Thursday 29 October 2009

Blast from the past: 1

Steppe Grey Shrike, Grainthorpe Haven, Lincs, November 2008.

Saturday 24 October 2009

More like it...

Today, the second half of October saved itself from being brandished one of the worst for British birding/twitching in a long time. With such tasty delights as Caspian Plovers, Parulas, Long-toed Stint and a Chestnut Bunting thrown in for good measure, the rest of Europe has been outdoing Britain somewhat spectacularly since the middle of the month. You only have to look here, here or here for a mouthwatering array of tasty delights from elsewhere within the Western Palearctic.

So, just when you're expecting some monster bird from the west, Siberia and Asia seize the opportunity to remind us they're still there, and deliver an Eastern Crowned Warbler to the coastline of County Durham. Originally identified as a Yellow-browed, it's true identity was revealed when photos appeared on TurdForum showing a crippling, stripy Arctic Warbler-like beast.

Not wanting to mess around, I got in touch with old favourite Marc Read, who promptly set off from Sussex. Arriving in Sheffield a short time after 03:00, we were soon on the road once more, and arrived in South Shields (Durham) shortly after 05:15. The skies weren't all that overcast, and I decided to prepare myself for the strong possibility of a dip - this species has previously been notorious in the WP as a one-day wonder. It was therefore a surprise when at 07:35, I was awoken by a call from Marc informing me that it was still in the same spot (I know, not on site for first light! What a joker I am), so I dragged myself out of bed (car) and down to Trow Quarry. Through sleep-induced blurry eyes, I had my first glimpses of this most attractive of phylloscs. Olive-green upperparts with lime-tinged wings, a heavy bill, off-white underparts, double wingbar and, most strikingly, bright creamy-yellow supercilium and crown stripe contrasting with the dark grey-green lateral crown stripes. Behaviourally, it was reminiscent of Arctic Warbler - sluggish for a phyllosc, reflecting it's large size. For the next two hours, it performed wonderfully (albeit on and off) in sycamores, at times porning it and generating a crescendo of "ooohs" and "ahhhs" from the gathered throng. A Yellow-browed Warbler was also knocking about, as were a couple of Blackcaps.


Filled with enthusiasm for the day, Marc and I decided it would be a good idea to go to Holy Island. My first Pallas's Warbler for about three years showed well at The Snook, and there were also a few common migrants about but no sign of the Radde's Warbler seen the previous day.

Marc Read in action on Holy Island

Back down at Druridge Pools, the day ended on a slightly sour note, with no sign of the Glossy Ibis making it the eighth I've missed since the influx began. But who cares, the warbler was the business - it's made it the autumn a bit less painful.

Monday 19 October 2009

Pec, 18th October

This juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper, photographed at Eyebrook Reservoir, is the first I've seen in the Britain and Ireland for 3 years(!). It spent all its time creeping around at the inflow, not really doing all that much. A Rock Pipit was also rocking around with a typically-hyperactive bunch of Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Another trip north, 3rd - 6th October

On 1st October, a Veery was found on Foula. "Shit the bed", I thought and, following a couple of conversations with my ever-charming friend Dan Pointon, we decided to see what happened the following day before making plans to head north.

Sure enough, the Veery was still present the next morning. What we weren't expecting was the arrival of a second, this time on Whalsay - a much easier place to get to. In the following few hours, news of the continued presence of Fetlar's Taiga Flycatcher and a couple of new Pechora Pipits had us booking flights from Edinburgh to Sumburgh for the following morning. And so the team was formed - an increasingly familiar line-up of Soar, Pointon and Jones, this time joined by Norfolk's Mark Rayment. Dan and I met Mark and Will somewhere on the A1 in West Yorkshire at around 03:00, and were soon heading poleward.

Dawn on the 3rd was greeted from the comfort of a McDonald's somewhere on the outskirts of the Scottish capital, where it was reassuring to see one of the team had not lost any of his phenomenal appetite when confronted with copious quantities of fast food. The flight from Edinburgh was not until 11:00, and a nervous couple of hours were spent in the terminal waiting to hear of the Veery's continued presence. Sure enough, it was still there, as was the nearby Pechora - perfect! All we had to do now was get there.

The flight went swimmingly, as the did the drive north through mainland Shetland. We managed to make it for the 14:00 ferry crossing from Laxo to Symbister, arriving at the latter location some time around 14:45. Plenty of birders on the ferry including the BBC's very own Garry Bagnell (who, for once, was not being followed round by his film crew - seems like he's rinsed their budget already). It wasn't too long before I had my first views of the Veery as it hopped about in its favoured garden - it rarely stood still for very long and seemed to be feeding almost constantly. A most impressive beast with bright rufous upperparts, a speckled throat and upper breast, faint grey cheeks and typical catharus underwing pattern, it eventually showed very well at point blank range.

