Monday, 7 November 2022

An Oktoberfest of birding

October was always going to be a challenging month for the non-motorised yearlist as the first ten days of the month were earmarked for the near annual birding holiday on Shetland with Bradders Birding Tours (Proprietor: D. Bradnum; Vice-President (Finds): H. Vaughan). This year's crew was a man down on last year's as Team Sommelier Jono Lethbridge was otherwise engaged, galivanting even further afield. So it came to be that we found ourselves in smaller but classier than usual accommodation - a little croft way out west on Mainland Shetland in a place called Riskaness.

Goosander, Musselburgh, 2nd October

Redshank, Musselburgh, 2nd October

Pink-footed Goose, 2nd October

Curlew, Musselburgh, 2nd October
Howard has already chronicled the trip more extensively and poetically than I could hope to in his excellent Blue-eyed Birding blog - so my digested read is as follows. Apart from yomping through the vast iris beds of Quendale - which is every bit the 'Lord of the Rings' scene that it sounds - and sprinting down the road from Loch Spiggie to Scousburgh beach for the Least Bittern - during which time my fitness training on the bike really paid off as I left several birders for dust en route - physical exertion was limited to sitting in the back of Bradders' car and lifting my arm to add mega-tick after mega-tick to my bulging notebook.
Velvet Scoter, Musselburgh, 2nd October - we called in on the way north to Shetland to see the long-staying King Eider

Methil power station, 2nd October

Black Scoter (lower centre), Cocklawburn, Northumbs, 1st October - we stopped over nearby on the way north to look for this bird - terrible photos but a photo 'tick' for me

The bright yellow knob of the Black Scoter's bill was visible from distance - better scope views than these poor photos suggest!
It was an extraordinary trip during which I saw: 4 species new to my British list (Pechora Pipit, Lanceolated Warbler, Least Bittern and White's Thrush); 1, potentially 2, firsts for Britain (the Least Bittern and the Great Grey Shrike showing features of the race homeyeri); 2 American wood warblers (both Myrtle Warblers - almost the most numerous Warbler on Shetland this year); and a second for Shetland (Magpie). Plus they all showed pretty well except for the White's Thrush, of which I had to settle for flight views in the pouring rain of our last day.
Pechora Pipit, Hillswick, 3rd October

Pechora Pipit - the first I had seen on our first day on Shetland

Lanceolated Warbler, Wester Quarff, 4th October - found by our good friends Nick and Claire Oliver
The Lancy was my second lifer in 2 days on Shetland
We may not have achieved much in the way of finding birds - a Grey Phalarope at Melby being our most notable discovery - but we enhanced our reputation as the best fed birders on Shetland with some sumptuous home-made meals and a selection of shop-bought, pie-based luncheons.
Olive-backed Pipit, Aith, 3rd October

Possible Homeyer's Great Grey Shrike, Hillswick, 3rd October

Possible Homeyer's Great Grey Shrike, Hillswick, 3rd October

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Sullom
Whilst away from home, the only possible additions to the non-motorised year list which I missed were a couple of distant Grey Phalaropes at Charmouth and Chesil which may in any case have been out of reach, even if I'd been at home. I really needed a good workout on the bike by now but the rarities had other ideas, and news of a Blackburnian Warbler on the Isles of Scilly proved too much to resist. I returned the favour of Bradders driving me to Shetland by driving him, plus Phil Saunders and Paul Welling, to Penzance, where we boarded Scillonian III and, long story short, after a couple of bouncy boat rides were watching one of the brightest and most exquisite birds any of us had ever seen in Britain.
The Waddle - our accommodation on Shetland


Glaucous Gull, Lerwick Harbour

King Eider, Scalloway, 5th October
So by the weekend after my return, there was some serious catching up to do both in terms of my fitness and getting back to focusing on the non-motorised yearlist. I recounted in an earlier post how the Barred Warbler at West Bay provided the opportunity to do both. A patch Barnacle Goose the following day required much less effort but kept the list ticking along nicely. But with the dark nights drawing in, there were no further opportunities to get out after work mid-week so my ability to add any more to the yearlist would depend on the final weekend of the month. 

Shetland Wren, 5th October

Red Grouse, Walls, 5th October

The first Myrtle Warbler of the week on Shetland at Ellister

Myrtle Warbler, Ellister, 5th October
I had no particular plan but fortunately Phil Saunders was again on hand to provide one, locating a Pallas's Warbler at St Aldhelm's Head on the morning of Saturday 29th. I had some work to do and headed down as soon as I could and, although only 9 miles away, it was tough going into the wind, especially the last few miles up and over the Purbeck ridge. Unfortunately, on arrival I could find nothing but Chiffchaffs in the spot where Phil had seen the Pallas's and although I heard what I thought was the Pallas's call once, it wasn't enough to add it to the yearlist. 

