Saturday 30 June 2012

Birds and Bombers 30 June 2012

Recently the Queen unveiled a memorial in Green Park to all the bomber crews lost during the Second World War and another was unveiled at Beachy Head where most of the bombers departed on their way to Germany and which was the last sight of home for the 50,000 bomber crewmen who never returned. My wife's uncle was one of those. What has this got to do with birds you ask. Well I regularly visit Cowleaze Wood on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border which is owned by the Forestry Commission. Nearby is Linkey Down well known locally for its migrant Ring Ouzel passage in April.
Cowleaze Wood is worth a visit at anytime of the year and I have seen here in addition to the usual woodland birds, Common Crossbills, Common Redstarts, Siskins and Bramblings. Just a little way off the beaten track through the wood is a small memorial to a bomber crew who almost got home but tragically crashed on the top of the hill and all died. I was there today and saw Common Crossbills and Siskins near the memorial and this small token in memory of a group of young men who so tragically lost their lives always causes me to pause and realise despite my moans and groans just how lucky I am to be alive and be able to enjoy the birds in Cowleaze Wood and everywhere else I choose to go. 

Friday 29 June 2012

Bempton Cliffs Miscellany Yorkshire

Its not all twitching and chasing after rare birds you know. Here are a number of images taken on a sunny day earlier this year (remember when days were like this?) at the breeding seabird viewpoint at RSPB Bempton in Yorkshire

Oh for some nice weather! I am so tired of rain and cloud and yet more rain. Surely it must end soon


Atlantic Puffins

Northern Gannet

Tree Sparrow

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Pacific Golden Plover at Cley Norfolk 26 June 2012

Well it was just too much to resist. I have only seen one of this species before and that was in winter plumage, in China and which only gave the briefest of views. This individual at Cley was in summer plumage and had been mainly residing on the North Scrape at Cley Marshes for the last few days. If I went to see it this would give me the chance to study it at leisure, if twitching can ever be called leisurely.The only problem was it would involve a round trip of some 270 miles. I thought about it at work for a morning and then decided to take the afternoon off and drive to Norfolk to see it.

I finally arrived at Cley at 4pm and parking in the Coastguard's Car Park made the short walk to the Swarovski Hide and found the plover feeding on one of the muddy banks right in front of the hide. Much more leggy than "our" Golden Plover with longer tibia it also appeared more attenuated and not quite so solidly built. This individual showed a black and white pattern on the head and breast that was very similar to an American Golden Plover but apparently this is not unusual. The wing point extended just beyond the tail but due to the distance it was not possible to note the number of primaries extending beyond the tertials. The gold spangling only appeared to be present on the mantle, scapulars and tertials whilst the wing coverts appeared more grey and white giving a subtle two toned appearance to its upperparts. 

Any Golden Plover in full summer plumage is worth seeing, just for their sheer beauty but when it is a Pacific Golden Plover this makes it all the more special. I watched it for around an hour. Occasionally it was harassed by Lapwings and took flight .When it did it was possible to see the grey axillaries and underwing coverts. 

The scrape was alive with bird activity. I counted over a hundred and fifty Avocets, many still defending virtually fully grown young, a Spotted Redshank in full summer plumage fed at the back of the scrape and there were many Black tailed Godwits, resplendent in their rusty summer plumage. Dunlin and Ringed Plover came and went as did a Little Tern. I left the Hide and retracing my steps stopped at some pools a short way west of the North Scrape.On here were four Spoonbills, one asleep but another adult was being pursued around the marsh by two juveniles with grey pink bills begging for food. I wonder if these were bred locally? Whilst watching the Spoonbills a Wood Sandpiper very obligingly walked in front of them. 

It was now 6.30 pm and thoughts turned to food before the long drag of the journey home. For me there is only one place to go to eat around here. The Dun Cow at Salthouse, one of my favourite pubs. Unpretentious, friendly and with outstanding food and Adnams beer. Also the bonus that you can sit in the garden and bird the marshes the other side of the road whilst drinking and eating. Just brilliant.

