Monday 30 December 2019

2019: the rare bits

2019 was a year of change for me - a change of jobs in this case - which often results in a bit of a slow down on the twitching front as 'more important' things take precedence. But I still managed a few additions to my British list through a combination of effort and good fortune.
Tengmalm's Owl, Tresta, Sheland, 13th April
The roosting owl was just feet above our heads but there was room for only three people at a time to view it
The owl spent most of the time asleep but when it awoke we watched it eating a Redshank caught, presumably, the previous night
Team Tengmalm - Andy Mears, Dave Gibbs, Chris Turner and Chris Wilkinson
The year started inauspiciously as a Tengmalm's Owl on Shetland seemed hopelessly out of reach, despite turning up during a week off at February half-term. But I've never twitched Shetland and was sort of happy to keep it that way. The bird went off the radar after a few weeks but was rediscovered as Easter approached and we were heading north for a family holiday in Speyside which, as all students of Scottish geography know, is just down the road from Lerwick. Suddenly, the Owl seemed do-able, and with a little help from some friends and a wacky races style canter through the various modes of transport which the northern isles have to offer, I managed to catch up with my first new British bird of 2019 on 13th April, returning via the Northlink ferry the following morning and arriving back at the holiday cottage before the rest of my super-tolerant family had finished breakfast.
The Slimbridge Little Bustard, 23rd June: with some imagination, the black and white, 'v-neck' jumper of Slytherin House can be seen
A clear candidate for the @recordshotmyarse Twitter feed
My Brown Booby photos were another candidate for @recordshotmyarse
Note the all dark upperparts and diamond shaped tail...
...and the clear demarcation between dark breast band and white belly
The rest of the spring passed without incident on the rarity front but just as the summer doldrums were due to set in a male Little Bustard at Slimbridge set the pulse racing again. Fortunately it turned up on a Sunday afternoon and as I was out and about birding in Dorset when it was located, I was able to drop everything and head to Slimbridge where the elusive Bustard occasionally lifted its head through the long grass of the Dumbles.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Davidstow Airfield, 7th September
This charming bird rescued an otherwise grim day dipping on Britain's second Brown Booby
A great location for American waders
Chough at Kynance Cove
Marcus and Phil dipping at Kynance Cove
Other Kynance dippers, looking like a routed army from 'Lord of the Rings'
The end of August produced sporadic sightings of Britain's first confirmed sighting of a Brown Booby off St Ives. The bird was seen on alternate days for most of the week, but not on the Friday, but I gambled and went down to Cornwall early on the Saturday morning anyway, reacquainting myself with two of the Shetland team (Messrs Gibbs and Mears) and another pelagic birding pal Anthony Griffiths. When news of the Booby fishing off Gwithian Towans broke that morning, we were too far west down the coast to see it, but scoping the clifftop we could see the car park from where it was being watched. Bundling into the car, some moderately assertive driving saw us arrive just in time to see the bird well offshore heading back to where we had just come from! The bird famously sat on some inshore rocks at St Ives later that day but I arrived minutes too late to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime (in a British context) views. Although I saw the bird that still felt like a dip!
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Farlington, Hants, 14th September
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
A week later and I returned with Marcus Lawson and Phil Saunders for an actual Brown Booby dip as the second British record at Kynance Cove most unexpectedly did an overnight bunk, scuppering my hopes of improving on my photos from the previous week. Close up views of Cornish-bred Choughs and an obliging Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Davidstow Airfield on the way home saved that particular day.
Paddyfield Pipit, Sennen, 6th November
Sonograms and DNA tests have proven it's a Paddyfield Pipit - but how did it get to Cornwall?
Nice to bump into the talented artist Richard Thewlis again, sketching this bird in the rain 
An extraordinary record and kudos to those with inquiring minds, including my friend James Lowen, who questioned the initial identification, and others who then sussed the true identity
Paddyfield Pipit
September also produced a new bonus bird for Britain close to home when an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was discovered at Farlington Marshes just over the border in Hampshire. Not the prettiest or the rarest of the megas, but a welcome occurrence nonetheless as I had missed one on Portland a few years ago. I was actually tipped off to its presence before the news broke on the information services in a phone call from Dorset birder Roger Howell. Roger had a friend on site but due to a mis-transcription of the message, the news reached me as an Eastern Orphean Warbler. I was on the way there by the time I realised the error - but would have been happy with either!
An American Buff-bellied Pipit kept company with the Paddyfield Pipit - for a few weeks it was the best stinky field in Britain for rare birds!
Buff-bellied Pipit
My fifth of this species having seen one at Farmoor, two at Staines and one on Shetland previously
Buff-bellied Pipit
Drake Lesser Scaup at Helston boating lake was another bonus on the way home from the Paddyfield Pipit
Despite enjoying several weeks off between jobs during the peak rarity-hunting season of October, I was unable to add to my British list during the month - though November saved the day with the incredible record of a Paddyfield Pipit in Cornwall, a first for Britain if the record is accepted. Assuming so, I will end 2019 having seen 476 species in Britain (BOU) plus what I suppose we must now call a 'Fea's-type' Petrel off Scilly in 2015. That brings a step closer the major milestone of 500 which I ought to reach before retirement. Especially if they keep moving the retirement age up :-).
Tengmalm's Owl - bird of the year for many British birders - including myself

