Friday, 19 October 2018

Getting Rustic in Wanstead

After a year and particularly an autumn that everyone has been complaining about as unusually poor on the twitching and rarities front, suddenly in the last couple of weeks thinks have kicked off big time. With rares (and indeed firsts for Britain in the form of a White-rumped Swift up in Yorkshire) landing everywhere I had definitely been woken from my twitchless torpor and was keeping a keen eye on my RBA app for something appropriate to go for. The Grey Catbird down in Cornwall very nearly tempted me but it was just a bit too far, especially since I was going to be down there at the weekend anyway for a family half term holiday, so instead I decided to hang on and hope that it stayed long enough for me to see it. However, when on Tuesday evening a Rustic Bunting was found at Wanstead Flats in London this certainly piqued my interest being well within my preferred (though these days not very strict) two hour travel limit. Accordingly I decided to wait on news the next morning.

The next day it was reported just after 8 a.m. and then again at around 10. That was good enough for me but unfortunately a bit of unfinished work kept me at my desk for longer than I would have wanted so it wasn't until around 11 that I finally left. There was no further news until I hit the M25 where the dreaded "no further sign by 11:30" was reported. What to do? Recalling that I was faced with the same dilemma last time when I successfully twitched the Hampshire Ortolan, I declined the option to turn back immediately. My thinking was that by heading on to the site at the very least it would offer those already there a chance to refind it and if there was still no sign then I could fairly quickly give up and head back home. Mentally I downgraded my expectations on this twitch and soldiered on through the heavy traffic.

By the time I got to the M11 there was a "still seen at 11:32 though elusive" message. Perhaps there was hope yet! I negotiated the rather heavy traffic and shortly after 12:30 pulled up in the main car park on Wansted Flats. This was not a location that I'd been to before though I knew of it from the bloggings and photos of Mr. Jonathan Lethbridge, the Wanstead Birder. It turned out to be a large flat scrubby area plonked in the middle of a sea of Victorian housing. I could see how this might attract birds: in the ocean of concrete that is London this would be an attractive island of green. I tooled up and spotting some some milling birders in the general direction I was expecting, I hurried off to join them.

Wanstead Flats - offering welcome relief from the concrete for vagrant buntings
After a brisk five minute walk I asked the first birder I met what the situation was. He explained how the bird had been feeding in the area of burnt gorse for a while before suddenly flying all the way over to the car park, then back to here and then off towards some trees a good distance away. "No one really knows where it is at all" he concluded gloomily, thereby confirming my fears for this twitch. I soon met up with PL (I would have been surprised had he not been here, frankly) and also SJ who had twitched by train. They had arrived a good half hour before me and sadly had not seen the bird at all. We all milled around for a bit and then I decided to have a wander around to see if I could find it. To the raucous accompaniment of the resident Ring-necked Parakeets I wandered around scouring the scorched earth for Buntings. I'd been no more than a few minutes on my circuit when I noticed a change in the demeanour of some of the birders who were no longer milling but instead were actively scouring a burnt clump of gorse. I started to hurry over as a call from PL confirmed that it had been seen. It turned out that it had flown in calling and had landed in the aforementioned clump where it was presently lost to view. The assembled birders gradually worked their way around the clump, looking for that angle which would reveal the bird when it flew up into a branch and someone called it. I hurried over and got my first glimpse of it, with it's back to me, for a few seconds before it flew off a short distance. We all followed it as it made a couple of hops like this before settling in a patch by a couple of trees. There it flitted down to feed (it may have been seeded here) and back up into the tree several times before having a good preen and generally offering great views. Naturally I had a go at some digiscoping but the results were largely of record shot quality.






The bright light made things rather contrasty (hence the poor photos) though it was easy enough to see the diagnostic rusty flanks that made it a Rustic as well as the other more subtle features that marked it out from your common or garden Reed. After perhaps ten minutes of this it then flew a relatively short distance and landed in another clump out of sight. "Good enough for me" I thought and the Oxon crew took the liberty of some high fiving and indulged in some relaxed post-tick banter.



A few seconds of video of the Rustic Bunting



Having seen the bird relatively quickly I decided not to hang around but to head back as I had more work to finish off. Accordingly I had a quick half-hearted and fruitless wander around the clump where it had appeared to go down in before heading back to the car and de-tooling. I then headed off via a little detour to a petrol station that I'd noticed on Google maps from the night before when doing my pre trip research. Then it was back into the maelstrom of London traffic and the M25 and M40 where I arrived back just before 4 pm for my post twitch celebratory cup of tea.

