Back With a Bang

After a two week hiatus from blogging due to an increasing PhD workload I thought I’d write a quick post to catch up with myself and discuss a fantastic day’s birding in Cornwall. During the week of February 5th, I made a visit to Thetford to visit my PhD supervisor Niall Burton at the BTO. As well as making a good deal of progress with my project, I managed a quick wander around the BTO’s Nunnery Lakes reserve one lunchtime, which provided three year ticks in the form of Brambling, Egyptian Goose and (rather embarrassingly) Greylag Goose. On Wednesday the 8th I headed up to Cumbria to visit my field sites with Gary Clewey, scoring the wintering juvenile Glaucous Gull in Thetford, a couple of Red Kite from the car in Northants and a female Long-tailed Duck at Astbury Mere in Cheshire on route. On Thursday I made my first visit to my field site of South Walney NR where I’ll be living for 3 months from April – July this year. The reserve held good numbers of wintering wildfowl with 3 Scaup and c400 Eider the highlights. Exploring the site raised my excitement for the field season and hopefully with a little effort I’ll be able to dig out some good birds here in the spring.

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Juvenile Glaucous Gull at Burrell Way industrial estate in Thetford.

Last week I did some birding around Cornwall with a visit to Swanpool on Tuesday evening where the wintering Siberian Chiffchaff showed well in its favoured spot along the stream and a Yellow-browed Warbler also gave good views. We then headed over to Devoran where a group of 5 Cattle Egret came in to roost with Little Egrets at 17.42. This winter has been incredible for the species in the south west with at least 40 birds currently present in the county, surely there’s a good chance of some remaining to breed in the southwest this spring given the scale of the influx! On Wednesday, Toby and I made an evening visit to College Reservoir, my first patch visit in a couple of weeks, and scored two PWC2017 ticks in the form of c15 Starling and a pair of Shoveler. We decided to stay late to listen for Tawny Owls however we were again unsuccessful, possibly due to the volume of noise produced by the huge corvid roost in the woods here. Our efforts were not entirely in vain however with 3 flyover Woodcock after dusk providing a fitting consolation prize.

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Sunset at Devoran.

On Saturday 18th, after a relative lie-in, Toby, Calum and I headed westwards with the wintering Little Bunting at Nanjizal squarely in our sites. As it was high tide we decided to have a quick check of the sea off Jubilee Pool, Penzance on our way past, in retrospect perhaps the best decision of the day! Whilst Calum and Toby scanned the sea I decided to have a quick check of the rocks for roosting waders and Black Redstart. As soon as I popped my head over my wall I was stunned by the number of Purple Sandpipers that were immediately obvious roosting on the rocks. I quickly called Toby and Calum over and after a thorough check we managed a massive count of 37 birds, by far my largest ever count of this species. Eventually we returned to checking the sea and picked up several Great Northern Divers and a male Eider which was a year tick for the others. Whilst Calum went off to attempt to photograph the Eider, Toby and I continued to scan the sea until suddenly Toby shouted “I’ve got the Pacific!” I quickly looked down his scope and confirmed that he had indeed picked up the wintering adult Pacific Diver whilst he ran to get Calum. The bird was much closer than it was when we had it off Marazion in January and we had truly satisfying views of for over 20 minutes at relatively close range as it swam slowly west in close association with a couple of GNDs. The bird was well within phonescoping range and allowed me to capture some decent comparison shots of it looking diminutive alongside a GND. The bird was so close that the chinstrap was even visible on some pictures. This is by far the best sighting of the bird and though the views are nothing like people are getting of the Northumberland bird we all left the site buzzing with excitement.

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Record shots of the adult Pacific Diver off Jubilee Pool with a convenient GND for comparison. Check out that chinstrap!

After the elation of the Pacific Diver the day quickly took a deflating turn when we spent an hour failing to find the Little Bunting or anything else of note at Nanjizal. This was my first visit to the site though and I was amazed by the truly scary potential of the site for producing good birds – some visits this autumn are definitely on the cards! Following reports of several Iceland Gulls feeding in the fields we headed over to Ardenswah Farm on the Porthgwarra roads where farming activity had attracted good numbers of gulls which were following the tractors working the fields. We quickly picked up several Med Gulls and when all the birds flushed from the nearest field we followed an incredibly pale large gull which eventually landed distantly in another field in poor light. At this distance the incredibly pale, bleached plumage contrasting with a solid dark bill and relatively large size led me to dismiss the bird as an odd leucistic Herring Gull. I fired off a couple of record shots and later, following a discussion with Martin Elliot at Hayle and comparing these to Mark Pearson’s DSLR shots of the same bird from Twitter we concluded that it was indeed an incredibly pale Iceland Gull, possibly a 3CY bird with a muddy bill or a very bleached 2CY bird. Gulls are never as straightforward as they seem!

