Sunday, 26 September 2010

Grosse Point Blakeney

It’s been nearly 30 years since I first walked up Blakeney Point – the reason back in 1983 was pretty similar to today’s, to see a (then) mega rarity whose identity was hotly debated. Then it was a Royal, or possibly Lesser crested, Tern (for younger readers it was a Lesser crested – at the time rarer than Royal). Today it’s an Empidonax. Yes, it sounds like something off a moth blog (and frankly we might as well take up mothing if we have to stick with genus-level ID) but as we all now know it’s really an opportunity for normal birders to morph into ringers and start using words like emarginations instead of just relying on jizz and optimism.

I’d planned a fairly low impact approach: leave the house before 6am, get to Cley by 8.30, by which time it should be clear whether the bird was still there – I’d then, depending on the news, either make the dash to the point or spend the day doing some real birding in Norfolk. Since these things usually don’t work out instead I spent the early morning looking after the kids.

When the bird wasn’t reported by 8.30 I thought I’d actually lucked out and saved myself a drive. But returning from a trip to the shops (at 8.50) I found sighting (for 8.30) has been reported 10 minutes ago. Norfolk it is then. The journey was pretty shyte thanks to some random road closures in London and slow traffic on all the A roads so I eventually turned into the road to Cley beach a little before noon. I'd been heading north through driving rain for the last 10 miles and knew I’d soon be walking through it. I also realised I'd massively underestimated just how wet this was going to get and had gone for an option that was a little too old skool: jeans, light walking shoes and a Barbour. Within five minutes of walking my jeans were soaked through and I was carrying half a pint of water in each shoe. Walking along the point carrying my own weight in water, through rain, hail, sand and shingle, seeing hundreds of satisfied birders coming the other way was pretty tough – I couldn’t see anyone heading the same way as me until I eventually caught up with two birders (who then paused to shelter behind the Half Way House) and, a little later, a guy from Stoke.

A little over an hour from setting off I arrived at the Plantation and straight away got onto the flycatcher flitting around at the back of the trees. I’ve limited experience of the likely contenders in the US and none at all in the UK (I didn’t go to see the Cornwall bird as I have a strict ‘can't be arsed’ policy on long distance twitches) and had felt pretty comfortable about ruling out Yellow bellied from the photos, in the field you could certainly get where the early ID was coming from as the throat and belly could look strikingly yellow in certain lights and positions. Overall one of the things that surprised me was just how different the bird looked from the photos that were published early on. The photos showed a bird with very white wingbars and off white underparts that didn’t reflect the bird in the real life - where it could sometimes look like a Garden Warbler and at other times a Brambling. OK, OK maybe not, but the bird could show a really quite buffy med cov wingbar, much darker underparts (although with paler flanks that probably explains the appearance of paler underparts in many of the ‘side on’ photos) and, in the right light and at the right angle, quite a bright lemony yellow wash on the throat and belly.

Walking back would have been pretty hard without seeing the bird, but was partly warmed by a ready brek flycatcher glow and partly by some great birds. Long tailed and then Arctic Skuas nearly over the beach, loads of Gannets, a Guillemot a few yards offshore and a Grey Phalarope flying up the point. Back in 1983 I missed the Lesser crested the first day out – I had to do the walk again the next day before I connected. Then I was nearly thirty years younger. Today, would I have gone out for it again , even in the same weather? Yes definitely, even if we can't tick the bloody thing.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Swallows head north for the winter

Walking down the Wandle I was a bit surprised to see a small party of Swallows heading north following the river. It's autumn - shouldn't they be heading south? I watched then head north to the river then, when they reached the Thames they turned west. I assume they're following the Thames west before the turn south again somewhere - but what will be the trigger for them to turn south, or do they keep going west until they hit the coast around Bristol? Over around 20 minutes I watched around at least 25 birds in small groups follow exactly the same path.

Also around 2 Jackdaw - the first I've seen or heard here since March. I guess these birds are part of either the huge population around Richmond Park or the smaller population (half a dozen pairs, maybe?) around Barnes WWT. Fairly typical numbers of gulls (but only 4spp) and ducks around and a single Grey Wag that flew upriver calling.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Ruffly Remembird

Quick trip out to Barnes today without the boys so time to do some birding -although it's a little late in the day. It's also my first trip with my new toy - a Remembird. I bought this for a number of reasons - partly to improve my bird call skills which are, frankly, a bit erratic. Some days go really well and I can pick up calls from all over the place, then a week later I spend half an hour staring at a bush trying to work out what the hell is making the call. With September here and the rest of the autumn still to come I've decided that I need to both improve and have a way to capturing anything I'm too rubbish to decode. I also quite like the idea of getting a better understanding of calls (and song). I bought the Sound Approach guide about a year ago and have regularly dipped into it and found it really useful to think more about how a call sounds and to understand how its different components (pitch, harmonics, etc) and how these hang together to make up the overall sound of the call. Lastly it should be useful for overseas holidays as it'll help to ward off the feeling that I'm missing a huge number of birds from just being unable to get a grip on unfamiliar calls. While I usually manage to learn some quickly (like Yellow rumped Warblers in the US) I find others stump me competely.