On my way to the Bunting I did just nip in to Wolvercote where Steve Goddard had kindly
kept a Clifden Nonpareil for me. A much prized species amongst moth'ers I was very
pleased to see this rather battered specimen

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Rainy Wales

In recent years at this time of years my birding pulses would be quickening at the prospect of the next great Uni Run up to Durham to take Daughter 1 back up to the North East for the start of her next term. Sadly now that she has finished there, those trips to places like Spurn are no longer going to be an annual event. Daughter 2 is still at Uni in her final year but sadly Swansea doesn't offer quite the same birding opportunities that Durham does and each trip I rather struggle to find much of interest to stop off at on the way back. This year I had been intending to pay another visit to the Common Hawkers on the Gower Peninsular but with the forecast for torrential rain all day I had to shelve that idea. Instead, given the recent wreck of Grey Phalaropes that have been blown ashore all around the area I thought that this would probably be the most interesting opportunity for this part of the country. There were no shortage of them to pick from in Glamorgan with at least four different locations sporting this diminutive wader but in the end I chose a pair at Pilning Wetlands, by New Passage in Gloucestershire, partly because it was the shortest detour off the way back but also partly that I'd always wanted to visit this area and have always enjoyed the landscape along the River Severn whenever I'd seen it: somehow there's a rather eery and bleak feel to this sort of place which I really like. So that was the plan.

We headed off from Oxford just after 9 am and soon hit the wall of rain. In horrible driving conditions, and fighting hard to concentrate after a poor night's sleep we headed west until we reached Swansea itself where a horrendous traffic jam due to some road works and some really poor traffic light coordination (I was stuck waiting to move for twelve consecutive traffic light cycles as there was just no way to get across a busy junction) after an hour and a quarter in the jam we finally made it to D2's new student digs. They were suitably horrible and run down though she had a lovely large room at the top of the house which was well-appointed with a fabulous view overlooking the city and the sea beyond. Having unloaded her stuff we said our goodbyes and I headed back, choosing this time to keep well away from the city centre and to head out of the city by another route.

Back on the motorway, it was continuous rain all the way as I headed back east. I had half a mind to abandon my plan to stop off but I was curious at least to see New Passage and the river so I made my way over the river via the old Severn bridge on the M48 and then turned southwards towards New Passage that lies underneath where the new bridge crosses the river. There I parked up, donned all my waterproof clothing (realising at this point that I'd forgotten my waterproof trousers - Doh!) and headed off towards the Severn Way, the path that runs along the bank of the river. I was soon crossing The Pill (a small tidal stream that flows out into the river here) and then walking the short distance along the Severn Way towards the Pilning Wetlands area. To the river side of the path was flooded grassland that was full of Canada Geese, Mallards and Teal as well as a few Lapwings and Meadow Pipits. It very much reminded me of Port Meadow in winter time back home.


Looking back towards the new bridge in the gloom

Looking north from New Passage towards the old bridge and Old Passage

After no more than a couple of hundred yards I arrived at the Wetlands which consisted of a series of scrapes and shallow lakes on the inland side of the path. The first one hosted a few dozen Black-headed Gulls, some Black-tailed Godwits, a few Redshank and a single Green Sandpiper.The second scrape held half a dozen Moorhens and the two Phalaropes, an adult and a first winter, both feeding away frantically with their clockwork toy action as they do. In the on-going rain I didn't really fancy doing much digiscoping but did take a quick bit of footage for the record.


The adult Grey Phalarope, the younger bird being out of view at the time

Beyond this was another deeper lake with a flock of several dozen Hirundines, mostly Swallows with a few House Martins, all hawking away madly in the rain. I searched through them carefully for something rarer but there was nothing of note. I spent some time taking in all the gloomy but very atmospheric landscape. What a great patch this would make I mused though realised that I couldn't live so close to the motorway: the constant roar of traffic would drive you mad after a while. After a while the lack of waterproof trousers started to get to me and I headed back to the Gnome mobile, got out of my waterproofs and cranked the heating up to 11 to dry off. I then headed back onto the rainy motorway and made my way back home to Casa Gnome where I collapsed on the sofa with a hot cup of tea and one of our two cats sitting on my lap. It had been a long and extremely wet day out.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Hang up the Bunting for the Ortolan

