Monday, 20 June 2016

Chlorantha Bee Orchids

I've been wanting to see the beautiful white form of Bee Orchid - chlorantha - for some time, and they really didn't disappoint. At least seven seen, along with three 'normal' Bees, at a site to the south of Norwich at the weekend, the chlorantha including a particularly robust specimen which towered well above all others in the vicinity.

And, just for the sake of comparison here's a regular, run-of-the-mill Bee from the North Norfolk coast a little later in the day.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Great Knot at Titchwell

Absolutely brilliant scope views on Titchwell beach - so, so much better than the Breydon bird. If this bird hangs about, someone with a big lens is going to blow it away. I had views down to about 50m and could have got far closer; some of the Knot were half that distance from me. Unfortunately the tide pushed it off before that could happen - my feeble efforts with the 400mm lens below:

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Finland trip

In late May I spent a hugely enjoyable six days in Finland with Rob and Dan Pointon. Happily we cleaned up on all our target birds (seven WP ticks for me plus lots of quality) without any huge difficulties - largely thanks to our guide, Harri Hölttä, and the patience of Jände Nordblad, Mika Bruun  and Kari Haataja among others when it came to our persistent requests for gen. Thanks guys.

Now that I've been through all of my images it's my intention to blog a series of photo-heavy posts in the coming days. I suspect a trip report of sorts will follow but as a quite a lot of gen for this trip is sensitive to varying extents, it might be a bit vaguer than usual. In the meantime, here's some scenery.

South of Parikkala

Woods around Joensuu

Typical Finnish scene


Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Late Spider Orchids

All European orchids have a charm to them but it is the genus Ophrys - the insect imitators - which are my favourites. These, arguably the most characterful of all Palearctic taxa, tend to be quite small and at first can appear inconspicuous. Look closer and they are anything but - the flowers are invariably stunning, their beauty epitomised by a spectacularly patterned lip which immediately draws focus. Indeed it is not just the botanist that finds them so alluring - so well-designed are the flowers that they readily fool amorous male insects in to mating with them, thus pollinating them.

Four Ophrys species occur in Britain. Bee Orchid is by far and away the most widespread and recognisable while Early Spider can be found in colonies numbering in to the thousands along the south coast in April and May. The third species, the diminutive and elegant Fly Orchid (my favourite British orchid), is also quite widespread but never particularly common. That leaves a final, much scarcer representative - Late Spider Orchid. Occurring at just a handful of locations in Kent, Late Spider is the trickiest member of its genus to see in Britain - or at least as tricky as twitching stationary flowers can be. Perhaps I should say it's the one that requires the most effort ...

For various reasons I have failed to make said effort to see Late Spider Orchid in either of the previous couple of years. I was determined to put the record straight in 2016 and so set an alarm for 04:00 on Sunday morning. Somewhat miraculously I resisted the urge to ignore it and was soon out of bed and on to the M25, heading for the far south-east as the sun began to rise.

The first colony of Late Spiders I visited were easily found thanks to the myriad of protective cages that betrayed their presence. The majority weren't yet flowering and many were stunted and unimpressive; just one or two plants looked good and so photo opportunities were a bit limited. James Lowen had informed me that this is a good site for Black-veined Moth but I couldn't see any in a reasonably brief search - perhaps it's still a tiny bit early in the year for them? Either that or I was still half asleep.

With the Late Spiders failing to impress I headed over to another site, nearer to Folkestone. Here I found a much better range of flowering specimens and, although the 20 or so plants meant that photo opportunities were always going to be a little restricted, I came away with a more pleasing series of images. I was struck by the amazing variation in lip shape, size and pattern among individual plants - the British colonies are apparently notorious for this. Also here were a few fairly puny Man Orchids and a handful of Common Spotted just beginning to flower.

I still haven't worked out what conditions I find best for photographing orchids. I quite like the early morning sunshine, which gives the subject a nice glow, but bright sunshine quickly becomes too harsh at this time of year and I tend to prefer neutral light for photography anyway. The above three images were taken during a brief spell of cloudier conditions at the second site while the below image was taken in sunshine.

Offering more or less wall-to-wall blue skies, Sunday was fantastic morning to be out on the Kent Downs. Late Spider was my first new orchid of 2016 - I have a few more targets to mop up in the coming weeks, so be prepared for one or two more flowery posts.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

North Uist and back

If you were to ask most birders what the likelihood of them seeing a live Black-billed Cuckoo in the British Isles was, it's highly likely that the vast majority would have rated the probability somewhere between "microscopic" and "nil" before last Sunday.