Monday 25 June 2012

Moths at Kingham 25 June 2011

OK I confess. I have bought a moth trap.Not just any trap but a Robinson no expense spared. I managed to scrounge some egg boxes from various sources and took delivery of some plastic holding pots from Scuddlebutts the wonderfully named supplier of such items. I hasten to add the pots are only to examine the moths which I plan to release the next night after capture. I gave the trap its first outing last night. Plugged it in to the mains with great anticipation and bingo at first the bulb glowed a gentle pink but very quickly turned white and then illuminated most of our end of Kingham village! I looked at it through the kitchen window and averting my gaze from the dazzle could only see green blotches in front of me for some minutes. Blimey what would it do to any moths? Thankfully there were no low flying aircraft from nearby Brize Norton that might mistake this for the landing strip and our neighbours are sufficiently distant to hopefully not be disturbed. I have not had any complaints yet but it is early days. Anyway I got up early to save on the electricity bill but more importantly to check the lucky contestants lured in by my megawatt illumination. Maybe its beginners luck but first up was a magnificent Poplar Hawk Moth. I just gawped at this wonderful insect clinging to an egg box. I could also see many other moths secreted in the recesses of the egg boxes but put the whole contraption with the moths still inside in the shed to examine when I got home from work. In the evening it was out with the Field Guide and some hours later I think I had managed to identify most of the moths but it is no easy task.There are a bewildering array of moth species and many to my amateur and novice eyes look very much the same

Poplar Hawk Moth
Hopefully with practice I will become proficient but it is a wonder what goes on in the garden after lights out. I just never guessed what insect life was flying around in our garden unseen and up to now unknown to me.
Also what wonderful names moths have. If you think Godwit and Pratincole are strange check out Dewick's Plusia or Dentated Pug. I have yet to make the acquaintance of either of these but I caught the following last night:  Cinnabar, Beautiful Golden Y, Plain Golden Y, Common Rustic, Square Spot Rustic, Buff Ermine, Brimstone Moth, Common Wainscot, Fen Wainscot, 4 Dotted Footman, Marbled Minor, Heart and Dart, Garden Dart, Pebble Prominent plus the Poplar Hawk Moth. I cannot wait until I have another go weather permitting. Its a whole new world out there!

Beautiful Golden Y

Saturday 23 June 2012

Little Swift at New Brighton The Wirral 23 June 2012



call from Badger during a wet and windy Friday afternoon about a Little Swift showing well at New Brighton sent me into a pleasure of anticipation. Up till then I was so depressed that I was contemplating the desperate act of doing some housework so bad has been the weather and my lack of opportunity to get out and see something - anything!  Badger was unable to do anything that evening due to a pressing social engagement which would involve alcohol and a likely hangover and suggested we wait until next morning to see if the swift was still around. I was also committed to spend Saturday with my daughter who was down from Glasgow University for a long weekend.

However I  worked out that if I left that Friday night to be at New Brighton for dawn there was every chance I could be back at home by 10am well before my daughter was awake. I therefore curbed any idea of immediately heading North after receiving the news from Badger and reasoned that if the swift  was seen to go to roost that evening there was a chance that if I got there early the next morning I would have more than an even chance of seeing it leave the roost. This plan worked perfectly for once as it was seen to go to roost on the Pier House that evening at around 9.30pm although exactly where on the building was unknown.

Once this was known I made the decision to go for it and to leave home at midnight. I sent a text to Badger informing him of this and with typical selflessness he wished me luck and no hard feelings. It would be a two to three hour drive and it gets light surprisingly early around this time of year (even the rain cannot affect this) with the first pale patches in the eastern sky appearing from about 2.30am onwards. So it was that myself and the Audi set off north for New Brighton, a destination as of yet unexplored by me. There is something indefinably comforting about driving alone through the night. Maybe it is the lack of traffic on usually congested and hazardous Motorways which allows driving to become a pleasure again and almost enjoyable. The reassuring comfort of the instrument lights turned low telling all is well with the Audi along with the radio providing a gentle and supportive background murmur, seal you into a cocoon of warmth and security from the dark night outside. 