I've been playing a bit of a game with myself over this autumn passage season: if something comes up on the pager that I "need" and I were hypothetically to drop everything and go for it then would I have got it? The rules are simple, I allow myself 15 minutes or so from actually seeing the news to "get ready", I then allow the usual length of time to get to the location and if there is subsequently some positive news on the bird then I assume that I would have got it. This armchair twitching is a way of playing along (a bit like Fantasy League Football) when in practice I'm too busy or it's too far for me to contemplate going for a bird in real life. One of the reasons for playing this is that there are certain relatively common species which somehow still elude me and I was wanting to know if I really dedicated my autumn exclusively to birding then how many of them could I finally get? One such species on my list is Ortolan Bunting. Whilst this species is reported every autumn in reasonable numbers it's actually remarkably hard to twitch. A good proportion of the reports are fly-overs which are of course no good at all and in fact some are recorded during the night and identified by sonogram the next day. What's more, occasional birds that are actually seen on the ground seem often not to stick around and in my twitching game, despite this being a really good autumn for them, there have been a whole series of misses. In fact, there's only been one occasion where I would have connected: had I dropped everything to head off to Spurn one morning then I would have got a pair which stayed around in the stubble field north of Clubleys Field near the Warren a while ago. Since then there was a promising report of three birds in a stubble field in Sussex that I hypothetically dipped on so it was proving really hard to get this bird. 

Finally on Friday something more promising turned up: a bird north of Cosham in Hampshire actually proved to be a "game tick" as it was found mid afternoon and then stuck around for the rest of the day, even "showing well". Could this actually be one of those rare Ortonlans that stick around? The next morning it was report again at first light and then again forty five minutes later. Now whilst normally I wouldn't be able to contemplate a weekend twitch, it so happened that my VLW was presently away looking after her ageing mother and would not be arriving back until later on in the day. This meant that I was left looking after our twelve year old son L with help from one of our grown-up daughters who'd not yet gone back to Uni for the autumn term. Fortunately she wasn't due in work until mid morning so it would mean that L would only on his own for a couple of hours were I to have a crack at this bird. He seemed happy about it so it was that shortly after 8 am I was in the Gnome mobile and heading off down the A34 towards the south coast.

There was no news either way on the journey until I hit the M3/M27 junction where negative news came out (present till 8 a.m. when it flew off and no further sign by 8:45 a.m.). What to do? I did seriously contemplate turning around at this point and heading back for home. However it was only another twenty minutes or so to the actual site and I felt that at the very least I'd like to see the field in which an Ortolan Bunting had been. A bit strange I know but it would be a chance to see a part of the country that I wasn't so familiar with and to stretch my legs before the slog back home. I accordingly headed on towards Portsmouth and was rewarded for this choice when no more than ten minutes later a "still present" message came up! "Wow, I might actually get to see this bird!" I thought as I quickened my pace. My turn-off came soon enough and I navigated my way through the suburbs of Cosham before the Sat Nav took me on a steep road up to the hills that tower over this area that make up the Ports Down area. Turning down a narrow road I was greeted with the familiar sights of cars parked everywhere that a car could reasonably be squeezed in. This was clearly the spot! I added my car to the collection, got tooled up and hurried down the hill to a bend in the road where there was a gathering of about thirty or so birders all standing in the corner of a field. A quick enquiry revealed that the bird had last been seen about fifteen minutes ago before flying down into the stubble in the field in which we stood though in the long grass and stubble it was completely hidden from view. At the very least we ought to see it fly out I thought though I have seen birds do disappearing acts in situations like this before so nothing was certain. I found a position in the twitch line and waited.

More people arrived and joined the throng, all intently watching the field and the favoured Hawthorn bush in the corner where it liked to perch. PL from Oxon arrived shortly after me - to be honest I'd been half expecting him as he and I have similar twitch distance limits and are not a million miles apart in terms of what we still need to see. We chatted away quietly as we waited. 

Some of the twitchers, watching the favoured Hawthorn bush (under the pylon) expectantly

Gradually I started to get impatient and not a little bit worried. It had been getting on for three quarters of an hour now with no luck. A very distant Bunting had appears on some telegraph wires in the next field which had got some members of the crowd rather excited and in the haze and because of the distance it wasn't so easy to see what it was. I could tell that it wasn't an Ortolan as it had a noticeable supercilium and eventually the consensus was reached that it was a female Reed Bunting. A few Chiffies were flicking around in the hedgerows, Wood Pigeons and the occasional Stock Dove were flying over and a Sparrowhawk quartered over the fields before disappearing. Eventually a young man made his way down the twitch line asking if people might mind if a bijou flushette were organised as it had been getting on for an hour now. Of course no one minded as we all wanted to see the bird. So a party of a few birders headed off around to the far hedge and slowly and gradually worked their way down towards the area where the bird was seen. "This was where we discover that the bird has done a disappearing act" I worried, but I needn't have done as soon after a shout went up as the bird flew back up into its favourite bush. Here it sat contentedly enough having a good preen and giving really great views to the assembled crowd. I clicked away with my digiscoping gear though conditions were rather hazy and very contrasty so it wasn't that easy.




