Tuesday 16 January 2018

A day out with the buoys

On the Saturday before last I took the boat to Brownsea for a rare winter landing trip. This is usually a great way to get close to waders in front of the hides, and in the days before Christmas, my old friend Hamish Murray, now Dorset Wildlife Trust's Conservation Officer, had been getting great photographs of the long-staying Stilt Sandpiper which had relocated there after extended stays at Lodmoor and Middlebere.
Great Northern Diver, Poole Park. Bonus points for naming the species of crab.
Great Northern Diver, Poole Park 
Unfortunately, on the day of my visit one of the pumps which manages the water levels had broken (pull your finger out, Hamish ;-), and the only waders on the unusually full lagoon were huddled way out on the islands in the middle. Compensation for this slight disappointment came in the form of plenty of good birds, a hunting Peregrine, the resident Red Squirrels and, best of all, the discovery of a Great Northern Diver crabbing the shallows in the unlikely location of Poole Park lake, which I had checked out before boarding the Brownsea boat. I was short of both time and light on that occasion, so I returned this Sunday for another look. It seemed that my luck had run out as park staff were collecting buoys from the Diver's favoured area, pushing it out to the centre of the lake.
Peregrine hunting on Brownsea lagoon, 6th June
Record shot of female Velvet Scoter south of Brownsea, 6th June
After scanning Holes Bay and finding it relatively empty, over a spot of lunch I decided on a change of scene and headed for Ferrybridge, a favourite area for birding at this time of year. I checked out Portland Harbour and photographed some distant Black-necked Grebes before heading for Chesil Cove, where Black Redstarts have proven photogenic in each of the last two winters. On arrival some passers-by suggested I look out for a whale or dolphin in the Cove which they had seen a few minutes earlier, and which they thought might be dragging a buoy from one of the many lobster pots in the area.
Red Squirrel, Brownsea Island
Red Fox, Holes Bay
I scanned the Cove and saw nothing, but looking further out I eventually picked up what looked like an orange buoy creating a bow wave as if being dragged through the water. Then at some considerable distance I saw a cetacean blow, and a small dorsal fin break the surface. It came up a couple more times and, bearing in mind my track record of not being able to identify things off the West Cliffs of Portland, I thought I had better take a photograph in the hope that would help.
Drake Wigeon, Holes Bay
Wigeon, Holes Bay
Within minutes a work colleague who volunteers for British Divers Marine Life Rescue arrived to follow up reports of a whale, suggesting that it had been seen by others before my arrival at the Cove. I checked my photos from which it was clearly a whale of some description while my colleague phoned an update to BDMLR based on what I had seen. We scanned some more but the whale did not resurface. I phoned Martin Cade at the Portland Bird Observatory to encourage him to keep a look out as the whale seemed to be heading broadly away from us and in the direction of the Bill. Sadly I did not see it again, and neither did Martin from a vantage point on the West Cliffs. By now the light was fading and I was still not quite sure what I had seen, but studying the photos through my inverted bins the shape of the dorsal fin started to remind me of the Humpback Whale I saw last February in Devon with Steve Smith. However, I lacked both the expertise and the reference material to be able to eliminate other species on the strength of that. On returning home and emailing the photos to various experts, however, my suspicions were confirmed when they positively identified it as a Humpback Whale.
Black-necked Grebe, Portland Harbour
Black-necked Grebe, Portland Harbour
With the identification confirmed, I posted some record shots on Twitter and, Twitter being Twitter, copped a bit of flack for not putting the news out sooner, based, I trust, on legitimate concern for the welfare of the whale. So for the record, I had the whale in view for just a few minutes, and within minutes of my sighting, BDMLR, who were exactly the people who needed to know about it should some kind of rescue mission be required, were on the scene having already heard the news from elsewhere. Given that the whale appeared to be heading strongly out to sea, and that the light was fading, there was not much more they or anyone else could have done to come to the whale's aid that afternoon.
Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Portland Harbour
Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Portland Harbour
I could perhaps, with hindsight, have got news out more quickly of a 'brief sighting of cetacean sp.' which, at that point, I could neither see nor identify - but if it's any comfort, anyone racing down to the Cove on the strength of that would have been disappointed. Anyway, let's hope it has freed itself and comes to no harm. There has been a lot of local media interest (best Q&A thus far - Interviewer: 'How big was it?'; me: 'Err, whale-sized?'.) and I asked the journalists I spoke to to give prominence to the marine conservation organisations like Marine Life and BDMLR who can give the best advice on reporting any future sightings. I am pleased to say most of them have done that thus far.
My distant record shot of the Humpback Whale - described (with some justification) by the breakfast DJ on Radio Solent as 'underwhelming' in photographic terms. A tad ungrateful though as I gave permission for him to use it on his website!
Black-tailed Godwit, Holes Bay

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Happy Yew Year!

