Monday, 30 December 2019

Birds from the East - End of Year Finale!

As regular readers will know, I'm presently working in London which has rather put the kaibosh on any birding trips on my part. Sure, I have my regular lunch time trips to Regents Park but the highlight of the last week of work was adding Kestrel to my park life list which now stands on a paltry 53 so it's hardly high octane stuff. However, over the Christmas period all contractors such as myself where I am working have an enforced furlough, a compulsory holiday of two weeks. Exhausted as I was from the exertions of working in London this couldn't come soon enough as far as I was concerned. Now, whilst the main purpose was going to be to rest and celebrate Christmas with the family, a part of me was wondering whether there might be something of birdy interest to tempt me out on one final sortie for the year. I have fond memories of some winter twitches: Dusky Thrush, Blue Rock Thrush, and Brunnich's Guillemot for example. With the recent split of the Yellow Wagtail complex into Eastern and Western, the first winter Eastern Yellow up in Northumberland would have been a possibility but it was just too far away. So when Norfolk turned up the very smart Blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail I was certainly interested. It was found on the 23rd and since then was reported regularly every day. This was the kind of nailed-down twitch that I like so once the Christmas festivities were over I hatched a plan. It seemed to me that the birds was most regularly reported first thing so I decided to head over to Norfolk one evening and stay the night there so as to be on site for first light. This would give me a good chance to see it and then to head back home at my leisure. I even planned to stop in at the Black-throated Thrush on the way back. Just about every birder in the country must have been to visit this bird ahead of me but as I'd seen one a few years back on a winter Durham run I'd personally been in no hurry to pay homage. Still it would be such a minor detour from the Norfolk return journey that it would be positively rude not to stop in.

So it was that on Saturday night I put this plan into action. I found and booked an AirBnB in Ringstead, literally no more than 5 minutes from the twitch site. It was more expensive than I usually pay for overnight stays but there was nothing cheaper around (Christmas I guess) and the convenience of the location was sans pareil. At around 5:30 pm I headed off into the darkness in the Gnome mobile with Radio 4 for company and some food for sustenance on the long slog over to Norfolk. Given that it was Saturday night there wasn't much traffic and the journey was uneventful, taking the expected three hours. I was soon settled into my spotless and comfortable room for the evening, enjoying a "room picnic" with a celebratory bottle of beer.

Given that it didn't get light till around 8 a.m. there was no need to hurry the next day so I enjoyed a leisurely cooked breakfast before packing up and heading the few minutes down the road to the twitch site. There were already a dozen or so cars parked up along the side of the road and as I tooled up I met up with DB whom I knew from the Cornwall birding scene. It turned out she lived in Norfolk but that this was the first opportunity that she and her family had had to see this bird. By the roadside I could see a bunch of birders all set up to look at the western of the two dung heaps that were the focal point of the twitch location (such a glamorous life we twitchers lead!). To my mind this was a bit strange as my thinking was that the action was usually at the eastern dung heap, a few hundred yards down the muddy track and DB agreed with this. As the other birders were clearly not on the bird at all we decided to head down the track to the other heap. We'd got half way down when we looked back to see someone waving at us - the bird was clearly at the western heap. So we hurried back and had almost reached the road when everyone started coming our way. Apparently the bird had been seen at the heap but had then flown eastwards towards the other heap. Oh well, at least the birds was still around! We all headed off to the other heap and it wasn't long before the bird turned up, picking it's way over the giant pile in search of flies. The light was an appalling gloomy grey and there was a really stiff breeze blowing so photographic conditions were really poor. For this reason I opted just for video and despite the scope-shaking wind, managed to put together enough footage to make some grabs from.

A couple of video grabs from my rather shaking video
The presence of this bird had forced myself, and no doubt many other birders, to get to grips with current thinking on the whole Yellow Wagtail complex. It has recently been split into Western and Eastern with some half a dozen subspecies within the Eastern complex. This bird was considered to be of the nominate M. t. tschutschensis form which is variously called Blue-headed Easter Yellow or Alaskan Eastern Yellow though the latter doesn't seem very Eastern in name, at least from our perspective here on the western side of Europe. My understanding was that it was identified as Eastern YW on the call and then determined to be M. t. tschutschensis on the basis of the plumage. For those who are interested in learning more about the complex, there's a rather nice article summarising it in Birding Netherlands here. Anyway, it certainly was a most striking bird, looking like a male Blue-headed Wagtail in appearance. I did my best to appreciate its subtleties though in the cold wind and the gloomy conditions I wasn't intending to spend too long over it. This was actually my 400th bird using strict BOU listing conditions so ought to be a cause for great celebration though using my more liberal Gnome Rarities Committee rules I was already well past that milestone.

