Tuesday 21 November 2023

Doing The Pallid Swift / Canvasback Double

I'd been feeling "twitchy" for a while and with my VLW due to go up to the Lake District for a week to visit her family this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to scratch that itch. In terms of what was on offer, the nearest bird was the controversial Canvasback as Abberton Reservoir in Essex. There was also a long-staying Pallid Swift at Winterton-on-Sea on the east coast of Norfolk but that was about three and a half hours away which was a bit beyond my usual twitching comfort zone. I refer to the Canvasback as "controversial": PL and I were due to head off to Abberton a week or so ago when news broke that two years ago six of this species were dumped by a wildfowl collector in a Suffolk gravel pit some fifty miles from Abberton. Whats more, whilst there haven't been any official reports of them since then, one of the six turned up at the original pit a week or so after the Abberton bird was first found. This fact certainly cast some serious shade on the credentials of the Abberton bird, enough to cancel our original sortie. Still, my need for a good twitch meant that my tolerance for distance and plasticness had increased so I decided on an uncharacteristically early departure from Casa Gnome at 5am to get to Winterton nice and early for the Swift. After that, going back via Abberton would be a nice bonus bird should I have the time and feel so inclined.

In the event, I slept rather poorly and woke up far too early. This at least meant that there was no trouble about getting up and I was breakfasted and out the door at 5 a.m. . Others have blogged about the pleasure of night time twitch driving but this was a new phenomenon for me. Heading off into the darkness, trying to clear the sleepiness from my head I certainly enjoyed the empty roads that were around at that time of morning. Indeed, the lack of traffic knocked a good 20 minutes off the ETA so that the Sat Nav was saying only 3 hours and 10 minutes to Winterton. With Radio 4 murmuring away for company I enjoyed the solitude of the journey. As I entered Norfolk the first fingers of dawn started to encourage me onwards towards my goal. At around 7:30 a.m. news broke of the Swift being "still present" on RBA so I felt that I was in with a good chance. The RBA reports were generally rather occasional each day and I didn't know if this reflected the actual number of sightings or not and with heavy rain forecast for the afternoon, I was somewhat nervously about how easy it might actually be to connect. So I sped on in a state of some nervous excitment. Right towards the end as I turned off into a side road I spotted a nice flock of Pink-footed Geese by the roadside - a very welcome year tick for an inland county birder!

Winterton Church

I arrived just after 8am as the Sat Nav had predicted and parked up by the famous church that was so often featured in RBA reports. A birder was walking back to his car at this point so I eagerly enquired about the situation. "Oh it's showing every few minutes or so just up there by the village green" - I needed no further incentive! I threw on my coat, grabbed my bins and sped up the road to join the throng. The village green turned out just to be a small grassy area, more like a large roundabout than a village green! There were a bit more than a dozen people there standing around in a relaxed manner and searching the skies for the Swift. Seeing as how I'd not yet seen it, in contrast to the mood of everyone else, I was still nervous to connect. After about 15 minutes of no sightings I spotted a birder in front of me watching something intently through his bins. Following his gaze I spotted the Swift hawking low over the rooftops to the south of us. Result! After about 30 seconds it disappeared but now that I'd seen it I could relax. First I went back to the car to get the rest of my stuff that I hadn't bothered with in my initial hurry: so walking boots on, and my scarf/snood for warmth in the chilly breeze and my backpack with flask and snacks. Then it was back to the green where I soon saw the bird again. 

Winterton village green, looking back towards the church

In fact it turned out that the bird was showing every 10 minutes or so throughout the time that I was there. For a while it moved up towards the church area but was generally always to the south of the road and often low over the rooftops. Given the time of year, I wonder if the warmth of the houses was attracted the insects more which in turn attracts the Swift. At least it seemed to be finding plenty to eat. I chatted with a couple up from Cornwall for a few days about Cornwall and birding in general. I wandered about, enjoying periodic views of the Pallid Swift and generally feeling contented. After a while the bird got much closer and gave point blank overhead views as I stood on the village green. It  was a real treat to see and I couldn't get better views of a Pallid Swift.

In general, watching the bird and comparing it mentally to Common Swift I could appreciate the broader wings and the slower wing beats. The eye mask and large white throat were only really visible when it was right overhead though I guess a good photo could pick out these features from more of a distance. With just my superzoom camera I didn't even attempt it but instead enjoyed watching the bird's aerial antics. 

A cracking photo of the bird courtesy of Nick Truby of Old Caley's Diary

After an hour I felt I'd had enough so drove the short distance down to the beach to stare at the sea while I had a cup of tea from my flask. Mentally I'd left things open in my head as to whether I'd try for the Canvasback or not depending on how quickly I saw the Swift. As it had turned out, it had been far easier than I had feared so with it still being so early I had plenty of time for the Canvasback as well if I wanted. I checked RBA: no news on it so far. I decided to have some more tea and then to make my decision. 

Looking back from the beach towards Winterton

I was just finishing my second cup when the "still present" news broke. That made my mind up and I set the Sat Nav for Abberton, some two hours away and headed off. In the event, the journey was rather troublesome. One of the key roads was suddenly closed and necessitated a diversion. Myself and a whole bunch of other cars headed off down some minor side road only to grind to a halt suddenly. It turned out the road ahead was closed due to flooding and so a whole bunch of us were trapped on a single track road. Having been in this situation beore, I know that you can all get stuck if you're not too careful so in the end I walked back along the line to report what was going on and people started to turn around from the back so in the end we were all able to get out. Having made it back onto the main road there seemed to be more issues up ahead as Google kept changing its mind about the route. There must have been at least a dozen corrections which I had to accept or reject. Finally, it ended up taking me through Colchester itself as the bypass was jammed. Eventually, at just after midday I finally arrived at the Layer de la Haye causeway which is where the Canvasback was hanging out today. I tooled up and hurried up the causeway steps to the long line of scopes all trained out onto the water. This was when the fun and games began!