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Bleached immature Iceland Gull at Ardenswah Farm, Polgigga.

Next it was on to Hayle where the causeway was packed with local birders. There were good numbers of large gulls on the estuary, mostly adult LBBGs which are now moving through in good numbers. On arrival Martin Elliot put me on to a sleeping 2CY Iceland Gull which promptly woke up and flew off southeast giving good views. The long-staying Avocet was showing very well from the causeway, allowing me to get some decent phonescoped shots of this most welcome Cornwall tick. The Green-winged Teal was also fairly close to the causeway and the immature Spoonbill was still happily feeding away on Carnsew Pool.

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Showy Avocet at Hayle.

We then decided to check the gull roost on St Clement’s Isle at Mousehole however we were flagging by this point and a frustrating 2CY Herring-type left me with gull fatigue and ready to pack it in for the day. What was likely the male Eider from Penzance provided some comedic relief as it sat happily on the island, taking its life into its own hands as it nonchalantly dodged the attentions of the roosting Great Black-backed Gulls.  On the way to Mousehole Toby suggested finishing the day at the Men-an-Tol and so with the sun sloping towards the horizon we headed across the moors of West Penwith in the stunning evening light. A brisk walk up the track got us to the abandoned farm buildings with a decent amount of light left and our effort was immediately rewarded with a hunting Barn Owl, a Cornwall tick for all of us. As the light faded further I picked up a Buzzard heading to roost before, at 18.02, Toby picked a ringtail Hen Harrier which gave great views as it powered over our heads and away south over the moor. This was my third county tick of the day and this truly charismatic bird in such a spectacular setting provided a fitting end to one of my best ever day’s birding in Cornwall.

Sunday saw, Calum, Toby and I once again in the trusty Toyota Yaris, this time heading east towards Trevose Head where a flock of up to 84 Lapland Buntings has been wintering in the coastal stubble fields. Upon arrival the weather was absolutely dismal with the sea barely visible from the car park. Undeterred we set about stomping through the fields but after half an hour or so we were wet and cold and had only managed a brief view of a possible Lapland Bunting which flushed silently in front of us with Skylarks before heading for the horizon. Dejected we decided to head back towards Penryn calling in at Gwennap Sewage works where we failed to find the Green Sandpipers seen the previous day. We then decided to try Kennall Vale for Dipper which I needed as a county tick. This site was almost entirely devoid of birds and the ignominy of actually dipping Dipper led us to call it quits for the day and head for home. This was by far our worst day’s birding in the county and the contrast with yesterday perfectly illustrates the fickle nature of the hobby. Hopefully our next trip is more successful!

Dipping in Devon

After one failed attempt at twitching the host of wintering rarities in Devon that saw us fail to even make it out of Cornwall, Saturday morning saw Calum, Toby and I once again heading east along the A30, drawn by the promise of some solid year ticks. We started the day on the Exe Estuary where checks of both Cockwood and Dawlish Warren failed to yield the wintering adult Bonaparte’s Gull which i saw here in February 2015. According to some local birders, the bird has become more elusive in recent winters and has used the entire estuary more extensively rather than hanging about in one place. Toby and Calum could attest to the bird’s elusiveness, this being their third dip this winter! The visit was not entirely wasted however as two Slavonian Grebes and good numbers of Dark-bellied Brent Geese were year ticks for me.

Not wishing to let one bird spoil our day, we headed south towards Broadsands where the local Cirl Buntings showed well feeding on seed put out for them in the usual corner of the car park. Always lovely to see, the group contained at least four stunning males and with some patience I managed some decent shots with Kali’s Nikon D3400, the best of which is below. A brief look at the sea revealed a flock of five Velvet Scoter but our efforts were interrupted by a violent downpour before we could turn up anything else.

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Male Cirl Buntings – Broadsands must be the best place to see this species in Britain. 

After this enjoyable stop it was on to Sharkham Point near Brixham to look for the first-winter drake Surf Scoter which has been hanging around with the Common Scoter flock here. After some initial frustration we managed to locate the Common Scoter spread out in three flocks across the bay to the south. The bird wasn’t in the closest group and the distance and awful light conditions meant that although it was almost certainly present, the Surf Scoter was impossible to pick out. Our misery was further compounded by a Birdguides report confirming that the Bonaparte’s Gull was showing well on the Exe Estuary at Cockwood.

