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.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Little Bustard finally becomes twitchable!

Little Bustard on paper is actually not such an impressive rarity as one might think. The last record came 13 years ago on the Isles of Scilly and you have to go back to 1996 if you're after a mainland bird which was present in Cornwall for 4 days. 2015 started with a bang and that was in form of a Little Bustard at Fraisthorpe on New Years Day! It wasn't quite that simple though... there were signs and hints that a twitchable Little Bustard would soon to occur with three sightings in the latter half of 2014 with birds in flight recorded in Dorset, East Sussex and the last in Wiltsthorpe in East Yorkshire on New Years Eve.
Of course, in true Yorkshire style, the local birders worked the area and finally located it South of Wiltsthorpe in Fraisthrope during the afternoon. A sublime find! The bird seemed relatively active and showed well for the remainder of the day. It was too late when news came out for me to get there on the day so I sacrificed my NYE and myself and Steff took the trip over to Yorkshire for early morning! First bird of 2015: Feral Pigeon, followed by a beautiful Barn Owl, then a Kestrel.... and then a head! The head of a Little Bustard. The bird was still there remarkably and more or less in the same spot from the day before.
The East Yorkshire Little Bustard generic pose throughout it's stay
As the morning light took a hold of the early morning sky, the bird came more apparent from what some birders were describing as a young pheasant and Grey Partridge. The Little Bustard sat there feeding occasionally carefully taking insects off the leaves of the kale field it was in. It's decorative patterning was apparent. It moved very little during the day but it certainly proved to be one of the biggest twitches that this century has seen so far.
It's moved it's head!!!
Many people believe the bird has derived from the east populations of Russia (rather than from the introduced French population) and maybe we've witnessed a small influx of birds over the last few months; after all we've also seen at least three Blyth's Pipits making it across during the same time. One thing though, it's certainly clear of how elusive they can be - if the finder hadn't found this bird flying south on NYE, I can fully believe that this Yorkshire bird will've remained unseen for it's two-day stay!  

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Christmas hat trick of Swans

After spending the Christmas everywhere else but home, I was on for return via a trip to Burton Mere Wetlands. There's no other word that can be described but... cold! The place was remarkably bleak with the majority of wildfowl vanished. No Pintail, no Wigeon, no Little Egrets, no Mute Swans!! Where had they gone to? I braved the outdoors and made it as far as the second screen before turning back. Very little to show with a highlight being a Ruff! Back in the visitor centre, there had been previous sightings of Bewick's and Whooper Swans on the 22nd December. They had to still be in the area!
I decided to go hunt them down, the fields around Burton Mere towards the Dee mainly consisted of Pink-Footed Geese so I headed back inside Wales to a site where up until 2011, held a very healthy wintering population of Bewick's and Whooper Swans: Shotwick Fields. Over 100 have been seen here with Whooper Swans in the past but the previous three years haven't produced. Low and behold, on arrival I could see Swans in sat in the field. The first birds I scoped were Mutes: Bubble immediately burst! I scanned over to the second flock to clock eyes on a mixed flock of Bewick's and Whoopers!! The hat trick in one field! Lovely birds and even better as it was one I thought I was waving goodbye to for the year list! A decent bird for North Wales and one that seems to be declining in these areas. Hopefully they can establish themselves back into Flintshire and remain loyal to this wintering ground for more years to come!
Nice comparison record shot: Whooper Swan (front) Bewick's Swan (behind)
 Note the size difference between the two birds with Whooper Swans as the larger species. Also, the Whooper Swan has more yellow on the bill to that of the Bewick's. The Bewick's Swan gives a more goose-like look about it whereas Whooper Swans are similar in proportion to that of our more familiar and resident Mute Swan.
For more information on telling the difference between the species, please check out this Birdwatch article which is available for printing and emailing:

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Drake Smew at Draycote Water

I have fond memories of my trip to Draycote Water (Warwickshire) earlier in the year as I rushed down after work in order to beat the light for a beautiful summer plumaged Spotted Sandpiper. This time, it was on my way back from Norfolk and having dipped Smew on 3 occasions in the last week, surely it wouldn't be a forth?
Luckily, there had been a report of the drake in the morning and as we arrived, we learnt it was close to Farborough bank. A short walk later, we were able pick the ghostly white bird up from half a mile away through the bins and as we got closer, the features became more apparent: The black loral 'mask' and black line at the side of the nape really highlighted it's stunning contrasting plumage.
There was a strong, stiff wind prevailing across the reservoir which was keeping the Smew close in and allowed good opportunities for photos. Many Goldeneye, Little Grebe, Coot, a few Wigeon and a female Common Scoter were also close by for company.


