Sunday 30 October 2011

Scilly stuff

Can you name the location of these Scilly specialities?
Owl be seeing you...
'Out of your league, love'...
Only a matter of time...

Scilly bits and bobs

Supporting cast to Scilly rarities featured in other posts this week included:
Chiffchaff - Lower Moors

Gannet - Scillonian III crossing

Pied Flycatcher - The Parsonage, St Agnes

Ravens - St Mary's

Willow Warbler - Old Town, St Mary's

Last day on St Mary's

Determined to end the week's holiday on a high I headed off to Higgo's Pool at dawn this morning in the hope of seeing the Northern Waterthrush one last time. Although it was barely light, I enjoyed my best views yet of the bird. The ring on its right leg, applied several weeks ago during one of its forays to Porth Hellick, can be seen clearly.

Friday 28 October 2011

Red-eyed Vireo on St Mary's

As we were getting off the afternoon boat from St Agnes news came through of a Red-eyed Vireo at Salakee, a 15 minute yomp from the Quay. A stream of birders hastily disembarked, and one or two who waited for taxis arrived shortly after those who left on foot. The Vireo showed fairly well in a Pittosporum hedge catching the last few rays of the day's sunshine. A good adrenalin shot as the week approaches its' end.

Duckpond Warblers

Newford Duckpond is one of many good spots for Yellow-browed Warblers on St Mary's. I spent a happy half hour there taking these pictures today. I'm told they are a doddle to photograph when hopping around the grass and fences of Fair Isles in the autumn - a bit trickier to get a clear shot in the Sallows and Willows of Scilly, but great views of this energetic Sibe.

Aggie. Without Kim.

We enjoyed getting soaked on the way to Tresco so much yesterday we did it again today to get to St Agnes. Seahorse bore us safely across and - in a now familiar pattern - Claire and the boys headed for the beach while I headed off for the birds. Fortunately on this occasion, they were in the same place, Periglis, where a possible eastern race Lesser Whitethroat was hanging out on the rocks and sand. Pining for the desert, perhaps? Or just knackered and staying out of the wind? The bird, carrying a large tick, was sitting still when I arrived looking a bit unwell, but was soon hopping around (and eventually towards) me within a few feet. At times it looked quite spritely, but it is difficult to say whether its apparent fearlessless was a result of tiredness, or could be taken as evidence that it wasn't one of 'our' normally shy Lesser Whitethroats.

My field guide identifies a paler, sandier brown mantle and more white in the tail as differentiating features of halimodendri - or Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat to give it its catchy name. Judge for yourself from these pictures, but to my untrained eyes in the field, the relative lack of contrast between the brown upperparts and grey head was the most notable feature of this bird. What do I know, but it was certainly easier to photograph than any other Lesser Whitethroat I've ever seen!

Thursday 27 October 2011

Dusky indeed...

Dusky Warbler. At dusk, appropriately.
Returning on the afternoon boat from Tresco left just enough time this evening to twitch a Dusky Warbler at Lower Moors - I had heard this bird yesterday giving its tutting call but had yet to see it. This time it was more showy and still reasonably vocal. The light was poor, however, so I was pushing my luck to get this record shot with a high ISO rating.

Cleaning up on Tresco

A whistle-stop tour of the rare and scarce birds (and playgrounds) of Tresco seemed in order today. After an enjoyable soaking on the inter-island launch Britannia, the family headed for the beach while I headed for the Great Pool. A long-staying Lesser Yellowlegs (dwarfed by Redshanks) and Spotted Crake (dwarfed by Moorhens) could be seen well but distantly just a few feet apart. Another long stayer, a Pectoral Sandpiper, was hidden in the reeds at first but eventually came out to feed on open mud with Redshanks.
Pectoral Sandpiper with Redshanks
I caught up with the rest of my crew at the excellent school playground near Old Grimsby - birding Dad's take note - where a brief scan of the fields produced Black Redstart, Whinchat, Curlew and a couple of dozen Red-legged Partridges, seemingly oblivious to the horrors approaching them in the form of tomorrow's shoot. One almost copped it early when a female Merlin dashed through and took a stoop - a bit of a mismatch, I thought, but 10 out of 10 for ambition.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Porth Hellick