Walking past the bushes around Dulverton hide I picked up the sooeee type call of what I assumed was a juv Chiffchaff. I hit record on the Remembird and got a few recordings - which I'll load up here if they turn out to be usable. Eventually it showed and revealed itself to be a very brown bird with a fairly prominent buffy super, hollow ear coverts, buff flanks, off white underparts and with green wash restricted to inner primaries, inner greater coverts, lower rump, upper tail coverts and tail. While I think it's not that helpful to get caught up in subspecific id when there's loads of overlap and intergrades I thought I would (for fun) try and work out why this could be either a juv collybita or whether there was any reason to think it could be an abietinus. Obviously not one of the grey and white birds but one of the brown and green ones (or tartan ones or whatever colour the different Chiffchaff races are supposed to be this week).

I then realised I had only the vaguest idea on how to age Chiffchaffs so decided to take a few shots to look up in Svensson - following a very speedy phyllosc through dense vegetation with a 400mm lens tested (frankly beat hands down) my camera skills so that I ended up with a couple of pretty poor photos and many more totally useless ones (out of focus, bird not even in shot, etc).

I'll return to this when I've done my homework.

Barnes seemed a bit empty (of birds, not people) with lower duck numbers than usual for this time of year. There were still around 11 Wigeon, 30-odd Shoveler, 40-50 Teal, 5-6 Pochard, c30 Gadwall, c35 Lapwing, c8 House Martin over the site, a burst of song from a Cetti's, a total of c8 Chiffchaffs across the southern half the site, an LBB with a massively deformed bill and a half submerged Heron.

From the Peacock Hide there were more Snipe (for a total of at least 11) and a very smart Ruff (Barnes year tick!).

Friday, 10 September 2010

East Anglia scarce

A widespread fall across the east coast has been turning stuff up all week (Wrynecks, hippos and the astonishing numbers of Lapland Buntings) so I decided I wanted to be part of it. The journey started quite badly by getting caught out by the roadworks on the M25 that led to me missing the A12 turnoff. Since it forced me to continue on the M25 I considered a change of plan to head up to Holme to pick up the Arctic Warbler instead but it was being pretty elusive and I decided that I didn't want to stand around staring at the same set of pines for hours on end and then drive home. So after wasting a good 30 minutes I started off at Landguard Point (somewhere else I haven't been to for a couple of decades) to see if the Icky was still around. Quickly ran into a Tree Pipit - non-calling birds on migration are always fun and make me think a bit. This bird was running around on the ground but the fine flank streaking, heavy pink-based bill and wide sub-tashial all look good for Tree Pipit. As if to confirm, it then flew up to some telegraph wires to perch for half a minute or so.

It's pretty windy here so not much is actually showing but managed to pick up several Chiffies, a juv Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat (which looked like a 1w on a quick view), 10-12 Wheatears, a flock of c50 Linnets and a few other bits and pieces. But no sign of the Icky. Eventually decide that this could easily suck up more time than the Arctic and head up the coast to Minsmere. Get a great run of birds in a very short space of time: a Wryneck feeding in the same area as 3-4 Redstarts, a juv Red backed Shrike south of the North Wall and, along the beach past the public hide two really stunning Lap Bunts feeding quietly on the shingle.

The Shrike was pretty distant through the 400mm.

But just about recognisable with a heavy crop.

The Lapland Buntings were very confiding.

Walking back along the North Wall had a single Bearded Tit calling. Arrived back at the car and again considered heading up to Holme for the Arctic but instead headed home via Vange Marshes to try to connect with the Temminck's Stint that's been commuting between there and Canvey Island RSPB (TBC). By the time I arrived the light was going and the bird was pretty distant but eventually showed. Also present were 1 ad Little Stint, a juv Curlew Sand, 15 Wigeon, a couple of Blackwit and a Water Rail that showed briefly behind the Temminck's.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Garganey and the boy

Today was a bit of an experiment day - whether it's possible to do any real birding with the eldest boy (22 months) in tow. He is adorable and loves being outside, but is easily bored when I'm not paying him any attention. In general the answer was 'no not really' but it was possible to do a few quick scans of the Main Lake and some bits of the reserve. Trips with him or both boys to the Wandle tend to work OK because there aren't really that many birds so only getting about 10 minutes of birding time is OK. Trying to do Barnes with only 10 minutes of actual birding is frankly a bit tricky. The advantage of getting it to work is that I get an extra chunk of birding time at the weekend. Since my average this year is half a day a week (work, childcare, life occupy the rest) even a small chunk is a big step forward.

Anyway, despite the limitations of child centred birding I did manage a Barnes year tick (Garganey) and a few other bits of niceness including 9 Snipe and increasing numbers of duck. Winter is coming.