Sunday, 17 September 2017

Autumn gathers pace

This week's weather appears as a statement of intent about the changing seasons, though for migrating birds 'autumn' has of course been underway for some weeks. Yesterday I met up with my parents on Portland to see what was about on a day which started out fine and bright, but which saw torrential rain by lunchtime, arriving just in time to give us soggy chips at the Bill's Lobster Pot cafĂ©.
Wryneck, Portland Bill
Probably the best view I have had of this species
Photographing it in dappled light on the ground was tricky...
...but the cryptic plumage can be seen well here
And here's a clue to how the Wryneck got it's name
Shortly before the downpour, we had jammed in on a long-staying Wryneck in the Obs quarry - not only was it on view as soon as we arrived, shortly after it was flushed by a rat and perched up to give unusually good and extended views of this often shy species. Apart from Wheatears, common migrants were thin on the ground on Portland, though there were plenty of hirundines in the air feeding up before the long journey south.
Northern Wheatear at the Bill
One of nine in the same paddock
Not just migrant birds on Portland - there were many Red Admiral around too
The resident Rock Pipits entertained us while we sat for lunch
Most of the Wheatears were sporting the tawny female-type plumage - but at least one male (left) was among them
In contrast to the shortage of common migrants on Portland, a visit to Greenlands Farm near Studland a couple of weekends ago saw the fields and woods alive with them. Yellow Wagtails were particularly entertaining and I spent a warm morning stalking them, hiding behind gorse bushes and acting like a horse in an effort to gain their trust. Suffice to say I got closer to the horses than the wagtails.
Yellow Wagtail, Greenlands Farm
The wagtail flock follows cattle and horses around the National Trust land at Greenlands...
 ...feeding right under the noses and feet of the livestock
This blue-grey headed individual didn't look like the regular British race - enquiries are underway to establish what flava it might be, but it's presumably of continental origin
Good to see these migrants on the ground rather than just flying overhead calling
While the Yellow Wagtails dominated the paddocks at Greenlands, Willow Warbler was the most numerous migrant around the forest edge - every tree seemed to contain two or three - with Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher and Whitethroat present in smaller numbers. 
Redstarts seem to like Greenlands - here a male...
...and here a female

Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Spotted Flycatcher

I became enamoured with Greenlands Farm during a late summer bird race in 2015 - the concentration of migrants there at this time of year puts my own patch at Swineham to shame - a good excuse for my continued neglect of the latter! Purists would no doubt castigate me for forsaking my own patch to go farther afield where the grass is greener - I would merely point at that many hard core patch workers travel further to get to their 'local' patch than I do to get to Greenlands!
Common Whitethroat, Greenlands Farm
Wheatear, Greenlands Farm
Wheatear, Greenlands Farm
House Martins were gathering around Manor Farm on Studland at the end of August
This rare visitor to Poole Harbour, a Hooded Crow, was also at Manor Farm

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Sandpiper central

Mid-week rarities have been a theme of the Dorset birding year thus far in 2017 - from the Monday night Yellow Warbler, to the Tuesday night Spectacled Warbler, the Thursday night Elegant Tern and the Friday night Baird's Sandpiper. So it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise that this Monday produced another: a Stilt Sandpiper found by Dave Chown at Lodmoor near Weymouth. I missed a long staying individual of this species a few years ago which arrived the day I left for a family holiday, and left the day before I got back.
Least Sandpiper - despite the low light, against the mud the greenish legs can be seen
Smaller than the Dunlin on the left, Least Sandpiper has a slightly longer and more de-curved bill than Little Stint
I was on the train on the way home when the news broke, and when I sent a text to my neighbour and fellow Swineham-dodger Trevor to share the news, it emerged that he was on the same train. We therefore strode to our respective homes to collect our gear and I picked him up shortly after to head to Lodmoor. One of the iron laws of twitching Weymouth from Wareham as dusk approaches is that you will wait at least five minutes at the Wool level crossing for the train to pass. With that obstacle eventually cleared, we made good time to Lodmoor only to find that the Stilt Sand had flown off - five minutes before our arrival. It looked like the delay at Wool had cost us more than a nervous wait, and we pondered our next move - stick around and hope it comes back, or head to the next decent bit of mud at Ferrybridge in the direction the bird had reportedly flown?
Least Sandpiper shows more prominent dark lores compared to the similar (and even rarer) Long-toed Stint
A bright juvenile
Such are the dilemmas of twitching, and we prevaricated just long enough to make a trip to Ferrybridge a less attractive option, as dusk was fast approaching, and we concluded that our time would be better spent doing a circuit of Lodmoor which was still the most likely location for the bird to reappear. As we approached the western edge of the reserve, my phone rang and a surprisingly calm Brett Spencer broke the news that he had just re-identified a reported Little Stint as a Least Sandpiper - an even rarer American wader than the Stilt Sand and the first record for Dorset. We were just 100 metres away and covered this distance in a reserve record time. Dave, finder of the Stilt Sand, was with him, graciously accepting Brett's apologies for the outrageous act of up-staging!
Stilt Sandpiper at Lodmoor

