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

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