Saturday 30 October 2021

Shetland day 8: fin - and an encore

Our last full day on Shetland started with us emptying the fridge for one final breakfast and cracking a few more slipway jokes before heading out into the field. First stop was a report of a possible Baikal Teal at Loch of Benston - plausible given the recent presence of one on Fair Isle - which had to be checked out. Satisfied it was 'just' a Garganey (still a Shetland tick for all of us) we moved quickly on to Kergord. A Bluethroat had been reported there in the 'Rustic Bunting ditch' and the team were keen to see it. We walked slowly down the hedge and it duly sat up on a post - too easy.

Bluethroat, Kergord
It was my second Bluethroat of the trip and to see the first I had crossed to Yell then Unst. At this point the rest of the team hadn't left Mainland the entire trip but were keen to put that right, and so a visit to Yell, for tea with the fittingly named Kettles, was proposed. Birders being birders, before we arrived at Adrian's house, we met him on the road scouting for the Ring-necked Duck which I had seen a few days before. We couldn't relocate it but a miserable looking Great White Egret near his house was our second of the trip.
'How did it come to this?' asks a sodden Great White Egret on Yell
After enjoying the Kettle's hospitality it was time to head back to Mainland and the ferry home. A couple of Bonxies in the sound between Yell and Mainland were our first of this Shetland visit. They were also our last 'trip tick' before we boarded MV Hjartland for another extremely smooth journey back to Aberdeen.
Great Skua off Yell
The end of a Shetland trip is always a bit of a downer, especially with a 600 mile journey ahead. But there was one more bit of potential excitement to be had about half-way home in West Yorkshire. On Thursday night, as we were preparing our penultimate meal in the Hoswick pad, a Temminck's Stint at Swillington Ings had been reidentified as a Least Sandpiper - a tick for Jono. Within the hour it was reidentified again as a Long-toed Stint - a tick for all of us given that the last twitchable bird had been in the 1980s when Bradders could barely drive a pedal car, let alone a Volvo! 
Long-toed Stint - a tiny bird a long way off!
Swilly Ings was just a 5 mile detour from our route south so it was barely an inconvenience to call in for a mega-tick and lunch courtesy of an extremely busy reception centre at RSPB St Aidans, to give it its proper name. We had opened a book on the way down about which birders on our ferry would beat us to it, and the odds on Cliff Smith being among them were pretty short. Sure enough, a tweet from Cliff confirmed he had seen the Stint just as we were parking up! Also there was Gary Thoburn whose lens I had returned on the ferry the night before, so this time Howard and Nick Oliver came to the rescue with the loan of cameras and lenses so I could grab a few record shots.
Amazing magnification on Howard's little superzoom
It was a satisfying end to a great week-and-a-bit, and meant that I maintained my record of a tick on each of my Shetland trips to date, even though this one wasn't actually on Shetland! The rest of the journey was painless, and I parted company with the team near Huntingdon, very much hoping it would not be our last Shetland adventure.
The long toes of the Long-toed Stint!

Wednesday 27 October 2021

Shetland day 7 (incorporating day 6): blubber lovers

I summed up day 6 of our Shetland trip a a single word tweet at the time: 'NEXT'. It was a bit harsh in retrospect but only a bit - the birding highlight, rarity wise, was a soggy Common Rosefinch at Hamnavoe. In fact the most memorable moments of the day had precious little to do with birds and more to do with the multi-course meals we ate whilst waiting for the rain to stop and, when we did finally get out, another near disaster with a camera lens - not mine this time but Jono's.

Rock Pipit, Eshaness

We were photographing a Tystie in Bridgend harbour and were both making our way down a slipway towards it to get a lower angle shot. Aware of the treacherous possibilities, and blessed with the dynamic risk assessment capabilities which any self-respecting local government officer should possess, I opened my mouth to voice the potential skid hazard at which point Jono went into a graceful but seemingly never-ending slide towards the cruel sea.

Amazingly, he was able to lay down his monster 500mm lens with all the skill of a Crown Green bowler gently rolling a bowl down within inches of the puck. So the camera was safe but the photographer was not and his slide continued deep into the brine. Fortunately he hit the point where buoyancy triumphed over gravity and the slide was arrested before we had to reach for the life-ring. Even more amazingly, there was a public toilet by the slipway enabling him to clean up there and then - but it tells you everything you need to know about day 6 that the incident was about the only thing worth writing about.  (I'm so far behind with posts you can triangulate the veracity of this account with those of other witnesses/participants here and here). 
Orca, Eshaness

Orca, Eshaness
Day 7 on other hand....started with a long schlep out to the wild coast at Eshaness, where the dramatic cliffs and stacks always make the trip worthwhile, regardless of whether or not the American waders of our dreams are strutting around the close cropped sward of the headland. Not long after we arrived a bellow from Howard had us running to his position by the lighthouse: his sharp eyes had picked out not a wader, but a pod of Orca. Over the next hour we enjoyed great scope views as they tracked slowly north, lingering long enough for us to get news out and enable a lucky few to successfully twitch them.
6 of the pod of 8 in this shot

