Monday 27 April 2015

Ticking over

If you had told me at the start of April that I could add Great Blue Heron and Hudsonian Godwit to my British list by the month's end I'd have taken it, but I would scarcely have believed it possible. While both these birds were an unexpected bonus, April was always going to be a good month for boosting the 2015 photo yearlist, folly that it is. I say folly on the basis that I was never going to get to an impressive, let alone a record breaking, tally. But having cruised past 150, 200 now looks eminently achievable. In fact, I would be disappointed not to get to this landmark; delighted to get to 250; and to reach 300, well, I would either have to be unemployed, or divorced, and probably both. So perhaps best not to aspire to that as a target...Anyway, after the veritable tick-fest which was the Somerset Levels on Saturday, Sunday was spent with the family, participating in the Great Dorset Beach Clean, followed by more leisurely pursuit of a few returning migrants around Purbeck:
Nightingale (#161)
Two Reed Warblers (#162) were singing close together in a small reedbed on Studland
After some verbal jousting, they came together and became locked in mortal combat
The bird on the left established its superiority, almost drowning the bird on the right
The dominant bird flew off, leaving this one battered - but still alive
Common Whitethroat (#163)
Oh, and a late one from Friday night: Black Redstart (#164) at Swineham - a patch tick (cheers Marcus) sandwiched between 2 lifers in successive weekends - not a bad spell!

Sunday 26 April 2015

Meare Heath extras

As well as yesterday's star bird, the Hudsonian Godwit, Meare Heath also produced a few more good species - all seen from the same spot whilst watching the Hudwit.
Hudsonian Godwit
Hudsonian Godwit - 156th species photographed in Britain this year
Common Cranes - presumably from the local reintroduction scheme, so 'untickable' for the photo list
This one's OK though: Great White Egret, one of two seen (#157)
First Hobby of the year (#158)
Little Ringed Plover (#159)
Wood Sandpiper (#160)

Saturday 25 April 2015


I have raved before about the Somerset Levels - surely one of the best inland locations for birding in Britain, and pushes some of the coastal hotspots close too. Today the area came up trumps again with a Hudsonian Godwit, possibly only the third individual recorded in Britain as the first three records were thought to have involved the same bird. News of its discovery broke sufficiently early for me to get there by mid-morning, wait for it to fly around a bit for photos of the striking black underwing, and get home in time for a family trip to the cinema (Avengers: The Age of Ultron. Go see it. Almost as good as a Hudsonian Godwit).
The black underwing coverts made it easy to pick out in the flying flock...
...but not that easy to photograph.
The flock had been distant but came to rest much closer
A less prominent wing bar and narrower tail band compared to Blackwit
Also a more upturned bill is obvious here
A much darker bird than the Blackwits
Where's Wally? (Click to enlarge)
The Hudsonian Godwit often showed aggression to its cousins
A bit more mellow here
More underwing action
And one final flash of this distinctive feature
'Is there something interesting about?' asked a passer-by

Monday 20 April 2015

Also on Scilly...

The Great Blue Heron eclipsed most other news from Scilly this weekend, and while we missed what looked and sounded like a fantastic day on Sunday, there were still a few scarce species and migrants to catch up with after we left the Heron on Bryher on Saturday lunchtime. Best of these was probably a Jack Snipe which bobbed comically outside the ISBG hide at Lower Moors - on the pool which has had the privilege of playing host to both of Britain's Great Blue Herons.
Jack Snipe, Lower Moors (152nd species photographed in Britain this year)
Jack Snipe
Common Snipe for comparison - bill length and size the most obvious differences
As well as being on the first boat over to Bryher on Saturday morning, we were also on the first boat off at 1330, having spent several hours admiring the Heron. Although tempted by Tresco's Black Duck, it would have complicated the logistics and involved travelling back in an open boat as opposed to the covered luxury of the Falcon, so we headed straight back to St Mary's for a few hours leisurely birding before our return flight. If there were Scilly Shrews on Porthloo Beach they were keeping their heads down, though Wheatear, Whimbrel and White Wagtail provided an alliterative trio of birds to admire.
Wheatear, Porthloo
Whimbrel (#153), Porthloo
White Wagtail, Porthloo
Moving on to Lower Moors I saw my first Sedge Warbler of the year, hopping around the reed stems of Shooters Pool. I heard one on the way to work on Friday but didn't have time to stick around to look for it. A Heron dropped in out of nowhere but sadly it was not the Great Blue returning, just a regular Grey Heron. But it did give some idea of how awesome the views must have been for those fortunate enough to see the GBH from this spot.
Sedge Warbler (#154), Lower Moors
An obliging bird
The sound of the camera caught its attention
I have travelled to the islands many times in autumn, but it was the first time I had been there early enough in the year to see Bluebells. There was a good display of these and wild garlic in several places, the Old Town churchyard, where we failed to find a Wryneck, providing one of the best, along with close views of Song Thrushes, which are famously tame on Scilly, and the local Blackbirds.
Blackbird, Old Town Churchyard
Song Thrush, Old Town Churchyard
All too soon it was time to head back to the airport for our return flight. Sitting in the departure lounge tired, wind-blasted but happy, it was quite a contrast to the emotions of doing the same on the mainland 10 hours earlier. We approached Lands End in glorious sunshine, a fitting end to a successful and very enjoyable day.
Grey Heron, Lower Moors
Compare to the Great Blue Heron in the previous post
Swallows at Porthloo found rich pickings over a smelly bit of seaweed (#155)
Their flight speed dropped as they approached enabling a few shots to be taken

