Friday, 21 October 2016

More Yorkshire pudding

My return to work this week was made a lot easier, and less stressful, by the knowledge that I had seen the Siberian Accentor at Easington last Sunday, the second record for Britain. Many birders will still be pinching themselves that they were able to see one of the six individuals of this species which have graced British shores over the last fortnight. The Yorkshire bird, which finally moved on on Thursday, was undoubtedly the most widely twitched. Checking the time stamps on my images we had just 15 minutes with the bird showing at close range, but happily it seemed like much longer.

The East Yorkshire coast was enjoying a real purple patch with flocks of Dusky Warblers and the odd Radde's among them. Siberian Stonechats were popping up and, the day after our trip, an Isabelline Wheatear was found also in Easington. We didn't have time to go looking for such goodies unfortunately, but before heading south we did manage to stop at the beach by the Bluebell cafĂ© where a Shorelark was very confiding. A few pictures of the Shorelark below, and, as a special treat, a few more of Prunella montanella - yes I know that sounds like an adult movie starlet from an American mountain film festival, but if you can just drag your minds out of the gutter for a second, you will recall it's actually the scientific name for the Siberian Accentor.
The Shorelark was easy to find - we just headed for the long line of birdwatchers on the beach!
An attractive species, photographed in horrible light unfortunately
The second 'zorro' masked bird of the day, the first being, of course....
...the Siberian Accentor
Catching the light during a brief period of sunshine
Here channelling Denis Healey with those prominent brows

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Yorkshire pudding

October 2016 will be remembered as a month in which birding prophecies, some would say fantasies, came true. On the morning of Sunday 9th, my friend James Lowen tweeted an auspicious message to the world to the effect that Britain's first Siberian Accentor would be found on Shetland that day - and within hours he was watching just that. This inspired me to make my own prediction the following Wednesday, texting my pal Steve Smith with the advice that he should pack a bag as, due to work and family commitments on Friday and Saturday, I was unable to get out, thus virtually guaranteeing another Siberian Accentor on the east coast during that time. Within hours my prediction had also come true, and half the birding world and his ex-wife was heading in the general direction of Spurn to tick it.
There was nothing for it but to knuckle down to my work commitments on Friday and put the Accentor out of my mind for the time being. Not an easy task, I confess, but it got easier on Friday night when we received a visit from my long lost Uncle Bill, over from the US for the first time this century, making his appearances on these shores rarer than those of Siberian Accentor over the same period. Similarly, Saturday was taken up watching The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and enjoying a live audience with its star, Dame Maggie Smith, at the wonderful Rex Cinema in Wareham. This was the centrepiece of the Purbeck Film Festival which my wife has been helping to organise as a volunteer, so there was a three-line whip on attendance. With the working week complete and a highly successful event concluded I felt that both professional and family honour had been satisfied, and I could start thinking more selfishly about twitching the Accentor on Sunday morning.
At this point Claire informed me of yet more film festival commitments arising the following day, during which I would be required to mind the children in her absence. This led to what can best be described as a full and frank exchange of views about the relative merits of twitching Siberian Accentors versus the fulfilment of paternal obligation. Fortunately, a chance encounter with the soon to be canonised Turnocks at the Rex offered a solution to the childcare problem at the centre of the dispute, so the twitch was back on. Needing to be fresh for the early start, I made sure I got an early night on Saturday in preparation for what would be a long trip the following morning.
I woke before my alarm in the wee small hours and was preparing to leave just as Claire was coming to bed - testament to the earliness of my awakening rather than the lateness of her retirement. This provided another opportunity for her to give a not entirely complimentary assessment of my qualities as a husband and father - all fully deserved, of course. Thus chastened I headed for the car with my telescope, my camera and my shame. There I was joined by prior arrangement by Chris Patrick from Weymouth, who I last saw at the turn of the year when I stumbled upon a Grey Phalarope in Portland Harbour. Chris had heard that I was thinking of travelling and was interested in sharing a lift, a request I was delighted to accommodate. This was my third long distance twitch this year with a fellow dad, and we were able to while away the hours comparing notes on just how much trouble we would be in with our respective spouses when we got home.
Chris is a Royal Navy meteorologist, a handy guy to have around in the circumstances. On the journey north, his skilful reading of the charts helped manage my expectations about the reasonably high chance that the bird would have moved on overnight, in view of the clear conditions over the Yorkshire coast. As a result I was probably as prepared for negative news from Easington as it was possible to be. I needn't have been, as when we were just over half-an-hour away, the birding grapevine bleeped into life with confirmation that the Accentor was still present.
Before getting carried away though, we had to see the bird, and after the initial relief at the positive news, there was just time for me to develop raging anxiety about whether it would succumb to a cat or a Sparrowhawk before we arrived. I needn't have worried as having parked the car in the field organised by the splendid chaps at the Spurn Bird Observatory, and followed their directions to the site, we were able to walk up to the Accentor's chosen patch of moss covered tarmac and set eyes on the near mythical rarity within seconds of arriving.
There were none of the queues reported on Friday and Saturday, and plenty of room for arriving birders and ourselves to enjoy the bird at leisure as it fed voraciously at close range. We even enjoyed five minutes of early morning sunshine bringing its rich yellow ochre underparts to life, before it flew to the nearby gas terminal where it became more elusive behind a high fence. Smiles and handshakes were then the order of the day. Local birders rattled collection tins and as I shook the hand of one, I realised it was the hand which I last saw cradling the lifeless corpse of a Great Snipe. 'Sorry about that', its owner said kindly but unnecessarily when I reminded him of this earlier less successful visit to Spurn, but all was forgiven already.
And so it came to be that, a week after the first Siberian Accentor for Britain was found on Shetland, I was watching the second in Yorkshire, the third having turned up the day before in Durham - and while we were watching the second, the fourth arrived in Sunderland! Before I had time to write this post the fifth had been discovered in Northumberland, and it seems quite possible that there will be more in the days and weeks to come. Those who measure rarity value in terms of exclusivity may regard this multiple arrival as 'devaluing' that pioneer from Shetland. Those who appreciate migration in a broader context may feel it does the opposite - an unprecedented natural phenomenon arising from some extraordinary weather patterns, producing a more poetic series of occurrences compared to the appearance of a lone vagrant which, for all we know, may have hitched a ride on a passing ship.
While we would have liked to spend more time at Spurn, after a close encounter with a Shorelark(more on that in a later post) and a half-hearted search for a Radde's Warbler, the rapidly deteriorating weather and collective guilt complex caused us to head for home to pick up the pieces of those shattered brownie point jars. I was back in time to take my son to his afternoon swimming class and cook the Sunday roast as a peace offering to the rest of the family: I may be a deadbeat dad, but I make a mean Yorkshire pudding. I served the soft, puffy confection (which came out exactly the same colour as a Siberian Accentor's breast) to my grateful offspring, and the healing process had begun.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Drive-through birding