Amazing creatures!
A Sooty Shearwater cruising past the whales and a Snow Bunting disturbed during a subsequent lochside stroll capped a memorable few hours at Eshaness and we invited the proprietor of Bradders Birding Tours to spin the wheel and decide on our next stop. This took us to the quiet surroundings of Ronas Voe where we enjoyed views of Eiders, a Common Scoter, a Long-tailed Duck and a Black-throated Diver. 
The big bull (right) with tall triangular dorsal fin

Snow Bunting, Eshaness
Having lulled us into a false sense of security with this gentle bimbling, Bradders then hit us with his cunning plan for the rest of the day: to march us up to the top of Ronas Hill, and then march us down again. The purpose of this late afternoon excursion was to look for Snowy Owl, a species which had occasionally been seen in this area earlier in the year.
Bradders strides out at Eshaness

Bradders strides out some more at Eshaness
Suffice to say we were unsuccessful, foiled ultimately by thick fog which closed around us having yomped a good couple of clicks into the starkly beautiful wilderness. But it was worth it, both to work off the foody excesses of the previous day and to appreciate the unique landscape of the area.
Jono looking for Hedwig in a rainbow on Ronas Hill

Monday 25 October 2021

Visitors from north and south

After a poor September, the non-motorised year list got back on track in the first half of October, but the darker evenings were in danger of restricting birding opportunities pretty much to the weekends. I had hoped to finish work a bit early on Friday and the case for doing so became compelling when reports materialised of a very confiding Snow Bunting, a bird of high alpine habitats in summer which migrates to lower altitudes in winter, at Durlston Country Park.
What was presumably the same bird had been found almost a week previously on Saturday 16th by former Butterfly Conservation Chief Executive and Purbeck resident Martin Warren. Martin had posted a phone camera shot suggesting that the bird was pretty approachable. I was on Portland that day but as I had to take my son to Swanage on the Sunday to meet friends, I decided to go in search of the Bunting as it was just a mile up the road to where it had been seen. Others had done the same but none of us were able to re-locate it.
Durlston has a special place in my affections as, as well as being a spectacular location, I used to have it under my professional wing when I looked after the Country Parks portfolio for Dorset County Council. Despite the absence of the Snow Bunting, it was good to see one of the local Peregrines dismantling a pigeon on the cliff face.
Fast forward to Friday and I was in a race against the sunset to complete the 11 mile journey to Durlston on the bike. For the first time this year I managed to make it up the punishing hill out of Swanage without getting off to push, and soon after was bouncing over the speed ramps at the park entrance. Local birder James had advised me that the bird was right at seaward end of the famous gully below the lighthouse but as I headed down the road to the lighthouse I could see another local birder, Garry Hayman, wandering forlornly up the gully, suggesting that the bird may have gone awol.
I had forwarded James's news to Garry earlier but there is no signal in the gully so he hadn't received it. I gestured to him to head back down and we met on a small ledge on the seaward side of path which looked a likely spot. Garry went one way and I went the other but there was no sign. Just as I was recalling James's advice to study the ground closely as the bird was almost underfoot when he saw it, a movement almost underfoot caught my eye - it was the Snow Bunting. It shuffled just a couple of yards and we spent the next 30 minutes enjoying amazing views of it feeding and preening. We were joined by Steve Smith and visiting Kent birder Andy Millar and the bird remained unconcerned even though the 'crowd' had doubled!
Returning home in the dark I felt I had earned a lie in on Saturday, but by lunchtime I was getting itchy feet again and news of a Caspian Gull and a Common Rosefinch at Portland Bill were all I needed to get back in the saddle. Joe Stockwell advised that the Gull seemed relatively settled which is unusual for this species in Dorset, and gave me an added incentive to crack on. After the exertions of Friday night though I was making slow progress and a strengthening headwind wasn't helping. Then, 11 miles into the 27 mile journey to Portland, a spoke broke on my rear wheel causing me to contemplate the wisdom of pressing on. 
I taped up the spoke but before I could decide whether to stick or twist, my mind was made up by news of a Hoopoe, a widespread species in southern and eastern Europe, at Lytchett Bay, about 17 miles back in the other direction! The other problem was that the news hadn't been totally confirmed at this point and there was always the possibility of mistaken identity with a Jay, especially as the bird had been reported on a peri-urban allotment. I phoned Lytchett's own Shaun Robson who had just arrived on site but he hadn't seen the bird so couldn't be sure himself, though he said the report came from a reliable source. This was enough to make up my mind to head back east.
Cycling with a broken spoke wasn't ideal but I had to get home somehow and with a following wind I was soon back in Wareham and transferring gear from one bike to another. As I was doing so Shaun phoned to say he had just seen the Hoopoe, provoking a record-breaking sub-30 minute sprint to Lytchett on my part. Screeching to a halt in the allotment car park in my hi-vis cycling jacket I was hailed by the olive-clad glitterati of Poole Harbour's birding community and complemented on my 'camo' gear. But this was no time for banter as there was a Hoopoe to see, and I was ushered to the front of the group to finally set eyes on it.
There was a great buzz in the small crowd and I was pretty buzzed myself that the gamble to turn around had paid off, and for such a special bird too. After a few pictures I had a look around the surrounding  fields for a Water Pipit which would have brought the year list to 210 but without success. Still, it had been a brilliant weekend with two charismatic additions to both the year list and my growing non-motorised life list, which now stands at 234.