Black-billed Cuckoo, a bird that has only appeared once in Britain in a quarter of a century, has a reputation for arriving on this side of the Atlantic in poor health (many have been dead or dying) and rarely lingers for more than a day, is notorious for being among the most difficult species to catch up with on our shores. Even in the heydays of the 80s there are countless tales of birders arriving a day too late to see one, or even stuck on the wrong island while down on Scilly. This, combined with their apparent decline in the States and the clear downturn in occurrences on this side of the Atlantic, created a dire scenario - it seemed any occurrence of the species had become almost impossible to come by, let alone a remotely twitchable individual. Then came the faint glimmer of hope: records from Brittany, France, in November 2013 and North Ronaldsay in October 2014 hinted that, one day, British birders might be afforded another opportunity to see what ranks as one of the most enigmatic of all Nearctic landbird vagrants recorded in Europe.

I spent last week in Finland. It was a fantastic six-day trip - beautiful scenery, brilliant wildlife and great weather. The only blemish on a perfect - if largely sleepless - week was that little more than an hour after our arrival in Helsinki on Sunday 22nd, Chris Batty had phoned Dan to tell us that a Black-billed Cuckoo had been found on North Uist. Initially we tried to dismiss the report - a Coccyzus in May?! It surely had to be rubbish! It wasn't. Dan was beside himself; even the failed twitcher, yours truly, couldn't help but feel gripped.

The week slipped by and, day by day, we were informed of the cuckoo's continued presence. It showed no signs of poor health, like so many of its predecessors, and by Wednesday the first waves of cautious optimism were beginning to flow through our veins. By the time we flew back on Friday, a plan was in place - we'd land at Heathrow, head back to mine in West London and hit the road north with the aim of getting on the Saturday afternoon sailing of the Uig-Lochmaddy ferry.

The drive was one of the worst I've done for a long time. A chronic lack of sleep in Finland made it a battle. By the time we reached Glasdrum Woods, north of Oban, we'd been travelling constantly for the best part of 18 hours without rest. But with these sort of things, you just have to grit your teeth and keep going - the last remotely twitchable Black-billed was in October 1990. I was nine months old, Dan two months and both James and Liam, who made up the rest of the team, were still some way off being born.

It was a beautiful morning in Argyll and it was no surprise to see that Glasdrum's Chequered Skippers were out enjoying the already-warm sunshine at 7 am. At least 15 were seen, some of which hadn't yet warmed up enough and were affording decent photo opportunities. Also there were plenty of Small Pearl-bordered and a single Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

Chequered Skippers, Glasdrum Woods, Argyll, 28 May 2016

Shortly after leaving Glasdrum our nerves were transformed to exaltation as Dan received a text message from Adam Archer saying something along the lines of "f**king get in!" Evidently the cuckoo was still around, now all we had to do was get there ...

Skye proved packed with eagles: we had an adult Golden south of Portree, 3cy White-tailed just north-west of there and then three Golden and two White-tailed around Uig. The ferry crossing produced a couple of Arctic Skuas, a Bonxie and a breeding-plumaged Great Northern Diver plus some extremely distant Bottlenose Dolphins.

Dan barged his way to the front of the hire car queue and we were soon on our way west from Lochmaddy. Fifteen minutes later and the search was on. More and more people arrived and fanned out. It was a particularly warm afternoon - far too toasty for the jeans, coat and boots I was in. For some time it was just the usual displaying waders and a singing Common Cuckoo that kept us entertained.

An hour or so in to the search and suddenly, some distance from where we were stood, there were the tell-tale signs that something exciting was happening: birders waving, starting to run. We jumped straight in the car and bombed down to gardens near Loch Sandary. The crowd grew near, the car was ditched. Seconds later there it was, poking its fantastic head out of a Christmas tree. The bird we all hoped - but dared not believe - we might one day see.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Paible, North Uist, 28 May 2016

It proved quite mobile for the next hour but afforded great views for much of that time. It was, however, pretty unobtrusive for long periods as it sat motionless in bushes. It could easily go missing without large numbers of observers looking and it's no wonder that there'd been no sign for much of the previous day.

After having had our fill of the cuckoo, we mooched off for a drive around North Uist and Benbecula. It was a glorious evening and waders were displaying all around: Dunlin, Common Snipe, Redshank ... and eventually our target, Red-necked Phalarope; a cracking pair.