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Rain shower over the sea off Sharkham Point with a burnt out car further adding to the aesthetic. 

So far the trip was shaping up to be a complete disaster so after a much needed McDonald’s in Paignton to refresh our spirits we headed towards the tiny coastal village of Thurlestone for a date with a Desert Wheatear. Having been present for several months on one tiny beach, the bird was almost guaranteed, however this fact did nothing to assuage our fears as we approached the beach and saw the number of people in the area. Fortunately we had no reason for concern as Calum quickly picked up the bird feeding along the tide line. This little desert sprite was surprisingly mobile compared to more moribund individuals I’ve seen in autumn in East Anglia and gave us the run around for half an hour. Eventually the fates aligned and the bird perched up in front of me, the stunning peachy tones of its plumage lit up by the evening sun, and I snapped away with Kali’s DSLR, somehow managing to capture some half decent images in the process. The bird was an absolute joy to watch and seeing this rare and charismatic species in such a picturesque location single-handedly salvaged the day and to me epitomises what twitching is all about. I wonder what experiences the next twitch will hold?

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First-winter male Desert Wheater

Weekend Away

This weekend, after an impromptu visit to hospital to deal with a nasty bug picked up in Kenya (or Bristol Services), Kali and I spent an amazing weekend at the flat in St Ives. I didn’t do any proper birding over the weekend but we did have a wander around the island on both afternoons picking up the expected Kittiwakes and Gannets and a smart adult Med Gull on Sunday. A group of three Harbour Porpoise moving west close inshore in brilliant conditions that afternoon was another unexpected treat. The stunning light on Sunday afternoon also gave Kali a chance to try some bird photography with her new Nikon DSLR and the resultant shots below are the main reason for this post.

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A confiding Starling. 
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These fearless Turnstones feed obliviously around the harbour allowing very close approach.
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This adult Herring Gull posed nicely on a railing.
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This Black-headed Gull allowed Kali to approach closely and get some stunning results in brilliant light. 

I also had a play around with the camera and was really impressed with its ability to capture record shots of distant birds with the help of a little cropping. For example this Common Gull was roosting around 50m away when the shot below was taken. With Kali’s permission I’ll hopefully be taking the camera with me on some twitches in the near future and I’m very excited to see the what results I can get!

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Cropped record shot of a distant 2nd-winter Common Gull.

On Monday evening Calum, Toby, Jalal, James and myself headed to College Reservoir with the aim of getting Woodcock and Tawny Owl for PWC2017. A quick check of the reservoir in the fading light produced the wintering Scaup and a Firecrest showed well in the woods. As darkness fell we waited with anticipation by the boggy fields along the path to Argal Reservoir and almost immediately were treated to two Water Rail calling close by. After another five minutes my prediction rang true when the first of an impressive four Woodcocks flew past, its rotund structure silhouetted perfectly against the clear evening sky. Despite its ubiquity, Woodcock is not a bird I see very often and this magical encounter was my patch highlight of the year so far. Who knows what other exhilarating experiences the following 11 months will bring?

Swanpool Sibe Chiff

As expected my resolve to dial back the birding this week quickly failed and the last two days I’ve done a bit of local birding before heading into the office. On Monday morning, Toby and I made a quick visit to College Reservoir and I was rewarded with three PWC2017 ticks in the form of Grey Heron, Meadow Pipit and a kronking flyover Raven. The wintering Scaup was still doing its thing but our failure to locate a Med Gull was made all the more galling by the fact that Ben had one there on his journey into campus a few hours later! I’m not particularly worried about getting this species for PWC2017 but it would be nice to pick one up soon!

This morning’s birding was even more productive as Calum, Toby, Jalal and myself decided to start the day at Swanpool NR to look for the over-wintering Siberian Chiffchaff and Yellow-browed Warbler that Toby had picked up here recently. This quickly proved to be a good decision as mere metres along the path to Swanvale a striking grey and white Chiffchaff flicked up in to a low bush along the stream. Over the next 20 minutes or so my initial gut reaction was confirmed as the bird fed alongside a colybita Common Chiffchaff showing the pale grey/brown mantle, faint pale greater covert bar, clean pale grey/white underside, black legs and complete lack of warm green/yellow tones characteristic of Siberian Chiffchaff. Incredibly, I’ve never managed to catch up with this relatively common winter vagrant before but the bird fit my search image for tristis perfectly. Sadly the bird wasn’t heard to call but on plumage characteristics alone I’m more than happy with this as my first ever Siberian Chiffchaff!