Another quiet-ish day on St Mary's with no new major rarities found, though I had yet to catch up with a White-rumped Sandpiper which had been reported at Porth Hellick at various points in recent days. Arriving late in the day I met a birder on the beach who confirmed it was still present on a rocky promontory nearby with Ringed Plover, but by the time I got there only the Ringed Plover were present unfortunately. Being but one member of the family on a family holiday, I'm not always in a position to drop everything for rarities as they turn up but another good thing about Scilly is the tendency of good birds to stick around. As a result - would be Dad's please note - I don't think I've missed much over the years. Hopefully this was the exception to prove the rule. This Whimbrel and Black Redstart showed reasonably well in the fading light. The former revealed a white rump in flight, eliminating the possibility every optimist carries with them - namely that of it being the recently split Hudsonian Whimbrel. 

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Studying Snipe

It was almost dark when I saw the Wilson's Snipe on Saturday, and although only 6 feet in front of the hide at Lower Moors, it was on its own with no Common Snipe for comparison. Better birders than me had clinched the ID with close views of the diagnostic features, and with the help of better photographers, but I was keen to see if I could see and photograph any of them for myself.
Common Snipe (left) and Wilson's Snipe (right)
Common Snipe (left) and Wilson's Snipe (right)
Locating the bird at Lower Moors was quite easy when Common Snipe were present even for non-experts like me, given the more contrasting, less rufous appearance of the Wilson's (see first and second photos). While helpful pointers, however, these differences are not necessarily diagnostic, and a similarly pale Snipe here a few years ago, suspected as a Wilson's, was eventually confirmed as a Common. Several people commented that the head pattern was reminiscent of Jack Snipe and I could see what they meant. The bill also looked shorter, though I guess this could be explained by differences in sizes rather than species.

Wilson's Snipe - showing part of underwing pattern
Wilson's Snipe - underwing pattern
The literature I had read highlighted the key differences as being in the secondary tips, underwing and tail patterns. The light was a bit better today than on my first visit, though the bird more distant. Still, the third and fourth photos above show the strongly barred, darker underwing compared to Common Snipe. The white line on the tips of the secondaries, visible in the fourth photo above, is said to be narrower than Common Snipe though this is difficult to judge without direct comparison, and while it doesn't look particularly narrow in this picture it may be exaggerated by the blur from shooting at a low shutter speed. Yes kids, the camera does sometimes lie. I couldn't get any clear pictures of the tail to show the differentiators there but it was educational to study the bird anyway, even for someone with my tiny attention span.

While googling Wilson's v Common ID features I stumbled across this blog post from the opposite end of the telescope, as it were - a North American trying to clinch Common Snipe ID by comparison to Wilson's - an interesting perspective on the ID conundrum. I live and learn. And pray I never have to claim one myself.
Wilson's Snipe - the rufous in the tail and behind the eye really stood out in
otherwise more contrasting, less rufous plumage than Common Snipe


The discovery of a newly built playground at Porthcressa today kept the kids occupied and left me free to photograph some of the birds on the beach - Rock Pipit, Turnstone, Wheatear and Song Thrush being the most obliging.

Monday 24 October 2011

Northern Waterthrush

Returned to Lower Moors today for a more leisurely look at the first winter Northern Waterthrush, now well into its second month on St Mary's. I know several people who have day-tripped and dipped this bird - some more than once - due to its habit of appearing early morning and late afternoon and going missing for long periods in between. The last couple of days would have been a good time to try again, however, as it has been seen on Shooters Pool and elsewhere at Lower Moors reliably throughout the day. This is thought to be due to several other pools drying up, reducing its feeding options to this one area. Lower Moors itself is surprisingly dry, and Newford Duckpond doesn't have a duck on it on account of the lack of water.

Although the Waterthrush's harsh, loud tzinc call could at times be heard just feet away when it was at the pool just in front of the screen, it could not be seen from this position other than briefly in flight, but it did show readily on a more distant pool where this picture was taken.