I soon overheard someone else asking a fellow birder where Shernborne was and so got to wondering what might be there that had sparked that enquiry. A quick glance on my RBA app revealed that a possible Grey-bellied Brant was the answer to that question. What's more it was less than 10 minutes away. I needed no further inducement to leave the windswept dung heap and hurried back to the car. Thanks to my trusty Google Maps app about 10 minutes later I pulled up on the side of a hill with a few other cars, overlooking some huge swathes of farmland across which vast numbers of Pink-footed Geese were grazing. Someone there kindly let me peek through his scope to tick the bird but it turned out to be quite close and relatively easy to pick out. This was a much nicer location than the first twitch site: it was conveniently sheltered from the wind and from our vantage point we could easily view the entire field without any danger of disturbing the birds. It was nice to get a flavour of winter Norfolk goose watching which I'd not previously done much of. Someone found a couple of (Tundra) Bean Geese in amongst the flock and I managed to get on them in order to get another year tick.

Some rather wobbly video of the Grey-bellied Brant

I must confess to knowing precious little about the enigmatic Grey-bellied Brant other than it's a possble fourth subspecies of Brent Goose, alongside Pale-bellied, Dark-bellied and the Black Brant and is said to look like a cross between Black Brant and Pale-bellied. Apparently it is a proposed separate subspecies for the population of birds breeding in central Arctic Canada (mainly Melville Island), and wintering on Puget Sound on the American west coast around the U.S./Canada border though some authorities suggest that it is no more than an intergrade between the Pale-bellied and Black Brant. To my eyes it looked like a rather washed out version of a Black Brant and was certainly a nice bird to see.

With time marching on, I felt that I ought to be heading off but at that point another whole flock of Pink-foots came in, almost doubling the number of birds there. I'd never seen so many geese! The one thing that made me hesitate from leaving was that a Lesser White-fronted Goose had been seen recently in Norfolk and it was just possible that it might be in there somewhere. However, in the end I decided that I couldn't afford to hang around on the off-chance so reluctantly tore myself away from the scene and got back into the car. I set the coordinates for Whipsnade Zoo for the final port of call on my trip and at round 10 a.m. I was on the road once more.

I stopped periodically to check for news of the Thrush on the RBA app and finally towards 11 a.m. it came up as still present. With that reassurance it was onwards on my journey which really seemed to go on for ever. Finally at around 12:30 I turned into the overflowing car park and parked up. It seemed that just about every member of the public had decided to come and visit the zoo on this sunny Sunday afternoon at the same time. I met one or two birders coming the other way as I headed towards the entrance only to be told that the bird was last seen about an hour and a half ago. That didn't sound too promising and I started to have doubts about the outcome of this last stage. Still. I was there now and had at least to give it a go. I queued up and paid my £26 (including a voluntary charity donation), was given a little map and headed the few minutes over towards to twitch area. Anyone who'd been reading any birding blogs of late would know all about the various locations: the Pig Pen, the Hullabaloo Farm and the Common Frog Pond and how there was a single favoured Cotoneaster Tree in the middle. These all turned out to be right next to each other and the whole twitch site was far smaller than I'd imagined. I soon found half a dozen or so birders all dutifully staking out the favoured tree. To my mind this looked like a bit of a non-starter: they were standing very close to the tree and there were so many member of the general public milling around that I felt it unlikely that the bird was going to turn up any time soon. Indeed there was no sign of any bird life at all in the vicinity - it all seemed most unlikely. 

Rather than just standing around I decided to have a wander around to see if I could turn it up. I searched through various locations though there was nothing to be seen, not even any Redwings. I circled backed to the twitch location to see if I'd missed anything but they'd not seen anything. So I decided to explore in the other direction, partly just to keep on walking around after my prolonged driving stint. I came across a much quieter area with some berry bearing trees along the side of the road and here were a couple of birders peering intently up into the foliage. On enquiry it turned out that the star bird was here and that they'd last seen in just a few minutes ago! Much more like it! We were standing near what was labelled as the Railway Yard and which I guess must be the Railway Sidings that I'd read about in some of the reports. It certainly looked like a good spot with several Cottoneasters running along the edge of the fenced off area (the Conservation Breeding Area apparently). Plenty of cover for the bird away from the hoards of people and plenty of food on offer. After about fifteen minutes or so a bird flew up into the back of the tree that looked promising: flashing greys and black in flight it certainly looked good but could I get a proper view? Then it flew down low into the railway area behind some abandoned rolling stock but didn't come out the other side. The three of us hurried over to take a look and there it was, not more than 20 yards away on the ground and feeding actively. I whipped out my super zoom and papped away as much as possible before after a few minutes the bird flew off into a nearby tree.

This is by now a very well-photographed bird but in the shady corner where it was located my shots were nothing special.