It was a great opportunity to view this species at close quarters and the almost comically large yellow moustachial stripes were clearly visible as was the pale yellow eye ring. It had quite a long jizz to it (as many Bunting species often do) and from behind the plain grey rump was clearly visible. I couldn't really hope for much better views of this species and I greedily drank it all in.





 The bird sat happily enough for quite some time and with my son in mind, I decided that I'd had my fill and chose to head off back home. According to PL a little while later it flew back down into the field so was none the worse for being nudged up into the tree. Meanwhile I headed back though the traffic, which had been light on the way down, had got a lot worse with a jam where the two M27's merged with the M3 and another one near Newbury thanks to a county show. What's more getting into Oxford was the usual nightmare that it is on a Saturday so the whole return journey took forty five minutes more than it should have done. Still I was back in time for lunch and L, who'd done his homework and then spent the entire rest of the morning gaming was happy enough. It had been a successful twitch and this hard to get species was finally in the bag.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Ducking Marblous

Proper out of county twitches to see something of interest have been distinctly thin on the ground this year. It's partly down to an increase in work commitments on my part but also partly as there's not been much to see within striking distance. So when news broke of a Marbled Duck at Grimley in Worcestershire it certainly piqued my interest. The only trouble with this is that Marbled Duck is a species which has yet formally to be accepted onto the British List. In the wild, whilst formerly breeding in good numbers in the Mediterranean, now it is confined to southern Spain, north west Africa and parts of the Middle East so a vagrant visitor is certainly possible. However, because of it being a popular bird to keep in captivity there have been no records that have yet been deemed good enough to be accepted by the BOU. Still, I tend to sit in the "making my own mind up" camp and as a card-carrying Gnome Rarities Committee (GRC) lister I thought that at the very least it would be interesting to see and in the current BOU climate of being more accepting of wild duck records (e.g. Baikal Teal and Hooded Merganser recently) it would be worth a punt even for the strictest of BOU listers. So it was that on Monday of last week I headed up the M40, then down the M5 before turning off into deepest, darkest Worcestershire. I passed a location I recognised and remembered that I'd seen my first ever Glossy Ibis here at Holt Fleet back in December 2009. The journey took a bit longer than the Sat Nav had been predicting and it was getting on for two hours by the time that I finally neared my destination. I had been wondering where exactly to park but a line of cars along an otherwise quiet stretch of country road could only be twitchers and I had soon parked up and got directions from a departing birder. I headed off down a footpath towards the distant gaggle of duck watchers that I could see standing in some stubble in the next field along. 

On arrival I immediately spotted fellow Oxon birder PL and went over to get the latest info. It turned out that the duck was on view sitting rather incongruously on top of a low bush that was adorned with Traveller's Joy. Viewing conditions were rather hazy but I managed to make out the salient features well enough before after five minutes it dropped down out of sight.

A rather poor digiscoped record shot in the heat haze
Not knowing when (or even if) it might appear again I thanked my stars that I'd arrived when I did and set about waiting for its reappearance whilst chatting away with PL. After getting on for half an hour it reappeared back in the same place as before where it stayed for a while before having a fly around to the north end of the pit, briefly landing on the water, before taking off again and heading back to its favoured perch. A little while later it once again took flight but this time headed south where it landed out of sight behind some flooded trees. In flight it was clear to see that the bird was fully winged and it had also been reported as unringed and wary. All good so far!


 
Some rather hazy video footage of the bird

Having had reasonable views but not ready to head back home just yet, I joined PL and a couple of locals in a wander down to the south end to see if we could see it. Viewing was rather restricted at this end and try as we might, we could not relocate it. Still we got to enjoy a rather nice walk around the far side of the lake and I passed the time in botanising with one of the two locals who seemed to know his stuff and was happy to talk. Back at the head of the lake with no further sign of the duck PL & and I both decided that it was time to head back. I chose to go back along the A40 this time though the Sat Nav insisted on taking me through the centre of Worcester which would not have been my preferred option. Still, the journey was fine and I arrived back in time for a cup of tea and a catch-up with my VLW.

As a footnote to this, a day or two later news broke of a second Marbled Duck also in Worcestershire which has been present at the same time as the first one but which was by all account rather approachable. This rather seemed to tarnish the credentials of both birds though the BOU has net to pronounce and the GRC is generally much more tolerant of this kind of thing anyway so it may still be accepted by the latter listing authority. Either way it was nice to go out on an actual twitch again after a very quiet year so far.

