Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Sniping, shriking, and... skewering?

It's been a busy couple of weeks, despite setbacks. I went back to Marton Mere as it's close and one of the species I have missed numerous times (little owl) was seen there again. Of course it was nowhere to be seen, but I did photograph the Iceland gull that winters here - although I had my backup camera and it was set to small jpeg, so the photos aren't worth posting here. A male stonechat was nice to see, too.

I injured my knee last Wednesday/Thursday, and that has been a problem for someone who walks everywhere. It was sunny on Saturday, and I felt well enough to try a long walk, taking in several local spots I've not visited recently. I took the train a short distance to catch the high tide flushing waders - especially jack snipe. But I was at the wrong end of the patch, due to confusion on my part, and only saw regular snipe. But they were nice enough - seeing one on the ground is a rare thing round here (see photo above - unfortunately the one that was in focus wasn't well posed).

At the nearby manmade lake, I scouted for the male scaup that has been there on and off for a few weeks (I saw it in December), but it was absent - one was seen a little further round the coast that day though. I did find a little egret huddled out of the strong, cold wind, which is not a species I've seen there before (though they are found on the salt marshes regularly).

My first greenfinch of the year in a garden, before I found a church that hosts peregrines. Was the pair of dark wings I could see high up one of them? Sadly I got no definitive shots, but despite scepticism from David M and David C, I can't see what else it could be - not a gull, not a pigeon, surely not an oystercatcher. I will go back when the light is better (I was shooting a shady wall into the sun).

Is this a peregrine? Anyone??

I finished by heading to the edge of St Anne's, where a great grey shrike has been attracting visitors for three months now. I had to add it to my year list, but the one birdwatcher/photographer I found there hadn't seen it despite an hour of waiting. We enjoyed a perched female(?) kestrel, which I later saw hunting in the next field. Then a wagtail came over - but the other fellow correctly identified it as the shrike (in my defence, they're both black and grey/white, long-tailed, and bobbing in flight). Fortunately, it landed in front of us, and though it moved around a bit, posed well - if a little distantly. I got several reasonable shots at least.

I had overdone it though - 7.5 miles' walk on a dodgy knee (and my other leg wasn't too good either). The following day was overcast and chilly, and rain was forecast, so I had no plans. But then David M offered me a lift to a patch that's hard to reach without a car, to look for another local celebrity, a juvenile pomarine skua that has been seen daily for a couple of weeks or more. Too good to miss.

 Above: the Med gull is the one without black on its wing tips. Argh! Below: twite, on the ground and in the air.

We visited a great many places by my standards, one twice (Cocker's Dyke, the suggestively-named outlet for one of the local drainage ditches). It was a superlative day for birds - I saw at least 15 new year species, and two lifers. However, the light was poor, the wind strong and cold. It seemed, however, that all the birders on the Fylde were there - including David C, who I met for the first time. No skua - it was more mobile than people had feared, as it's been injured. However, my first ever Mediterranean gull (thanks to David M for the ID - I wouldn't have stood a chance!) and merlin, which was way too fast for a photo. My highlight of the day has to be the twite, however - a big flock of these lovely finches fed very close to us, and flew around giving good views for some time.

Not native, but lovely and hard to get close to - a red-legged partridge. Note the tree sparrows in the foreground. This was taken from the cover of a car.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Third time lucky

A mostly sunny afternoon, and the gales had died down - one last attempt at the firecrest was necessary. I was encouraged by David M's discovery of an even rarer bird at the reserve on Friday, a dusky warbler - which had somehow mistaken Lancashire for its usual wintering grounds of Southeast Asia. In addition, there was the chance our wintering Iceland gull would be there, as it spends some time at the mere when it's not foraging for scraps at a local waste processing plant. Plenty of chances then.

I've rotated this photograph to show the bird more clearly - it forages vertically, as in the photo at the top.

The one downside was my camera's low battery. I stupidly left the charger in Scotland, so am eking out the remaning charge while I sort out getting a replacement - fortunately the 5D mark III can last well over a week on a single charge, even with moderate usage (though using it for video is another matter entirely). I knew I'd have to ration my shots, so no photographing common species, unless they were posing especially well.

My first views - a pity the in flight shot was misfocused.

Well in fact I did see lots of lovely common birds the moment I entered the park, on the way to the reserve. A proper winter 'mixed tit' flock - long tails, chaffinches, great tits, goldfinches, and a great spotted woodpecker, working their way slowly alongside my path. The woodpecker gave great views, until I got my camera out, when it retreated to higher branches. But a treecreeper appeared, and fed low down and close by, and I got my best shots ever of this species (see above).

I sped over to the firecrest's haunt, and found a solitary bird watcher, who had been waiting patiently for some hours. While he ate a sandwich, I noticed a flock of long-tailed tits (the fourth flock I'd seen since leaving the house). The firecrest sometimes hangs around with these other birds, so I wandered up the path to look. And at last, one of the birds was my quarry. I got a few shots, but lost it when I beckoned the other man over. It reappeared closer, and worked slowly and methodically through the brambles towards the mere. Many other people arrived, and watched it, but I'd already got the shots I wanted, so I left soon after - they stood hoping it would reappear, but I'm not sure it did.