Abberton Reservoir

It turned out to be very windy up on the causeway which meant that there was a lot of scope shakage. The birds were also very distant. There were about five hundred Pochard all milling about in the distance. They would frequently start swimming around frentically and diving every few seconds. Trying to pick out a bird with a subtly longer all black bill under such conditions was not easy. It was being called by birders in the line but in the wind and standing at the end of the line as I was, it was hard to hear them. Fortunately someone close to me seemed to be very good at picking it out and after a while the person next to them left so I was able to stand next to him. He was very helpful and tried to get me on the bird. The trouble was that there were so few landmarks to use. Things like "in front of the Goldeneye" or "next to the Goosander" were only so helpful as you had to find the other bird first before it moved and then try to latch on to the Canvasback before it dived. The best way was to wait until it was in an obvious place, so "right at the front of the flock" or "right at the back". In this way I managed one decent view for a second or so before it dived. At last I'd seen it!

There then followed a good period of not seeing it at all. I've found previously (e.g. the Redcar King Eider) that with the scope shaking around it's almost impossible to pick out subtle details at range. Back then the solution had been to get in the car, where the shelter there had enable me to find my target. However, that wasn't an option today. The birds were rather flighty and would occasionally fly up only to come down again, though each time this happened some of the flock flew off elsewhere. Would the Canvasback still be there or had it left? After one of these fly arounds a good chunk of the flock left but the remainder settle much closer and were much easier to scan. Then at last, everything aligned. The Canvasback became the "right-hand most bird of the flock". That was easy to find and I got onto it quickly. What's more, it swam around for a while without diving so I was at last able fully to appreciate it in all its glory. I'm sure that readers are familiar with the subtle differences between drake Canvasbacks and Pochard but suffice to say that with good views the different profile shape of the bill and the all back bill were distinctive enough. The paleness of the back was noticeable though didn't really stand out from the flock as the lightness of the ducks varied so much according to the angle they were being viewed at.  

A cracking couple of photos of the bird taken by Neil Bramwell

After my prolonged views suddenly the whole flock took flight and most of them sped off back to the other causeway at Layer Breton. That was the show over and most of the birders packed up and left at that point. I headed back to the car for some more tea and a chance to eat my packed lunch. Then it was time for the long slog back home. It was some two and a half hours back but the early start was starting to take its toll. Along the A12 I had a long call on my handfree set-up with my eldest daughter to pass some of the time but once on the M25 I needed my full concentration in the heavier traffic. A stop off at the Beaconsfield services on the M40 for more tea was enough to perk me up again and I made it back home by about 4pm tired but very happy with my double twitch day.


Appendix -The Countability of the Canvasback

It will be interesting to see what the BOURC decide about the provenance of this bird. In its favour we have:

  • Arrived at the perfect time of year;
  • It's been a great autumn for Nearctic vagrants;
  • Fully winged and unringed on both legs (I've seen the photos on X);
  • Associating with a suitable attractor species and behaving in a wild manner (so not swimming right by the edge and coming to bread!).

Against it we have:

  • The 6 birds that were released a couple of years ago
  • The fact that one of these 6 turned up within a week of this bird
  • The general paucity of Canvasback records - with so few the odds of a given bird being an escapee rather than a vagrant, are much greater.

However, regarding the previously released birds, apparently, only 3 remain which are all still at the original site and are all pinioned (not just clipped). This bird had a full and complete wing set. So, assuming all 6 were pinioned then this bird can't be one of them. That only leaves the possibility that these original 6 might have bred free flying offspring though there have not been any other records in the ensuing two years. All it all it looks reasonably hopeful.

In the end of course, it's up to the indivudal to decide what to put on their list. As I've said before, the BOURC has a thankless task in trying to evaluate the credentials of wildfowl in particular but, after their rejection of the Farmoor Falcated Duck, I rather lost my faith in them and tend to make up my own mind these days. As I have hinted before, my personal listing is done in layers. I have a strict BOU list and then on top of that are various layers ranging from subspecies that haven't been split yet (Eastern Black Redstart, American Horned Lark, Azorean Gull etc), things which haven't been accepted to the British list yet (Pied Crow etc), things which were release scheme birds (Lammergeier etc) and things which were deemed to be escapes or not proven to be vagrants (Marbled Duck, Falcated Duck etc). Finally I even have a layer of subspecies as you never know when these might be split (e.g. Taiga and Tundar Bean Goose which got split a while back). Anyway, this multilayered approach means that I can count all sorts of things at least at some level and it keeps me amused. And that, at the end of the day, is the whole point of this hobby!

Monday 13 November 2023

Whelford Purple Heron

An unusually showy juvenile Purple Heron had taken up residence just over the border from Oxfordshire at Whelford Pool Nature Reserve in Gloucestershire. Unlike our Grey Heron, this continental species normally skulks deep in reedbeds and is usually very hard to see. Indeed I've only seen one once before, at Otmoor here in Oxon where after a stake-out for a while I got flight views for a minute or so. From various blog posts (e.g. Black Audi Birding) the Whelford bird was uncharacteristically easy to see, coming out and feeding close to a hide at regular intervals. Having not been out on a decent birding trip for quite a while, I was feeling like having a sortie of some sorts and this seemed an obvious target. So it was that last Sunday morning I fired up the Gnome-mobile and set off on the 40 minute drive to Whelford.

