Sunday, 3 February 2019

Winter on the wing

I'm not a huge fan of rugby, but I do love the Six Nations. I went to a grammar school where the games master was sadistically fond of the game, to the extent that when, after a rare football match enabled me to show a turn of pace and score a couple of decent goals, instead of letting me start a team, he said he wanted to see me run down the wing like that in rugby.
Golden Plover, Maiden Castle
I was able to photograph these birds from the car window, using the car as a hide
Momentarily inspired, at the next available training opportunity I gave it a shot, regaining consciousness a few minutes later with a mouth full of dirt and the fat kid who had pummelled my head into the turf laughing over me. Thus ended a glittering rugby career, forsaken thereafter for cross-country, known in our school as 'the smoker's sport'.
Fieldfare near Wareham
Part of a large flock of winter thrushes

A wonder then that I look forward to the Six Nations at all, though in truth I do so not just for the sport but for what it signifies about the time of year: when the championship starts, it's still winter, and by the time it comes to a climax, spring will be underway. Here I am uploading photos of wintering thrushes, and by the time it's over, I fully expect to be posting images of the first migrant Wheatears of the year to hit the Dorset coast.
Fieldfare is often accompanied by...
...Redwing
Back-to-back bouts of man flu have curtailed my outdoor exploits of late, so it was good to curl up in front of the TV yesterday and watch the games, but today I felt well enough to drive to a few local spots which I knew would provide some opportunities to do a bit of birding and photography from the warmth and comfort of the car.
Robin


Friday, 18 January 2019

Around the world

The head of the household was away recently leaving her offspring and I to make our way around the culinary world without the usual level of dietary guidance to constrain our choices. So Monday was Italian night (BBQ chicken pizza), Tuesday the turn of Mexico (Chilli con Carne), Wednesday a 'home' fixture in England (steak pie and three veg), while Thursday saw us indulge a taste of China (sweet and sour chicken). And lest anyone accuse me of undue sloth, I should point out that only one of these was procured in take-away form. When herself, a vegetarian, returned from a five day trip to New York with the Book Club (!) at the end of the week, we had to confess that Veganuary had not been going so well.
Ring-necked Duck, Radipole Lake
All this globe-trotting reminded me of a few visitors from afar which could be found in Dorset during the first few days of 2019. On New Year's Day I headed down to Weymouth with Steve Smith to see if one of them, a Ring-necked Duck from the Americas, was still present. I first saw this bird before Christmas when it was in a drab brown first winter plumage, but by the turn of the year it had smartened up somewhat and was starting to look more like an adult drake should. We located it at the end of the Radipole Lake nature reserve and enjoyed close views in the sunshine.
Bearded Tit, Radipole Lake
The other notable wanderer was a juvenile White-fronted Goose which took up with a flock of Greylags before Christmas and which had been seen periodically around my local patch at Swineham and Bestwall. Apart from Greylags, the other grey geese - White-fronted, Pink-footed and Bean - are all quite hard to catch up with in Dorset. Judging by the colouration of our wintering White-front, it will have come from the general direction of Russia, being of the sub-species albifrons. I had seen this bird distantly in flight with Greylags on a couple of occasions, identifiable by its small size compared to the rest of the flock, and eventually caught up with it on the deck at reasonably close range on nearby Bestwall.
White-fronted Goose, Bestwall

Monday, 7 January 2019

The end is nigh...

...no, not the end of the world (not quite yet, anyway), but the end of my review of 2018, broken down into two bite-sized chunks, of which this is the second. And if you're thinking 'well it's a bit late for all this', you'd be right. I spilt a bottle of water over my laptop over the Xmas break, and it took a while to recover the hard drive and procure a new one before I could bring these musings to you.
Purple Emperor, Bentley Wood
But back to 2018, and we pick up where we left off in July and the middle of the long, hot summer. The first day of the month saw me over the border in Wiltshire at Bentley Wood, well known for its population of Purple Emperor. It didn't disappoint, and a pristine male feasting on dog dirt provided some exquisite if smelly photo opportunities.
Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly
My summer search for rare Odonata continued and I was lucky to catch up with Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly on a local heathland just before the last of its breeding pools dried up in the baking sun. Even more exotic was a mini-invasion of Southern Migrant Hawkers - I travelled to Somerset to see my first only to find that the first for Dorset had turned up at Lytchett Bay when my back was turned.
Southern Migrant Hawker, Priddy Mineries, Somerset
August
The first half of August saw us in the French Alps for a family holiday. Two trips to the Col de la Colombiere provided some of the highlights of the trip - a couple of close encounters with Lammergeier, the first just above the car park at the col, the second a reward for an arduous climb to the ridge above the col.
Lammergeier, Col de la Colombiere
The col also held an excellent selection of butterflies, most notable among which were the rare Apollo and Mountain Clouded Yellow. We also enjoyed close encounters with Ibex and Alpine Marmot and a long list of new butterflies for my European list including, Alpine Heath, Lesser Mountain Ringlet, Meadow, Mountain, Shepherd's and Niobe Fritillary
Apollo, Col de la Colombiere
Second only to the Lammergeiers for mountain majesty was a Short-toed Eagle which sat in a pine tree watching us as we got our of the car just below the Col de la Colombiere. My children continue to remind me how I babbled excitedly at complete strangers parked next to us about this and forced them to marvel at it through my telescope. Well I still maintain it was genuine interest they were feigning.
Short-toed Eagle, Col de la Colombiere

