig.
Note how it is in perfect focus. The twig, I mean.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Beach litter

My old pal Matt Jones and I used to go to North Norfolk from Kent occasionally in the winter for the excellent birding. The Holkham Gap was always a good place to start for a mixed flock of Snow Bunting, Twite and Shorelark that used to winter there. Those days appear to be gone so you have to be prepared to work a bit harder to find these species on the beaches of East Anglia these days. Spending last week in the region gave me a chance to try though. Snow Bunting and Twite were simple enough, though there was quite a distance between them, but we failed to find Shorelark despite slogging up and down the vast shingle beaches of Shingle Street - I always wondered why it was called that - one windy afternoon. But two out of three, as the song says, ain't bad.
Snow Bunting, Pakefield, Suffolk (#105)

Snow Bunting, Pakefield, Suffolk - 2 of a flock of 11 birds
The flock included some colour-ringed birds - having had a quick look online it seems they may have been ringed locally, but I'll be trying to find out more
A few days after these photos were taken we left Suffolk and headed up to North Norfolk. Among other places we stopped at Thornham Harbour where a flock of Twite often spends the winter. From past experience I thought they would be difficult to get close to but this year they seemed to be quite happy feeding next to the approach road. I stationed myself low down by an apparently favoured spot, and between the unwanted attentions of passing dog walkers, vehicles and clumsy birders approaching too close too quickly, all of which had the inevitable result of flushing the flock, I managed a series of reasonable photos in low light.
Twite, Thornham Harbour (#106)
A mobile and vocal flock of about 50 birds - note the pink rump on the bird bottom right
A subtly beautiful bird - I particularly like the buffy face and chin
No Shorelark unfortunately but a Skylark was with the Twite flock at Thornham (#99)
The flock would feed quietly on the ground and give a burst of wheezy calls on taking flight

The Coal Barn is a much photographed building in Thornham Harbour, and when disturbed the Twite flock will often alight on it - again, note the pink rump on this bird
I went all the way to the Outer Hebrides a couple of years ago with Twite being one of my main targets - I did see some but not as well or for as long as this so this was a real treat. I couldn't persuade the family to get out of the car to appreciate these LBJs but they were happy for me to wallow in the mud on my own for an hour, so everyone was a winner there really. Next post should bring up number 100 for the photo year list so come back soon to see which species gets the honour.