Monday 25 August 2014

Sea creatures great and small

This time last year I found my sea legs and did three pelagics out of the Isles of Scilly looking for seabirds. I kept my lunch down on each so, thus emboldened, I booked again this year, timed to fit in with a family holiday to Cornwall (they're camping, so I was surplus to requirements). The first two pelagics under the belt were a bit slow on the bird front but enjoyable, highlights being close encounters with a pod of Common Dolphin, a Great Shearwater, a Sooty Shearwater and some diminutive European Storm Petrels - always a marvel to sea these sea-going waifs struggle against the conditions.
A single Great Shearwater swung around the stern of the MV Sapphire before heading out to sea again
A very elegant bird
Far commoner in the waters around our coast is the Manx Shearwater - these two were photographed from the deck of Scillonian III on the way over
This one was photographed from the MV Sapphire looking back at the Isles of Scilly (St Agnes coastguards on the left and lighthouse on the right)
A Manx Shearwater would occasionally follow the boat when we were dragging a bag of chum
This one was mixing it in among the gulls at the back of the boat
A Sooty Shearwater also came in close to the stern
Banking both ways, the autofocus found it surprisingly difficult to lock onto this bird...
A few shots from many taken were sharp, however
This view shows the silvery under-wing...
...and this one the long thin wings...
...while this shows surprisingly long legs, the toes of which protrude beyond the tail in flight
A very feisty bird which showed aggression when fighting for scraps with much larger gulls
The Sooty would land in the wake, take off and catch the boat up at will
Storm Petrel pattering on the surface of the chum slick
A pale phase Arctic Skua caused some consternation among the other seabirds following the boat
Gannets also moved in from time to time
Like the Shearwaters, Gannets also skim the surface with their wingtips
A family party of Common Dolphin joined the boat at one point - this the only sharp shot I managed
A dramatic end to the Friday night pelagic

Thursday 21 August 2014

Long hot summer

Just realised that 8 of my last 10 posts were about Northumberland - so just to clarify, I haven't moved, and I still spent most of the summer in my adopted home of Dorset. The up country trips were holidays/escapism, while back at home, a change of job, and the usual conveyor belt of visitors who tend to roll up when you live in such a wonderful county, have seriously cramped the time and energy I have available for birding lately.

So on the down side, from my point of view, I get less time to immerse myself in this medium, which I now realise has been a good outlet for some creative energy which probably wasn't being used to the full. On the up side, from your point of view, this has put an end to the long, rambling posts beloved of this blog. No more real time reports of 14 hour twitches either - there just isn't the time to go, let alone write them up.

So, in lieu of all that stuff, here's a straight-forward wash up of some local stuff that I saw and did over the summer. Some of it, even if old news now, was pretty cool.
Exciting and frustrating at the same time was the discovery of a small colony of 2nd generation Map butterflies near Swanage by my good friend Steve Smith - their origins unknown.
Expert opinion has leant towards a deliberate release being more likely than a natural colonisation - if so, the misguided individuals who illegally release captive bred, non-native butterflies into the wild, rather than helping biodiversity, are in fact obscuring the reality of what's happening in the countryside.
The underside, dissected by trunk and branch lines, does indeed look like a 'Map'
This Hummingbird Hawkmoth spent a couple of days in my kitchen in mid-August. Attracted by lavender in the garden, it secreted itself behind curtains at night.
A Wasp Spider - a large female - was the highlight of a rare visit to Swineham
This Hobby caused panic among large flocks of hirundines at Swineham
A roosting Southern Hawker was also at Swineham

Saturday 16 August 2014

Stoatally devoted

Such a devoted husband and father am I that I dragged my entire family to Northumberland recently, forced them onto a boat and made them visit some islands covered in bird poo. Fortunately just the mention of 'poo' is enough to send my young sons into hysterics, so in the end it was a win-win really. They retaliated by dragging me around some castles and beaches, and I then had the last laugh by dragging them around the nature reserve at Hauxley, scene of one of my most spectacular dips (Greater Yellowlegs, 2011). This visit was rather happier - no mega-rare birds to pursue or anything like that, but a lot of flora and fauna to appreciate at this excellent Northumberland Wildlife Trust site. Highlight was a Stoat which showed itself a couple of times in the car park.
Small Copper
Pheasant among a stunning array of wildflowers in the car park at Hauxley
We don't get many Tree Sparrows in Dorset so a treat to see good numbers around Hauxley and Cresswell
Juvenile Tree Sparrow

Thursday 7 August 2014


The winding down of the seabird breeding season on the Farne Islands must bring mixed feelings for the islands' wardens. On the one hand, the chance to get home for a wash; on the other, an end to one of the most exhilarating wildlife experiences on the planet. It certainly reads that way on the excellent Farne Islands blog. We spent a day there at the back end of July which is well past the peak time for breeding auks. Most of the Guillemots and Razorbills had left, but there were plenty of Puffins still on the islands. The soundscape, however, was dominated by the Kittiwakes. With the cliffs to themselves, and only the guttural noises of Puffins and Shags to compete with, it was easy to get the kids tuned in to their distinctive call, and they repeated it all the way home. And the next day. And the next day...
Juvenile Kittiwake - a beautiful plumage in my view
Kittiwake - adult
Nicely backlit on the cliffs of Staple Island
A very young bird still with downy feathers
Adult Kittiwake
Kittiwake panting on the nest
Juvenile Kittiwake

Sunday 3 August 2014

A week in waders

Waders dominated the last week's birding during a family holiday in Northumberland - twenty-one species in all without really trying too hard. Top marks for rarity went to a Collared Pratincole and a Stilt Sandpiper (which I never managed to photograph), but just as rewarding was time spent on various beaches with some less celebrated, but still very attractive species:
Sanderling: a characterful and beautiful bird in almost any plumage - this one sporting the rufous face of summer plumage
Sanderling: one of a small flock on the beach near Amble
Sanderling: a roosting bird
Sanderling: looking more like a spring-plumaged bird
Sanderling captured in motion - not easy given the speed at which they run
Sanderling: another one at a canter
A flock of Sanderling roosting on a rocky promontory - with patience I got pretty close and managed to leave the flock undisturbed. This almost cost me wet feet though as the tide came in behind me - just below the welly-tops fortunately
Sanderling close-up 
Part of a Sanderling flock in flight
A few Dunlin were with the Sanderling flock
This was as close as I got to a (Red) Knot - a small flock in flight with Curlew
Ringed Plover
Golden Plover - a small flock were on the beaches around Holy Island
Avocet in flight at Cresswell Ponds

A Pacific Golden Plover in Staffordshire on the way home, just a four mile detour from our route, would have made it 22 waders for the trip. Unfortunately, it chose the hour before our arrival to disappear after having been a sitting duck for most of the previous week. Spooked, no doubt by the spectre of Mitchell and Son, who arrived to dip it too en route to Derby shortly before ourselves as we headed in the opposite direction. This Little Ringed Plover was one of several at Middleton Lakes RSPB where the Pacific Golden Plover had been seen.