Tuesday 13 March 2018

Snowy Owl in Norfolk!

We don't often day trip any more. It is always an excellent day, with 6 hours driving, with a long day in the field is always a little daunting..

Some birds are enough to get you off your backside though, a mythical bird that will be on your lips for weeks to come, and with the weekend approaching, boom. Snowy Owl in Norfolk! A hasty made plan, and we found ourselves driving around a familiar triangle at dawn, a short hop from the north coast where the bird had been seen the previous day. It had flown west at dusk, so my betting was Thornham Harbour for its reappearance. We slowly made our way north, checking the fields and beach before hitting the north coast road. As we drove through Thornham village, out came the hoped for tweet 'Snowy Owl- Thornham point!'.

2 minutes later, we were screeching to a halt in an empty RSPB Titchwell car park, and soon 'walking' up the track to the beach. A Woodcock got a brief passing glance and a pair of mating Common Frog were hastily avoided as we sped past.

A few cursory scans up the point oddly couldn't find any birders, but a large 'blob' perched up on a branch was a little curious. A couple of further stops and curiosity got the better of me, and set the scope on that 'distant blob'...

Massive, white and heavily barred!


Elated, we paced the rest of the distance to the beach, where we met a couple of birder already in-situ, watching the Owl at about 1km distance. What a beast!
Drying out from the heavy overnight/ early morning rain, she shook off the rain from her plumage and preened and stretched her wings. Over the next couple of hours, the crowd grew, and eventually the bird dropped out of sight at which point those who had recently arrived started getting twitchy. Anxiety grew and, leading on from a few 'forerunners' who had already managed to flush the bird onto the beach, a mass commute began. The Snowy sat comfortably in the open, and the twitch grew. Eventually, with few people remaining at the RSPB viewpoint, we gave in, and walked for closer views with the rest of the crowd.
With the crowd thoughtfully standing back and allowing plenty of room for the Owl, everyone managed excellent scope views and the bird slept here for the remainder of the day.

What a way to spend the morning!


Wednesday 12 July 2017

Elegent Tern!

With news of a putative Elegant Tern being found in Hampshire in early June, it was sure to attract a fair few admirers. The species has been reported on a number of occasions in the UK, (5 accepted and 3 pending), but most of the previous records have been tarred by the messy prominence of hybridization within the species in Europe. A number of birds have been semi-resident in Sandwich Tern colonies on the Atlantic coast for many years, and have allowed for close study while they hybridized with Sandwich Terns.

It is particularly the results from this study that interest many listers in a UK sense. This bird, along with 3 others, all of which show Elegant Tern like plumage have been caught, colour ringed and DNA analysed. Cut short, the results showed that the hybrid offspring do not resemble Elegant Terns in any way, and the original adults that were tested using DNA, matched specimens of pure Elegant Terns from the pacific coasts of the USA.

And the Hayling Island bird? It was soon confirmed to be a colour ringed male, and with DNA confirmation, it proved without doubt that this was an Elegant Tern. In terms of listing within the UK, the first unequivocally confirmed Elegant Tern was sure to attract a big crowd... Had the bird stuck around...
A couple of brief appearances followed, each lasting around an hour, before eventually the bird was tracked down in the Tern colony within Pagham Harbour, on the other side of the Selsey peninsula.

Plans for a day birding at Ham Wall was postponed so we could join in the excitement of a UK 'orange-billed' Tern. As we approached Hayling Island en route to Pagham, news circulated that the bird had flown out to sea. Having seen the birds  routine the previous day, of going out to feed every 3-4 hours, for around 2 hours each time. So a quick stop, breakfast, coffee and we drove the remaining 15 minutes around an hour later.

20 minutes later, after leaving a crammed RSPB carpark and we saw the crowd. And a rather large one it was!