Sunday 19 April 2015

A shocking case of GBH

When Britain's second Great Blue Heron was discovered on the Isles of Scilly on Tuesday I didn't hold out much hope of it staying until the weekend, as many spring rarities tend not to hang around. But when it was still present on Wednesday evening, Steve Smith and I resolved to make plans to go on Saturday as long as positive news came out early on Thursday. In the end, the news was not good throughout most of Thursday until, at the very end of the day, around the time when twitchers who had spent all day failing to see the bird were still on Scillonian III and docking in Penzance, it was re-found on Bryher's Great Pool. Several would no doubt have thrown themselves overboard had they been a little further out at sea.

Bryher's Great Pool is not very great, and we had visions of the first hikers or dog walkers of the morning flushing the bird to who knows where, so we determined that if we were to go Saturday, it would have to be as early as possible. My normal preferred mode of transport to Scilly, the Scillonian, was leaving an hour late due to tides, and the thought of a long boat journey followed by a stressful island-hopping session with limited time to see the bird really didn't appeal. So we resolved to fly, and I reached for the most unloved book on my birding bookshelf: the cheque book.
The GBH: it caused a fair amount of GBH to the nervous systems of British twitchers this week
On Thursday night the Isles of Scilly Travel Company's website, cunningly designed to prevent would-be passengers booking or paying for anything, frustrated our attempts to put a firm plan in place, so first thing Friday Steve was on the phone in a queue securing two early flights for Saturday morning. As well as not being keen on sailing over, we weren't keen on the idea of awaiting the first scheduled inter-island launch of the morning to get us to Bryher, so Steve chartered a luxury jet boat, gambling (successfully as it turned out) that we would be able to fill any spare seats with other early birders, bringing the costs down to something manageable.

So with plans confirmed, only fog could stop us now. Or perhaps high winds. Maybe mechanical failure. Not forgetting extreme tides, logistical incompetence, car breakdown, roadworks on the A30, sleeping through the alarm or having a catastrophic last minute loss of bottle. Yes, only those things could stop us now. I got a surprisingly good night's kip before Steve tapped at the door at some ungodly time, and pausing only to pick up the third member of our party, Richard Webb, who was on the same flight, thus reuniting 75% of our Dorset birdrace team, we headed west into the night.
The Bittern-like posture adopted by the GBH in response to mobbing by Gulls
Devon came and went, our progress through Cornwall went smoothly and we made the airport in good time. Sitting in the departure lounge, preparing to board, we found ourselves slightly disconcerted at the absence of news from the archipelago. The thought of going all that way and not seeing the bird hadn't really occurred to us until then, and moments after it was voiced I found my adrenalin and sunny optimism crash and burn in unison. But there was no going back: my camera bag was already on the conveyor belt. Then the thrill of flying - a rare indulgence for me - took my mind off it for a bit. Our captain ably landed us in the high winds which buffeted St Mary's airfield, taxis spirited us to the quayside and after a half-hour wait we were piling on to our charter with a dozen other nervous souls.