I arrived at just before 9 a.m. to find the small car park completely full so had to resort to parking down the road by a small side road. The short walk to the hide found it completely rammed. No doubt the sunshine had brought all the toggers out for this obliging subject. I managed to squeeze in the last available standing space by the door and tentatively enquired about the bird, to be told that it had gone into the reedbed on the left but that it should be out again in a while. 

In the hide I met with NT (of Old Caley's Diary blog) and his wife and also spotted MC at the far end (of The Early Birder blog). Shortly after my arrival a few people left and I was able to get a seat at the front. This gave me a chance to survey the scene properly. In front of us was an area of cut reeds going down about 30 metres to the lake shoreline. There were some reeds on either side of this cleared space but it was a relatively modest sized area. This meant that there was less area for a Purple Heron to hide, though by all accounts this bird wasn't shy about coming out into the open to feed. Out beyond the reeds was a large lake on which were scattered various diving ducks. The site is part of the Cotswold Water Park complex of gravel pits so there are hundreds of water bodies in the general area. Thankfully the Heron seemed fairly loyal to this one spot. The twitch arena was rather gloomy, being completely in shade.

The view from the hide

After perhaps half an hour or so suddenly photographers started papping away furiously at the far end of the hide. The Purple Heron must have come out of the reeds! The area was partially obscured where I was sitting but through the tops of the reeds I could make out the Heron, it's striking yellow eye and orangey bill showing very well. The camera noise was incessant and the Heron could clearly hear it as it looked directly towards the hide, seemingly not liking this undue attention. This didn't quire make sense given how much it must have experienced it previously. Maybe it had just had enough for it suddenly took off and flew off low over the water before climbing up and over the trees on the far side and out of sight. 


A couple of flight shots taken earlier in the week  courtesy of Ewan Urquhart of Black Audi Birding

That was the cue for a gradual exodus from the hide until there were only four of us left. From previous accounts the bird was prone to do this but usually returned and I didn't have to be home until lunchtime so I decided to wait it out. Gradually more birders arrived, including a chap down from Cheshire for the day who wanted it on his year list. He and I got talking about birding, moths, insects in general and fungi as you do situations like this and we passed the time amicably enough.

After a while on the left hand side of the lake we could see a couple of birders who seemed to be looking at something rather intently and taking photos. Could they see the Heron? We'd not seen it fly back but it could have come back in around the corner. The pair soon left but some of the newcomers who had yet to see the bird decided to walk around to take a look. After a few minutes they appeared in the same spot and started scanning carefully before signalling back to us that there was no sign of it.

More time passed and I was starting to get restless. Eventually at just after 12pm I had to leave and wished the remaining hide occupants luck with their vigil. I headed back home to Oxford somewhat disappointed at not having had crippling views of what was normally a very showy bird. From RBA reports it never returned that day and indeed was only reported once after that so I had clearly witnessed the start of it moving on to pastures new. Still, despite the brief and partially obscured views, this had still been my best ever views of a Purple Heron and I will have to be content with that for now.

An unobscured view, taken a few days earlier by Ewan Urquhart of Black Audi Birding

Tuesday 26 September 2023

Baglan Magnolia Warbler

I'm sure that every birding who is even remotely plugged into birding news knows by now about the unprecedented fall of American passerines over the last few days. The internet is awash with articles and blog posts about how the unique combination of weather systems at peak migration time has lead to a whole heap of them being dumped on the west side of the country. Magnolia Warbler, Canada Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Bobolink, plus numerous Red-eyed Vireos, the list just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Wales in particular got a good helping both on the mainland and on the scattered islands along the south west coast of the country. 

Now, I'd been watching all this with interested. Of course all these birds would be lifers for me (I even need Red-eyed Vireo still - that's how paltry my Yank passerine list is). However, the St Govan Mag would be nearly 4 hours away - beyond my normal comfortable twitching distance. So I watched from afar, thinking that this unprecedented opportunity would pass me by. However, a second Magnolia Warbler was found at Baglan (between PorthTalbot and Swansea) and at only two and a half hours away, it was certainly within my twitching range. However, this bird seemed much more elusive and indeed took several hours from first being seen until it even was able to be identified properly. However, from accounts within a twitching WhatsApp group it seemed possible to get reasonable views so when it was reported as still present the next day (Monday) I decided to go. However I had a few work things to sort out first so it wasn't until after 9 am that I was able to set off. The journey was uneventful and it was a little before midday that I pulled up in the rather unusual location of a dead-end side road in the Baglan Energy business park. I quickly tooled up and headed off the short distance to the patch of wasteland just off the road. 

The unassuming twitch location. The bird generally frequented the tree line at the back

I met a departing birder who said that he'd only seen it briefly twice in the two hours that he'd been there and that it hadn't been seen for half an hour. Hmmm, that wasn't sounding too great. However, I was there now and resolved to see how things played out. There were about 80 or so birders around, all staring intently into the dense wooded border to the wasteland plot at various points in the south west corner. A youngish birder seemed to know what was going on so I asked for details and he told me that the clump of Silver Birch and Sallows nearby was a good area to watch as it had been seen there earlier. He was watching it intently and low and behold, suddenly someone nearby called out the bird from that very clump. After a few moments I got a glimpse of something moving at the back. 

