Monday, 2 March 2015

A touch of Ice

We all like a good gull whether it be a Med amongst the Black heads, a Glaucous caught up between the Herrings or a Ring-Billed in the mix of a Common Gull flock! It always provides that element of challenge and one of which that attracts me to sites like Richmond Bank in Cheshire or the gull roost at Pensarn. With 14 species of gull under my belt in the UK, I always still look forward to seeing the 'white wingers' during the winter.
I've seen a few Iceland Gulls now all over North Wales and I can never get bored of seeing them. A first winter arrived at Pentre Mawr Park nearly two weeks ago and after spending two days of my holiday looking for it, I gave up! Of course, being away elsewhere at the weekend that followed, the bird gave incredible views down to a few feet.
I had to wait to the weekend after until I eventually caught up with the bird which was much easier to see. The bird stood out extremely clearly against the sands and made it an easy focus for the camera.

 Between the two regular 'white wingers', Iceland Gull's are always the softer looking bird whereas the much larger, harsher faced Glaucous is quite apparent in the field (not that you should use this as a reliable source for identification!!). In a nutshell, size is the main factor between these species and bill length/thickness and general bulkiness are all factors for splitting the species.

Comparing the size to a Herring Gull is the safest means of identification. Iceland Gull are smaller whereas Glaucous Gulls are much bigger. The Iceland Gull at Pensarn is a typical first winter bird still retaining a lot of it's juvenile dis-coloured white plumage. As the winter wears on, the bird's plumage will become cleaner.

Like this bird, the majority of first winter Iceland Gulls will have a pinkish pale base to the bill. It's a bird that can't really be missed whilst scanning the nearby flocks of gulls. Iceland Gulls are really apparent in flight also and give a 'ghost' like appearance in the bird/gull world.

A beautiful bird nevertheless and with it being so confiding, it's one opportunity certainly not to be missed!


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Little Bunting, Cardiff

Although a scarcity, Little Bunting is a very hard bird to get text book views of. I've missed and dipped a couple in the last few years and they can be incredibly elusive when they want to be as well. After a trip to Paris and a trip down to Cornwall, the Little Bunting had been present already for nearly 2 weeks and this was the time to go. It seemed settled and content feeding up at Forest Farm Nature reserve just on the outskirts of Cardiff itself. We parked in the car park and walked no more than 150 metres until we reached the location of a small hide. It was a feeding station where there we plenty of Reed Buntings, tits, finches and a Grey Heron on the nearby pond.
We waited around 10-15 minutes checking every bunting that popped in until someone called it right underneath our noses no more than 5 metres away from the hide. Although, it maintained it's 'elusive' status feeding low down in the grass and spending a lot of its time in the piles of brushwood making it slightly trickier to get an image.
As it's name suggests, it was noticeable smaller than the more familiar Reed Bunting and a lot paler also. The thin, white wing bar is a feature to be looked out for, as is the small white dot behind the eye.
The streaking on the belly also appears thinner and more frequent than that on the Reed Bunting.
The bird continued to show well throughout the time we were there and in the beautiful Welsh sunshine and environment, it was a fab place to be!

Long Eared Owl at Burton Mere Wetlands

Being secretive, elusive and nocturnal can not always favour a birder who is trying to find a bird. Long Eared Owls are just that and your best opportunity is a daytime roost. There are many well-known wintering roost sites around the UK with Blackpool one of the most reliable in the Northwest. In North Wales, they are very difficult to come by, although there is more than enough suitable habitat so it may be just a case of getting out there and looking!
Over the last couple of weeks a Long-Eared Owl as reliably roosted at Burton Mere Wetlands and I've caught up with this bird a couple of times. It showed well today in the Hawthorns right of the path on the way to Inner Marsh Farm Hide. It occasionally opened its eyes and scanned around as it sat hidden away.
Long-Eared Owl at Burton Mere Wetlands
It would be nice for it to use this site as a regular wintering roost for years to come, maybe this isn't its first year? After all, they're incredibly hard to pick out! Best of the rest included a Hen Harrier, Great White Egret and hear a Green Woodpecker too!