Willow Warbler, Dale of Walls, 6th October

Red-throated Diver, Melby, 6th October

Otter, Melby, 6th October

Ruff, 6th October
On the way back to the road I passed a group of trees by the Weston Farm Coastguard building which held a tit flock, and despite catching a glimpse of what looked like a silky white underside within the flock, the owner of said underside didn't reappear for the next 15 mins. My eldest son was home from Uni for the weekend and I had promised to make dinner for him and his girlfriend, plus my other son and his girlfriend, so I reluctantly gave up and headed home to put a venison casserole in the slow cooker. 

The second Myrtle Warbler of the week - less than a mile from the first - at Bigton, 7th October 

Showing a flash of yellow rump

Both Myrtle Warblers fed at ground level

A very charming bird
As I was doing so, news came through that the Pallas's Warbler had been relocated - with a tit flock very close to the spot where I thought I might have seen it! Going back would have been unreasonable, especially as it was even wetter and windier by now than it had been in the morning. But the relationship between my birding by bike decisions and reason is tenuous at the best of times, so back I went, despite a warning from Phil that, although he had seen the bird again, it was a brief and difficult view as it was now in and out of gardens opposite the Coastguard where lines of sight were obscured.

My 'in the field' view of Britain's first Least Bittern - about 20 ft away but hidden in marram grass, it was hunkered down but facing me. The yellow around the eye can just be seen

We were close by when news broke and among the first dozen or so people to see the Least Bittern which was picked up and taken into care shortly afterwards

A tragic sight to see this tiny heron which had just crossed the Atlantic too weak to resist when picked up to be taken into care

It looked a bit feisty when first picked up but didn't survive the night
It seemed like a long shot for such a tricky bird and in deteriorating weather, but I knew Jol Mitchell was on the way there and we agreed that if I dipped I could at least sling the bike of the back of his car for a lift home. Arriving shortly before 1600 in rapidly fading light, I joined Jol sheltering from the rain by the Coastguard building. 
Magpie at Sandness - a Shetland mega, only the second record - 8th October
Goldcrest, 8th October

Fulmar, 8th October

Grey Phalarope - shamefully, our best team find of the week on Shetland!
Eventually I walked around to the other side of the building, and no sooner had I done so than the Pallas's Warbler dropped down in front of my face calling! I shouted to Jol but he didn't hear me, and despite the bird heading his way he didn't see it either. Bad news for both of us in that he had dipped and I would now have to reject the offer of a lift and complete the journey home by bike to add the bird to the yearlist!
The Pallas's Warbler was too quick to photograph - so here are some of the Blackburnian Warbler on Bryher, 15th October

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler
Fortunately the strong wind was now behind me so it was no great hardship. Topping 32mph down the precipitous Kingston Hill, after two trips to the coast and 36 miles cycled in total, I was still home with plenty of time to complete dinner for the lovebirds and reflect on the tally for October. 152 miles were cycled in total and 3 new birds were added during what was left of the month after the Shetland trip, bringing the non-motorised yearlist to 214, compared to 209 at the end of October last year. 10 more species would see me match last year's total of 224 - but time is running out!

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Tuesday, 25 October 2022

September's birding by bike

Last September was seriously hard work for building my non-motorised year list: I cycled over 250 miles and added just 2 species to the list (Wryneck and Little Stint). It wasn't 'wasted effort' of course, as staying in shape is part of the purpose of the exercise - but it's fair to say the reward to effort ratio could have been more favourable. September 2022 was a bit of a contrast as a steady stream of minor rarities kept me on my toes.

Whinchat, Wareham Common, 4th September

Garganey, Piddle Valley, 6th September
The first week of the month had been quiet but by Saturday the 10th things were moving with a smattering of Wryneck sightings across Dorset. None of them had really been pinned down so I decided to head to Durlston in the hope of finding my own. A pleasant walk along the coast path and back via the ridge didn't produce one. It later emerged that, unbeknown to me, around the time I was locking up my bike, the ringers were pulling one out of a net about a hundred yards away! 
Wheatear, Durlston, 10th September

Adonis Blue, Durlston, 10th September
As I was arriving at Durlston, another Wryneck had been reported at Lytchett Bay and I thought I might head there later if I had no luck at Durlston. Although this would involve retracing my steps for the 11 mile journey home and then carrying on for another 6 miles around Poole Harbour, I was feeling fresh enough to go for it. Unfortunately, the Lytchett bird also appeared to have moved on but as I searched for it, local birder James Leaver incredibly found a third Wryneck - his second in as many days - on Creech Heath, just 4 miles from home in Wareham. After returning home from this frustrating double-dip I grabbed some food and arranged to meet Steve Smith at Creech in the hope of relocating James's bird. 
Old Harry Rocks from Durlston, 10th September

Red-necked Phalarope near Abbotsbury, 11th September

At first glance we didn't fancy our chances as we arrived to find a site with plenty of dense cover in which a small, cryptically plumaged bird could hide. But after not too long a likely looking movement in distant gorse caught our eye, then, after we had advanced much closer, we had a brief but conclusive view of the Wryneck in flight.