Some twitchers go to pieces at times like this, losing tripods, mobile phones, car keys etc in their single-minded pursuit of a rare bird. So, as we pulled away from the quay, it was no great surprise when one of our boarding party announced he had left his wallet in the taxi, and, abandoning his telescope, leapt back on to the quay at some personal risk to himself, ignoring the entreaties of the rest of us to retrieve it later. At least his mate was on board to look after his gear, but was unable to persuade the skipper, whose propeller was dangerously close to hitting the bottom, to wait or go back when the hapless jumper reappeared at the top of the steps waving his arms and begging to be let back on. Had a vote been taken at this point about whether or not to return, I am not sure the human spirit would have been cast in the best possible light. Fortunately, the laws of the sea are not subject to the whims of democracy, and the captain's decision being final, off we steamed in the direction of Bryher.
The Heron was imperious in flight
As we made our way up the narrow channel between Tresco and Bryher it became apparent that we would not reach Bryher's stone quay due to the low tide. So began a comical decant mid-channel into a small motorised dinghy which beached and unloaded us on to the sand. This took two journeys, and although we were in the second, a brisk walk soon brought the original landing party back in sight a few hundred yards ahead of us. They stopped a good distance from the Great Pool, having previously agreed that whoever got there first should approach carefully, and could be seen setting up telescopes. Whether it was the high fives, air punching or back slapping I'm not sure, but something about the body language suggested that the GBH might just still be present. I quickened my pace, raised my bins and there it was: Great Blue Heron, on the far side of the pool strutting majestically among the bankside vegetation.

We watched for a few minutes from our distant vantage point, I took a few very poor record shots, and then some walkers appeared from the beach, the Heron put up and started flying straight towards us. Oh dear: we had seen it, but if it kept going, the next boatload, and the hordes who we assumed would be just getting comfortable on the Scillonian, would not. Accusations of flushing on Birdforum by the sourpuss trolls who live under its many dark bridges would surely follow. Worst of all, the pal of Man Overboard, who had been watching the GBH through Man Overboard's telescope, would have to break this news to his driver for the trip. That could be a frosty journey home, we thought.
'It's coming right at us!'
Fortunately, the Heron seemed to be struggling in the strong easterly wind, and after a short flight over our heads it dropped into a nearby field where it remained until we left at 1230, moving only to stretch its neck in an attempt to make itself look big and hard in response to repeated mobbing by Herring and Black-backed Gulls. It didn't have to try too much: it looked pretty big and hard as it flew over us, and was clearly more massive than our own Grey Herons. Eventually, the next boatload arrived, having yomped across Tresco and waited on the shore for the tide to drop before they could make the walk to Bryher with dry feet. Man Overboard was reunited with his scope and his nearly ex-friend, and, in that moment, all seemed well with the world.

I fumbled, and failed, to find the right exposure in the morning gloom - but photos weren't the priority: I had just seen a Great Blue Heron in Britain

Sunday 12 April 2015

Back to Purbeck

After the excitement of yesterday's Greater Yellowlegs twitch, I spent a couple of hours closer to home this morning looking for migrants at the excellent Durlston Country Park. I didn't have to go far before stumbling across a cracking male Redstart. After that it proved to be harder going, though plenty of Blackcap were in evidence and I also heard my first Whitethroat of the year.
Male Common Redstart
Male Blackcap (#147)
Having checked the meadows and scrub it was down to the cliff edge where I knew I could guarantee adding Fulmar to the photo year-list. Several duly obliged and a Raven also gronked past a few times as I watched.
Fulmar (#148)
As I studied the Fulmars a dark shape came out of the sun, momentarily casting a large shadow over me: Peregrine. It stooped towards the Guillemot colony, honing in on a small party of birds which were flying out to sea, and appearing to grab one in mid-air. Ultimately, it could not hang on to the auk which wriggled free and dropped to the safety of the water.
Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine's legs straddle an apparently prone Guillemot...
...but it managed to turn and get away
A short but productive stop at Soldiers Road on the way home added two photo-ticks to the year list without leaving the car, Dartford Warbler and Woodlark - both Schedule 1 species so photographed from a respectful distance (see here for some sensible advice and a summary of the law on photographing Schedule 1 species). If only some respect had been shown by the two different parties of dog walkers who arrived during the time I was there and ignored the polite but prominent signs asking them to keep dogs on a lead, precisely to protect ground nesting birds such as these.
Dartford Warbler (#149)
Woodlark - a good species to bring up #150 for the photo list in 2015
Male Stonechat