The bird still hadn't returned, but we were entertained by frolicking flocks of Med Gulls, hovering Little Terns and flocking Sandwich Terns.
Around an hour later, a shout came that the bird was flying back in, but before anyone could react, it had dropped down onto 'its' spot in the colony, out of sight, and leaving a good few hundred birders without a view!
 A tense 10 minute wait, after patiently having the scope fixated on the area were it dropped in, and up flew a carrot billed large Tern. It hovered around for about 5 seconds, before dropping down again. This process was repeated a few times across the next hour, as we pieced together views of this world lifer for both of us.

Eventually, after a couple of brief flights around the Tern island, the bird took a more distant circular route around the harbour, giving its closest view so far, before it flew across the seawall and out to sea.
And on that, we chose the walk home, together with a quick drop into the New Forest.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Skomer- Puffins and Owls

I try to visit one of the Pembrokeshire islands every year. It is always great to leave the mainland and visit the seabird colonies out on the cliffs of these remote havens. Being based around an hour away from Martins Haven, an early start is needed to get anywhere near the front of the queue for tickets.
Arriving around 45 minutes before the lodge to buy tickets opens, we arrived to one of the largest queues I have seen at that time in the morning. This resulted in us not being booked until the 11am boat.

The Deer park is always worth a scout around, and with a fair bit of time to kill, a full circuit was walked, giving some of the first views of the rafts of seabirds offshore and flying Choughs. A strong SW wind was howling across the headland, the start of a storm arriving the following night, which made it difficult to stand upright on occasions!

The winds however died later in the morning, leaving a smooth crossing to North Haven on Skomer, to be greeted by the usual hoards of Puffins on the water and cliffs around us. Following the introductory talk, most of the boat bolted towards The Wick, well known as one of the better spots on the island to watch its most famous resident. Being a creature of habitat however, I walked northwards from the farmhouse, through the north valley bushes. Sedge Warblers boldly sang and a Blackbird warbled quietly from deep within.
As we walked further, Meadow Pipits parachuting into the trackside vegetation as we approached the Garland stone, where sandwiches were eaten as we took in the seabirds offshore. A few Manx Shearwater were fairly unusual to see so close to shore in the middle of the day, however scanning didn't reveal any cetaceans.

We continued along the north coast, passing breeding Oystercatcher and GBBG nests before heading down along the west coast, past Skomer head and down towards the Wick, where the Puffin flocks were turned up to maximum....

It has been interesting to compare numbers from year to year, and this year certainly seemed to be  good one, with very large numbers present here. It seemed as if many of the birds were at home and many were feeding newly hatched chicks, resulting in regular visits to their nestholes. At the top of the Wick viewpoint, the numbers along the clifftop in front were staggering, even more so considering many were only a few feet away! Despite this though, it is always worth remembering the sobering point that Puffin populations have declined dramatically over the last few decades and all is not well with our seabird populations. 

With the wind being fairly strong, I didn't take many photos (digi-scoping+ wind = failure) so instead I spent a while watching the behaviour of the Puffins. A lot of territorial battles and pair bonding were taking place, with lots of bill clattering  and squabbles taking place.
With the stunning view down the cliffs and a carpet of Puffins at the front, the view is spectacular. This photo sums it up quite well, taken on a 'point and shoot' camera, showing just how close the action is. The Puffins in this one remind me of a number of rock album covers.

Having seen a few photos on social media of a leucistic Puffin on the island, it made for quite a target to try to find it. With 27,000 Puffins on Skomer currently, it was not an easy task without insider knowledge. We were pointed in the right way, and after a short while, out popped a head from a burrow to our right. Strikingly white, we could see it was the leucisitic individual! With white all the way from its forehead, down its nape and across its ears, it certainly stands out from the crowd. After only a few seconds, the bird spun around and walked straight back down its burrow.

With our time coming to an end on the island, a walk back towards the interior of the island was taken to look for an Owl. With it now being around 4pm, it seemed a perfect time for a day hunting Owl to be out, and with a drop in the wind, our chances seemed good!