As you can see, New Year's Resolution #1 - to plumb new depths with bad puns in blog post titles - has been acted upon almost immediately. Other candidates considered for this post included:
  • 'Yew only live twice': would have continued an historic weakness for Bond film bad puns but would have also required me to explain how I went back on New Year's Day after an enthusiastic but not exactly quiet dog walker flushed some Hawfinches from the same churchyard Yews in Lytchett Matravers on New Year's Eve.
  • 'Coccothraustes in a Yew Tree': scans perfectly with 'And a Partridge in a Pear Tree', but too tenuous even by my low standards, and would have meant breaking a policy to not use scientific nomenclature in blog post titles (way too high-brow). Plus Christmas is so last year.
  • 'Graveyard of ambition': well they were in a graveyard, and as a title it would have been a satirical comment on itself.
  • 'Give me a Finch and I'll take a mile'. Inexplicably bad.
  • 'Haw-py New Year': no, just too awful. (Haw-ful, surely?)
Anyway, some Hawfinch photos follow to get the New Year off with a big, chunky bang.
Hawfinch, Lytchett Matravers: the recent invasion by this species has been a winter birding highlight of 2017-18
Although the birds were high in the Yews, by positioning the car carefully and staying inside the vehicle, I was able to photograph them against a more pleasing background than the harsh grey sky of New Year's Day
At least three birds were present
The impressive bill is clear to see here...
...while this picture shows the short, white-tipped tail
This crinkly-winged male refused to come out in the open
A Sparrowhawk against a rare bit of blue sky sent the Hawfinches deep into cover

Monday 1 January 2018

Peace, quiet and goodwill to most men

'I'm standing here quietly waiting for some birds to appear which won't appear unless it's completely quiet' would not have been an appropriate response to the dog walker's bellowed greeting 'WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO SEE?', loud enough to flush a chunky bird out of a churchyard Yew as the sun set for the last time on 2017. So instead I patiently explained the basics of Hawfinch identification and behaviour, and my birding year ended as it had begun: with a half-hearted effort which got the reward it deserved. Fortunately, there were some more memorable highlights in between. Specifically:

January: since killjoys invented 'Dry January' to dampen my birthday celebrations this month, mid-life excitement generally comes these days in the form of taking the special day off to do some mid-winter birding. This year was a cracker - glorious sunshine from start to finish, and a rare American double of Lesser Yellowlegs and a Green-winged Teal at Lytchett Bay on top of all the regular Poole Harbour specialities.
Photo of the month for January: male Black Redstart at Chesil Cove
Bird of the month for January: a birthday Lesser Yellowlegs at the Lytchett Field of Dreams
February: my first twitch to speak of in 2017 was not for a bird but for a cetacean - a Humpback Whale which chugged herring for a couple of weeks off Slapton Sands - thanks Steve Smith for the lift to see that, one of the undoubted highlights of the wildlife watching year. A short half-term break in Cornwall provided the opportunity to catch up with the Hudsonian Whimbrel (now relegated from full species status to a mere race of Whimbrel) for the second year running, along with a brace of wintering duck from across the pond (American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal). A singing Desert Wheatear on the way down provided the most exquisite collector's item for the month on the birding front.
My highlight for February: Humpback Whale in Devon
February's photo of the month: Desert Wheatear at Thurlestone, Devon
March: March provided the opportunity to see my first new British bird of 2017 - a male Pine Bunting in Yorkshire. An early start with co-driver Paul Welling was required. Not even getting rear-ended on the way home could dampen our good mood after we re-found the Bunting following a four hour absence on its part.
Terrible photo of a great bird: Pine Bunting in Yorkshire, birding highlight for March
Photo of the month for March: Short-eared Owl on Portland
April: the Easter break brought the chance to team up with another old birding friend in the form of David Bradnum for a two-day trip to the Isles of Scilly. Our main target was a Rock Thrush, my second new British bird of 2017. After success with that, David dropped me off on The Lizard for an idyllic week's holiday with the family. I had to limit my birding after absconding to Scilly at the start of the holiday, but a moth trap kept us entertained at our accommodation on the Bonython Estate.
Rock Thrush, St Martin's: bird of the month for April
April's photo of the month is this female Emperor moth which came to light at our holiday cottage near The Lizard
May: several trips to Portland looking for spring migrants kept me occupied during May. Rare Sylvia warblers were well represented with a smart Eastern Subalpine Warbler being eclipsed only by a Spectacled Warbler - a first for Dorset and my bird of the month for May. Several early morning visits bumping into common migrants like Whinchats, Redstarts and Flycatchers made for a memorable month, while spring butterflies also put on a good show at Cerne Abbas later in the month.
Bird of the month for May: Spectacled Warbler
Photo of the month for May: Whinchats on Portland
June: the first few days of June saw us on yet another family holiday in Scotland, on the west coast shores of Gairloch. The highlights were many and varied: Pine Martens coming to the window of our cottage; Minkes surfacing next to our whale-watching boat; Auks thronging around the Shiant Islands; and my first Northern Emerald and Azure Hawker dragonflies in the forests around Loch Maree. Mid-June also brought the traditional rare bird/wife's birthday/visiting friends crisis, which was resolved in the favour of rare birds with me pelting along the south coast to Sussex to catch up with an Elegant Tern, my third new bird of 2017, which later turned up in Dorset! Several Storm Petrels off Hengistbury Head provided my second Dorset tick of the year.
Highlight of the month was this Pine Marten on our balcony near Gairloch
My photo of the month for June is this Minke Whale, simply because it's not every day you get to photograph a whale's nostrils!
July: July was a spectacular month for Odonata in Dorset, and one site in particular, Longham Lakes, had a red letter month, playing host to Britain's 8th Scarlet Darter, an extreme rarity from the near continent, as well as several Lesser Emperor and Red-Veined Darter dragonflies. I was fortunate enough to re-find the Scarlet Darter the morning after it was discovered by ardent patch watcher Martin Wood (or should that be advent path walker given Martin's penchant for auto-correct?). Seabird migration also got underway and some unseasonably stormy weather brought another Dorset tick in the form of a Great Shearwater to Weymouth Bay - bird of the month for July.
Photo of the month for July: a rare view of the upperside of a Purple Haristreak at Alners Gorse
Scarlet Darter at Longham Lakes was the wildlife highlight of July
August: high summer saw me back on the Isles of Scilly, sloshing around on three Sapphire Pelagics - the third of these enabled me to finally photograph a long-standing target species, Cory's Shearwater. On the way back to the mainland later that day, Scillonian III encountered a feeding frenzy involving many Common Dolphin, a Minke Whale and rafts of Shearwaters as far as the eye could see, to make it my best birding day of 2017. August turned out to be surprisingly good for rare birds - I bumped into Bee-eaters and a Rose-coloured Starling on a family holiday to Yorkshire and no sooner had I got back to Dorset than an American Yellow Warbler performed for one night only on Portland - bird of the month for August.
Yellow Warbler: bird of the month for August
This Common Dolphin was my photo of the month for August
September: an extraordinary month for waders in Dorset saw me add four new species to my Dorset list: Least Sandpiper (a first for Dorset), Stilt Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope. A Spotted Sandpiper also gave close views at Abbotstbury, but the wildlife highlight of the month was a Queen of Spain Fritillary in Sussex, which encouraged me to make my first butterfly twitch for over a decade.
Photo and bird of the month for September was this juvenile Long-tailed Skua which performed on a golf course in Northumberland as we headed north for Shetland
This ragged Queen of Spain Fritillary was my wildlife highlight of September
October: traditionally one of the best months for bird migration and rarities in particular, I spent the first week of October on Shetland - a superb introduction to the islands in autumn with David Bradnum, Howard Vaughan and Bob Vaughan. The weather could have been better but the birding could hardly have been so: Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler was a new British bird for me and my bird of the month, while a supporting cast of Buff-bellied Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, Rustic Bunting, Red-flanked Bluetail, Parrot Crossbill, Little Bunting, Short-toed Lark and Red-breasted Flycatcher kept the camera busy. Risso's Dolphin off Sumburgh Head was also my second new cetacean of 2017. Shortly after returning home Dorset delivered the goods again with a Two-barred Greenish Warbler just a few miles from home representing my second British tick of the month. I was then confined to barracks for the rest of the year, penance for the Shetland trip, but time at home with the moth trap was well spent when my first Merveille du Jour came to light towards the end of the month. Another sign perhaps that Lepidoptera would soon loom larger in my life...
Terrible photo of a special bird: Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler - I saw the white tail corners of the 'PG Tips' in flight
Red-breasted Flycatcher on Shetland: my photo of the month for October
November: still grounded after my Shetland trip, birding highlights were few and far between but I eventually caught up with the Hawfinch invasion - an easy winner of the accolade of bird of the month and an over-due Dorset tick.
Hawfinch: bird of the month for me and many others in November following the major irruption event which started in October
A dashing male Merlin at Middlebere is my photo of the month for November against not very stiff competition!
December: December was lost in a blur of work, career planning and last minute shopping. For the first time in a very long time, I don't think I took of photo worthy of publication all month! Creating space, then, for a couple of bonus highlights which didn't make the grade earlier in this post:
Cory's Shearwater: I finally got to photograph this species on my thirteenth pelagic
Parrot Crossbill on our last day on Shetland: a suitably monster bird to bring to an end a monster trip
Merveille du Jour: probably the most exquisite creature to come out of my moth trap in 2017
So despite the duties of work, parenting and the ever-present pressure to do something more useful (?!?) with my weekends, I still managed to see half-a-dozen new birds in Britain (and six new for Dorset), four dragonflies, a couple of cetaceans and a butterfly which I had not previously seen in this country during 2017. The numbers matter to no-one but me of course, and are in any case a poor measure of the absorbing, satisfying and educational time I have spent watching and photographing wildlife this year. If you were there to share it with me, my thanks; if you were neglected while I went searching for it, my apologies. Many thanks for reading - and Happy New Year!
One of my favourite photographs of 2017 taken at one of my favourite places: Marbled Whites at Durlston
Perhaps my best rare bird photo of 2017: a Little Bunting on a lichen covered wall in perfect light on Shetland: a fitting memory of a great trip