Friday 31 October 2014

Eastern promise

I was on holiday on the Isles of Scilly when Britain's first Eastern Crowned Warbler was found in Co Durham in 2009, and was disinclined to follow the example of one well known twitcher who left the islands immediately to see it. The second record for the country was identified after the event a few years later, having been pulled out a ringer's net in Hertfordshire and released, never to be seen again.
Eastern Crowned Warbler: the crown stripe can just about be seen here
A rare clear shot in the low canopy favoured by the warbler
So when the third record for Britain was discovered in Cleveland yesterday, on the last day of my week off, this presented something of a dilemma: I was in Cornwall with family and friends - pretty much the wrong end of the country to twitch Cleveland. Against all expectations, permission to go was granted, and when a few phone calls failed to find any willing lift-sharers, I decided to gamble on the bird staying overnight and go alone.
This shot shows a relatively strong greater covert bar and a shorter, paler median covert bar
Another view of the wingbars and a prominent supercilium over a dark eye-stripe
The journey was uneventful, but very long. I stopped at Donnington Park services for a break at 0730 and decided to wait for news before pressing on. But news came through confirming the bird was still present almost immediately so I cracked on. Another positive message half an hour later chivvied me along, but then, with about half an hour to go, the dreaded 'no further sign' message came on the pager. This caused a major adrenaline crash as I contemplated the possibility of retracing my steps empty-handed.
A close up showing the pale median crown stripe
Also a very prominent bill with all orange lower mandible
Fortunately, the news went positive again as I arrived on site, providing the shot in the arm necessary to force my way into the scrum of birders looking for the elusive warbler in a small woodland next to a gold course. Initial views were inconclusive but it eventually showed well and even posed for photos if you were lucky enough to be able to see it when it decided to sit still, as it did for surprisingly long periods between feeding forays. This behaviour reminded me very much of an Arctic Warbler I saw in Norfolk a few years back.
Pale yellow undertail coverts are another feature of the species
Also visible in this shot, contrasting with white under-parts
The jaunt to Cleveland was also an opportunity to initiate my new car into the twitching scene. It performed well and, best of all, frugally, being 'A' rated for efficiency. This not only means that I pay no car tax, and can go into the London Congestion Charge Zone for free, but that I can do Cornwall to Cleveland for less than a mortgage and with so few carbon emissions that I am basically doing the environment a favour by driving it there. OK not quite but you get the point. It also has a DAB radio so I had an unlimited choice of stations all playing 'Thriller' or 'Ghostbusters' in their Halloween specials the entire length of the journey there and back. After success with the Warbler, it has already earned the status of my 'lucky car', and I hope it gets to spirit me to another tick some time soon.
Not many key features visible in this shot - but I like it anyway
Eastern Crowned Warbler: 3rd record for Britain

Thursday 30 October 2014

Runway View

Most people run a mile to avoid living near airports. Some spend their lives campaigning against their expansion. Not our friend Doris, though, she loves the big planes so much she bought a house right next to one in Oxfordshire. It was even called 'Runway View', an inspired name which I feel sure the local estate agents counselled against.
Disused airfields are, of course, a bit more benign from a conveyancing point of view, and the one at Davidstow in North Cornwall, now free of disturbance from aircraft, has attracted its fair share of rare birds over the years, particularly waders who favour the short, grazed sward which dominates the areas between the runways.
The latest visitor is an American Golden Plover, not a major rarity, but reportedly approachable and therefore, I felt, worth a look on the way to visit friends in Bodmin. Arriving at the airfield we could see a lone Nissan Micra parked in the middle of the vast expanse of the airfield. So we headed for that, on the edge of the crumbling runway which served during World War II as a base for Wellington bombers conducting anti-submarine patrols over the Channel and Bay of Biscay. Pulling up alongside we asked if there was any sign of the plover and a finger pointed not, as we expected, to some distant horizon, but just a few yards in front of our bumpers.
Retreating to a safe distance to retrieve the camera from the boot, we re-positioned the car alongside and spent a happy hour, albeit in terrible light, photographing the AGP, which stayed put despite the high pitched, persistent sound of children squabbling in the back seat. Well worth a detour if you are on the way to Cornwall or back.

Sunday 26 October 2014

That's the way the cuckoo crumbles...

'Disappointment in reaching an undesired result, with the additional meaning that the result was not entirely an unexpected one'. That's how the Urban Dictionary defines the meaning of 'That's the way the cookie crumbles'. So a very fitting maxim to adapt to describe a failed attempt yesterday to see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Porthgwarra in Cornwall, the idyllic Cornish valley which played host to a Hermit Thrush this time last year.
Not choughed: a couple of Cornish Choughs were the highlight of the visit to Porthgwarra. This one was photographed at the Lizard in April.
Credit for the pun, however, goes to Paul Welling, our driver for the venture, who picked me up at a ridiculous hour of the morning en route from Surrey via Southampton where he collected Ant, the third member of our party. We gave ourselves no more than a 50% chance of seeing the Cuckoo, but still deemed it worth a shot given the rarity of this bird.

Getting on for 100 others obviously thought the same as they assembled at dawn on the chilly downs above Porthgwarra, but we all went home empty-handed as it became apparent that the Cuckoo had either moved on or perished. So I was impressed that Paul could still find some humour in the situation, especially as he had also dipped on the bird on Thursday afternoon.

I could not match him for wit on either leg of the journey, mainly as a result of being unconscious: I fell asleep in the comfort of the back seat on the way there and the way back, courtesy of my lucky pillow which last saw action on the American Coot twitch in March. Perhaps I'll leave it at home next time...