Sumburgh Airport

With time not exactly on our side, Will and I (who formed the half of our team not having previously seen Pech) headed north up the island to Skaw. It didn't take long to locate the Pechora Pipit in the roadside ditch it had been favouring; it went on to show extremely well at times although could go missing for extended periods. I was most impressed with the species - wonderfully streaky and contrasted, helped by the fact that it was a particularly showy and well-marked individual.

Back on the mainland, a brief search for the Blyth's Reed Warbler at Voe scored a blank. And so, day one drew to a close - two superb birds, and an excellent start to the weekend. Accommodation was located up at Brae, where Will and Mark splashed the cash, and Pointon and myself simply slept on the sofas in the living room - an altogether cheaper option.

Day two (4th October) started early; we were keen to be on Fetlar as early as possible and so we caught the 05:50 ferry to Yell, followed by a 06:45ish ferry from there to Fetlar. Our destination, Manse garden at Tresta, was reached some time before 08:00 and it didn't take long for Will to pick up the 1st-winter Taiga Flycatcher. A welcome grip-back from the Flamborough individual in 2003, a full suite of features was noted to confirm this subtle species. The uppertail coverts were jet black, and the bird altogether greyer than Red-breasted, with warm tones restricted to the flanks. The face was very grey, and the grey and brown tones were somewhat different to those expected on Red-breasted. The bird was rather vocal in the time we spent with it, particularly when nearby Chiffchaffs got too close for comfort. A Red-breasted Flycatcher-like rattle was the most frequent vocalization, but a Blackcap-like tacking was also regularly used. In the same plantation, we picked up our first Yellow-browed Warbler of the trip, a few thrushes were gallivanting around and two female Merlins bombed through.
Having enjoyed excellent views, Pointon and I headed off around the island, birding between the regular squalls. In short we saw very little, and soon returned to Manse where the flycatcher was still porning it, on and off. Keen to catch the 11:30 ferry to Unst, we reluctantly left Manse and headed back towards the ferry terminal. We stopped off by a promising-looking burn with a fair amount of vegetation in. The only bird we kicked out was a Yellow-browed Warbler, which was very keen to bury itself in the iris beds with weather conditions being far from ideal.
First port of call on arrival on Unst was Uyeasound at the south end. Here, it wasn't long before we kicked the Pechora Pipit found the previous day, which went on to show extremely well in the field with the stream running through near Easter Loch. It did however tend to be rather flighty. The bird also called a couple of times, which was useful to hear. Birding around Uyeasound failed to reveal the Arctic Redpoll, but a Yellow-browed Warbler and a few Chiffchaffs were noted. Keen to try and connect with a hornemanni, the team headed north. A brief stop of Baltasound to grill a flock of Twite led to a chance encounter with a 'Northwest' Redpoll (presumably rostrata), which flew off shortly after.

Uyeasound, Unst - the Pechora Pipit favoured this field

Our next stop was our most northerly - Lamba Ness, at the northeast end of the island. An Arctic Redpoll had been seen here the previous day, although it didn't take long for us to realise finding the bird was going to be a phenomenal task with no details forthcoming. Sure enough, the bird was not located but a flock of c.100 Snow Buntings formed an impressive sight against a spectacular geological backdrop.
Back at Norwick, we set aside our twitchiness and got down to some proper birding. Not long after getting out the car, a 'buzzing' pipit had us thinking rare, but it was not to be - Tree Pipit, and not even an Indian one. The long-staying Common Rosefinch was blogging about with the local House Sparrows, and a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers were in the crop. Other migrants here included a Lesser Whitethroat, a few Chiffchaffs, Brambling and Reed Bunting.

Norwick - beautiful scenery and enjoyable birding.
Encouraged by a decent selection of birds, we headed back south to Halligarth plantation, which delivered another Yellow-browed Warbler, as well as a few Chiffchaffs. It was at this point we learned that the Arctic Redpoll was again showing at Uyeasound, so the twitching instinct kicked in and we bombed back down there. Needless to say there was no sign, but a drake Scaup and 10 Whooper Swans were on Easter Loch, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers were seemingly new in and a Garden Warbler had me momentarily fooled. Light was running out fast, so we sacked it off and ferried back to the mainland via Yell, arriving in Lerwick late evening just in time for a curry and beer.

Next morning, our flight back to Edinburgh was delayed by some time. For one member of the team, this turned out to (indirectly) be a blessing in disguise. For the other three, it was the start of a torrid 36 hours which eventually saw three of us dipping an Eyebrowed Thrush on North Ronaldsay (one member connected after getting on an earlier charter), and Mark also managed to fill his (diesel) car up with unleaded. So, an expensive end to the trip which I don't intend to go into in detail....
North Ronaldsay - wish I'd never gone...

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Sandhill, 23rd September

In late September, South Ronaldsay came up trumps with this stunning adult-type Sandhill Crane (here photographed on 23rd September):

What a boy, and the start of a fantastic run of rarities in the Northern Isles - plenty more to come from the past two weeks (with all the ups and downs included) to follow....