Monday night's record shots of the Stilt Sandpiper taken at ISO1600 look like they were taken with a night vision camera..

The sun was by now about to dip below the horizon so there was just time to grab a few photographs and study the features which, despite the lateness of the hour, could be seen superbly thanks to the quality of modern optics. We stuck around enjoying the views and awaiting the arrival of Steve Smith who was still in transit. He got there breathless and in the near darkness, at which point another breathless Dorset birder, Nick Urch, emerged out of the gloom with news that the Stilt Sandpiper had been re-found another 100 metres to the north of where we were standing. This distance was covered in my second personal best of the evening and we found ourselves enjoying our second Dorset tick of the hour.
The Stilt Sandpiper was feeding actively

The long, greenish legs can be seen in this view
I returned after work the following day hoping to improve on the photographs from the night before. They are not great, but most of the key features of both can be seen at least. I do enjoy these post-work adventures at this time of year - with the evenings drawing in, you know you are not going to get far from home before dusk, or have too far to go to get home whether or not the target is present!
A very leggy bird
This Great White Egret at Lodmoor was seriously up-staged by the duo of American waders

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Ragged royalty

Barra for an American Redstart would have been a bridge too far this weekend: Brighton was a more practical destination to see a new species for me in Britain: a Queen of Spain Fritillary butterfly. It's difficult to believe that almost eleven years have passed since I saw my last new British butterfly. That was a Monarch, one of which was just around the corner from a Long-tailed Blue I found earlier in the day on the Isles of Scilly back in October 2006. A few days after that, a Queen of Spain Fritillary was also seen on the islands near the Trenoweth flower farm but despite much searching I was unable to find it.
Male Queen of Spain Fritillary - it looks like it survived a bird attack judging by the state of hind-wing on the right hand side
A slightly more flattering photograph of the fritillary showing the most intact hind-wing
Details of a sighting of three of these rare migrants at Halcombe Farm near Piddinghoe first emerged two weekends ago and was immediately of interest. Unfortunately, the news broke the day before the gloriously sunny Bank Holiday Monday - not the sort of day you want to be driving along the south coast, and I couldn't get away in any case. Last weekend was equally compromised, as being on call for emergencies meant that I was unable to leave Dorset.
The species is known for spending much of the time basking on the ground: this one was no exception
A brief bout of nectaring provided one of the few opportunities to get a shot of the bold silver spots on the underwing
Discussing the survival chances of the fritillaries with Phil Sterling during the week, he was pretty convinced that unless the weather turned really foul, they would still be present this weekend. So with one eye on the forecast, and the other on Butterfly Conservation's excellent Sussex branch website, I resolved to go on Saturday as full sunshine was promised throughout the morning. Internet updates suggested that two individuals were still present on Thursday, both looking more than a little worn, and that was enough to persuade me to make the effort of an early start to beat the traffic yesterday morning.
This Clouded Yellow was one of 15 butterfly species on view at Halcome Farm
I arrived at Halcombe Farm around 0900 and began combing the area around a bonfire which was being used as a lek site by the fritillaries - all three having been identified as males. As the morning warmed up, a Clouded Yellow landed nearby but there was no sign of the fritillaries. Other butterflies, and then another butterfly watcher, arrived. We split up and shortly before 1000 he gave me a shout to indicate he had found one.
A female Adonis Blue was lying low in the grass
A male Common Blue was easier to see
Queen of Spain Fritillary is reasonably common on the near continent but still very rare in the UK with just a few hundred records and a small number of unsuccessful attempts at colonising documented. So despite the slightly ragged appearance of the visiting royalty, I was very glad I got to see one of the trio before their inevitable demise, particularly as the famous bonfire is apparently scheduled to go up in smoke within a matter of days.
Small Copper
Small Heath
Well done and thanks to the diligent transect walker, Dave Harris, who first discovered them, to Neil Hulme for getting the news and directions out to the wider world, and to the landowner Colin Appleton for allowing access to the site which has provided a lot of pleasure to many visitors over the last fortnight.
Brown Argus
Painted Lady - another migrant at Halcombe Farm
The bonfire adopted by the Queen of Spain Fritillaries

