Wednesday 31 December 2014

2014: retrospection and introspection

So that's it then, another year gone, and what to show for it? Well some fond memories for starters; a creaking hard-drive full of fair to middling bird photos; 8 new ticks for my British list, taking the total to 443 (BOU); and, subject to the due process of official rarity recording, a possible footnote in Dorset birding history for turning up a county sub-species first. Which makes it 'better than average' by any objective assessment. Highlights below.
Bridled Tern: Bird of the Year? Read on...
Ticks: a pretty good year by recent standards for my British list with a tick per month from January through to July. First up a flock of Parrot Crossbills in Nottinghamshire (Jan); followed up by a mammoth Myrtle Warbler twitch (Feb); and an even more mammoth American Coot twitch (March). Excellent company on the first and last of these (with family for the Parrots, and new friends Dave, Andy and Chris for the Coot). April produced a Baikal Teal twitch (with Jol) which I haven't officially 'counted' yet pending the final verdict on its provenance. May looked like breaking my run of luck until Paul Morton came up trumps with the Short-toed Eagle on the last day of the month. June saw me heading off to Norfolk for a long-staying Spectacled Warbler and while I was unable to get away for the Norfolk Great Knot at the start of July, I still managed a tick that month by heading back to the Farne Islands for the returning Bridled Tern.
Eastern Crowned Warbler, Cleveland, October. 3rd record for Britain.

With the onset of high summer it was always going to be difficult to keep up the rate of a tick-a-month, and sure enough when my August pelagics failed to turn up the hoped for Fea's Petrel (there was one on the Monday before I arrived on the Friday) it was back to the listing doldrums. September added nought and October looked like doing likewise until an Eastern Crowned Warbler rocked up at its fag end to provide a timely reminder that despite the pressures of work and duties of family, there will still be times when the stars align to grant me time off for a monster twitch. One more lifer this year to bring up 444 would have been nice, but unless the dull thud I just heard outside was not a firework but a wandering Little Bustard hitting the French windows I think we can safely say that's going to have to wait for 2015.
Oh go on then, for Auld Lang Syne: Northern Harrier/Marsh Hawk, Portland, April.
Finds: pretty duff, as usual, though my first nationally significant one occurred in April, even though I didn't know what it was at the time: the Portland Northern Harrier generated a lot of interest despite the fact I was the sole observer. It was only identified thanks to the sharp eyes of Martin Cade after I sent him a heavily cropped shot of what I had dismissed as a common or garden Hen Harrier. My second best find wasn't even a bird: it was a butterfly, an exquisite and rare aberration of Painted Lady, known as rogeri, which caused a stir among lepidopterists.
Painted Lady, aberrant form rogeri, Purbeck, July
County list: this was always going to have to slow down one year after a run of good years since moving down here in 2007. And 2014 was that year. I just about kept it from flat-lining with relatively easy, nay borderline embarrassing, Dorset ticks like Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Great White Egret and Honey Buzzard which had thus far eluded me. Slightly rarer but still not nationally big news were a Temminck's Stint, a Hooded Crow, a Caspian Gull, a Goshawk and a pair of Tundra Bean Geese, while pride of place went to a Dusky Warbler and, of course, the Short-toed Eagle. If the Marsh Hawk gets elevated to full species status one day that will be a nice one to add from the armchair.
Short-toed Eagle, Morden Bog: bird of the year for many, and not just in Dorset.
Dips: I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention, almost: just 3 involving any distance in fact. First, to Kent in March with Brett and Ken for a Chinese Pond Heron which may or may not make it onto the British list some day. And then Cornwall, so kind to me last year, but not so this: a luckless solo jaunt in search of a Terek Sandpiper in spring (which relocated to Lincolnshire and showed ridiculously well on the concrete apron of a reservoir); and a vain attempt with Paul and Ant for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in October - an American vagrant which would have got the autumn half-term off to a flying start had it not flown off.
Kumlien's Gull, Littlehampton, February
Bird of the Year: Well, there are three for me this year as I just can't chose between them. The Northern Harrier has to be up there, simply because of the part I played in its discovery. And of course the Short-toed Eagle, not least because it's the only lifer this year that's on my bike list. And, finally, the Bridled Tern, not just for its great rarity, beauty and elegance, but for the sheer effort involved in finally getting to see it at the second attempt.