Garganey at Pennington Flash

With a bit of time to hand last week and two wasted days looking for an Iceland Gull in the Abergele area, I decided to head out of Wales and towards Cheshire/Manchester. I dropped in at Burton Marsh for the 'big tide' and of course it produced. The Great White Egret showed from distance with over 30 Little Egrets. 4 Short Eared Owls (my first in nearly 3 years - yes it's been that long!!) which took advantage of the opportunity of the coastal flooding to hunt. A male Merlin, Peregrine, Buzzard, Hen Harrier and Water Rail all added to the mix and made it a rather exciting spectacle to witness.

Water Rail
Garganey's are pure summer migrants but with recent 'warmer winters', more 'summer' visitors have decided to stay put in the UK this winter. The female Garganey is one of two birds over-wintering at the moment so I dropped by Pennington Flash for a look. The bird had seemed to favour the quiet small bay of the flash just off Ramsdale's Hide and along with a couple of Teal, there it was showing okay from distance. It remained asleep the whole time sadly occasionally stirring now and then. 

Female Garganey (left) note the similar size to that of the Teal (right) and bold striped head pattern and dark crown
Same bird, same position - one hour later!!
At least 2 Willow Tits showed rather well from Bunting Hide with plenty of Bullfinches, Stock Doves, Nuthatches and Reed Buntings (just to name a few).

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Laughing Gull at New Brighton

After missing the major British Laughing Gull influx of 2005-06 which consisted over 60 records of individuals in the Autumn of 2005, it has been rather difficult to come across one locally since. When one was reported from New Brighton on 3rd February, it was just my luck to be completely unable to twitch the bird for 4 days minimum.. Luckily, I needn't had worried as it's still there now! I finally got down to see it at the end of the week and it was well worth the wait. The bird was in full view on the pontoon 15-20 metres away, relaxed but keeping well away from every other species of gull.
With just over 38% of all accepted records of Laughing Gulls, first winter birds are the most frequent (just as this New Brighton bird). First winters still retain some of their brown juvenile feathering but as the calendar year rolls on, they will loose more of it.
In comparison to that of our more familiar Black Headed Gull, I was struck by how much blacker the primaries where, the larger and longer darker bill and the over all larger size and greyness of the bird. A really educational and interesting bird to see and if it sticks about, it certainly won't be my last visit 
Here's a short video of the Laughing Gull on the pontoon at New Brighton

Waxwing at Orrell Water Park

After a recent string of consecutive 'Waxwing Winters', the winter of 2013-14 was very poor with a small trickle of records down the East Coast of Britain. This winter has followed in it's poor footsteps with small bursts of records evident throughout the winter months in Eastern counties until last week when a female Waxwing was discovered in a small garden gorging on apples in Orrell (Greater Manchester). The garden backed on to Orrell Water Park where the bird has been spending a lot of its time in the trees.
On arrival (at the weekend) the bird was immediately on show, present in the tops of the trees at the entrance to the Water Park on Moss Lane. Waxwings are one of my favourite birds and although many people say they are over-rated... how? Certainly not in my opinion. The bird remained at quite a height throughout the time we were there making it difficult to get a quality image.
What made this bird just that little bit more special than the rest was that it was ringed in the exact same garden it was visiting 2 years ago. This year it has left the other 200+ birds behind and returned on its own. There is little known about where an individual Waxwing winters from year-to-year. Although the general consensus is that they winter where the food is from wherever is convenient and easy for them (which of course makes sense to me). So why has this bird returned to it's wintering location from 2 years ago? Maybe it can recall on there being a reliable and consistent food source but this data will contribute further to what we already know.
This is only one of around 4-5 birds that have been reported in the country today which again highlights the poor winter for these birds. It is however, good news for the Waxwings themselves as this shows the plentiful supply of food in Scandinavia therefore huge numbers are not forced across the North Sea in search for food but with what we know about this bird; we can only hope that it will make it's way back to Scandinavia as safely as it did 2 years ago and hopefully it will return again in future winters!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Pomarine Skua at Pilling Lane Ends