Walking back towards North Haven, a Short-eared Owl was hunting ahead. We continued to walk onward, before the bird disappeared. As we stood on the track, the Owl flew up and straight towards us, passing closely. Some of the best views I remember having of the species (a concussed electrocuted individual doesn't count....) .
After having watched it for a couple of minutes and with the bird still hunting in view, I scrambled to set up my scope and camera. A few seconds later, and it was again flying towards us, this time even closer.
The Owl passed within 20ft of us, with no-one else around. Bliss.

What a way to end another superb visit to a superb island!

Tuesday 30 May 2017

American Golden Plover at the Gann.

Our annual trip to Pembrokeshire rarely provides me with a new bird species for my list. Back in the day when I first started visiting, many species like Guillemot, Razorbill, Chough, Storm Petrel and Manx Shearwater were all seen for the first time here. Around 12 years later though, I still visit to enjoy the coastline and its wildlife ever year. With our visit in late May, the majority of the migration period is tailing off on the west coast. A few arctic breeding waders or a late Skua can liven a day up so what I was not expecting to occur on the first day of this years trip was for a national rarity to turn up. A Turtle Dove as soon as we arrived at our accommodation already made for a good trip, however late evening, news filtered out of an American Golden Plover at the Gann.
As well as being a lifer, ‘AGP’ would complete the trio of Golden Plovers in the UK, added to the fact it was at one of my favourite sites in Pembrokeshire, it was clear where we were heading the next morning. Luckily, by the time we were just ready to leave, news was already out confirming the bird as still present. With the tide now coming in fast, we arrived and walked the shingle to the river mouth. A couple of birders were present and quickly gave a relieving message that is was still present and was on the small section of beach still not covered by the rising tide.
What a stunner!

A full breeding plumage male American Golden Plover!!

Sleek, sexy and leggy, this out of place yank gave good views as it slowly walked its way towards the shingle spit it roosts on as the tide rose. We had about 10 minutes viewing at ‘close range’ (that still being around 150ft away) where the bird fed and showed off all its defining features, primaries beyond the tail, short tertials, extensive black on underbelly/tail as well as the bold golden and white spots on its mantle and wing feathers. 

The last feature to be given away was the dark grey/ bronze underwing colour, when the bird took flight with a Grey Plover and flew around the bay, before coming back to settle on the shingle bank with a flock of Oystercatchers at the river mouth.
We stayed around across high tide, hoping the bird would come out to feed onto the fresh mud, however it moved more distantly with its Grey Plover companion and fed on the saltmarsh north of bay. It looked stunning in the freshly emerged sun, but unfortunately a little too distant for any photos.

A good spattering of waders made for an enjoyable visit, with 6 Whimbrel joining the roosting Oycs, 3 Black-tailed Godwit dropped onto the lagoon, 17 Dunlin, 1 Ringed Plover and 2 Redshank. A couple of colour ringed Oystercatcher took a while to read, however 20 minutes of effort gave me 1 code to report.

 All in all a good visit and an excellent start to the trip!

Thursday 25 May 2017

Eyes to the skies- Extremadura, 8th-16th April 2017

If Extremadura was famous for something more than its steppe habitats, it would be its wealth of raptors that make it world famous. With around half of the world population existing within Spain, and one of the highest densities, Extremadura is renowned for its populations of European Black Vulture. Together with good populations of the endemic Spanish Imperial (Iberian) Eagle, among a wide range of raptor species, it makes Extremadura a must visit destination for Raptorholics.

It is the Spanish Imperial Eagle which I was most hoping to connect with and over the course of the week, we were well and truly spoilt for the species. We managed to see the species on almost every day, with superb views from our very own balcony, with regular views of at least 3 overhead. It was great to get to grips with this species, often at close range as they soared along the ridgeline above. Most commonly seen was this adult bird, which we very quickly saw has a satellite transmitter on its back. It would be very interesting to see who was tracking it and where it has been!

Also commonly seen was this immature bird (4cy) with a very interesting mixture of juvenile and adult plumage. This also happened to be a very vocal individual, often scrapping with (presumably) its parent. Its low, and fairly quiet ‘barking’ call was often heard while enjoying our lunch on the balcony! It also happened to be one of the last birds I saw when we were packing the car to leave!