Thursday 23 October 2014

Going cuckoo

North Ron for a Black-billed Cuckoo? No chance. Chimney Swift on North Uist? Highly unlikely. Porthgwarra for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo? Certainly more do-able - in half a day in fact. Sadly, I don't have half a day until Saturday, so it'll just have to wait. Which is unlikely as this species has a track record of snuffing it shortly after arriving. Something to do with their favourite caterpillars in the States looking very much like another caterpillar over here which is poisonous. Unlucky that. Still, perhaps it will have a day's fast and make it through to the weekend. Or rise again after a couple of days absence like a bird on St Agnes in 1980 which became affectionately known as 'Jesus'.

This is, at least, one of the few mega-rare British birds that's on my tiny world list - I saw one in Florida on a rare trip overseas in 2001. Back in those days Claire worked as an event manager for an international conference company. Her job was to recce flash hotels before booking them up in advance of several hundred City types rolling up for the actual event a few months later. So she tended to be treated like royalty, and I would occasionally tag along, enjoying the perks of the honeymoon suite by night and birding the day away while she worked. Not a bad number, which took us to Dubai and South Africa as well as the sunshine state. So, in the absence of any photos of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, either here or in Florida, here's some other highlights from those care-free days.
Anhinga, Everglades National Park, Florida
Tri-coloured Heron, Everglades National Park, Florida. Would settle for one of these on Portland this weekend.

Alligator, Everglades National Park, Florida. A bit of camera shake due to having to kneel down to take this shot and bricking it as it eyed me up for dinner.

Monday 13 October 2014

Memory Lane, Dungeness

Yesterday's post reminded me that while there may be precious little time in my life right now for wildlife watching, let along blogging, I can still take a quick trip down memory lane in the hour between finishing work and falling asleep on the sofa. A timely reminder, dear reader, that this blog is not all about you. It is, of course, mainly about therapy for the author, and after a few weeks of not posting much at all I have decided I need a bit more of that.

Today's metaphorical trip was brought on by the discovery late yesterday of an Audouin's Gull at Dungeness. With a five-meeting day ahead, and a to-do list which would rate highly on Bubo, twitching it would have been impossible. Happily, it was also unnecessary: I was fortunate enough to see the first British record of this species back in May 2003. Claire was big with child at the time - about 7 months worth - and had spent most of her later pregnancy sleeping and doing nothing more eccentric than eating a minimum of 5 whole cucumbers per day.

It was an embarrassing time to be doing the supermarket run, but as Sainsbury's didn't open until 1000, I was free to head out early on the morning of Sunday 5th May to travel the hour from home to the legendary Dungeness peninsular in the hope of seeing migrants and passing seabirds. Having seen not many of either (my dog-eared birdspotter's logbook, making its second appearance this week, records the highlights as Black Tern and Glaucous Gull), I returned home as promised to attend to antenatal duties. These principally involved decorating the nursery, making copious cups of tea as a displacement activity to avoid decorating the nursery, and stocking up on Cucumis sativus*.

The pager then alerted me to the presence of the Audouin's Gull - at Dungeness, from where I had just returned. Had I been the pregnant one, this would have resulted in the immediate onset of labour, but as it was I had to settle for the palpitations, chest pains and cold sweats which, to this day, accompany news of an accessible 'first for Britain'.
Audouin's Gull, Dungeness, 5th May 2003 - first record for Britain
Claire had been so glowing and mellow in recent weeks that I casually suggested I might pop back down to Dunge with some confidence that this would be agreeable, only to find her go all Gandalf on me (click link and watch the first 7 seconds for an explanation). Perhaps I was already coming to terms with the reality of my twitching style being cramped by having a child, but for whatever reason I was uncharacteristically sanguine about it, and after some deep breathing exercises managed to fall asleep on the sofa. On waking an hour later the pager was still persistently reporting the presence of the Audouin's Gull, which had by now been pinned down to the shingle behind the famous fishing boats. Refreshed, I subjected Claire to a barrage of pester power which I like to think stood her in good stead for impending parenthood, and was eventually granted the opportunity to tick and run. This I duly took, and after a mad dash to Dunge and a bit of fuzzy digiscoping (see above), I was good to my word and back in time for dinner. Which was salad, naturally.

* I really wanted to say 'legumes' here as it amused me. Unfortunately, cucumbers are not legumes, but members of the gourd family, which, I am sure you agree, lack the comic potential of the legumes. Hence the resort to the birding blog smart-Alec staple of the Linnean classification for cucumber. Sometimes deference to science and accuracy is just a curse.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Memory Lane, Portland

According to my dog-eared birdspotters logbook (volume 1) it was 16th October 2000 when I saw my first Rose-coloured Starling, a juvenile on a rooftop in a Portland housing estate - 14 years ago, almost to the day. At the time I was living in Kent and was en route to the Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly for the first of many October visits, a trip on which I added Red-eyed Vireo, Solitary Sandpiper and Swainson's Thrush to my British list, the last two on a day trip via Scillonian III.

The birds were great, of course, but one of my abiding memories was driving from Portland, past Abbotsbury towards Bridport along the coast road with a strong south westerly flattening the lush grass and stunted hawthorns, and looking back at the majesty of Chesil Bank and Portland jutting out into the English Channel against foaming seas and azure skies. A magical image, of which I was reminded today as I returned to Portland for another Rosy Starling, on another rooftop, on another housing estate. Not quite as poetic as the coast road, but a happy memory anyway!
Juvenile Rose-coloured Starling
The bird was below a high wall feeding on breadcrumbs when I arrived...
...but eventually did the decent thing and perched up on a photogenic shed
Starling for comparison