Monday, 4 September 2017

300 up

I come from a long-line of under-achievers so when it comes to listing, I try to keep my goals to a bare minimum to avoid disappointment. At this stage of mid-life, in fact, I have just two self-imposed targets - first, to see 300 species of bird in Dorset before reaching the age of 50 and, second, to see 500 species in Britain before I die. Daft these targets may be, but yesterday I ticked off the first of them by adding Baird's Sandpiper to my county list, and with a couple of years to spare.
Common Sandpiper was one of a number of migrant waders on Brownsea
300 species for Dorset is no big deal, of course - the top county listers are closer to 400 than 300, and the county list as a whole currently stands at 423, with at least 3 more species (Spectacled Warbler, Elegant Tern and Yellow Warbler) certain to be added when the 2017 record books come to be written. But having only moved here in 2007 I still think it represents a pretty good effort for a fully-employed father of two who can't always drop everything to chase rarities.
There weren't just migrant birds on Brownsea - this Painted Lady was also on the heath at the top of the island
Yesterday was a case in point: I wrote as recently as June how visits from family/friends were guaranteed to result in the appearance of a rare bird. This weekend the visit of my sister and sister-in-law threatened the same - the rare bird being the Baird's Sandpiper on Brownsea, found on Friday lunchtime by Paul Morton. Work commitments meant there was no chance of twitching it that day, and even though the bird went missing on the Friday afternoon and evening, a day trip to the island on Saturday seemed a good idea. Fortunately our visitors and the rest of the family agreed.
Redshank on the Brownsea lagoon
Soon after our arrival I was scanning the back of the lagoon for waders, and had a brief view of a bird with an obvious pectoral band, apparently smaller than the Dunlin with which it was associating. It was then lost to view in vegetation but I had seen enough to keep an eye on the same area. I was soon joined by Graham Armstrong and we simultaneously locked on to a bird which looked a good candidate, and similar to the one I had seen earlier.
The Spoonbill flock had risen to 26 birds by Saturday - they spent a lot of time in the air flushed by...
...the Red Arrows, in the area for the Bournemouth Air Show
Despite the heat haze and the considerable distance between us and the bird, we gradually pieced together the key features - the pectoral band in combination with otherwise pure white underparts, attenuated rear end, scalloping on the wings, shorter bill and legs, slightly paler and more concolorous upperparts compared to the more variable Dunlin it was with. It was often out of view behind vegetation, and re-locating it required some care due to the haze and the fact that a number of the Dunlin also showed relatively neat pectoral bands - but the latter invariably displayed scruffier underparts and larger heads and bills than the more diminutive Baird's.
In this record shot to end record shots, the bird on the left is the Baird's - even in this terrible image the impression of a slighter bird with a smaller bill, cleaner white underparts and more attenuated rear end is confirmed compared to the Dunlin on the right
Increasingly confident with the identification, we put the news out enabling several Dorset birders to catch up with the rare visitor in the afternoon. The rest of the day was then free to be devoted to touring Brownsea with the family and enjoying its exotic selection of non-native spongecakes and flans.
A slightly better comparison shot of Baird's Sandpiper (right) and Dunlin illustrates the key features mentioned above rather more clearly - this was taken last October at Davidstow Airfield in Cornwall