I stopped in at the disused airfield at Davidstow on the way back from the Isles of Scilly last month, hoping to find an American wader on the closely cropped sward. There were none that day, but over the following few weeks it played host to a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a Pectoral Sandpiper and an American Golden Plover, a species I saw here a few years ago. None of these was quite enough to tempt be back down to Cornwall, but a long staying Baird's Sandpiper, somewhat rarer than all the aforementioned species, was another matter, and as I had not previously photographed this species very well, I resolved to head down there on Sunday morning if the forecast was anything better than dire.
I decided on an early start in case the airfield was busy with model aircraft enthusiasts, but I had forgotten just how vast the site is, and even though model planes were buzzing around in one corner, there was still acres of ground for waders to feed in undisturbed. There are two useful rules for birding Davidstow: first, on arrival scan for stationary cars in the distance, and if you see one with a dirty great lens hanging out the window, head for it as it will probably be pointing at a rare bird. Second, stay in the car - the waders will tolerate a close approach from a vehicle, presumably viewing a slow moving car as some kind of lumbering livestock. Open the door, however, and you risk flushing whatever it is you are looking at.
An early morning view on the pool with Dunlin in the background
Baird's Sandpiper - the scaly back pattern makes this a juvenile bird
Note the buffy breast band and long primary projection
The bird was reported as being 'near the runway' - sometimes it was on the runway running between the cars!
Head on Baird's shows a flattened oval body shape
So with these rules in mind I arrived just after sunrise, drove up to a car parked in the middle of the capacious runway, and immediately saw the Baird's Sandpiper feeding on a small pool at close range. Eventually it, and the Dunlin it was with, had enough of the pool and headed off to feed on the grass with some Ringed Plover. A small and slightly comical convoy of vehicles tracked them as they fed along, and sometimes on, the pock-marked runway. I spent a couple of absorbing hours photographing the Baird's, by the end of which the sun had conveniently come out.
The Baird's was feeding initially with a few Dunlin
Later they joined up with a small flock of Ringed Plover
I couldn't find a Semi-P among them!
Ringed Plover with Baird's Sandpiper behind
Baird's Sandpiper