As well as getting a bit of gip from its younger companion, a number of the more common species also chose the opportunity to mob the larger Bird of Prey, with this Black Kite giving a fair bit of effort for a few minutes.

Like the Spanish Eagle, Black Vultures were seen regularly throughout the trip, in many habitats. They were commonly seen from our accommodation, over the plains, sitting among livestock and around breeding sites within Monfrag├╝e national park. Some great views were had with patience, including one a number sitting in fields on the Santa Marta loop, looking rather like the grim reaper among the sheep and cattle.

The Montagu’s Harrier is one of my favourite raptor species, their light elegant flight, stunning plumage and rarity (particularly in the UK) all add to their appeal. It is always a pleasure then to see good numbers in the Iberian peninsula, where they are significantly more common than my homeland. As with any extensive area of habitat, views tended to be distant, however we also managed a number of close flybys, often from the car while driving past. Later in the trip however we dropped into a site well known for large gatherings of the species, and as we did were lucky to see a ‘flock’ of Montagu’s Harriers perching on fence posts next to the road a little further up. With a bit of curb crawling, excellent views were had from the comfort of our car seats! The female birds in particular were rather showy, happily sitting on the fence posts until another birder pulled up in a car behind us, and proceeded to get out!! And that was the end of that!

The male bird on the other hand proved more difficult, not being helped by an ongoing territorial dispute which had him chasing a rival male every couple of minutes. He did join the females on the posts briefly, but was mostly seen in flight. It was nice to watch sky-dancing Montagu’s Harriers again, something I haven’t seen for a couple of years.

Although nowhere near as common as I have seen elsewhere in Iberia (probably due to their positions close to raptors flyways), good numbers of both Short-toed Eagle were seen, with just under daily sightings. We managed our best views from the balcony of our accommodation, where 2 birds often patrolled the ridgeline.

Booted Eagle in my opinion are one of the more striking birds of prey in Europe. Being smaller and less imposing than their larger Eagle cousins it is easy to not be so impressed. Many of the birds in Iberia however are examples of the pale morph, with its striking contrast between white underwings and body, black flight feathers and warm brown head and mantle, this creates one stunning bird. All 3 colour morphs were seen; pale, intermediate and dark, allowing for some good scrutiny of their variances in plumage.

Being so close to Trujillo, and the nestbox scheme on the Santa Marta loop, another Raptor commonly seen was Lesser Kestrel. The smaller, lighter and more agile relative of the Kestrel. Many good views were had as the birds held territory around ‘their box’. A visit to the Trujillo bullring in the heat of the day meant that the birds were hunting in the fields around the town rather than perched near their nests, however good views were had of them hunting above the town centre as we explored the winding streets of an old Mediterranean town. 

Although it is easy to highlight the rarer raptors, it is hard not to ignore the more abundant species. Species like Griffon Vulture and Black Kite can be regarded as two of the most commonly seen species of the trip, however the spectacle of seeing so many large raptors in the sky is rather awe inspiring. Even this far inland, far away from the migration hotspots of Tarifa and Gibraltar rock, large kettles of both species were seen almost daily. Combined with mixed White Storks and a various assortments of rarer raptor species, it was always a sight to behold.
Excellent views were had of both, including some phenomenal views of Griffon Vultures within Monfrag├╝e, perched at their cliff face nesting sites.

Despite still being common, it is poignant to end on a note that even now, the populations of many of these species have declined. As with any developing country, space for the species is gradually being restricted and as land use change occurs, the resulting population levels suffer. With the use of the veterinary drug Diclofenac still being discussed for use in Europ, it is worth looking at the effect that is has had in Asia. Having spent some time in India earlier this year (more in an upcoming blog post), it was shocking to see the extent of the damage to the vulture population that the drug had had, with a handful of individuals left in a tiny relic population. It is not difficult to imagine a similar outcome here in Europe.
Here is hoping that the right decision is made, and efforts are made to protect the superb Raptor species present in Iberia.