A much better photo of the bird courtesy of Andy Warr (c) on Twitter  (@AndyWarr3)

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Kernow in August

Once again here is a amalgamation post of my family holiday down to deepest darkest Cornwall a few weeks again. This time I decided that instead of posting something every day I would do fewer posts by category instead.

Moths
I'm back down with the family (well, most of them - we're missing a daughter who'll be arriving at the end of the week) for our summer holiday. We were originally supposed to come down on Saturday but I had a number of work commitments which spilled over into the weekend so it wasn't until today that we finally made it down. I can't help but ponder on what might have been had we come on the Saturday in which case I may well have been at PG on Sunday when the first Trindade Petrel for the UK went passed. Oh well (or words to that effect!). Apart from the weekend stormy weather the forecast for the next couple of weeks is for sunny pleasant weather - great for holidays and a blessed relief from the sweltering heat of Oxfordshire but no exactly promising on the birding front so I'm not expecting much and will generally be relaxing and doing very little.

I'm thinking of changing the format of this blog slightly: rather than giving a daily blow by blow account of what we got up to and what I saw I might post less often, especially given that there's not a great deal to report and I'm sure that readers don't really care which café we went to on which particular day. So instead I'll give a few round-up posts along with special posts should there be something of particular note. To this end, this post is going to be about moths. Now, I've more or less "phased" (or whatever the moth equivalent is) as far as mothing is concerned and I haven't brought my trap down but on calm evenings I do still like to put the exterior "moth light" on to see what we can attract and our son is quite keen on seeing and handling the larger ones. There have been a couple of good nights so far with some Drinkers blundering around and a large female Oak Eggar. I've taken snaps of some of the more photogenic ones but do please let me know if I've mis-identified any of them.

Drinker

Flounced Rustic

Light Knot Grass

Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing

Oak Eggar

Ruby Tiger
Pendeen
I've been doing the local Pendeen rounds most days, checking out the bird life and taking the occasional photo should such an opportunity present itself. One thing I've noticed this time down here is the large number of juvenile birds around. Because of the sunny weather and the lack of rain birds are having a really good year across the country and this certainly seems to include the Pendeen patch. I can't ever remember it being this "birdy" with blundering youngsters crashing about everywhere. This makes a very pleasant change from the rewardless birding that is so often a feature of the area. 

Young Whitethoat

Wren

I came across this delightful pair of young Stonechats on the walk over to Geevor
The highlight of the week on the bird front was a juvenile Yellowhammer which flew in calling as I was walking down by the Old Count House next to the lighthouse car park. It perched on the wires just long enough for a photo or two before heading off again. I've certainly never seen or heard a Yellowhammer here before and in general on the Penwith peninsular they are a very localised species. I remember having to go to some particular farm to get my county tick for them so this is a real patch Mega!

The juvenile Yellowhammer
There have also been some good insects around with Hummingbird Hawkmoths being seen most days and on a walk to Geevor I came across five Painted Ladies all on a small patch of Hemp Agrimony.

One of five Painted Ladies

A rather battered Wall Brown
Talking of Geevor I found at least three Wheatears there in amongst the old mine ruins including some youngsters so it may well be that they've been breeding there. Indeed, so delightful were they that I went back the next morning for seconds though the rather misty conditions (typical Pendeen!) meant that there weren't any photographic opportunities.



Geevor Wheatears

Drift Reservoir
I've had a couple of trips to Drift reservoir so far during my time down here. The reason for this is that it's been the one location down here where there's been anything half decent reported. The first bird of note was a Pectoral Sandpiper which has been lingering at the reservoir for quite a while in the company of a Wood Sandpiper. With nothing much else around presently and with no decent sea watching winds to speak of either, I'd made a mental note to try there when an opportunity presented itself and on Saturday when the rest of the family wanted to visit the Pendeen Farmer's Market I dropped the others off there and then headed over the hill to Drift instead. There in the NW arm of the reservoir I soon found the Pec Sand along with several Green and Common cousins and a juvenile Dunlin but there was no sign of the Wood Sand. The heat haze was something else so my digiscoped efforts were truly appalling but here's a record shot of the Pec.

A hazy Pectoral Sandpiper (honest!)
A couple of days later PSP found a drake Lesser Scaup at the same location though when the news broke we'd already made plans to go on our customary walk from St. Just along the coastal path back to Pendeen so I wasn't able to go and take a look. The next day however, with nothing else on the family wish list, I suggested that the others may wish to pootle around Penzance whilst I made a return visit to the reservoir and they seemed to like this plan so this is what we did.