Not long after midnight the World Service kicks in on the BBC. As a seasoned "thruthenite" twitcher I consider myself an afficionado of  the World Service. If you want to know about crop yields in Lower Boggistan, who deposed the latest dictator in the Republic of Zob look no further than yours truly. DJ's you thought were dead or long retired, BBC presenters you thought had emigrated to Taliban radio and programmes that should have been killed off at birth all resurface on the World Service. It's often a load of twaddle but millions listen in with great affection and often rely on it to be impartially informed when occasionally real news breaks. On the World Service I have even briefly overheard Dave Lee Travis spouting his usual garbage whilst I was camping on the banks of the Zambezi in the middle of nowhere on the Zimbabwe border. Sadly he could not be left there but was in the security of a studio somewhere in the bowels of Bush House. But it was a nice thought to contemplate. Regaled with tales of an attempted coup in Paraguay, lack of rainfall in a previously anonymous third world dictatorship and the threat of Dave Lee Travis and his top twenty world hits I headed undaunted up the M6. Badger sent a text at 1.30 in the morning advising he was just starting on the whisky! Dodging around the ever present Eddie Stobart lorries I made good time and found myself passing through Chester and onwards down a deserted M53 to Wallasey and New Brighton, just as the first light appeared in the East. I found the seafront easily and driving along the wide, deserted and windy boulevards on the seafront eventually found myself next to Pier House where the Little Swift was allegedly roosting.

There were now definite light patches in the sky even though there was industrial light pollution on a grand scale from the other side of the Mersey. Parking in a layby I tipped back the seat in the Audi and went to sleep. I awoke with a start and it was now much lighter although the time was still only 3.15am. Although I had seen no birders when I arrived there was definitely some birder activity on the other side of the road on the Promenade. I got all my stuff together and joined about ten other birders who seemed to be peering intently through scopes and bins looking at a ledge high up and to the right hand end of Pier House.They were looking at what appeared to be a dead or torpid swift and getting very excited but to my mind it was far too big to be a Little Swift and was a Common Swift. Everyone was looking at this bird and a couple of birders had already convinced themselves that they had located the roosting Little Swift. 


The ledge on which the Common Swift was ensconced ran along the front of the building and below a series of windows and ran the length of the front of the building. I was convinced this was not the Little Swift and I decided to check the ledges and windows further left and in the bins could see what appeared to be possibly a piece of black and white paper caught in the angle of a window and the ledge. Firmly in the back of my mind was the fact that Little Swifts have a very large white rump patch. I hoped my hunch was correct and getting the scope on the roosting swift  I was convinced that I was correct in my identification and to my mind there was no doubt about its identity. I could with the improving light see the bird was firmly wedged into the angle between  the window frame and the ledge.


It was perched uncomfortably at an angle on the hinge of the window and what I was seeing was its fluffed up white rump facing outwards towards us plus its wings and dark sooty brown mantle. Its head was obscured. I could see the wings clearly either side of the rump plus its short tail and even see the body rising and falling with each heartbeat. The light was now getting progressively better so I studied the Little Swift's plumage through the scope in case I had made an error (not unknown in this business and with the senses dulled by no sleep and an early morning tryst such as this, definitely a strong possibility). I did not want to make a mistake and end up looking foolish. I checked the other birders scattered around me. All the other birders were still looking at the Common Swift and not where I was looking much further to the left on the building.

I took a deep breath and announced, "Excuse me but I think you will find the Little Swift is roosting in the angle of one of those large windows and the window ledge well left of where you are looking". All turned to look at me. Then in response came a chorus of  "Where are you looking". I replied "Find the fifth set of double windows from the left hand end of the building and just look in the bottom left hand corner. There was silence as all heads bent to scopes and then murmurings and affirmation "Bloody hell you're right. That's it. Well done. Thanks. How on earth did you find it? That's definitely it." 