Sunday 29 December 2019

2019: the island hopping

Islands seem to feature prominently in my leisure time and 2019 was no exception: this year I managed short visits to the familiar extremes of the kingdom from Scilly to Shetland, as well as exploring some new locations on Skye and Mallorca.
Adult White-tailed Eagle near the Aros community centre on the Isle of Skye
Two of three juvenile White-tailed Eagles which sailed over the car nr Broadford
Juvenile Golden Eagle in Glenbrittle, Isle of Skye
Adult Golden Eagle, Isle of Skye
Nearly choked on breakfast when these Waxwings appeared just below my host's garden on the Isle of Skye
Bottle-nosed Dolphins off Tokavaig, Isle of Skyr
The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye
Mallorca was a summer family holiday, and as well as providing some quality time on the beach, it also gave me my first encounters with Eleonora's Falcon, Black Vulture, Scopoli's Shearwater, Red-knobbed Coot, Marbled Duck, Thekla Lark and Balearic Warbler. The island also offered unrivalled views of Booted Eagle, Purple Swamphen, Audouin's Gull, Crag Martin, Tawny Pipit and more herons than one could shake a stick at.
Audouin's Gull, Port de Pollenca
Balearic Warbler, Formentor
Scopoli's Shearwater, off Dragonera
Crag Martin, Albercutx
Eleonora's Falcon, Cala St Vincent
Red-knobbed Coot, S'Albufera
Thekla Lark, Ermita de Betlem
The Shetland trip was a brief one at Easter (more on which in a future post), but the rare treat of a few weeks off between jobs in the autumn offered the best opportunities for island hopping, first with a three-day stay on the Isles of Scilly towards the end of October. I just missed the arrival of several American landbirds but still managed to see some quality rarities including Isabelline Wheater on Tresco, Red-throated Pipit on St Agnes and Blue Rock Thrush, Citrine Wagtail and Spotted Sandpiper on St Mary's.
Blue Rock Thrush, St Mary's
Citrine Wagtail, Salakee, St Mary's
Greenshank, Porth Hellick, St Mary's
Isabelline Wheatear, Tresco
Red-throated Pipit, St Agnes
Spotted Crake, St Mary's
Spotted Sandpiper, Watermill, St Mary's
A couple of weeks later and I was heading north to the Isle of Skye to meet up with old friends Rosy and Nigel for a few days, where Eagles, Waxwings, Otters and Dolphins provided frequent distractions from the excellent hospitality. I suspect I will be back to all of these islands at some point, if not in 2020, though having missed autumn 2019 on Shetland, a return this coming autumn feels overdue...