A bit of video footage

What a result! What a bird! Far more stunning than the grubby female that I'd seen a few years previously it was very smart looking individual. I wasn't going to get better views than that so with time marching on I headed back towards the car, stopping first to tell the other birders who were still staking out the original tree, where their target actually was. They gratefully hurried off to see it for themselves whilst I headed back to the car and set the coordinates for home. In the bright winter sunshine, the last leg of the journey passed reasonably enough and so it was that around 3:30 pm I arrived back at Casa Gnome for my celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up with the rest of the family. It had been a great finale to my birding year.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Slim Pickings in Regents Park

It's been a lean old year in terms of birding opportunities for me. This is partly due to self-imposed restrictions in terms of how far I'm prepared to travel and partly due to work constraints. Indeed as far as the latter are concerned, all has not been well in that respect for several years now, to the point where this year I decided that, rather than eeking out a living at home, I had to bite the bullet and get a proper job. Now for my line of work the best jobs are in London so for a good part of this year I've been applying for various positions before finally getting something that was due to start in early October. Thus it was that my life has changed to commuting during the week from my parental home in Epsom up to London and only coming home to Oxford at the weekends. Whilst the work is interesting I can't say that I recommend it in terms of work-life balance and I don't think that I'll be able to keep it up long term. What's more of course my birding opportunities have gone right out the window. Based off the Euston Road near Warren Street tube I've been exploring the local area on my lunch breaks in desperate search of a bit of habbo to explore. The best that I've come up with has been Regents Park: an oasis of green in the sprawl of concrete, traffic and car fumes. Not that the relatively manicured lawns of a London park offer much in the way of habitat for birds but compared to the surrounding area where a pigeon or a crow are about as good as it gets (and there are no House Sparrows or Starlings even) this is the best that's on offer. So it is that several times a week I hurry off to the park during my one hour break and try to cover as much of the area as possible.

The main feature of the park is of course the main central lake, complete with a couple of islands and several narrow arms extending off in different directions. The north east arm houses a waterfowl collection where you can see various exotic ducks all lounging about but the main lake is where most of the action is. There are Tufted Ducks, Shoveler, Pochard, a few Red-crested Pochard, Moorhen, Coot and Grebes and a reasonable number of Mandarins along with the usual gull species as well as Canada, Greylag and Egyptian Geese. In the surrounding trees Jays are plentiful and there are some feeders where you can see the usual Tits (including a surprising number of Coal Tits) and a few Finches.

There are a few Common Gulls to be seen

This Egyptian Goose pair had a very late pair of goslings

Displaying Mandarins

The noisiest inhabitants are of course the Ring-necked Parakeets which are everywhere. There are a number of trees and whilst nothing approaching a woodland you could call some of it a copse in terms of size. There are a few helpful boards posted around the area which tell you what birds you might be able to see there and which includes a reasonable number of passage migrants and apparently Reed Warblers even breed in the reeds that line some of the lake areas. What's more there are some good insects on offer with Willow Emerald an White-letter Hairstreak both to be had, so something to look forward to for the summer months.

One of the many Ring-necked Parakeets

Naturally, in order to try to generate some interest I've started a park list but it's rather depressing how few birds I've got on it so far. After nearly two month's of effort my grand total is standing at 49. I've never been so pleased to see a Starling but it wasn't added to the list until number 48 one rainy lunchtime when a few were sitting in a tree with some Mistle Thrushes. By far the rarest on the list is a Red-throated Diver which turned up a few weeks ago. I couldn't quite believe it when I looked on my RBA app to see "Red-throated Diver in Regents Park" appear one morning. I hoped it would hold out till lunchtime and fortunately it did. I nearly didn't see it during my one hour break but fortunately right towards the end it turned up and swam by me, bold as you please, within a few metres. Certainly the best views I've ever had of this species. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the bird wasn't well and the next day it was taken into care. Fortunately the story has a happy ending and you can follow the bird's rehabilitation and successful release here.

Crippling views of the Red-throated Diver

Depressing though it is, I am grateful that I have something to look at in the park. Fortunately there is a blog covering the various London parks written by someone who works there which is a great source of reference. The list of birds that he sees is quite impressive but a lot of them are added as vis mig flyovers at dawn which is not an option for me. So I guess I'll keep slogging around at lunchtime: whilst the bird variety is lamentable at least it's an escape from the concrete and fumes of what must be one of London'd busiest roads. At one stage I did contemplate doing regular updates of my sightings on a new dedicated blog but the truth of the matter is that there just isn't enough variety to make that at all interesting. So I'll do the occasional post here and will carry on park listing. My target is to get my list total up to 100 though this may be a tall ask. Time will tell!

Useful Park Links