Sunday 24 October 2021

From the Bay to the Bill and back

September was my least productive month so far this year in terms of additions to the non-motorised year list with just two new birds added - the Portland Wryneck and a Hampshire Little Stint seen during a 69 mile marathon to Keyhaven (I later saw this species closer to home at Lytchett Bay). This slowing of the run rate had more to do with a poor start to the autumn from a Dorset perspective than lack of effort on my part, as the month worked out at at an average of 138 miles per species (!) taking into account my total distance travelled on the bike for the month. The low point was a 51 mile trek out of county to Blashford Lakes on the 5th where a couple of Black Terns had been present for a few days but had failed to read the script about being there on the morning of my arrival. To rub salt in they reappeared later the same afternoon long after I had left.

Hen Harrier at Swineham - first new bird on the year-list for October

The Hen Harrier spooked a flock of about 30 Pied Wagtail from their roost
So I would need a good October, traditionally a big month for scarce and rare migrants, to pick up the momentum again. Unfortunately from a listing perspective, this was not going to be easy with the first week of the month being spent on Shetland, as recounted elsewhere on this blog. Fears of what I might miss whilst away were unfounded though, as a few potentially 'do-able' Grey Phalaropes were about the only thing which could have been added to the list during my absence.
Little Stint, Swineham, 14th October

Eels seem to keep the local Herons well fed at Swineham
Darker evenings represented a further constraint on returning from Shetland, but there was still about an hour of daylight left if I could finish work reasonably promptly after 1700. This was just enough time to get to Lytchett Bay to look for a Pectoral Sandpiper before dusk fell but, frustratingly, I was unsuccessful in this endeavor on two successive nights. My first post-Shetland foray to the patch at Swineham on 14th was more successful, however, producing the first new bird of the month when a Hen Harrier powered through - a regular wintering species in Poole Harbour which I had somehow missed at the start of the year. Shortly before this I had been watching a Little Stint on the pools which on checking turned out to be a patch tick so it was a good evening all told. 

As close as I came to photographing the Pectoral Sandpiper when it made a short flight - you can just about see the sharply demarcated pectoral band. I renamed this bird the Pixelated Sandpiper after the various distant images appearing online.

Kestrel, Portland Bill
With my wife away for a hen-do on Saturday 16th, and the kids now wholly independent of their father save for meals and cash, I had plans for a big day out on the bike. It started with a return to Lytchett Bay when Ian Ballam kindly relayed news that the Pec was still present, He was still there to point it our after a bit of wait when I arrived 45 minutes later. Returning home for lunch with the boys, I then got ready for an even more adventurous trip: to Portland to add Short-eared Owl to the year-list. Again, this is a species which can be seen closer to home with luck, but the non-motorised year-list is all about taking the bird in the hand when the opportunity arises - and the Owls at the Bill are about as reliable as it gets.
Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill
Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill
I had left my departure time until early afternoon deliberately to ensure that I arrived in the late afternoon, thus (hopefully) avoiding a long wait before the Shorties became more active. I made good time and even had a few minutes to spare to check out a report of a Ring Ouzel at Church Ope Cove en route - another species which I had missed earlier in the year. It wasn't to be, and I didn't linger as the Owls remained the main target. 
Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill
Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill
A few birders and photographers were present on arrival in the area where the Owls had been showing, but no-one had seen anything. Before long though the raising of bins and lenses across the valley suggesting that something was afoot, and within seconds two Shorties appeared over the horizon and gave excellent views as they hunted in the long grass and perched up on fenceposts. 
Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill
Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill
With a 27 mile return journey ahead of me, and dinner to organise, I couldn't stay until dusk, but success with the Owls gave me the adrenalin boost I needed to make a rapid start. While the last 90 minutes were completed in the dark, it was a pretty smooth run home - with the added bonus that the traditional puncture in Weymouth never materialised! I had added as many species to the year-list in a day as I had in the whole of September, and almost half of October still lay ahead.
Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill

Short-eared Owl, Portland Bill