On a high from this, I decided to spend a lot of time looking for the warbler - nobody else had seen it that day, despite the area's best bird folk searching for hours. The light was good, and I had plenty of time, so I decided to be as thorough as I could. To cut a long story short, I didn't find it and neither did anyone else. I also missed the long eared owls, but I've seen one already this month. I did see a treecreeper - which is apparently an exceptional rarity on the reserve - and more exciting to me, a water rail feeding under shrubs, only my third sighting ever.

The one serious birder I told about this find was distinctly unimpressed - their loss!

Finally, I came to the far side of the patch, and saw a lovely female stonechat. It posed wonderfully, first on a hawthorn, then on dry grasses, and I got plenty of good shots between passing shower clouds, of which I've included a selection here. The temperature dropped towards sunset, I got caught in a heavy hailstorm, and I lost my gloves (but got them back today), but I was more than happy with the day. More like this please!

Friday, 16 January 2015

After the storm

Very poor weather has dominated this week. Today was forecast to be fair, and I toyed with going up to see the pomarine skua at the north end of the area, but I had to perform emergency house repairs after storm damage. Still, I had half a sunny afternoon left, so I went through the park back to the mere, on the offchance the firecrest was still there.

 Above: you know the birds are tame when you can photograph them at 35mm! Below: a casualty of the storm.

A few big clouds drifted over - the sky was very pretty. The wind had died down almost completely, and there was little evidence of the recent violence. Just one fallen tree - already dead - blocked a path on one of the small islands in the park lake. Coots, pigeons, mallards, and geese were eager for food, but I had none. An elderly gentleman gave them some, and was surrounded by a scrum of dozens of birds. Further out, black-headed gulls, shovelers, cormorants, great crested grebes, and at least one pochard comprised the usual suspects.

I looped round the woods to the northwest of the lake, on the offchance a jay or nuthatch was lurking there, but it was just squirrels and tits - but my first coal tit of the year, so I was happy enough. A few daffodils were already opening, too. Out towards the reserve, the sun came back out, and it felt genuinely mild - spring is definitely awakening.

Above: a stand of alders in the sunshine. Below: furry willow buds beginning to break.

Down to the lakside platform, and I had a quick scan of the waters, but I don't know an Iceland gull by sight, so even if our local one was there (and it does visit regularly at this time of year), I couldn't have known. But a pair of birdwatchers arrived, and looked with more care. I stood around hoping for the firecrest, but aside from a large flock of long-tailed tits, and a huge number of pink-footed geese (hundreds upon hundreds, flying south in numerous skeins), there wasn't much to see. David M and a few other local bird folk arrived, but the only bird life was a showy robin and loud cetti's warblers in the reeds nearby.

A pleasant trip out, though. Sometimes just being there is enough.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Year ticks

Note: the conditions on Sunday were terrible, so all these photos are of relatively poor quality, and for illustrative purposes only.

The day after I saw David M, he texted me to invite me along on another local bird search. This year I'm keeping a list of all the species I see, alongside searching for new ones, so going up to Fleetwood to revisit the shorelark and others was something I had planned anyway. The weather was terrible - gales, overcast, and occasional showers - but a free lift is a free lift.

Above: the shorelark. Below: a meadow pipit got in on the action.

We went straight to the picnic ground near the marine lakes, and as expected, the shorelark was foraging on the grass (along with a flock of turnstones, one of which is in the background, above). Some other birders were watching it, but dog walkers and other passers by spooked the waders, and the more tame shorelark flew off fairly soon. Not to worry, we went round to the beach, seeking a little shelter behind the dunes. I spotted sanderlings among the turnstones feeding on the shoreline (the tide was in), and then saw a flock of ringed plovers huddled behind the stones, just their faces peeking out (below). When I came to process my shots of this, I realised there were a couple of purple sandpipers among them - if only we'd known!

I found the shorelark itself behind a large rock, before it moved away and eventually flew back to the grassy area. We watched it for a few minutes, before leaving it to another photographer who attempted to creep as close as possible (the bird itself is rather tame, but the turnstones are not). We nipped round the corner to the eastern marine lake, which is mostly drained at present for some sort of maintenance work. This has attracted more gulls and waders than usual, and purple sandpipers have been seen roosting there for a while. After a long time hiding from the wind behind a small building, David made a break for it and found one of these small grey waders in the middle of a large flock of redshanks and turnstones (see if you can spot it, above). Otherwise there were some nice gulls, including great black backed and a handsome common gull.

Above: herring gulls around a GBB - the largest gull species. Below: a common and black headed gull together.

We checked out Fleetwood Marsh nature reserve, which is windswept at the best of times, but the glaucous gull that has been hanging out on a nearby roof was absent, so we finally nipped back to Marton Mere, and sat in the main hide for a while. It was bitterly cold, and the light was fading. Still, it was fun to watch teal displaying - they do a rather funny dance with their heads and tails. Hard to capture in a still image though.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A return to normality

Returning home I had the tantalising prospect of another very special passerine in the local area - a firecrest blew into the local nature reserve a few days ago. The weather has been rotten though, with gales and rain. Today I made it out despite the continuing wind, as at least it was mostly sunny. I held little hope of finding Britain's equal smallest bird in these conditions, but David M said he was going, and he spots a lot of things I miss (his take on the day is here).