At the hide a quick scan seemed to show no sign of the Scaup, nor was the Pec Sand anywhere to be seen. However the Wood Sandpiper was about and the haze wasn't too bad so I spent some time taking some photos. 


The Wood Sandpiper
Whilst there I bumped into PM who told me that he'd seen the Lesser Scaup, in the "same location as yesterday". He showed me where this was (opposite the hide on the far bank) and sure enough there it was - somehow I'd managed to miss it in amongst the Mallards during my scan through the birds. I thanked PM for pointing it out to me and set about taking some digiscoped shots of it.

The drake Lesser Scaup, lookin rather dowdy so presumably in eclipse
I looked away for a brief while and when I looked back the Scaup was nowhere to be seen. I don't know if it slunk off into the other arm of the reservoir or simply flew off but I couldn't see it anywhere. Other birds of note were a couple of Common Sandpipers, one Green Sand and a juvenile Dunlin. Two noisy Greenshank soon flew in calling loudly so after a quiet start it was starting to get quite birdy! Suddenly PM yelled out "what's that?" and I looked where he was pointing to see a Marsh Harrier flying low over the bank, almost over our heads. We rushed out of the hide to see if we could see it and PM tried to follow it down the path to try to get a photo but to no avail. So just a brief sighting but as it happens it was actually a personal Cornish tick, so a very nice bonus to end the day. I headed back to the car and rendezvous'd with the rest of the family before we headed over to Marazion beach for our customary tea in the car overlooking the sea with a few juv Med Gulls being the only birds of note. Then it was off for our usual food shopping trip before heading back to the cottage for the evening.


Coastal Walks

We've done a couple of coastal walks during our visit down here. The first was our classic one from St. Just back along the coast to Pendeen. After an early lunch we walked up the hill to Pendeen village centre and then took the open-top bus to St Just. There we got our traditional ice creams from the Coop and then walked down to the school where we had a good wander around the arts and craft fair (with several purchases being made). Then we headed off towards Kenidjack via Boscean. We said hello to the two resident donkeys and had our usual snack stop up at the top of Kenidjack by the castle. The weather was perfect for walking though there wasn't much to report along the way: a few Chough, some Stonechats, a few Ravens and today just one Wheatear (a juvenile) at Geevor. We arrived back at the cottage at around 6 pm, gasping for a cup of tea.

Chough

Botallack Ravens

Kenidjack Brown Trout
The second walk was from Marazion over to Perranuthnoe to the café and back. We parked as usual in the centre of Marazion and worked our way doggedly through the crowds until we got to the relative peace and quite of Little London. The tide was right in as we worked our way along the shore and at one point we had to clamber over some slippery seaweed-covered rocks. There were quite a few birds taking shelter from the heaving masses though apart from a few Med Gulls there was nothing of particular note.

At Perranuthnoe we put the world to rights over a cup of tea and some cake before heading back again along the now exposed shorline, looking for sea glass along the shore as we went. This time there were a lot more birds including a splendid summer plumage Knot that PSP had first found a few days ago, as well as a couple of Whimbrel. 




Summer plumaged Knot

A gorgeous Med Gull

Wader trio

Whimbrel
We were all quite tired by the time that we got back to the car so after quickly stopping off at Longrock Industrial Estate to pick up some DIY provisions, it was back to the cottage for the evening.

Sea Watching
A family holiday in August down in Cornwall isn't likely to produce much in the way of tasty rarities down in the famous valleys of Cornwall. Instead it's all about the sea watching and during our time down here I'm always on the look out for a decent wind. In the absence of such weather I still like to do a bit of watching, especially at Pendeen given it's so close and I've been putting in some hours down by the lighthouse this last couple of weeks. Of course, given the poor conditions I've generally been on my own though on one or two occasions I've seen people watching from the lower car park when I've been leaving.

There's not generally been much to report from my Pendeen sessions with a few Balearic Shearwaters, a surprising number of immature Med. Gulls, one flock of Common Scoter and a few Sandwich Terns the highlights of some otherwise very quiet watches. Not that I've minded, I've been enjoying just being down there in the sun, listening to the waves and watching the occasional Pipits, Choughs and Wheatears on the slopes below me. For someone from a landlocked county such as Oxon, just being there is very pleasant. On one occasion I met NH, the legendary "Gull Whisperer" from Oxon. I'd known that he'd been down here as I'd seen his reports and photos on the CBWPS web page and we enjoyed a good catch-up chat.