The crowd followed it as it worked its way to the right and I happened to be positioned in the right spot as it crossed a bit of a gap. Suddenly it was right out on a branch, side on and completely unobscured and I got a perfect view of it. It was only for a split second but it was enough to secure my tick.The main impression was of a Robin sized bird with a slate grey back with two white wing bars and a striking white eye ring and yellow underparts with some darker streaking. I looked at the time. I'd been there for less than 10 minutes, so that was a very fast conversion! 

There was no hope of a photo so here is the St Govan bird courtesy of Ewan Urquhart.
The Baglan bird had a more uniform grey back than this one.

Magnolia Warblers are usually to be found in the north east corner of the USA and Canda where it inhabits densely packed coniferous forests. They migrate south to southeastern Mexico, Panama and parts of the Caribbean. They are fairly common in this area and so their conservation status is "least concern". Of course, one can't help but think of the fate of this poor bird. Having been swept across the Atlantic by a weather system there was little hope of it getting back to where it was supposed to be. It always strikes me as a cruel irony that a birder's best birds are the ones which are most likely to perish.

Another of the St Govan Mag, courtesy of Ewan Urquhart

There was a rather comical moment quite soon after I'd first seen the bird when we were all focused on one particular spot and one chap said he could see it. He gave particular instructions and said that it was sitting still on a branch. However no body else could see it and I seemed to be at the wrong angle. Eventually it was worked out that he was looking at a leaf! Apart from that, the bird then showed well on and off for the next half an hour or so, on one occasion coming out at the front of a Sallow I was watching again so I get another really good view plus plenty of glimpses. However, eventually something seemed to chase it off and it was gone and everything went quiet.

Peering into the undergrowth. The Silver Birch clump is just to the left of this

This lack of further sightings set off a gradual exodus. The large numbers melted away and those who were left started chatting or staring aimlessly around. It always amazes me how many passive or "zombie" twitchers there are at things like this. People who just stand around in one spot, not even looking for the bird but waiting for someone else to find it and point it out to them. I would have ideally preferred to have spent more time watching this bird so, along with a few other people, I did my best, wandering around and trying to find it. However, I couldn't even find the tit flock that it was associating with. It had all gone very quiet.

Late arrivals were turning up for the twitch so I knew that numbers of keener twitchers would eventually reach the necessary critial mass needed to relocate the bird but as this could take some time and as I'd already seen it well and had a bit of a journey still ahead of me I decided not to linger. Instead I headed back to the Gnome-mobile and set off for home. Having come down the A40/M5 route on the way there, this time the Sat Nav was saying M40,A420 so it would make a bit of a change from this morning. The journey back was uneventual and back at Casa Gnome I celebrated with my usual cup of tea, basking in the warm glow of a shiny new tick.

Addendum: Twitcher's Details
For those who might be interested in going, below is a map of the twitch area.
Park along the blue line
The bird's circuit is along the red line
The best viewing is the yellow circle of Silver Birch and Sallows

Thursday 14 September 2023

Upper Beeding Aquatic Warbler

Aquatic Warbler is one of those species that I assumed I would never get to see. Back in the day they used to be annual visitors to the UK and a trip down to Marazion in Cornwall in early autumn would usually find one. Sadly this species is in catastrophic decline globally and they are now real rarities in this country. When they do turn up it's usually just "trapped and ringed" and never seen again. So when one was found on Sunday early afternoon in a rather non-descript inland location in Sussex, I assumed that it too would vanish never to be seen again. However, it was seen regularly all afternoon and into dusk. That many sightings in itself was unusual and piqued my interest. However, having done so much driving recently I was too tired to contemplate a trip on Monday even if it was still around. So I watched with interest as it was seen all day the next day. Again this was almost unheard of for an Aquatic Warbler at least in my time of birding. By Monday evening I felt recovered enough to contemplate a trip on Tuesday morning on news. PL (of Ramblings and Scribblings blog fame) messaged me to see if I was going and wanted to join forces. He and I often need the same things and have similar constraints on how far we are prepared to travel so we often find ourselves at the same twitches. So we agreed to go "on news" the next day.

The next morning I was up far too early in anticipation of our trip. A bit of early messaging established that EU (of the Black Audio Birding blog) was also going so we all agreed to go together. EU got an early tip off from a WhatsApp group that the bird was still there before it hit the news services so we all set off for our rendezvous at a layby near the Oxford M40 services. Once we had all assembled, we set of in the Gnome-mobile for Sussex, a couple of hours away according to the Sat Nav. En route EU got more information from the WhatsApp group that the bird was being seen from time to time so it was with some optimism that we struggled our way around the M25 before heading down the M23 to deepest, darkest Sussex and our target of Upper Beeding. In the end the journey was uneventful and we arrived sometime after 10:30 a.m., parked up in one of the neighbouring roads and headed out on the footpath past the church to the river and then northwards along the bank to the twitch area.