September
Back in Dorset and autumn migration was well underway with many common migrants passing through one of my favourite local sites, Greenlands Farm near Studland. Yellow Wagtails, Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers were present on every visit along with the occasional Osprey. 
Spotted Flycatcher, Greenlands Farm
The end of the month saw me teaming up with David Bradnum, Howard Vaughan and Bob Vaughan once more on the long road north to Shetland. Before boarding the ferry we had seen a Woodchat Shrike and a Rose-coloured Starling at Barns Ness, and the American White-winged Scoter at Musselburgh - my second encounter of 2018 with this bird.
Woodchat Shrike, Barns Ness

October
Our week on Shetland was perhaps not a classic but we still saw some excellent birds - Citrine Wagtail, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Pied-billed Grebe, American Golden Plover, Common Rosefinch, Marsh, Melodious and River Warbler being the highlights.
River Warbler, Unst
While the Eastern Yellow Wagtail was a tick for all four of us, views were brief and distant compared to a very obliging Citrine Wag which was present on Bressay during our stay. This bird allowed a close approach and when we had got as close as we dared it started walking towards us!
Citrine Wagtail, Bressay
Back on the south coast October was passing uneventfully - until the 15th that is, when news of a Grey Catbird in Cornwall got the birding world asking 'will it stay until the weekend?' Fortunately it did, and Jol Mitchell and I couldn't resist the lure of adding this stellar American rarity to our British lists. A jolly day with Messrs Bradnum and Lowen for company.
Grey Catbird, Land's End

November
After the excitement of Shetland and the Grey Catbird in Cornwall in October, I didn't get out much in November - but there was still time for the birding world to throw up a few more surprises in 2018. Chief among these was a late Little Swift. I had promised myself that the next time one of this species roosted on a building at dusk I would go and see it come off the roost at dawn. This one went to roost under a streetlight, allowing me the luxury of twitching it in the dark on arrival, staying over in a local motel and going back in the morning to photograph it in glorious sunlight.
Little Swift
Little Swift
Continuing the November swift theme, a Pallid Swift at Chesil Cove late in the month enabled me to add this species to my Dorset list, putting to bed the ghost of the Christchurch bird a few years ago which was taken by a Sparrowhawk just minutes before my arrival.
Pallid Swift, Chesil Cove

December
If November saw me not getting out much, December saw me go almost into hibernation, as opportunities to get out and about trickled to a halt. Just a couple of highlights spring to mind: a Mandarin Duck, a proper Christmas Cracker of a bird, which took up residence in Poole Park; and my last Dorset tick of the year, a very co-operative Little Bunting which spent a few days grovelling on the verge of a Portland side-street.
Mandarin, Poole Park
And so there you have it, a year in memories and pictures. With thanks as usual to all those who shared them, and particularly those who I neglected while searching for them!
Little Bunting, Chiswell

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Well that went quickly

And so 2018 has drawn to an end. A transition year for me professionally, and the focus of my energies on this perhaps inevitably led to less time out with the camera over the course of the last twelve months. Which is not to say I didn't get out - on the contrary, communing with nature and Canon continued to be an essential distraction from the trials of 'real' life. Blogging, by contrast, definitely took a back seat - just 28 posts in 2018 compared to 68 in 2017 and 165 in 2012, which was apparently the peak of my powers in terms of textual diarrhoea. A few highlights from the first 6 months of the year below.