Pendeen juvenile Wheatear

Pendeen juvenile Meadow Pipit
I'm starting to find that sea-watching is "getting under my skin". I'm not quite sure what it is about it but somehow it's become a bit addictive. It's certainly not because I'm particularly good at it, in fact I'm a bit rubbish, certainly compared to many of the expert locals and seasoned visitors that I watch with. It's partially down to my eyesight: over the last few years I've got anterior vitreous deterioration, a common complaint of ageing where the jelly in my eye starts to break down leading to lots of "floaters" in my field of view. Normally this isn't too much of an issue and one's brain tends mentally to filter them out but with sea watching where you're looking at tiny specks in often tricky light conditions, it makes it all the harder to make out those difficult diagnostic details. It's also down to experience and the number of hours put in. I like to feel that I'm no longer a complete noob on the sea-watching front yet I'm only realistically getting a dozen or two hours a year in of actual watching which is very little and there's so much time in between to forget what you've learnt from the previous year. No wonder it's slow progress on my part!

This wonderful boat has been working its way around the Penwith peninsular over the last week or so

Apart from my numerous short sessions down at Pendeen I did get one decent session during this holiday at Porthgwarra. It was our last full day of the holiday and with a decent weather front coming in over the weekend the weather was forecast to start to deteriorate on this day. Accordingly the others decided to go to St Ives for some shopping and I headed off to PG for the day. As the wind wasn't going to be that strong I did wonder if anyone else was going to be there at all but in the event I arrived at Hella Point to find GW from Oxon and one other person there. I was most pleased about this as having a bit of company can make a huge difference to a sea-watch, especially someone as experienced as GW. I've realised that what I look for in a good sea-watch is a modest number of experienced and friendly fellow watchers where I can feel comfortable making a fool of myself by calling out stuff incorrectly and where they are good enough to pick things out for me. It also has to be easy for me to be able to hear what other people are calling. As well as my eyes, my hearing is also not what it used to be and I often find, especially on a windy headland, that I simply can't hear what's being called which can be very frustrating. But on this occasion it was ideal. The three of us chatted away about this and that: the other two had done a lot of international birding so there was plenty of talk about the various places they'd been to. It was all very pleasant!

In terms of the actual birds, the others had had a couple of Cory's go by before I'd arrived. During my time there my list was:

1 Great Shearwater
10+ Sooty Shearwaters
10+ Storm Petrels,
30+ Balearic Shearwaters
1 Great Skua
2 Arctic Skua
1 Puffin
1 Common Scoter


All good stuff! One thing I noticed was how different it was watching from PG compared to Pendeen. I think that it's to do with the light: at Pendeen you've always got the light behind you so the birds are often lit up against a relatively dark background. There, the Balearics for example were very easy to pick out, just on jizz alone and you could easily make out the differences in the colour of the underside. At PG on the other hand, you're looking into the light so everything looks more silhouetted and you had to look really carefully to tell the Ballies from the Manx. During the middle of the day, everything is nothing more than a silhouette and you might as well not bother! 

By the afternoon things got very slow with very little to show for our efforts so it was time to head off to St Ives to rendezvous with the others for an evening meal. Of course the next day was an epic sea watch with a Fea's going through late morning - once again I'd managed to miss this iconic species. Indeed looking back our holiday was bookended by a couple of amazing sea-watches that I wasn't at with the Trindade Petrel just before I arrived and the Fea's on the day we were leaving. As DP said to me "sea-watching can be brutal". Still, I can't wait to do some more.


Some video of the Fea's Petrel at PG the next day taken by Gary Taylor. 
Be warned, the audio contains some strong language!

Rounding Up
I've been going through my photos and found a few that I'd not posted which I wanted to share so I thought that I would do a round-up post on my stay. As is typical for August, it's a quiet time of year on the birding front apart from sea watching and sadly I managed to miss the two classic watches of the season so far which occurred either side of my visit. So Trindade and Fea's Petrel are both firmly not on my list! Still I enjoyed the sea watching that I did do and I like to feel that I'm crawling my way towards being a bit better at what is a difficult and dark art as far as I'm concerned.

Pendeen Buzzard

Red Admiral

The only other bird action was at Drift Reservoir which hosted a Pec Sand, a Wood Sand and a Lesser Scaup and it was pleasing enough to catch up with these species. Apart from that it was pootling around the cottage and going to numerous cafés as usual. The only fly in the otherwise clean holiday ointment was the fact that I managed to miss a stonkingly rare Roseate Tern back in Oxon during my stay down in Kernow. That one is going to take many years to get back and will sting for some time to come. Still I enjoyed my trip and am already looking forward to the next time that I'm down.