We arrived to find a bunch of birders all strung out along a surprisingly long stretch of the river, all looking rather disconsolate. As we walked along the line I would ask them about the bird though it seemed that it had not been seen for about an hour. Towards the end of the line, someone said that "it was last seen in this general area". At last, some more useful information! We set ourselves up in this spot and started to scan the area. We were all watching from a rather narrow footpath, looking down on some scrub area that sloped down to the tidal River Adur. The habitat was long grass with some dead Umbellifers and Dock leaves and a few other bits and bobs. Of course, it was all rather dense vegetation with plenty of places for a small Acro to hide. We'd been there no more than a few minutes when a bird flew into a clump of plants. However it flew in rather high with a bouncy flight and when I lifted my bins it turned out to be a Reed Bunting. Just at that moment something else flew low across the bank into a tall clump of grass near where I had been looking. The flight jizz and the warm honey-brown tones gave it away as the target and I got a good enough view of it before it slipped deeper into the cover to be able to call it out to the rest of the birders there. They all duly converged on the area and a tense 20 minutes followed of watching this area and waiting. Finally it flew out again and down the bank though I happened to miss this. 


The Aquatic Warbler, the above two photos courtesy of Nick Truby

After this initial sighting the bird was much more cooperative and it was possible to track it as it skulked about from one location to another. It would regularly show with at least some flight views and could often be picked out in the vegetation if you happened to be at the right viewing angle. It would occasionally make it's "tack" call so that one could keep track of it. In general, there was no possibility of a photo so instead I just spent my time watching it and accumulating some reasonable views over the period of an hour or so. At one point it flew across the river and even sat still in one spot for long enough for me to attempt a record shot. In general, it would occasionally show itself reasonably well for a few seconds before slipping off again.

My one record shot of the bird across the river

As I mentioned at the beginning, Aquatic Warbler is in serious decline and these days most of the breeding population is confined to eastern Poland and southern Belarus with an estimated population of between 11 and 15 thousand birds. It was only recently that their over-wintering region was discovered in Senegal. They have a preference for short (12inch) wet sedge beds though habitat loss through land drainage has resulted in a serious decline to the point where they are the only internationally threatened passerine in mainland Europe.

The Aquatic Warbler, courtesy of Joe Tobias

After a while it all went quiet and the bird wasn't seen for quite a while. More people left and at about 1pm we too decided that we'd had our fill and headed back along the river to the car. After a quick stop off for some food for EU we headed back, guided along the A24 by the Sat Nav due to some accidents on the M25. We arrived back at the layby in reasonable time and all went out separate ways. It had been a very satisfactory twitch, and this elusive species, which I thought I would never get, was finally on my list.

Looking back on the remaining twitchers as we were leaving

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Aberdeen Uni Run - Teeside Brown Booby

All too quickly summer was over and our younger daughter was off to university once more after a few years of living and working from home. After the trip up to Aberdeen in the summer to check things out, now it was time for the real thing. So it was that on Thursday morning we set off once more for Scotland. It turns out that Aberdeen University is actually the northernmost university in the UK and it certainly felt like it on the long slog north. Having last time stopped over in Stirling, this time we decided to stop off in Perth in a basic but functional Air BnB. After dinner in a local restaurant we had a wander around the town. The main point of interest is the River Tay and the main bridge which is lit up at night. By way of some background, historically, Perth is known as a location where the river could easily be forded on foot and the town grew up around this area. It is also close to Scone Abbey where the king of Scotland was traditionally crowned so it was also known as the capital of the country for a while.

Perth Bridge at dusk with its coloured lights

The next morning we set off in for the last leg of the journey up to Aberdeen. It was rather foggy to start with though this soon burnt off. It was about an hour and three quarters to the city. After last time when we had got stuck in a traffic jam at the southern end, we elected to take the bypass around to the northern side where the university was located. Once at the university, the drop off turned out to be far quicker than I had been expecting so after picking up the keys, then driving to her halls of residence, unloading the car and saying our farewells, it was only just after 11 am. Now, finally, it was time to think about some birding!

I had been following what was around quite closely on the week leading up to our trip. The Stejneger's Scoter had been lingering around at Musselburgh for several weeks but with a few days to go before the trip suddenly it stopped being reported. However, there was consolation in the form of not one but two Brown Boobies in the offing. The first was an adult bird that lingered at the Humanby Gap in Yorkshire coast for a day before being tracked northward along the coast The second was an elusive juvenile that was seen in the Firth of Forth on both sides of the river though seemed to be very hard to see and always distant. Neither seemed very easy in the days leading up to our departure. However, the Yorkshire Booby started being reported regularly in the Tees estuary in the Teeside area on the Thursday as we drove northwards, Would it settle down and remain there? To add to the mix an Icterine Warbler had been reported just half an hour north of Aberdeen the previous evening in a small hamlet near the coast. I pondered all this information after having completed the Uni drop-off. What to go for?

In the end I decided not to bother with the Icterine Warbler which turned out to be a wise decision as it was not reported again after the initial sighting. Instead I decided to head south and to see what came up on RBA as I neared the Firth of Forth area. If the Stejneger's or the Scottish Booby should come up then I would try for them. Otherwise I would push onwards for the Teeside one. The Sat Nav was saying that it would be a punishing five and a half hours down to South Gare from Aberdeen which would be a huge slog! There was also another factor to be considered. My eldest daughter was now living in Newcastle and I had promised to drop off some items of furniture for her new house. If I were really keen I could push on to South Gare and then head back up to hers though that would add even more time to the journey. What's more, there was one final factor to consider, namely the weather. After initial reports of the Brown Booby at South Gare first thing, it turned out that thick fog was hampering viewing so it wasn't possible to see it at all. I weighed up all these things as I drove southwards. What to do?