January
My review of the year starts, with unswerving commitment to neat chronology, in January, when the Hawfinch invasion of late 2017 continued to dominate the birding scene. Rural Dorset churchyards continued to receive many optic-bearing visitors not normally seen on hallowed ground as these chunky finches congregated wherever there were Yews. A couple of trips to Stanpit hoping to improve on my average pictures of the long-staying Stilt Sandpiper, which had relocated there from Lodmoor via Brownsea, proved unsuccessful towards the end of January though I did at least see it.
Bird of the month for January: Horned Lark, Staines Reservoir
My first and only 'out of County' trip of the month was to the exotic environs of Staines, where an American Horned Lark spent several weeks around the causeway of the vast west London reservoir. Shore Lark is one of my favourite species and Staines is closer than any of their regular wintering sites so the chance of seeing this exceptionally rare form reasonably close to home was not to be missed. The undoubted wildlife watching highlight of the month was, however, a chance encounter with a Humpback Whale in Chesil Cove in my adopted county of Dorset. A brief sighting of a distant individual allowed only for a poor record shot - but an incredible record nonetheless.
Wildlife highlight of the month: Humpback Whale in Chesil Cove

February
February was a month for gull connoisseurs, with a dozen species available for viewing in the Dorset/Hampshire area. The rarest of the lot, a putative Thayer's, currently regarded as a sub-species of Iceland Gull, was enjoyed on a short-range twitch to Blashford Lakes with my good friend Steve Smith, taking a break from his punishing schedule of globe-trotting wildlife junkets to slum it on the south coast with the rest of us. A Ring-billed Gull kept company with the Thayer's Gull in the same late afternoon roost.
Thayer's Gull, Blashford Lakes. What do you mean, underwhelmed?
With no disrespect to the Thayer's Gull (a rather drab juvenile), it was eclipsed for beauty if not rarity by one of the most sought after species from its family later in the month with the arrival of an exquisite adult Ross's Gull in Weymouth. This bird first arrived at Lodmoor where it proved difficult to catch up with but by the weekend it had relocated to Radipole Lake where Jol Mitchell and I, plus our respective sons, were delighted to catch up with it.
Ross's Gull, Radipole: my first Dorset tick of 2018 and bird of the month for February

March
March was a month of contrasts with icy 'beasts from the East' sandwiching the first signs of spring in the middle of the month. The cold snaps brought a Firecrest to my tiny urban garden, and a pair of hungry and unusually confiding Hawfinches down to feed in the graveyard of my local church in Wareham for a sought after patch tick.
Hawfinch, Wareham
A short Scottish trip at the end of the month saw me add the first new bird of 2018 to my British list in the form of an American White-winged Scoter off Musselburgh near Edinburgh. This striking seaduck was in good company bobbing along with Velvet Scoter, Surf Scoter, Red-throated Diver and Slovanian Grebe for company. Difficult to beat watching seaducks in winter on a wild Scottish estuary.
American White-winged Scoter (left-hand bird), Musselburgh: March's bird of the month

April
Easter saw us hopping on to a ferry in Portsmouth for a week's family holiday in Brittany. The beach and marshes at Suscinio turned out to be the top birding spot of the trip with Fan-tailed Warbler, Bluethroat, Black-winged Stilt and Kentish Plover all within a short walk form the car park. Serin, Firecrest, Cirl Bunting, Short-toed Treecreeper and Crested Tit exemplified the theme of the week: apparently common species in Brittany which are all rare or range restricted birds at home.
Camberwell Beauty, Le Parc naturel regional de Briere
A visit to the extensive wetlands of Le Parc naturel regional de Briere produced one of the highlights of the holiday - a close encounter with a couple of Camberwell Beauty butterflies basking in the spring sunshine. Marsh Harriers, Savi's Warblers, White Storks and Blue-headed Wagtails provided a colourful supporting cast.
Male Kentish Plover, Suscinio
Back in Dorset a Bonaparte's Gull returned to Longham Lakes continuing a good run of records of this American rarity. During the course of its stay I visited a few times to see the mottled feathers on the head moult into a fully dark hood within the space of a week.
Bonaparte's Gull, Longham Lakes: April's bird of month