Golden Pheasant at Wolferton

With a trip to Norfolk, who can say no to a bit of fantastic plastic in the way of some Golden Pheasants! Once introduced from 1725, these Pheasants have done very well and it's not until recently that this species in its breeding areas across Britain have started to see a noticeable decline. This, may well be due to foxes and predation of chicks. On arrival at Wolferton, we came straight across a lovely Woodcock (Yes, we were there pretty early!) and soon after dawn began to break in nicely. Driving around the triangular section (which is the area best known for these birds) we started to see many Common Pheasants; coming down to the roadside to feed and forage.
After an hour or so, we locked on to the male Golden Pheasant walking gracefully across the road in front of us! Steff needed it as a lifer and couldn't believe her luck as it stood in front of the car.
Golden Pheasant - Taken by Steff Leese
These Norfolk birds appear to have a dark/black throat patch and are have believed to have this due to a bottleneck in the gene pool which as a result brings out the mutations in this small population rather than hybridisation.
Golden Pheasant - Taken by Steff Leese
The trip was difficult in terms of species but we managed to have a great session at Stubb Mill, Hickling whereby we watched for the final hour of daylight. 10 Cranes, over 40 Marsh Harriers, Barn Owl, Merlin, Buzzard and Kestrel were all seen. Other birds on the trip included White-Fronted, Pink-Footed and Barnacle Geese at Cantly Marshes and a lovely female Hen Harrier at Titchwell.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Blyth's Pipit and Caspian Gull

Megas have a habit of breaking usually on a Monday morning and of course the Blyth's Pipit was no exception. Another Monday morning, another mega. Usually the trend when we're all back in work, so again, the long wait to the end of the week began. After the Blyth's Pipit showed well for the majority of Monday, it was last seen flying towards the M1 after spending the day on an industrial estate adjacent to Pugney's Country Park. That meant one thing; it had either gone to roost or it had buggered off, never to be seen again!
Luckily, it returned and favoured the same grassy, flooded field from where it was found in up to the Saturday where myself and Steff went to see it. Blyth's Pipits are very rare birds in the UK with the majority of records coming from Shetland and Scilly. This bird represented the first for Yorkshire and it was pretty much the closest we were going to get to one as far as UK records were concerned.
Breeding in Mongolia and neighbouring areas, it's usual migration path would take it towards Southern Asia but this bird hit Britain! This year alone has seen a tiny influx of 2 previous records this autumn coming from Scilly and Pembrokeshire. We travelled down on Saturday and found the site quite easily. With it being relatively elusive, we were worried that our only views would be flight views like many others have acquired. To our delight, our first views were after 20 minutes of arrival of the bird on the near bank preening. I got on it straight away and immediate differences were noted from the accompanying Meadow Pipits: Longer, stubbier bill, pale yellow legs, dull, mostly plain breast and a visibly streaked mantle were to name the obvious. It reminded me of the Tawny Pipit I saw earlier in the year!!
The bird showed well from distance for a good 5 minutes before flying low in the grass and lost to view. Although, I didn't see the tail of this bird in flight very well; it is very worn and ragged differentiating it (along with it's overall, stockier size) from the Meadow Pipits. There has been much controversy over the dealings of viewing this bird with people taking upon themselves to purposely wade through it's feeding area to flush the bird as well as organised flushes. In my opinion, neither are necessary as the bird has been showing well enough of its own accord throughout the day.
After leaving the bird behind, we decided to wait for the gull roost at Pugney's. With up to 5 Caspian Gulls seen in the roost in the previous night, we were quietly confident a bird would turn up that evening. Luckily, our dreams came true and Jonathon H (who also found the Blyth's) picked out a second winter Casp as dusk was in full flow. Caspian Gulls are far commoner in the East rather than the West and that showed with just 2 records for Wales (which happened to be this autumn). It was a much needed bird for me and one I was relieved to see!
2w Caspian Gull - Taken by Steff Leese

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Shorelark at Rossall Point, Lancs

I've always been lucky enough to see Shorelarks on the west coast and locally. I last saw one back in February 2010 at Gronant and two 3 months before; there were two at Point of Ayr. Norfolk and Suffolk are much more reliable sites for these birds regularly holding them each winter. With a first for Wales and lifer up to grabs in form of a Caspian Gull in Wrexham, it made sense to drop in on the Shorelark first thing and catch up with the gull later on that day at it's preferred drop in time. We drove up to a dull and gloomy Lancashire with threatening rain. Luckily the worst held off as we made it over walking South from the beach car park along the sea wall. As we approached, I picked up a small bird flying across the shingle and of course, what else would it be but our target Shorelark!
With it's lemon-yellow breast providing some brightness on the shingle, it showed well from the sea wall. It wasn't phased by passing dogs or walkers as they strolled within meters from the bird. Keeping a year list doesn't half keep you in touch with good birds and keeps you up to date with good scarce birds like this one (not that you need that as a reason to see a Shorelark).
Hopefully this little lone bird will stick about and over-winter although with storms forecast later this week, it might force it on to a North Wales coast nearer me to find at the weekend!

As for the Caspian Gull, we got there in good time to only have learnt that the reported first winter bird has showed first thing but was put off later in the day by model boats on the lake. So if all is good, a visit will be on the cards in the coming weeks!
A short video at Rossall Point on Saturday 6th December

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