There was nothing locally on RBA by the time I reached the Firth of Forth area so by default I headed on southwards. Apparently the fog was continuing to make viewing impossible at Teeside and as I drove along the Northumberland coast I could see that there was a thick layer of heavy fog sitting on the sea itself though it stopped abruptly at the cliff top where the road was. What's more, I was starting to feel very tired after two solid days of driving so rather than push on to Teeside I decided just to head to Newcastle for the night. Hopefully the Booby would stay for one more day and the weather would be better tomorrow. I arrived late afternoon, exhausted from so much driving. We had a good catch-up, a nice walk around the local area and a tasty take away dinner. After all that I felt much better and fell asleep quickly that night.

My plan was to head off when I woke up to be on site reasonably early "on news". The previous day, viewing had been OK first thing but had got difficult mid morning due to the fog. By heading off quickly I hoped that I would make this viewing window should fog still be a factor. In the end I awoke to "still present" news with no mention of fog at all. I got up and was out the door by about 7am, hurrying southwards towards South Gare along roads that were familiar from previous visits to the North East. News continued to be come in of the bird being present en route to encourage me, though I couldn't help but feel somewhat nervous. After all this driving and having to follow the news from afar, would I finally get my reward? 

I needn't have worried! I parked up along the very busy road leading up to the lighthouse and joined various other birders hurrying towards the end of lighthouse. We soon came across the obvious "twitch arena" with a large crown assembled some fifty yards away. Suddenly someone next to me called out "it's on the Red Buoy 5 right there!" and sure enough there it was, on top of the nearest buoy right opposite where I was standing about 370 metres away (I measured it on Google maps!). It was as easy as that! 


In the end, the bird was on show constantly though often rather mobile. In between sitting on buoys it would fly around and often land on the sea to join in the feeding frenzy along with the Guillemots, Razorbills and Cormorants when a small shoal of fish would come to the surface. There were large numbers of Herring Gulls hanging around which would try to get in on the action though it seemed the fish were too deep for them so they would fight for scraps and seemed particularly aggressive towards the Booby, often chasing it too and fro. The Booby didn't seem to mind too much and would just fly off somewhere else. It often roamed all the way up to buoy 12 which was right in the distance (about 2km away) though it usually returned to the buoy right opposite us in the end.


The Brown Booby is a member of the Sulidae family  of Gannets and Boobies of which it is the commonest member. It has a pan tropical range where it live gregariously and hunts by plunge diving for fish in the manner I was seeing. They apparently only roost on solid objects rather than on the sea which I guess was why it liked the buoys so much.

The nominate "Atlantic" Brown Booby (pink area) is normally found in the southern hemisphere

After a while some of the local fisherman cottoned on to the idea of making some extra cash by offering boat rides for photographers to get closer to the Booby. We watched as these boats would take a few at a time to a much closer distance. To my mind the distance wasn't too bad though later photos on the internet seemed to suggest that they got a lot closer as the day progressed. The Booby didn't seem in any way phased by this and sat there happily on its buoy as the boat got nearer. Sometimes a boat went out when the Booby was right down the far end so some photographers would have paid their money but not got to see the bird up close at all.

Just some of the many Teeside Twitchers

There was not much else of note: a fly-over Red-throated Diver was notable and a few Meadow Pipits were knocking around where we were. One of the locals spotted a distant Eider on the far shore and also an Arctic Skua that I never got onto. There was a Whimbrel and a few Redshank knocking about but that was about it. Eventually I decided that I'd had enough and started to amble back towards the car. I stopped and peered in the various nooks and crannies along the way. I really like this area with it its run down feel and little harbours though it's a million miles from the wildness of the Cornish coastline that I know so well. Back in the car, I started to head off, stopping briefly at the last viewing point to chat with a birder who was scoping out the sand bar there. A flock of Barwits and a few other bits and pieces was all that was on offer. There was no more putting it off, it was time to head off home to Oxford.

A view of the Tees Estuary

There was one more factor to consider. As I'd been heading down towards South Gare that morning, news had broken back in Oxon of a Pallid Harrier that had been seen on Otmoor. This was a real county Mega and very gripping! What's more it was twitchable as, after it was first found, it was seen up until 10:30am that morning. Now it was long four and a half hours back to Oxford from where I was. "I suppose I'd better go and have a look for it" I thought. As the day and my journey home progressed there was no further news of it. Whats more, as I headed south the weather got progressively hotter and hotter. It had been a really pleasant temperature at South Gare but it was a humid 30 degrees by the time I arrived back in the county. I certainly did not fancy standing around on Otmoor in that heat so that rather than heading straight to Otmoor I went home instead for a well earned nap. This turned out to be a wise decision as the bird wasn't seen again that day. The next day I did make the effort to get out to Otmoor early doors but without success. One that got away clearly though I had my "booby prize" to console me. I will remember this trip not for missing the Harrier but for the success of connecting with the amazing Brown Booby at Teeside.

Saturday 2 September 2023

Low Key Family Holiday to Portugal

As the title suggests, this was a very low key, non-birding, family holiday to Portugal. On such trips I always bring my bins and superzoom camera and like to see what birds I come across en passant. We were staying in a town house in Sintra, a mountainous region to the west of Lisbon and on the border of the Park Natural de Sintra-Cascais, a large national park. We didn't have a car as there were so many things to see and do just in the local area so we made use of Bolt (an Uber-like private hire service) which is very cheap in Portugal. Most of our trips were to local palaces (which abound in the area) and their associated gardens. These were good to see and I was expecting to see at least some birdage in these locations. However, the main theme of the holiday was just how birdless it all was. I don't know if it is the extreme drought conditions which have driven everything away but it was hard work to see anything at all. Each morning I would sit with a cup of tea on the balcony of our property which is in a nicely wooded area, looking to see what I might see. 