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Prime warbler habitat at Swanpool – check back in October for the Waterthrush.

We then spent some time exploring the mouth-watering habitat illustrated in the picture above and were rewarded with good views of one of the over-wintering Yellow-browed Warblers. After enjoying the warbler we made our way back to the car, picking up 4 adult Med Gulls in the car park, before heading over to College. Sadly our visit to the reservoir in miserable conditions was largely unproductive and constituted the first time I’ve failed to add a bird to my PWC2017 list. This evening, after a meeting in Falmouth, Toby and I popped back to Swanpool in an attempt to get some photographs of the Sibe Chiff. Sadly we couldn’t relocate the bird but we did hear a YBW and my first Swanpool Water Rail so the trip wasn’t a complete waste. The potential for this site to produce decent birds is not something to ignore and I’ll definitely be back soon for more wintering warblers!

Diver Diversion

My attempts to sleep off my hangover in the back of Toby’s car were rudely interrupted this morning when the rear tyre blew out and the car juddered to a halt on in a layby on Bodmin Moor. After Toby had a quick consultation with his dad on the phone, we decided to attempt to change the tyre and after some initial struggles in the Bodmin drizzle, the badly ruptured tyre was the soon replaced with the spare. The possibility of continuing our twitching tour to Devon was briefly discussed but we quickly dismissed this idea as idiotic even for us. We were however only 8 miles from Dozmary Pool and we all agreed it would be rude not to pay the returning drake Lesser Scaup a visit.

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Toby’s tyre looking somewhat worse for wear after the incident.

After easing the car down perhaps the most rutted track in the world we pulled up at Dozmary Pool and quickly picked up the drake Lesser Scaup feeding actively with a group of Tufted Duck. The drizzly conditions and bleak landscape did little to get us enthused about the bird but it was a nice Cornwall tick and a lifer for Calum.

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Calum and Toby were ecstatic after connecting with the Lesser Scaup.

After we’d had our fill of the Lesser Scaup we started to head back west and decided on route that the spare could probably manage a trip to Hayle (and of course Philps pasty shop). Upon arrival, the tide was still quite high and we decided to have a quick check of the assembled gulls before heading over to Marazion to have a look for the Pacific Diver. Sadly we again failed to find the hoped for white winger but we did pick up yesterday’s argentatus Herring Gull allowing me to grab a couple of decent phonescoped shots. It was also nice to see the immature Spoonbill back feeding away in a creek after we failed to pick it up yesterday.

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Adult argentatus Herring Gull showing the dark grey mantle shade and large white tip on P10.

After some trial and error, we found a parking spot and a footpath leading down to the east end of Marazion beach where we had reasonable views of the bay east of St Michael’s Mount. After spending a while scanning the bay, we eventually picked up a group of five Divers gradually working their way west about half-way out. The group consisted of four Great Northerns and a smaller Diver sp. After extended observation in choppy conditions, the bird showed a smaller, rounder head, thinner neck, and darker black nape than the accompanying GNDs. Furthermore, in the entirety of our observations the bird never showed a white flank patch unlike the three close Black-throated Divers which were conveniently on hand to aid our comparisons. This was obviously the Pacific Diver! A lifer for Calum and Toby and a year tick for me after having good views of the bird from Long Rock in February 2015.

Eventually the Pacific Diver drifted farther out and began actively feeding making it difficult to track. Whilst we were watching the diver, a plethora of activity on the beach had continually distracted us and over the course of an hour and a half we had a female-type Black Redstart, a Water Pipit and two Stonechats. After Toby spent some time engaging in his favourite activity of Pipit chasing, we decided to call it quits and headed back over to Hayle. A quick stop in the Old Quay House car park to eat lunch gave Toby the opportunity to pick up our second Water Pipit of the day which even hung around long enough for me to capture some overexposed phonescoped pics. Some time spent scanning from the causeway revealed the Green-winged Teal still steadfastly sleeping away amongst the Teal but by this point the cold had killed my phone preventing any attempts at photography. After once again failing to pick out any interesting gulls, we decided we’d had enough of the biting winds and headed for home. After a potentially disastrous start, the exploding tyre actually ended up working in our favour and we ended up connecting with a much rarer bird than anything we would have seen in Devon. With a trip to St Ives with Kali planned for next weekend and a busy week of work ahead, this will probably be my last serious birding trip for a while. However I’m sure I’ll manage to squeeze in a visit or two to College in the next few days in order to keep the birding withdrawal symptoms at bay!

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An overexposed Water Pipit at Hayle.