Now a battery of scopes and cameras were trained on said window in what looked like a very upmarket building converted to expensive flats and even sporting a Penthouse. We then all stood there and watched the Little Swift waiting for it to do something but it had other ideas. For the next hour and a half a crowd of around fifty birders watched a Little Swift fast asleep. Occasionally it would have a Little Swift nightmare, well wouldn't you if you lived in the  sun in some exotic location and ended up in New Brighton, and raise its head and shuffled a bit but basically it remained steadfastly asleep clinging to the hinge of the window. 

However this was a golden opportunity to study a bird that is rarely still and many plumage features were on view and could be studied at leisure. I could clearly see the large white rump patch and how extensive it was and even see how the lowest most central feathers of the rump were brown and formed an uneven border to the uppertail coverts. The uppertail coverts were long and dark brown and the central ones reached well down the tail. The tail was short and square ended with just a slight indentation at the centre. The tips of the central tail feathers were white but this looked like staining from droppings or even paint. On the wings the tertials were tipped prominently with white forming distinctive V's and the greater coverts were tipped with pale buff as were the inner median coverts. The secondaries were thinly fringed with pale buff and to a lesser extent so were the inner primaries. The outer webs of the flight feathers were paler grey brown than the inner webs. The mantle and back were dark brown almost black with no sign of blue gloss and were darker than the wings.This all indicated that this bird was probably a juvenile. How remarkable. It must have been raised very early and from what population had it come? North African or further East?

As time wore on we were now speculating what would happen if the residents of the flat behind the window drew their curtains only to be confronted with an apparent paparazzi of birders all intently looking at them. Explain that one at five in the morning! All remained calm apart from a random geezer arriving from the beach with a pack of dogs and a Great Crested Grebe under his arm. "Who wants this then?" he enquired repeatedly and was steadfastly ignored. There were no takers for the unfortunate grebe and he was eventually advised to find a Bird Hospital or pet refuge and departed muttering to himself about selfish birders. Possibly he was right. By now all the Common Swifts were wide awake and flying around feeding but our hero or heroine slept on. Some sexist wag remarked it was asleep so long it must be a female. 

Thankfully the Little Swift finally stirred itself and left the ledge at around 5.45am whilst the curtains behind remained firmly closed although I must compliment the resident in the next apartment on their nice arrangement of geraniums. Although always fairly distant the Little Swift now put on a display feeding back and forth over the Mersey in the company of about twenty other Common Swifts. Much more square ended than its common cousins and with wings broader and with blunter tips it was quite distinctive. It's flight was much more martin like with short wing flutters followed by frequent gliding.



I watched it for about an hour during which the original Common Swift left its ledge but then returned to resume its dead bird impression. Very odd. I needed two power naps on the long trek home but made it back for 10am. My daughter was still asleep and Badger was nursing a monumental hangover. I hit the sofa and entered dreamland


                               With grateful thanks to Phil Woollen
                                           for the use of much better pics than mine

A Day of Two Halves 17 June 2012

Finally the weather relented and my thoughts turned to Honey Buzzards in the New Forest. It was with some optimism that I headed down the A34 from Oxfordshire to Acres Down in the New Forest. I duly arrived on a pleasant early morning and set up the scope at around 9am and waited and waited aaaaaaaaaand waited. Thirty Common Buzzards, seven Goshawks, two Ravens and a Hobby later and at twleve noon not a sign of a Honey Buzzard. There is only one thing to do in such a situation and that is to get zen about the world and accept that it is not going to happen. 

Honey Buzzards are nothing if not enigmatic.Some days there is no waiting and sometimes views are spectacular but they are very much in the minority. Often it ends up like today. Undeterred I descended into the woods below Acres Down and found Woodlarks, Tree Pipits and many Common Redstarts. Siskins and Crossbills called and flew overhead. So it was not all bad.