The "Tower of Mordor" (Pena Palace actually), viewed from the house balcony

The list was modest to say the least. The highlight in the garden itself was a nice Firecrest which I would see most days. We looked out onto the mountain top of Pena Palace which was a nicely wooded mountain top. I kept expecting to see raptors of some kind over there but saw nothing. In fact the only raptor I saw the entire visit was a Buzzard one day at the Palace of Monserrate. In terms of garden fly-overs it was mostly Wood Pigeons with a couple of Starling species which I assume were Spotless Starling from the Collins distribution maps (Common Starling is only a winter visitor and marked "rare" on eBird for the region). Short-toed Treecreeper were relatively common in the area as were Nuthatch. There was a Blackcap one day (apparently resident all year around in the area according to Collins), with Jays, Tits and Great Spotted Woodpecker also to be seen. At night we would hear Tawny Owls calling nearby

Walking around town I saw quite a few Black Redstart and one morning saw a couple of Crag Martins. There were a few Swifts still around including a pair of what looked like Pallid Swifts. Apart from that the only hirundines I saw were a couple of House Martins. In one of the parks there was a small pool where various birds were coming for a drink. In a short time there I saw a Nuthatch, a Black Redstart and a Serin.

Black Redstarts were relatively common

One day we went down to the coast to meet up with an old family friend from Oxford. There, I saw a few Yellow-legged Gulls and a single Lesser Black-backed type of gull. I didn't get a photo of it and the Collins distribution maps would seem to suggest that it is usually a winter visitor to this area. In one of the local parks I came across something that I didn't immediately recognise and had to look up. It turned out to be a Crested Myna. This is a species of Chinese Starling that has been accidentally released in some other areas, such as Portugal where it has now established a feral population. According to Wikipedia: "[Crested Myna] was discovered breeding around Lisbon, Portugal in 1997. They are now established on both sides of the Tagus estuary to the west of Lisbon and also on the Setubal Peninsula". In fact, terms of most interesting species seen on this holiday, this probably takes the award. Another feral species that was present in numbers were the Ring-necked Parakeets that were to be found in Lisbon.

A stock photo of a Crested Myna, copyright the original owner

There were a few Odonata around including some Willow Emeralds, a Southern Hawker by the House and a few Keeled Skimmer.

What I assume is a Willow Emerald

A Keeled Skimmer

All in all I managed a paltry 34 bird species on my holiday list and that was including some dodgy ducks in one of the ponds. So quite a remarkably birdless holiday! I would like to have a proper birding holiday on the Iberian peninsula at some point as there are lots of good species to be seen.

Monday 7 August 2023

Forster's Tern at Arne RSPB With Honey Buzzard "Afters"

The first summer Forster's Tern at Arne in Dorset has been on my radar for quite some time now. What was presumably the same bird was first seen back in April at Bingham Reservoir in Somerset where it spent a few hours sitting on a buoy before flying off. It then turned up in the Poole Harbour area where it gave birders the run-around until the end of May without ever settling down to a predictable pattern of behaviour. Given how relatively low the odds of connecting were, I didn't bother trying for it at this time. After that it all went quiet for a while. However, towards the end of July it started being reported more regularly from one location in the Harbour to the point where I reckoned that it was pretty reliable. The only trouble was that I was rather busy at work. Therefore, it wasn't until this weekend that I finally found a window of opportunity to have a go at trying to see it.

The bird was being reported at Shipstal Point on the south side of Poole Harbour on the eastern edge of the RSPB reserve at Arne. Apparently it was roosting there with some Sandwich Terns each evening. The best times to see it were either first thing in the morning or last thing at night with the morning seemingly the most reliable. Now, these days sunrise it at around 5:45 am which would make for a pretty early start from Oxford. Therefore I decided to book an Air Bnb and to travel up the previous evening, ready for a dawn raid the next day. At the last minute I realised that at only 2.25 hours from Oxford, I could in fact head off at 4pm and be there in time for the evening roost thereby having two goes at seeing the bird, once for the evening roost and then for the next morning as well. So it was that I headed off at 4pm down the A34 into the tail end of Storm Antoni where I had to drive through very tricky torrential rain for a good part of the journey. Despite this, I made reasonable time and so it was that at around 6:15 pm I pulled into the almost deserted car park at Arne RSPB, donned all my waterproof gear just in case it rained again and partly to counteract the still very strong wind, and yomped off down the path to Shipstal Point. Just as I was heading off news came up on RBA of the bird still being present that evening. That sounded most promising! It was already there for the evening roost so it just had to stick around for the 20 minutes that it was going to take for me to walk down to the beach and, as long as it didn't disappear into an unobservable area, I should get to see it!

I arrived at the beach to find just three other birders there all seemingly looking at the bird and a hurried enquiry put my mind at ease. One obliging fellow birder first let me look through his scope for the tick and even set up my scope so that it was straight on the bird - who could ask for more? The reason for needing to do this was that it was currently tucked up asleep with it's head out of view and if you didn't know which one it was then it would have been pretty tricky to pick it out from the 50 odd Sandwich Terns all roosting there. However, every 5 minutes or so it would lift it's head up, have a bit of a stretch and then go back to sleep so that after a short period I started to get some reasonable views. After a while, it did then wake up a bit more and stood up, albeit partially obscured behind a Sandwich Tern, but I was at last able to take some photos of it. However, the sun was shining very brightly and quite low, lighting up these white birds so much that it threw out the exposure of my digiscoping efforts so my results were little more than record shots.