Rather than head back for the cuckoo (which apparently showed beautifully at around 8 pm) we decided to return to Lochmaddy. We wanted to watch the Champions League final and so went to the Lochmaddy Hotel, but were given the cold shoulder ("we're too busy", said the waitress). This was a fortunate turn of events as we ended up eating at the nearby Hamersay House, where the food was excellent and the place generally far superior.

Sunday was spent sleeping and mooching around the cuckoo site (we didn't see it) before checking a few gardens on the south side of the island. Nothing interesting, but another pleasant day and a calm return crossing on the ferry. The journey back south from Uig proved tedious due to an hour-long tailback near Loch Lomond; it wasn't until after midnight that we reached Dan's in Staffordshire. Not that it mattered much after such a successful 48 hours - Outer Hebrides twitches are always among the most enjoyable, not least because of the wonderful scenery on offer both en route and on arrival. Here's to the next one!

Friday, 13 May 2016

Dalmatian spotted

Title of post shamelessly stolen from the Birdwatch office midweek ...

Travelling to see this Dalmatian Pelican, which has been touring Cornwall for the best part of a week now, was really one of those insurance jobs that'll likely get you nowhere in the long run - think along the lines of Chinese Pond Heron, Demoiselle Crane and indeed Great White Pelican ...

This is the second pelican I've seen in Britain following the Great White in Kent in August 2006; that bird proved to be an escape. This one is a little less clear-cut and is, on paper, as good as it's going to get over here - a bit more info on its status and history here. The problem lies with the unknown number of unringed, free-flying (or escaped) continental birds that are on the loose.

So, I doubt this beast will ever make it on to Category A, but it was quite an impressive sight to see it cruising around the skies of west Cornwall.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Rescuing a Great Crested Grebe

I had a slightly bizarre start to yesterday. I was out the back of Langtoft, doing a circuit of my old patch, when I noticed this Great Crested Grebe sat by the side of a the road. Immediate reaction was that it had been attacked, hit by one of the many HGVs using this road or had collided with power lines, which it was sat below. It was trailing its left leg, which was covered in blood, and its left wing also looked quite badly bloodied.

Having returned home for a box, I went back to pick the grebe up. It was quite feisty but obviously couldn't move, so was easy to catch. After unsuccessfully trying to contact local RSPCA branches, I took it up to the exotic pet refuge in Deeping St James. Quite miraculously, they were able to confirm that it hadn't broken any bones in either wing and the leg seemed OK, if a little sore and bloody.

So with the prognosis positive I popped it in the car, drove it back up to Langtoft and released it at the gravel pits, at which point it gave me a rather sharp peck before swimming off - talk about gratitude!

Then it was back to the day job ...

Monday, 25 April 2016

Cape Verde trip report

In March I spent a fortnight exploring the delightful Cape Verde archipelago with Neil Bostock and Dan Pointon. We were fortunate enough to clean up on all but one of the endemic species and forms - the only miss being Cape Verde Peregrine which, with no known sites, seems to require an immense amount of luck to connect with. Below you will find a comprehensive trip report including details of all these species plus the numerous other specialities and rarities that we encountered.

If you'd like the report in PDF format, or have any general questions about e.g. logistics, please email me.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

A few thoughts on the Israeli Red-billed Teal

In early March I spent a long weekend in Israel, where the primary target was the long-staying Bateleur (which we saw). A real bonus was hearing of the continued presence of the Red-billed Teal in the northern Arava, 're-found' by visiting Finns Seppo and Hannu and seen shortly afterwards by visiting Brits Chris Bell et al. As we were at the Arava junction of Routes 40 & 90 when Chris' SMS came through on 5th, we bolted straight up to Hazeva and saw the bird pretty well in the strong mid-afternoon light, though it was very wary and was mainly seen in flight.

Red-billed Teal, Hazeva, Israel, 5 March 2016

Long before the trip I'd been a fan of this bird being the real deal. Israel boasts the only previously accepted Western Palearctic record of the species (in June - July 1958) and of course has a strong track record with producing extremely rare sub-Saharan African vagrants. Barak Granit wrote an interesting article on the Israel Birding Portal website which coherently summarises where we are seemingly at regarding this latest bird. His conclusion was that it's ultimately still up for debate, though Barak seemingly falls on the pro-wild side (e.g. "An escape scenario is just plausible as well, but the evidence doesn't support such a scenario").

