Thursday, 22 March 2018

Owls well that ends well

Some birds can create excitement amongst twitchers, the lbj's from America or obscure plumages of sub-species of gulls. For most people though they are a bit meh. Some though can get even hard-core non-birders excited. Owls as family always do this with their big eyes and back-story of myth and legend, A snowy owl though, and a twitchable one at that, will tick all the boxes for both camps. Two weekends ago a female snowy owl was firstly potentially sighted (as an albino barn owl) then definitely seen for two days running on the north Norfolk coast creating a stir, even hitting the national newspapers. I, however, despite wanting to, could not manage to get away for it and by the Monday it has not reappeared so I thought my chance had gone. The almost constant stream of photos and tales on the interweb did not help in this matter but I tried to put it out of mind.
Yesterday though about 3pm the news wires started buzzing again that it had surfaced, this time on the north of the Wash at Friskney near Gibraltar point. It looked to be showing pretty well and seemed settled. Would it stick over night though as in Norfolk it had moved overnight both times.
I hit the road about 5am and got north of Peterborough quite easily. The road north from there is single carriageway and a steam of lorries and tractors slowed my progress. This started to create a modicum of stress as the pager went off just after 7 that the owl was still there. Then comes the stress of "what if it wakes up and flies off before I get there?". The lorries and the one-way system in Boston meant it was another 40 minutes till I got to the car-park. There were about 15 cars there and you could see a path leading out to the sea. The only problem was there were about 8 birders walking BACK along it towards us!! Had it flown? The man in the car parked next to me was on his mobile. "it has flown". Nooooooo, please not a 5 minute dip. "but its not gone far".  His brother apparently was on the beach and feeding the info back. We both hurled our gear together and marched quickly out onto the marsh towards the sea. Apparently the owl had been moved on by a rapidly rising tide and it could move again soon. You could certainly tell it was almost high-tide, the path out was wet to say the least, often coming above the top of my boots. We could see a group of about 6 people all looking in one direction though. It took us about 10 minutes to get to them but even before we got there we could see a white hump sitting up on a tussock. It was still there!!!!!

It looked pretty relaxed and for the first 5 minutes jut sat there, annoyingly with a bloody great twig right in line to it.!!!

The tide though was still coming in and would be full in 40 minutes time. The area the owl was on was soon underwater and it had to relocate.

When it flew you could see how big its wings are, massive in comparison to its body size especially when it put them up above its head. It stayed in this area for I suppose another couple of minutes before it hopped a short distance and sat up beautifully on a tussock. This was totally amazing. I had gone from being sure it would not be here to being in a small group watching it at a couple of hundred yards distance.Absolutely stunning.

The only problem was the tide. The owl had moved to get its feet out of water but we were now standing in about 6 inches of water and the path back had disappeared. In an unusual collective act of sensibleness we all agreed we had to retreat so we gathered up our gear and splashed through the marsh till we reached the other birders there who were on dry ground. The owl stayed put!

After I suppose 40 minutes or so it decided it was a bit hungry though and it lazily flew off and settled on a large wooden cable roll which gave it a nice view over the marsh from which it occasionally flopped off presumably to hunt. It was now though very distant from us and photography became pretty much impossible - the photo below is uncropped off a 500mm lens with a 1.4x converter.

Eventually it dropped down into the grass and seemed to go to sleep so I took that as a call to go back to the car for coffee and to try elsewhere. When I left the crowd was still staking it out and new people were arriving all the time but I think I got views as good as it was going to get.
I next went to Frampton Marsh, an RSPB reserve about 5 miles away. It was actually pretty quiet with not a lot around but there was a feeling of Spring with a lot of birds in song, including this confiding reed bunting.
Elsewhere from one of the hides half a dozen ruff came in quite close whilst feeding on the marsh, one of which looks like its coming into breeding plumage.

and a kestrel was hunting a field near the carpark and had caught a small rodent of some sort.

All these were very nice but could only be be a very distant supporting cast to the owl. What a stunner she was and you have to imagine she will be bird of the year for me, and a lot of other people, by some way. Days like that are few and far between.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Changing of the guard

We're right on the cusp between Winter and Spring. There are birds arriving every day but not all our Winter friends have left yet. It's a really exciting time of year and one where you need to make the best of time out to get to see some lovely birds.
My trip out today started on one of the classic spring birds, garganey. The males are gorgeous ducks with a brown head and a white eye stripe. They are also known to be pretty elusive birds. This one had been hanging around a pool at Farlington Marshes, a lovely little reserve on the south coast near Portsmouth. I timed my arrival well, just as the overnight rain was clearing away and walked the 15 minutes or so to the pool. There was lots of movement on the marsh itself with birds flying up and relocating but only a couple of swans and 6 teal on the pool itself. On the grassy edges though there were still about 20 brent geese, classic Winter birds still hanging on before moving North.

Within about 5 minutes a duck swam off from the bank and I quickly saw the eye-stripe and confirmed it as the garganey. It promptly disappeared into the reeds and though I waited another hour it didn't appear. The photo below is of a different bird from 2014 at Little Marlow. You can see that eye-stripe showing well.