 

 

 

Ring-billed Gull

With Kali still enjoying the wildlife of Kenya (save for a marauding pride of lions surrounding her tent in the middle of the night!), I’ve opted to spend the entirety of this weekend birding. I therefore met Toby and Jalal outside my accomodation at 8.30am and, in what looks to become something of a tradition, we headed over to College Resevoir to start the day’s birding. We spent a couple of pleasant hours here and picked up a number of good birds including a year tick Firecrest, a flyover Curlew and the pair of Goosander found by Greg yesterday. I even managed another Marsh Tit in the woodland which eventually gave good views after a brief wait. Amazingly it seems that yesterday’s sighting was my first since a bird in Surrey way back in 2013. The wintering Scaup was still knocking around and even allowed me to capture the slightly arty (read crap) phonescoped shot below.

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An artistic shot of the wintering first-winter drake Scaup.

After a couple of hours at College we decided to head west and once again unceremoniously dipped the Ring-billed Gull which periodically drops in to Long Rock Pool to bathe. There were at least some gulls on it on this visit and a Kingfisher whizzing over the pool was a nice year tick. After a quick and unrewarding check of Mount’s Bay we headed over to the Hayle Estuary. The estuary was full of gulls on arrival and given the recent spate of northerlies our hopes for a white-winger were high. After spending 20 minutes on the causeway getting buffeted by the chilling wind the only thing close to an arctic gull was an adult candidate argentatus Herring Gull which had a darker mantle than the surrounding birds and an extensive white tip to p10. This isn’t a subspecies I really know much about or have ever really bothered to investigate but Toby seemed happy that it fit the search image. Other than a male Goosander which showed incredibly well from the causeway, the estuary was quiet and after checking Carnsew Pool we headed to Toby’s personal mecca, Philps pasty shop, for some refreshments.

After that it was on to Gerrans Bay, finally picking up a couple of year tick Pheasants in a road side field on route. Gerrans Bay was fairly productive with a cracking count of 6+ Black-throated Divers and good views of one of the wintering Red-necked Grebes feeding close inshore. After that it was on to the dog-infested Gannel Estuary, one of my least favourite birding sites after a nightmarish twitch for American Wigeon in the autumn. Incredibly the long-staying first-winter Ring-billed Gull was showing well amongst hundreds of BHGs just of the car park and even allowed my cold-intolerant phone to grab a couple of record shots before it died. This was a plumage tick for me having previously seen a 1st-summer on the Hayle Estuary and Waldo on a couple of occasions, and was a good bird to pick up for the year. After taking turns to phonescope the gull, we grilled the pipit flock for the Water Pipit reported on BirdGuides but managed only a pale, well-marked Rock Pipit which we concluded was possibly a Scandinavian bird of the race littoralis. We then headed for home, calling in briefly at Devoran/Restronguet Creek where we failed to find any Cattle Egrets but did pick a group of 16 Black-tailed Godwit. Overall a successful winter day’s birding, hopefully tomorrow brings more of the same!

 

Marsh Tit Magic

Despite my intentions to focus on work until the weekend, I discovered that Calum and Toby had planned a post-exams day of birding and, after some mild persuasion on my part, they agreed to bird locally first thing and drop me off at campus before continuing their day. We started the morning at College Reservoir and this proved to be a fantastic decision when, ambling along a boardwalk, the three of us were stopped in our tracks by the haunting call of that elusive ghost of the forest, a Marsh Tit! After a desperate scramble and a couple of glimpses of the bird flitting between trees I eventually got satisfying views of my nemesis bird perched up for a prolonged period and the relief flooded over me. Okay so in reality Marsh Tit is actually a relatively common bird found in most decent scraps of southern woodland and I haven’t tried THAT hard to see one at College, but after missing out on the species for the entirety of 2016 I felt vindicated in my exuberant celebrations of this full fat Cornwall tick.

The rest of the visit proved no less productive with Toby picking up a drake Pochard, a nice addition to my yearlist and a relatively infrequent bird on the reservoir. The Scaup continued its lifes mission to thwart Toby’s phonescoping attempts and I also scored such scintillating PWC additions as Redwing, Dunnock and Greenfinch, all of which helped to inch my total towards the respectable score of 48 points from 46 species. A visit to the beautiful cove of Maenporth was slightly anticlimactic with nothing of note on the sea but I did pick up two handy year ticks in the form of a flyover Raven and a Kestrel. After that it was back to the office where I was suitably gripped by a report of a pair of Goosander in the NE arm of College Reservoir from Greg Wills. Toby and I have a day of county birding planned for tomorrow so here’s hoping they hang around!