Red-billed Teal, Hazeva, Israel, 5 March 2016

Since reading this it's become apparent that some members of the IRDC are seemingly not keen on accepting the bird as wild (words such as "dodgy" have been used by the committee and apparently the suspicion is that it will be rejected). More digging seems to throw up two primary reasons for this:
  1. The bird is behaving in sedentary fashion (i.e. it has been in Israel for two years and currently shows no signs of leaving)
  2. The bird has hybridised with a Mallard
To me, neither of these factors suggest captive/escaped origin and are certainly not detrimental to the idea that the Arava Red-billed Teal is a wild bird. Personally I think it is disconcerting that anyone could be dismissive of the bird based on the above two factors, though of course others don't share my view. Allow me to elaborate ...

The bird's sedentary nature

Here I quote BirdLife International (2012): "This species is mostly sedentary or nomadic, but may disperse long distances (up to 1,800 km) in the dry season depending on the extent of flooding".

Red-billed Teal is a species that often moves based on the availability of water. If suitable habitat is present, it does not need to move. If water is not available, it has the ability to move large distances. If it is normal for this species to disperse the best part of 2,000 km in search of water, imagine what a vagrant might achieve? Red-billed Teal routinely occurs as far north as Sudan. From here it is really not that far to travel to southern Israel, particularly when you consider the Nile acting as a northward funnel for sub-Saharan species. If a vagrant teal is driven north by a lack of water, it could feasibly end up in southern Israel (as many other African species have previously). If it then finds a constant water source to its liking, as this bird has, why would it need to move? The current notion to reject the record based on its sedentary nature (a completely natural part of the species' ecology) therefore doesn't make much sense.

One should also consider other examples of long-staying African vagrants. Israel currently has one (the Bateleur on the Judean Plains has now been present for almost a year), possibly two (Yellow-billed Stork in Bet She'an potentially present a year or more?). Elsewhere there is a long-staying and regularly returning Grey-headed Gull in Italy (currently present for its fourth calendar year) and, as of March 2016, Cape Verde continues to host a single Black Heron (this bird having originally turned up alongside another in March 2011). Before this there was a Black-headed Heron there for over two years. These are just recent examples and there are no doubt many more.


Barak Granit refers to the occurrence of hybrid offspring alongside the Red-billed Teal as "much more worrying", but I do not agree with this. Dabbling ducks (Anatinae) are notorious for rife hybridisation, particularly among vagrants. It is a fact of life that Anatinae are very much advocates of 'free love' - hybridisation between species occur in normal circumstances, and not just in a vagrant context (where a lost individual will naturally look to breed with its closest available relative, if possible). If this is genuinely being used as a factor against the Israeli Red-billed Teal then, using the same logic, we should look to reject all those American Black Ducks that interbreed with Mallards in Britain, Ireland, the Azores and so on. Similarly any vagrant American Wigeon breeding with its Eurasian counterpart (or indeed Green-winged Teal with Eurasian Teal etc) would therefore be discounted as a wild bird. The fact that the Arava Red-billed Teal has bred with a Mallard at some point is, in my opinion, normal behaviour for a wild bird and in no way should be viewed as an indication of a captive/wild bird. Hybridisation is a true red herring in the 'wild or escape' debate.

On 5 March 2016 the Red-billed Teal was seen alongside two hybrid offspring - both of which are pictured in the images above. The mixture of RBT/Mallard features is quite obvious.

If you consider this in addition to the fact that Red-billed Teal is an abundant species in Africa with a massive range, the fact that none have been known in captivity in Israel for over a decade (though of course this does not discount the possibility of an escape from another country), that the bird is extremely wary and does not allow a close approach whatsoever (atypical behaviour for an escape), that Israel regularly attracts Afrotropical vagrants (including several long-stayers at present) and already has an accepted record of this species, I believe the evidence points towards this being a wild bird, despite the IRDC's reported reservations ...

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Another Saturday morning of gulls

Went back to the tip in Essex with Steve on Saturday morning - best birds as follows.

Adult Caspian Gull - same individual as that seen last week and regularly at this site for several winters now.

Second-winter Caspian Gull - a nice, distinctive bird showing small white mirrors on p10.

(Presumed) Iceland Gull - the third-winter bird seen here for a few weeks running (and on several dates last winter). Opinion still seems divided on the ID but personally I can't get past it being an Iceland.

Here's a pic of it alongside Herring Gulls:

Adult Black-headed Gull with extensive blue dye staining - this was by far the worst-affected individual but several stained birds were seen on Saturday including a couple of pink Great Black-backed Gulls!