Looking towards to roost from the beach

A "context" photo with the Forster's in the centre of the photo


I took some video but the combination of the wind and the harsh lighting meant that it wasn't that great. 

...Having a stretch!

...and a couple of zoomed in shots

After about half an hour of watching it, something spooked the flock and about half the Terns suddenly flew up and left, including the Forster's. 

I was lucky enough to click the shutter just as it took off so managed to get this shot

I waited for a little longer to see if it would come back but it didn't while I was there. Still there were plenty of other birds to look at with a few Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew, Redshank, Dunlin, a Whimbrel and lots of Black-headed Gulls to sift through. All in all it was a very picturesque location and, having already seen my target, I was in a contented frame of mind . 
Looking towards Poole Harbour from the beach

Finally I decided to leave, and ambled back along the pleasant woodland path to the car. Then it was a quick 20 minute hop back to Wareham where my AirBnB was located. This turned out to be in a nice quiet location where I passed a pleasant evening eating, watching Netflix and getting to know my hosts' two lovely and inquisitive kittens. Finally I turned in for the night to sleep the deep and contented sleep of a twitcher who had already connected with their target.

My original plan for the next day had been to get there for first light but, having already connected, I decided that there was no need to push myself so instead decided to aim for a more leisurely 7am arrival at Arne. The weather was gorgeous this morning, bright sunshine and only a moderate breeze - such a contrast from yesterday! I arrived to find the car park much more full this morning with more carloads turning up as I was getting ready. I tooled up and headed off along the now familiar walk back to the beach. En route, RBA came up with "still present this morning until 6:20 am when flew off". Hmm, was I was going to pay the price for not getting here first thing? Still, with the pressure off from my connection yesterday I wasn't too bothered. When I arrived there was just a single lady birder there (from Chippenham as it turned out). Being there on her own she had no idea where to look so I explained about where the birds roosted though there were no birds there now. We both lamented the fact that it had been reported as having flown off already. There were plenty of the usual stuff around on the exposed mud flats but only a handful of Sandwich Terns on view loafing on buoys or poles. A Great White Egret on the waters edge was new from yesterday and there were generally more birds about. Quickly, other people started to arrive until there were at least a dozen people there - all somewhat disappointed with the lack of the target Tern.

About half an hour passed with nothing to show for it. An Osprey appeared over the pines on the island opposite us which offered some diversion for a while. Then suddenly our target turned up, hunting actively in the channel in front of us and flying back and forth. Looking into the light, it wasn't so easy to see but it was good enough to make out the bandit mask across the eyes even in flight and there was a palpable sense of relief amongst the assembled group. It had a noticably different jizz from the "angular" feel of a Sandwich Tern. It put on a good display for about 5 minutes as it hunted back and forth along the channel, diving regularly. At one stage we thought it was going to land on a buoy but the Sandwich Tern which was already there wasn't having any of that and chased it off. Eventually the Forster's heading off around the Point and out of sight. We all hurried to the Point and around the corner but couldn't see it. Having now seen it again this morning and with other plans for the morning I didn't feel the need to linger any longer so whilst the others hung around to get more views I opted instead to head back to the car.

The crowd trying to relocate the Tern after the initial sighting

My "other plans" were to stop off in the New Forest on the way home for some Honey Buzzard action - now an annual event in my birding calendar. It was a pleasant hour's drive to my usual location and so it was about 10 am that I wandered out along the familiar path to my usual raptor watch vantage point. On the way I listened out carefully and managed to hear the distinctive scolding call of a Dartford Warbler though I couldn't see it.

I had been hoping for some company during my visit. For the previous two years I'd been blessed with some expert companionship for at least part of my time there but on this occasion I was on my own. It was a very slow start and I did wonder if I might be wasting my time. Initially it was just a couple of Ravens and a lone Buzzard but after a while things seemed to get going with a whole succession of Buzzard sightings and a Sparrowhawk. Finally after a bit less then a hour a pair of Honey Buzzard came into view and I spent a very pleasant five minutes watching them as they circled in the sky for a bit before moving off. Once again I was struck by just how distinctive they looked when seen well. Their jizz was much more agile and "in control" compared to Common Buzzards which had a somewhat "lumbering" air about them by comparison. Also the relatively small head and longer tail of the Honeys meant that there was a "weight to the rear" vibe about them whereas there was more of a "front heavy" feel to Common Buzzard. Having seen my target well I decided to see if I could score an actual view of a Dartford but despite spending quite some time listening and looking I could not winkle one out. 

The birds were generally rather skulking but I did spot a distant family of Stonechats

Eventually I headed back to the car and set the Sat Nav for home. I had a final cup of tea from the flask and a bite to eat before the drive back to Oxford. I arrived back home early afternoon to bask in the warm contented glow of a very successful outing.

Twitcher's Supplement

For people who might be wanting twitching information for visiting the Forster's Tern themselves it's all fairly straight-forward. In the map below, park at the Arne RSPB car park, follow the red trail for "Shipstal" through the woods for about 20 minutes before taking the path down onto the beach. The birds roost along the yellow line and the Forster's was hunting in the channel marked in blue.