Month-by-month highlights as follows - including a new feature for 2014 befitting of my general demeanour, 'Moan of the month':

Bird of the month - Parrot Crossbill, gripped back after being out of action with broken collarbone thus missing the initial invasion of late 2013.
Photo(s) of the month - Purple Sandpiper at Sandbanks, just pipping the Kimmeridge Grey Phalaropes.
Moan of the month - flooding.
January: Purple Sandpiper, Sandbanks
Bird of the month - Myrtle Warbler, my second longest twitch of 2014, edging out Kumlien's Gull, the first I have seen in Britain.
Photo(s) of the month - Little Gulls at Cogden.
Moan of the month - silent Siberian Chiffchaffs.
February: Little Gull at Cogden
Bird of the month - American Coot. Under-rated, IMHO.
Photo of the month - probably the American Coot, though mainly due to absence of alternatives.
Moan of the month - shrinkflation.
March: American Coot. A Coot, but American, making it, well, cool.
Bird of the month: the Marsh Hawk, surely, especially as I haven't mentioned it much yet. But Great Spotted Cuckoo and Baikal Teal also deserve a mention.
Photo of the month -  Glaucous Gull in Cornwall, snapped when I should have been at Swineham enjoying the Black-winged Stilts.
Moan of the month - apart from being in Cornwall when the Black-winged Stilts were at Swineham, it has to be acquisition of pets without consultation.
April: Glaucous Gull, Cornwall
Bird of the month - easy: Short-toed Eagle, just 3 miles from home.
Photo of the month - also easy: migrant Wood Warbler at Portland Castle.
Moan of the month - I was obviously having a bad month so take your pick from sporting disappointment, dipping Bee-eaters, or going to the beach. Let's face it, Jesus isn't going to want me for a sunbeam, is he?
May: Wood Warbler, Portland
Bird of the month - Spectacled Warbler. It was freezing for June but who's complaining?
Photo of the month - Bitterns at Ham Wall.
Moan of the month - camping. Notable mainly because it took until June for me to moan about it. Bad backs also featured, not entirely unrelated to camping.
June: Bittern, Ham Wall
Bird of the month - Bridled Tern. No contest.
Photo of the month - Arctic Tern chicks on the Farne Islands. To quote Gru's adopted daughter in Despicable Me: 'It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!'. If this high cultural reference passes you by, check out the Youtube clip here.
Moan of the month - difficult questions.
July: Arctic Tern, Farne Islands
Bird of the month - adult Sabine's Gull from a pelagic out of St Mary's.
Photo of the month - Great Shearwaters on a Scilly pelagic.
Moan of the month - new job cramping birding style.
August: Great Shearwater, off St Mary's.
Bird of the month - Masked Shrike. My second, but who's counting? A good day out with Steve.
Photo of the month - probably the Masked Shrike, again mainly through absence of alternatives.
Moan of the month - patch neglect. More a confession than a moan, but close enough.
September: Masked Shrike, Spurn.
Bird of the month - the Eastern Crowned Warbler: head and shoulders above the not very stiff competition provided by the rest of October.
Photo of the month - AGP in Cornwall. A classic drive-by shooting.
Moan of the month - dipping.
October: American Golden Plover, Cornwall.
Bird of the month - toss-up between Portland Dusky Warbler and Hengistbury Issy Shrike.
Photo of the month - probably the Dusky Warbler, on the basis that any photo of a Dusky Warbler is a good one.
Moan of the month - opulent coastal defences.
November: Dusky Warbler, Portland.
Bird of the month - not sure, either the Portland Barred Warbler or the Swineham Bean Geese. The former definitely more obliging though.
Photo of the month - again, spoilt for choice, but probably between the Portland Barred Warbler and the Swineham Beardies. To the uninitiated, the latter are birds, not Morris dancers or ramblers.
Moan of the month - Swineham. A harsh and unjustified critique really which, in retrospect, says far more about me than it does about Swineham. Take no notice of me, Swineham, I'm just a miserable old git. New Year resolution is to be a bit more positive about you and life in general. Just a bit though.
December: Bearded Tit, Swineham
That's 2014 done then. A big thank you to all the lift-sharers, co-drivers, navigators and fellow dippers whose company I had the pleasure of sharing on the outings documented here - and, of course, to my ever tolerant family for letting me get away with it all. And, last but not least, thank you all for reading. If you are still awake after all that a very Happy New Year to you!