After the recent storms, an out-of-season Pomarine Skua was sighted at Preesall Sands just off Pilling Lane on the saltmarsh. It had obviously been blown onto the shore and stuck about a couple of days to avoid the worse of the weather... it wasn't until I arrived 5 days after the initial sighting to notice that it's wing appeared fractured or broken. The Skua could still fly about but it was obviously suffering which was sad to see.
The locals must've locked on to this certainly a lot quicker than I did as they have put out some carcases for the bird to help it along. Pomarine Skuas are nearly as big as a Herring Gull and can be viewed as a dark or light morph. This bird at Pilling is a first winter dark morph.
Pomarine Skua - note the under-coverts barring and it's damaged right wing
Juvenile Skuas can be a nightmare to ID especially on a seawatch and I've had many occasions where the predicament of 'it is or isn't it?' has come in. Juvenile Arctic Skuas are very similar although slightly smaller, thinner necked, thinner billed and has a less bold structure and appearance. A dark morph Pomarine Skua features quite strong barring on the undertail-coverts whereas a dark morph Arctic Skua typically does not. Although it must be noted that a pale phase Arctic Skua would show evidence of barring really making it difficult to ID at distance between the species.
Mallard and Herring Gull were among the carcases provided for the Skua
Whereas the Pilling bird looks physically disabled, it still shows strength and I believe it'll stick around for hopefully a few weeks with help from the locals. I can't see it making a full recovery soon but who knows!

Ring Ouzels at Nant Francon

Up to four Ring Ouzels have been present with good numbers of mainly Fieldfare and Mistle Thrushes in the Nant Francon area down the Conwy Valley. The grid reference is SH 643609. Taking the old road from Bethesda (rather than the A5) running the other side of the Afon Ogwen, travel up the valley to the second cattle grid, adjacent to the track to Blaen Y Nant farm. The Ring Ouzels have been best seen on the wall below the road but mostly on the grass slopes, in the bare Rowan trees and around the large boulders.
 © Bing Maps
 Having missed Ring Ouzel last year for the year list, I may be tempted to get this unusually out of season tick earlier than expected this year! 


Shorelark overwintering at Rossall Point

The majority of Shorelarks that visit the UK derive from the Scandinavian and Northern Russian population where they spend the winter on our shingle ridges and exposed beaches mainly on the East coast of Britain. After the bird remained viewable from distance out on the beach on a dull and miserable wet December day last year, myself and Steff decided to revisit in the hope of better views in better light.
On arrival, we immediately locked onto the bird which was located in the main car park at Rossall Point. It's clearly a unmistakeable bird with bright contrasting yellow and black facial patterns and a brown-dull body feathering.
Shorelark at Rossall Point
Wintering numbers fluctuate from year to year and there isn't one guaranteed same wintering ground from year to year although Holkham, Salthouse  (Norfolk) and Benacre in Suffolk are your best chance. It's much trickier on the West coast but over the years, sites such as Southport, Talacre and Gronant are a good chance if you have time to look!
The bird continued to show well on the small grassy area next to the car park allowing good opportunities for a good picture in the afternoon sun.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen

If one outstanding bird wasn't enough, a second in a quiet and bleak time of the year was certainly doing a good job to keep our pulses going! Harlequin Ducks are beautiful birds native to Iceland with no more than 3000 pairs! They seem to favour rough torrents of water in a open sea setting which is why one came to Seaton Park in Aberdeen so many miles inland! Bizarre! Anyway, who's complaining?! The bird was initially put out as a female and later re-identified as a first winter drake showing some features of an adult. After a long 6-7 hour journey after a 3 and a half speed awareness course, myself an Steff arrived the night before in hope that our bird would stay just a few more hours longer!
Harlequin Ducks have a brilliant record for over-wintering with the majority of birds favouring a British wintering ground for 10 days or more! Many have been present over winter to the April or even May before departing! This bird of course stayed and on arrival, we acquired some lovely close views. The duck did eventually retreat up the rather where it spent the rest of the day.
First winter drake Harlequin Duck
The bird reminded me very much of a Long Tailed Duck that I funnily enough saw the week before in North Wales with it's energetic dives, small bill and thick neck. It's distinctive white spot and head patterning best differentiated it away from the 10 Goldeneye that were present and when it did fly, it revealed it's very dark looking appearance. Harlequin Ducks are very rare away from their breeding ground and this should represent the 19th record for Britain and a first for Aberdeenshire. 
It was certainly way more active to what it appears here
With the huge majority of birds occurring in the Outer Hebrides, it was almost a must to pay the mainland bird a visit and neither of us were disappointed!!
A very quick video of the Harlequin duck as it really shows it's speed and energetic nature.
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