Mousehole Rock Pipit

Mousehole House Sparrow

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Rare Emeralds

Regular readers may recall that a couple of years ago on the way back from the Western Purple Swampmonster I made a detour (see here) to see the Southern Migrant Hawkers at Wat Tyler CP and that I also tried for the nearby Scarce Emerald Damselflies at Bowers Marsh RSPB but came away without a definite sighting of the latter. Accordingly I've been meaning to go to try for the ScED again but never quite got around to it last year so this year I decided to make a bit more of an effort. Since my last attempt a resident breeding colony of ScED and also Southern Migrant Hawkers has become established at Canvey Island in Essex so I decided that this month I would pay a visit. With the weather forecast not being an issue in the prevailing heatwave I was just waiting for a convenient gap in my work schedule when I stumbled across some news on the British Dragonfly Society sightings page of a colony of Southern Emerald Damselflies in Buckinghamshire of all places! Now Southern Emerald is even rarer than Scarce and to my knowledge there were no public locations where this species could be found so I was keen for more information. The BDS report was rather vague on details so I started to do some investigation and eventually got all the gen. There seems to be some ambiguity as to whether this should be public information or not: I was told in confidence so I shan't give away any more details though it won't take much effort to find out all you need to know if you explore the BDS sightings pages in a bit more detail. Anyway, I elected to pay a visit to this location first and asked PL if he'd like to come along. He was keen so it was that we rendezvous'd just east of Oxford and in light traffic we'd soon arrived at the location. In the extreme heat we walked slowly down the footpath towards the general area where I'd been told they could be seen and it wasn't long before we'd found our first one in amongst some brambles. As we moved further down the path they became more frequent and near the hot-spot by the hidden pond we met a familiar face in the form of fellow Odonata enthusiast WB. With plenty of the SoED to be found, including lots in pairs, PL and I whiled away the time taking loads of photos.








Southern Emerald Damselfly is normally to be found, as the name suggests, in the southern countries of Europe though there is an established breeding population in the Netherlands now. As the climate in this country changes species such as this are increasingly going to colonise and this is surely just the first of many such finds. In terms of identification it can easily be picked out by the bi-coloured pterostigma (the dark wing patch towards the front tip of the wing) which is unique to this species for European Damselflies and which can easily be seen in the photos.

With theses bonus rare Emeralds in the bag, a few days later an opportunity arose to pay a visit to my original target, namely the Scarce Emerald Damselflies. My VLW was due to take her turn looking after her elderly mother in Surrey so I offered to drop her off on Sunday and then to nip around on the M25 to Canvey Island for my target. I say "nip" though in the end it was anything but that. With it being the first weekend of the school summer holidays, the traffic was very heavy and around by the Dartford Crossing it was crawling along and I spent some three quarters of an hour in a stop-start queue. Finally I was across and almost immediately was turning off towards south Essex where in much lighter traffic I made good progress and a little while later I was pulling up by the famous ditch which housed the first proper UK resident breeding population of Southern Migrant Hawker and also Scarce Emerald Damselfly. 

The normally water-filled ditch turned out to be almost completely dry though this didn't seem to matter to the SMH's and a patrolling male could be found every few metres along the ditch. The ScED on the other matter were much harder and it was a while before I found one skulking in the vegetation - I think that the rather overcast conditions meant that they weren't flying very much. As I worked my way along the ditch I managed to find quite a few more though I saw no where near the 50+ numbers that had been reported on-line. Still it was nice to see them and I whiled away the time trying to get some decent photos. I did manage to find a SMH actually perched and so get a proper non-flight photo and eventually also manage some reasonable ScED shots as well. 


Scarce Emerald Damselflies

This happless Hawker has been caught by a huge Wasp Spider


A couple of perched Southern Migrant Hawkers
Contrary to its name, Scarce Emerald Damselfly is actually one of the most widely spread species in the northern hemisphere, occurring in Europe, Asia and North America. However, it's never become well established in this country and various colonisation attempts in recent years have had mixed success. In terms of identification the males are distinguished from the similar Emerald Damselfly by the fact that the blue colour is missing from the low half of the S2 segment at the top of the abdomen. Other than that you have to get to grips with the differing shapes of the anal appendages. As far as breeding is concerned, like SoED, ScED lay eggs in vegetation which remains dormant over the winter before hatching in the spring so the fact that the ditch has completely dried up shouldn't matter to them at all. For the SMH on the other hand I think that their breeding cycle may well require the constant presence of water so it's possible that this colony might die out this year which would be a terrible shame.