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Eat your heart out, Minsmere

When I started buying books about 'where to watch birds', the authors always recommended Minsmere or Titchwell as great places to go to see Bitterns, Marsh Harriers, Bearded Tits, Avocets, Spoonbills and the like. True, but not as satisfying as seeing them all a short distance from home, as is now possible for me on a good day in Poole Harbour. Today was one such day: it started at a beautifully frosty Swineham, which, goaded by my recent slating of it no doubt, delivered handsomely with a Bittern, a Marsh Harrier, a pair of Beardies and a bonus couple of Jack Snipe. We ended the day with a family stroll around a bird-filled Holes Bay, and a dramatic sun setting behind Avocets, Spotted Redshanks and a pair of young Spoonbills very close to the footpath. One of my best birding days of 2014 (others to be reviewed shortly in the barely-awaited 'review of the year' post).
Male Bearded Tit on a frosty reed head at Swineham. Wow.

Female Bearded Tit. This pair fed just yards from the path for about 20 minutes.
I was insufficiently quick on the draw to catch a Bittern dropping into the reeds in front of me on arrival at Swineham but managed a record shot as it flew away into the light when disturbed by a dog later in the morning.
Two Jack Snipe flushed as I walked out to Swineham Point - contrary to textbook form, rather than plopping down after a short flight, this one did a wide circle around me allowing for a few flight shots.
Compare to this Common Snipe, which has a more prominent white trailing edge to the secondaries, a longer bill and longer wings.
Mute Swan in the frosted fields of Bestwall
Female Stonechat on an icy fence at Bestwall
And a male on the same
Avocet in Holes Bay
Curlew, Holes Bay
Little Egret, Holes Bay
Pintail viewed from the concrete bench at Upton Country Park
To the blog-reading couple who hadn't seen Spoonbill when we met at the concrete bench - I hope you saw them as well as I did on the way back. And Happy New Year!
Both immature birds, told by their pink bills and black in the flight feathers.
The Spoonies were just yards form the path by the PC World drain outflow - a good day for close encounters.
Spotted Redshank - one of 2 in Holes Bay
Teal, Holes Bay

Other normally camera-shy wildlife was also spotted around Holes Bay

Sun setting on waders and ducks in Holes Bay
Oh, and a Black-necked Grebe from yesterday at Studland. Yet more quality birds from the Poole Harbour collection.

Saturday 27 December 2014

And so this is Christmas...

...and what have I done? Well apart from over-indulging in a variety of victuals, solving seemingly intractable Lego-based challenges and spending way too much time with the family, there has been precious little in the way of birding. A quick trudge around a birdless patch therefore seemed in order today. I was hoping it would help me dredge up enough memories for a 'review of the year' post. Not quite, though it did serve as a reminder of all the good birds I have missed at Swineham in 2014. In fact, I managed to display spectacularly bad form in this regard, even by the low standards of my fickle patch-watching career.
A Grey Wagtail brought a dash of colour to Swineham this morning
It all started in April when a pair of Black-winged Stilts appeared no sooner than we had gone to Cornwall for a week's holiday. Others were seeing a Great White Egret in the area through the spring but I failed to connect despite several early morning and late afternoon vigils. The dipping continued into autumn when a White-winged Black Tern eluded me and I failed to connect with Marcus's Yellow-browed Warbler. The Neil Warnock-like run of bad luck finally came to an end in early December when Paul Morton's Bean Geese did the decent thing and stuck around long enough for me to catch up with them.
Shoveler: one of a 40+ flock at Swineham this morning
According to an erratically populated notebook, the Beans were one of only six patch ticks this year. The others - Garganey, Black-necked Grebe, Smew, Egyptian Goose and Turnstone (get in!) - all good patch fare if not exactly patch gold. Not a bad return though, given how little time I spent there: the first part of the year, any spare time I had seemed to be spent chasing around after rarities; the latter part, getting to grips with a new job which had quite an impact on the energy and time I had left for birding anywhere, including Swineham.
Little Grebe at Swineham
Throw in an apparent rise in the number of non-birding visitors (and four-legged ones), and the increase in the use of the gravel pits for water sports, and it seemed at times like I was not the only one who had forsaken the old patch: quite a lot of the bird life seemed to have too! Perhaps in 2015 foul weather, all year round floods and general lack of visitation will bring them back. Well, I can dream, can't I?
A belated Merry Christmas everyone and thanks for reading this year. No snow-covered cliché perches for the Swineham Christmas Robin: he much prefers to rest on expensive optics.

Monday 15 December 2014

You're Barred!