Passing through the park, I saw hundreds of gulls, but didn't have time to sift through them for anything unusual.

We stood around in a sheltered, wooded spot overlooking the lake, where the bird had been seen - but not for a couple of days. No luck, though a goldcrest picked through the shrubs and brambles nearby.

Out on the water, a large group of Canada geese had gathered in the sheltered southeast end, and amongst them there was a barnacle goose - my first new species ("lifer") of the year. While David is sceptical it's a wild bird, I was happy nonetheless, and got adequate shots despite the couple of hundred metres separating us. It was a lot smaller than I expected (see below).

We also checked on the owls. Long-eared owls roost in the scrub by the lake every winter, although last autumn they were scared off by naughty apple pickers. My guide knew where to look though, as one or more have returned. Once I knew where to stand, I found the bird straight away, which was pleasing, although it was still very well camouflaged, and mostly turned away from us. I'll return - I simply must try getting a shot of its eyes open (best of today's photos of it below).

We went round the other side of the scrub to look for the firecrest again, but unsuccessfully. A pair of woodcock flushed though - which is my second new species of the year, though they were gone before I got any photographs. Once again, I will try and return for them before they clear off in spring.

A quiet but surprisingly successful first trip out of the year, then. I didn't mind not seeing the firecrest in the end, though if it's sighted again, I'll go looking for it.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

These aren't the ducks I'm looking for

Apologies for absence. Last year was rather tumultuous, although there were many birds, and I'll do a summary at some point soon. To get myself back into the habit though, I'll do a quick roundup of yesterday's excursion.

I've been up in central Scotland for the festive period, as usual, and kept an eye on the local bird sightings for what was interesting and accessible. I hate to sound such a critical note, but I am deeply unimpressed with the Lothian Bird Club sightings website. I'm spoiled down at home, where an open access system allows anyone to add sightings, and people put on everything they see - no matter how common - which gives a great picture of what can be seen, and where. It's also real time, so checking back every few hours is beneficial. Up here, they only post rare or unusual stuff, and it's all done in summary the following day. This is frustrating for those of us who don't know where to go for otherwise common species that we haven't seen before (say, bramblings), or if we want to know if a notable bird seen yesterday is still there today. Also, it's very much an East Lothian-based operation, and West Lothian rarely gets a mention.

Nonetheless, it's better than nothing, and their photo pages can give a broader picture of what's about, and how easy it is to see the species they've mentioned. I had planned on Saturday to do a trip for three new species - a lesser yellowlegs that was showing very well at North Berwick (somewhere I've meant to visit for ages, as there's a seabird centre there, and boat trips around Bass Rock, known for its gannet colony, in the summer). At Musselburgh, a surf scoter has been hanging around for months. And just east of Leith, a black redstart was seen on the beach for several days. I could do all three in one jaunt, but it was not to be. I didn't make it out until yesterday (Tuesday), by which time the yellowlegs and redstart had vanished (the latter may have moved east, but I didn't know that at the time).

Still, a surf scoter is not to be sniffed at, so I went down to Musselburgh anyway. Not to the well-known wader scrapes and lagoons - just a quick walk down the River Esk to its mouth at the Firth of Forth. The weather was perfect - mild sunshine, light wind. And as it turned out, there were lots of birds, and they were unusually tame.

First to catch my eye were goosanders (Mergus merganser). I've seen them a few times, always in Scotland, on rivers, canals, and in flight. But the males have never allowed close approach, and indeed all birds I've encountered were wary. Not so these. It was to be a recurring theme of my visit that all the birds on the river were habituated to humans. The Esk at this point runs through the town centre, and a strip of parkland is found either side, right up to the water. Both females (picture at top) and males (second photo) were abundant - I counted one group of seven. One female was preening on a mostly-submerged rock, and occasionally posing coquettishly (third picture above).

Then it was goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula), another duck I've seen a few times, but always from a great distance. They were a little skittish, but generally mingled with the other waterbirds and came as close as I could have wanted. At least 20 were scattered in small groups along the river (photos below - females with brown heads, male with green, just like the goosanders).

Finally, at the river mouth I stood and scanned the Firth of Forth patiently, looking for that black seaduck. But it was not there - perhaps it was just round the coast to the east, or too far out to see. The waves were choppy in a chilly breeze, but the low-slung sun lit up another lovely marine species, eiders. We get these at home all the time, but usually so distantly (hundreds of metres offshore) that photos are scarcely worth bothering with (see an earlier entry on this blog). This time there were closer, and I got my best shots yet - though they were still small in the frame, and kept disappearing as they bobbed up and down, so it required some patience. Pictures below.

Overall, it was a lovely couple of hours, and I will definitely go again in the spring. Below is the view acros to the island of Inchcolm, which is a breeding site for fulmars.