Monday, 26 September 2016

It's that time of year again

It's that time of year again: the Dorset Youth League Football Season is underway. Eldest son George is now Wareham Rangers' under-14s utility right-back/midfield/whatever-the-team-commands-guy, on account of us having no subs due to transfer window defections and drop-outs. Another change this season has been the move to a far more parent-friendly regime of weeknight training, freeing up Saturday mornings, and earlier kick-offs on match days, freeing up Sunday afternoons. The start of the football season coincides, of course, with the autumn bird migration season, so I have been enjoying these new-found weekend freedoms by checking out some favourite hotspots around Dorset. Some highlights from a joyous middle-age reclaimed below:
Wryneck at Portland Bill
Wryneck appears regularly on Portland at this time of year
This one was in the Bill Quarry
A half-decent flight shot
Rose-coloured Starling is another regular autumn migrant on Portland
This one took a shine to a rooftop solar panel, alternating between lying down under it and loafing alongside it
It had hooked up with local Starlings on a housing estate near Weston
Middlebere is another good location for migrants at this time of year: Green Sandpipers have been on the pools in front of the hide
An attractive wader
Migrant Ospreys have also been showing some interest in the false nest platforms erected for them
The hope is they can be persuaded to stay and breed one day. Well, unlike Wareham Rangers, who have yet to win a game this season, we can dream, can't we?
I have had the pleasure of the company of Wareham Rangers right-back on several post-match jaunts - here he is practising one of the essential skills of digital photography: chimping

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A night out in Plymouth

The 400th species of bird I saw in Britain was Lesser Grey Shrike, one of which spent some time around Middlebere in Dorset in 2008, not long after I moved here, but long before I had a decent camera. Reports of another of this species in neighbouring Devon saw me head down after work on Friday night in the hope of improving on my digiscoped efforts from eight years ago.
There had been no news on the bird after 1230 on Friday so I wasn't sure it would still be there, but talking to several birders who were on site when I arrived, it emerged that it had been seen shortly before, and I caught up with it shortly after. I had left it a bit late though, and despite enjoying a close but obscured view as it sat in an Elder, and extended views of it feeding distantly before it went to roost at about 1840, the hope of a decent photograph remained unfulfilled. I put the news out, and, feeling a little disappointed, and none too keen on the idea of a long drive, phoned home and was granted permission to stay over in Plymouth so I could have another look for the Shrike in the morning. I found a reasonably priced B&B via the miracle of the internet, though was slightly disconcerted to find a wedding disco taking place under my bedroom window when I arrived.
The DJ was pure Ray Von, and plans of an early night were put on hold as he lurched from The Kooks She Moves in Her Own Way (no problem with that) to Grease Lighting (more problematic) via a stompy disco version of Take Me Home Country Roads (a plutonium-grade problem). Eventually the ear-torturing Abba sing-alongs died down and I entered the land of nod. I was back on the coast path at 0700 this morning and just under an hour later the Shrike emerged from where I had seen it go to roost.
After a distant showing, the Shrike flew closer but then did a most un-shrike like thing and failed to perch up as expected on a prominent tree. It continued not to do so for the best part of the next three hours, by which point I convinced myself it had done a bunk and started heading for the car, now regretting my decision to stay over. Newly arriving birders appeared to know different though and persuaded me to turn back as the group I had just left were indicating that the bird was back on view.
I returned to find the Shrike perched up at close range for an extended period - here the pinkish underparts and black forecrown of an adult bird were visible. The black mask shape reminded me of a Penduline Tit more than a typical Shrike. Viewing was restricted to a small area so having got some half-decent photographs and concluded it was unlikely to come closer, I retreated to let others squeeze in to the confined space - at which point the Shrike flew even closer with the petrol blue sea off Jennycliff Beach as a backdrop! As you can see from these links, Steve Carey and James Packer, among others, were able to get some attractive photographs in this position. Still, I was happy with my efforts - a distinct improvement on those fuzzy digiscoped images of the Dorset bird.