You'd think that drinking fomented apple juice all day and intimidating the locals would be enough to have you barred, but, in this context at least, the adjective applies to the plumage of a rare Warbler and not its bearer being an unwelcome visitor. And far from being unwanted, it has been made very welcome indeed by the offerings of fruit made available by the team at the Portland Bird Observatory, from whose patio I was able to photograph it on Sunday. Whether its long stay has anything to do with it being slightly squiffy, we know not, but I was the latest in a long line of visitors to the Obs who have now enjoyed its showy performances.

Barred Warbler, Portland Bird Observatory garden

'Pick Your Own'. Note the pale iris and scaly flanks
The light was tricky but it would be churlish to complain with such a compliant subject, especially as Sunday's weather was distinctly better than forecast. I had planned a twitchy morning chasing minor rarities around Dorset so after success with the Warbler, my next stop was Bowleaze Cove, northeast of Weymouth, just beyond which a Richard's Pipit has been another long stayer. While the Pipit was reported to be flighty, it didn't take long for a small search party of myself, Jol and Joe Mitchell to locate it - first by its distinctive call, then on the deck feeding among a loose flock of Blackbirds in the corner of a field. It did indeed prove quite flighty, commuting between a field full of Shetland Ponies and Llamas (!) and two other empty ones, but we managed a few record shots between us.
Richard's Pipit, near Osmington - note strong bill and supercilium
I struggled a bit with grim light and a distant bird - but this Siberian vagrant is apparently enjoying our mild south coast winter
The hour approached when I was due to head back with the Mitchells to support my eldest son at an under-12s football match against local rivals Swanage , but news of a Cirl Bunting at Cogden provoked a rethink. A phone call home confirmed his mum was happy to take him so off I shot westwards hoping to catch up with this rare visitor to Dorset - certainly rarer than either of the morning's other star birds. The hat-trick was not to be though, as not even the return of the Cirl Bunting's finder, Al Barrett, to the scene of his original sighting, complete with an enticing meal of birdseed, could persuade it to reappear.
A front view showing the clean underside with streaking restricted to the upper breast and concentrated into a dark wedge on the throat-side
Looking large and long-tailed in flight
The weather worsened as I beat my retreat from Cogden, and just as I was approaching Abbotsbury and wondering whether to stick to the coast road or head home via the inland route, the pager alerted me to a Caspian Gull at Radipole Lake in Weymouth. This species is another rare visitor to Dorset, and typically short staying. You usually have to drop lucky and just be driving past when one is found. Fortunately, that's not far off what happened, and I arrived at Radipole within the half-hour. That was the easy bit though: the next challenge was to find it.
1st winter Caspian Gull, Radipole Lake
In the car park with Herring Gulls behind and Med and Common Gulls in front - note long, pale pink legs and upright posture
I considered the possibilities: if no-one is 'on it' when I arrive, given the state of my large larid identification skills, the number of gulls likely to be at Radipole, and only about half an hour of light remaining, that could be tricky. Worse, perhaps some equally duff birders will be watching what they think is it but it isn't which could be a distraction from the important business of finding it. Third, and least likely of all, some competent birders might actually have it pinned down for me to just pitch up and tick. At times like this you really want to arrive and see someone like, I dunno, Dave Chown or Brett Spencer with their bins and cameras stuck to their face. So it was a great relief to arrive and see, gazing into a pre-roost gathering of about a million gulls, Dave Chown AND Brett Spencer with their bins and cameras stuck to their faces.
About to take to the air...
...and show a saggy belly which is said by some authorities to be a feature of the species
They pointed out the distinctive Caspian Gull which in the end was easier to pick out and follow than I expected, with its gleaming white head and snouty visage. Dave, who first located the bird, and Brett, who found what turned out to be the first record for Britain of this species in 1992, pointed out some key ID features and when it took off shortly after we were able to follow it in the air thanks to its long-necked, long-winged and pale headed appearance. It then landed in the car park for some better photos on the deck and in the air. So the disappointment of dipping Cirl Bunting was quickly forgotten, and a good Dorset tick in the form of Caspian Gull ended a pretty good day. To cap it all Wareham Rangers beat table-topping Swanage 4-1 away. I should bale out on games and parental duties more often. Read the gripping match report here, penned by one member of my Pipit search party from earlier, and documenting a classy goal by the other.
The distinctive plumage made the Caspian Gull quite easy to pick up in flight
Mediterranean Gull, Radipole Lake - taken earlier in the day when the light was kinder