I toyed with waiting for it to show, as I haven't got a decent shot of one, but it had been reported as elusive so I decided to move on. Next stop was about 40 minutes away at Acres Down in the New Forest. Apart from the ponies this area is well known for its raptors and in Spring especially for goshawks. These are large versions of our commoner sparrowhawks and in this part of the world at least are doing really well. In Spring the male and female do display flights over their territories, wheeling up into the sky and sometimes even locking talons. Today though myself and the two other birders at the raptor lookout only had very distant views of a single male bird over the wood. This is good for honey buzzards in a few weeks though so I will have another visit at least.

These were not the only birds around. Woodlarks, new for the year, were in full song and stonechats were patrolling the heath. I even had a pair of hawfinches overfly us. Star of the show though was a particularly aggressive firecrest in the holly by the path. They are closely related to our goldcrests but have a bold black and white eye stripe. They also have a distinctively different song which was what alerted me to its presence in the first place. 

For a tiny bird they have a lot of attitude and that crest raising is hilarious. 
Rather than carrying on around the coast I finally headed back towards home. The first little gulls of the year had been reported at Staines reservoir so I stopped off there. There were two other birders on site and they pointed me to the 3 or possibly 4 gulls. This is Staines so of course they were miles away!!! Occasionally they came a bit closer though, actively picking food of the water surface allowing me to study the classic id features.

There were two plumages present. The bird above is an adult, without its full black hood yet. Of course it is a lot smaller than the other gulls but on its own at range this is hard to determine. What does show though are those really dark, almost black underwings and that white tail and fringing to the wings. The beak is also a lot more delicate and blacker.

This 1st winter bird shows the other plumage type often seen. Look at the pattern on the upper wings, the V shape mid the leading black edge on the wings and the terminal black band on the tail. 
There were no other true spring birds present, but there was one in spring plumage. Black-necked grebes are regular's here and they are now in their breeding finery.

 Finally I caught up with the long-staying American horned lark, still seeming to be thriving on the bank of the reservoir.

A good day all round and the real feel of Spring in the air, though apparently it will snow on Sunday!!!!

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A tale of two twitches - part two

After dipping on the Ross's gull on Friday, it was still around over the weekend and was starting to try a new routine. Still showing intermittently it had now discovered Radipole Lake. This is in the centre of Weymouth, about equidistant between Lodmoor and Ferrybridge, it's other two haunts. It could also be seen fishing in the bay but normally only late evening and at great distance. Monday, being my day off, was therefore decided as another trip to Weymouth. I initially set the alarm a bit later than normal as Judith was doing an airport trip. I woke up though about 4.15 and decided to just go so I flung on my clothes and headed off.
Same problem as before though, where to go. On Sunday it had appeared at Lodmoor early doors and had stopped going to Ferrybridge. Radipole seemed to be its stop after having a feed when it took a bit of a bathe in the fresh water there. Lodmoor it was then.
I got there at first light and it was real groundhog day time. Andy and Mr charity shop coat were both already there having also dipped on Friday. A few more arrived by 7.30, including some familiar faces from the Staines reservoir regulars, and we had camped out near the sea-end of the reserve as the scrape was frozen over. There were probably 100 or more black-headed gulls all fresh off their overnight roost having a good bathe. We scanned through and looked up expectantly every time a new bird arrived but nothing. Then I spotted a small bird drop into the throng. Two others saw it as well and we alerted the throng "probably just dropped in, left hand end". A few frantic seconds of searching and we got onto it - the Ross's gull had indeed landed!!!!!

This was the challenge though, as you see this photo. It is one gull and a small one at that, in the midst of a lot of other ones, all moving around. It was really tricky and we all kept losing it then refinding it. Lots of "anyone on it?", "I can see its legs" and, helpfully, "its just behind another gull"!!!
What were we looking for though?

In these two above, and they are all heavily cropped in so not brilliant photos, you can see it. A smaller gull than those around it. It's head stands out and being pure white (they turn pink in full breeding plumage!) and it has really short legs. Unfortunately with the wind from our backs the gulls were mainly facing away from us so it was hard to get side on views.

Especially in the last one of these you can see its short little legs, which actually were quite good for picking it out from the crowd.
After only about 10 minutes I suppose if lifted off with about 10 other gulls, did one circle and then headed off towards Weymouth.

These snatched flight shots show it's pearly white trailing edges to the wings and that hood starting to form. Some observers think they can see a bit of pink but I'm not sure, looks clear white to me. 
Still, a brilliant 10 minutes and lots of very happy birders. We all broke out the coffee flasks and most of us headed back to Radipole to hopefully catch it later, where it might show really close.
Things didn't work out the way though. I spent another 3 hours standing waiting for it but no show. Again a few members of the supporting cast tried to keep us amused including a lovely kingfisher and an almost breeding plumage cormorant but no star.

I gave up about 12. It did pop in very briefly much later in the day. On the way back I tried for the stilt sandpiper at Stanpit but missed it by about 5 minutes. Still, I'd much rather have it that way round than miss the Ross's again. First lifer of the year and what a beautiful bird to boot. Really happy with that. Now, with the "beast from the east" arriving this week perhaps a few more Arctic specialists might drop in - ivory gull or a Stellers eider anyone??