Little Grebe, Wareham Common, 

Barn Owl, Wareham Common
After missing two Wrynecks earlier in the day it was very satisfying to finally catch up with one, and we hung around hoping for further views. As we did so, I heard the unmistakable call of a Bee-eater to the north. I called it immediately and within seconds Steve, who was in a slightly more elevated position, picked it up in flight. I ran to his side and managed the briefest of glimpses as it swooped low and then out of view. Whilst the briefness of the view was a bit frustrating, it was academic in terms of being added to the year list as I allow myself to count 'heard only' birds - so onto the list it went as species number 207 for the year.
Cattle Egret with Little Egrets in the Piddle Valley, 17th September

Black-tailed Godwit, Swineham, 17th September
After 36 miles that Saturday bombing back and forth in search of Wrynecks, I could really have done with a rest day on Sunday 11th - but the birds had other ideas. My neighbour Trevor Warwick located yet another Wryneck, even closer to home on Wareham Common. I joined him and as we tried in vain to relocate it, news broke of a Red-necked Phalarope on a tiny shooter's pool above Abbotsbury in west Dorset, a 54 mile round trip from where I stood. 
Along the River Frome, 17th September

River Frome, 17th September
This offered the chance to claw back a species which I had missed in the spring as work commitments kept me in Reading the very night that one was located with a wader flock at Studland. It was a one night only bird and a highly desirable one at that. So the opportunity to add this species to the year list was not to be missed. It was a measure of my improving fitness that, although I didn't leave Wareham until after lunchtime, I made it to the Phalarope site and was still back in time to rustle up dinner that evening. 
Parasol mushroom 17th September

Same mushroom 2 days later
Four days later and another opportunity to add to the year list arose in the form of a mystery Wagtail at Lodmoor. Initially reported as Eastern Yellow, opinion later veered towards Citrine with the possibility of a hybrid also being actively considered. It was certainly an ambiguous bird with a completely different pattern on the left-hand side of the head compared to the right. At the time I went to see it the identification was still being debated, but I figured either way it was probably going to be a Dorset tick so took advantage of the light evenings to cycle down after work, see the bird and treat myself to pie and chips at my favourite Preston chippy on the way home. Sound recordings subsequently confirmed the tentative identification of Citrine Wagtail so onto the list it went.
Citrine Wagtail, Lodmoor - the left hand side of the head looked good for Citrine...

Citrine Wagtail - the more confusing right hand side!
The following weekend was extended by the unexpected bank holiday granted to mark the Queen's funeral. After British Cycling (now sponsored by Shell(!)) made a crass announcement discouraging *any* cycling on the day of the funeral I felt almost morally obliged to head out on the bike. Imagine the RAC or AA advising motorists not to drive! As it happened, news broke early that day of a Rose-coloured Starling on Portland - another species I had missed earlier in the year in Swanage due to work commitments keeping me away from home, so I could not afford to take second chances and was on the road soon after. 
A long-staying Wood Sandpiper at Swineham, 18th September

The Wood Sandpiper was joined by a Little Stint on 20th September
I packed double the normal amount of fluids and food assuming that every shop would be shut as a mark of respect, but was surprised to find that all the garages remained open. Clearly selling fossil fuels was not disrespectful the late monarch at all. And when I reached Weymouth it seemed that you could even buy a Greggs pastie, as long as it was from a Greggs within a garage, and the sale of the pastie was therefore incidental to the sale of the fossil fuel. Priorities!
Ruff, Blackwit and Lapwing at Swineham, 20th September

Ruff at Swineham, 20th September
On the way down to Weymouth I respectfully observed the 2-minute silence at the viewpoint overlooking the Osmington White Horse, carved in tribute to Elizabeth's great-great-great-grandfather George III. From there a rapid descent into Weymouth was followed by the gentle inclines of the Rodwell Trail to Ferrybridge before the daunting climb up the north face of the Isle of Portland. For the first time ever I made the ascent without getting off the bike to push, and within a few minutes was turning into Reap Lane. For the second time this year Julian Thomas was on hand to point out the Rose-coloured Starling immediately.
Green Woodpecker, Lodmoor, 19th September

Bearded Tit, Swineham, 19th September
Whilst I paused for breath and took some record shots, news came through of a Red-backed Shrike at Lodmoor. This would be a good year tick and was conveniently on the way home so I packed away the camera and retraced my steps. The Shrike had been found by Brett Spencer who provided some helpful directions to its location on the old tip, where Dave Bishop, last seen in a pub car park in Hampshire when I cycled to Blashford for a White-winged Tern, was watching the bird. The Shrike performed nicely, completing a two-tick day and putting a spring in my step for the 17 mile journey home. 
Rose-coloured Starling, Portland, 19th September

Rose-coloured Starling, Portland, 19th September
The Shrike turned out to be the last species I would add to the non-motorised year list in September, bringing the total to 211 (compared to 204 at the same stage in 2021). 222 miles had been cycled and 6 new species added during the month - a significantly better reward to effort ratio than September 2021!
Red-backed Shrike, Lodmoor, 19th September

Red-backed Shrike, Lodmoor, 19th September