A quieter day on St Mary's

After the madness of yesterday, today was a calmer affair spent re-acquainting ourselves with St Mary's. A walk with the family along the beaches of Hugh Town, Porth Mellon and Thomas' Porth produced a Common Seal and a Whinchat. Blackbirds were also very much in evidence - male birds on Scilly show a more reddish-orange bill and orbital ring than the same species on the mainland.
Common Seal - Town Beach

Whinchat - Porth Mellon

Blackbird - Thomas' Porth

Sunday 23 October 2011

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper is possibly my favourite bird on the British list, so seeing this confiding bird stalk up and down the furrows of a bulb field was one of the highlights of a week on Scilly. It would often cross between rows with furtive glances at passing admirers, and whileit could disappearfrom view in the longer vegetation it would on occasion come very close. The daffodils were being harvested on the last day I went to look for it, and this may have encouraged it to move on after a long stay.

Only on Scilly...

...could you see and photograph Northern Waterthrush, Upland Sandpiper, two Olive-backed Pipits and a Wilson's Snipe in two hours car-free birding and still feel hard done by for missing a Scarlet Tanager. But that's how I spent the rest of our first day after my double-dip on the latter.
Northern Waterthrush at Lower Moors
Upland Sandpiper at Borough Farm
Olive-backed Pipit at Watermill
Wilson's Snipe at Lower Moors

One step ahead of me...

With the annual family holiday on Scilly approaching, and with Friday an inset day at school, we were free to head off to Cornwall earlier than usual. News of a Scarlet Tanager near Porthcurno broke on Thursday night, persuading me to bundle the family in the car in the hope of hastening our arrival in West Penwith the following morning. We made it as far as Okehampton before crashing in the nearest Chavelodge, and en route to St Levan the next morning the pager confirmed that the bird was still present.
Arriving at 11:00, it was seen once more in flight by a single observer about 100 yards from where the bulk of the crowd (including me) were standing before vanishing completely. This Robin was one of the few birds present, and I felt slightly mocked by its muted, melancholy sub-song. I hung around until 17:00 when my bored, tired children demanded a change of scene. Shortly after I left the pager reported - erroneously as it turned out - that the bird was still present, at which point I didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Tanager food. But no Tanager.
I returned on Saturday morning just in case and spent another three hours looking at the empty pear tree and elms where the bird had been seen the previous day but to no avail. On the way back to pick up the rest of the family, a scrambled pager message appeared in which I could just make out the gist of 'Sc8rlet Tan&ger'. A bout of cursing ensued until a follow up message revealed that this one was on the Isles of Scilly - where we were heading in a couple of hours time. Hope renewed, we touched down at 14:45 and I was on site by 15:00, only to find that the bird had not been seen since just after 14:00. It was not seen again.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Insert bad bunting pun of your choice

Work was topped and tailed today by quick twitches for two good Dorset birds - a first winter Red-breasted Goose at Stanpit Marsh at first light (too dark and distant to photograph) and a very tame Snow Bunting at Fleet Bridging Camp as dusk approached. The Bunting was a yard or two inside the camp fence, so photographing it through the chainlinks while avoiding an impressive array of dog turds, rather than getting close, presented the main challenge.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Leaving the south coast today? Bad decision...

Short-toed Eagle, French Pyrenees 2006.
Perhaps it's payback time for yesterday's rather smug post about the serendipity of staying on the south coast while many others had gone north for a Rufous-tailed Robin which wasn't there, and getting lucky with an Isabelline Wheatear instead. Family commitments took me inland today, to Warminster. Half-way there and the butterfly-in-the-stomach inducing wail of a pager 'mega-alert' announced a Short-toed Eagle in Devon. And it was heading east. I suggested to my (wholly disinterested) wife that right now Dorset birders would be streaming down to Lyme Regis, or perching on the cliffs of Portland, scanning the skies for this first for the county. Someone must have done so, as it was indeed seen over the sea off Lyme later in the afternoon. A further message suggesting that it had headed back to Exmouth relieved the pain somewhat, but even this turned out to be a dud, torturing me with visions of it cruising along the Dorset coast, whilst I was in land-locked Wiltshire. Small consolation that I have at least seen one - in the Pyrenees in 2006 (see picture).