May
Cuckoos are easy enough to hear in the spring but seeing one really well is another matter as they can be very shy. So when other commitments took me past Thursley Common early in the month I took the opportunity to pay homage to an exception to this rule - an unusually bold returning male which has become a photographer's favourite in recent summers. Concerns have been expressed about whether the mealworm diet supplements laid on for it have been doing it any good - but it hasn't stopped it getting to and from Africa over the last couple of years so I guess it can't be causing too much harm! 
Cuckoo, Thursley Common
May also saw me returning to Cerne Abbas, one of Dorset's best butterfly sites, where the Duke of Burgundy can be seen on the wing. This species is recovering well nationally thanks in large part to the efforts of staff and volunteers working on behalf of my new employer, Butterfly Conservation. A special mention to one of them, Patrick Cook, who I bumped into that warm spring day at Cerne Abbas, for over-taking me on his bike so often when I started cycling the 7 miles to work this summer. The daily humiliation spurred me on to stick with it and I'm a lot fitter as a result - cheers Patrick!
Duke of Burgundy with Dingy Skipper, Cerne Abbas
Due to my fondness for sanitation, when the family went camping toward the end of the month I was banished from their company and treated myself to a few days on the east coast. There, among other delights, I enjoyed the sight of lekking Ruffs at Frampton Marsh and breeding Swallowtails in the Norfolk Broads.
Swallowtail, Strumpshaw Fen
Back home in Dorset, a smart Rose-coloured Starling at Portland Bill was part of a remarkable invasion of this species across the country. This pink poser looked quite at home among the cliff-top thrift of the same colour and gave some close views when Rowan and I paid it a visit.
Rose-coloured Starling, Portland Bill: bird of the month for May

June
June began with some lepidopteran highlights: an Eyed Hawkmoth was a first for the garden moth trap, and a professional visit to Northern Ireland provided an opportunity to see my last UK butterfly species - the Cryptic Wood White - at Craigavon Lakes.
Cryptic Wood White, Craigavon Lakes: my wildlife watching highlight for June
Continuing the insect theme, I made the effort this summer to see some of the Odonata species which I had yet to see in Britain. Most spectacular among these was the Clubtail Dragonlfy. I spent a blissful morning photographing these on a slow-flowing Sussex river, then foolishly allowed myself to be talked into twitching a Moltoni's Subalpine Warbler at Blakeney Point in the afternoon with Steve Smith and Paul Welling. While I saw the Warbler's undertail coverts vanish into deep cover it was an untickable view, and the trudge back along several miles of shingle in the dark, with a limping James Lowen in tow, was, well, let's just say memorable! I should be grateful though that this was my only significant dip of 2018.
American Royal Tern, Church Norton: my second new British bird of 2018 and bird of the month for June
As is traditional, mid-June produced an inconveniently timed mega-rare bird in the form of an American Royal Tern at Church Norton. Train, bike and car were all involved in a late evening dash from Dorchester to see it just as the sun went down!








Sunday, 18 November 2018

Shetland: part the third, and last

As well as the rarities (see parts one and two), our week on Shetland back in October provided some opportunities to study northern species which we see only infrequently on the south coast of England. Top of the shopping list for me were the winter plumaged Tysties which frequented Lerwick Harbour. These charming birds look good in just about any plumage but I had not had much luck previously photographing them in their winter whites.
Close behind were the Twite, a bathing flock of which provided some compensation for two unsuccessful yomps through the infinite iris beds of Quendale in search of a reported Lanceolated Warbler. On both occasions we arrived to find no sign of the bird or the finders, reducing the chances of re-finding this mouse-like mega to a shade less than zero.
Otters were seen daily for the first few days, while other Shetland staples included Hooded Crow, Whooper Swan, Mealy Redpoll, Kittiwake, Fulmar and the ubiquitous Shetland Wren. The hoped for Killer Whales did not show for us but, unlike last year when the seas were whipped up by constant strong winds, we enjoyed a few calm days this year which gave us at least a chance to look for them.
Well that just about wraps it up for Shetland 2018. There were a few disappointments - principally the wild goose chases for the Lanceolated Warbler and a Pechora Pipit on Unst - but these were quickly forgotten when, as my wife said when I recounted the lowlights to her, 'there's always next year'. That's as good as a signed contract allowing me to go again in 2019!
And besides, the few disappointments were eclipsed by the many highlights of the trip: White-winged Scoter, Woodchat Shrike, Rosy Starling, River Warbler, Pied-billed Grebe, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Citrine Wagtail, Rosefinch, American Golden Plover plus Barred, Marsh and Melodious Warbler were not bad for a week's birding.
It just remains for me to say many thanks to Bradders Birding Tours for providing another excellent driver for the trip, and the clans Vaughan for releasing Bob and Howard for another northern adventure. Good times in excellent company.
Rarest thing I saw on Shetland: a near vertical windsock