I decided to call it a day and headed for Kingham and home. Arriving mid afternoon in a frenzy of zeal I set about mowing the lawn before the predicted rain arrived and afterwards settled myself in a chair outside with a gin and tonic. A Robin approached me, one of a pair that have already raised a brood in the garden and are now onto their second. It came closer and closer until only three feet way when it started singing quietly, all the while eyeing me intently. I know one should not anthropomorphise about such things but I like to think it was communicating in its own Robiny way. Knowing how pugnacious this species is it was probably foul and abusive Robin speak but I was unconscious of this.

Last year exactly the same thing happened when I watered the garden (yes, those were the days when it was actually dry for days on end). A Robin followed me around as I watered and in between seizing prey disturbed by the watering would sing close to me. Maybe it was the same Robin? As I drank my gin and tonic I watched the Blackbirds feeding their newly fledged young hiding below the hostas and the Blue Tits visiting their nest in the dry stone wall and realised how fortunate I was to have all this literally on my doorstep. 

Later, after the Robin had departed I reflected that in my garden or close by there were breeding Robin, Blackbird, Blue Tit, House Sparrow, Dunnock, Spotted Flycatcher, Goldcrest, Swift and Swallow. By this time I was on my third gin and I think tonic was still involved but I am sure you get the message............

Saturday 16 June 2012

Great Spotted Woodpeckers Kingham 16 June 2012

The juvenile Great Spotted Woodpeckers are continuing to visit the peanut feeder in our garden often spending many minutes just hanging on the feeder or lurking in the nearby largE Acacia tree

Storm Force Petrels at Severn Beach 9th June 2012

Unseasonal westerly gales for two days heralded the arrival of storm driven seabirds in the Severn Estuary on 8th June. Frustratingly, work duties provided an impediment to any thoughts of heading to the estuary on that day. The subsequent reports that evening also brought on a gloom nearly as bad as the weather. Pomarine and Arctic Skuas plus numbers of Storm Petrels had been seen throughout the day by those lucky enough to be present. I called Badger that afternoon but he was of a mind to go to Otmoor the next day. I knew there would be nothing there so, although in two minds and incapable of coming to a decision that night I sort of decided, before going to bed, to go to Severn Beach the next day depending on how I felt when I woke up.

The next day thankfully was a Saturday and by way of novelty in this awful Spring it would, according to the forecast not be raining, and possibly even be sunny and the wind would drop. At 5.30am I awoke. It was light, sunny and still windy. Decision time. Lie in or up and about? I arose and pointed the Audi west at just after 6am. The roads were empty of traffic at this time. We were at Severn Beach an hour later but I had made one crucial mistake. I forgot to check the times of the tide.

A vast expanse of mud and shingle greeted me plus a Force 6 westerly wind blowing directly into my face although it was still dry and sunny. The tide was miles out, so was the sea and so was my miscalculation! No birds. No birders. I had time on my hands. I retreated to an old fashioned and friendly bakery just off the promenade, the same one where I celebrated on my last visit some two years ago after fortuitously having seen a Black bellied Storm Petrel. Fortified by a pasty and a slice of apple pie I headed back for the seafront. The tide was now obviously coming in and it comes in fast here so it would not be long before I had some seawater to scan over and hopefully some birds would appear. I started scanning the sea but nothing appeared apart from two Common Shelduck and a pair of Peregrines.

An hour slowly passed, five Sanderling flew upriver and a few other birders who had sensibly noted when the tide was suitable turned up and spread along the seafront. Suddenly in my scope on one of my scans I found a Storm Petrel, the first of the morning, heading downriver out to the estuary. Now my attention slipped into top gear. Two dark shapes on the sea – male Common Scoters- and then another Storm Petrel flying up river over them. It’s looking good! As the tide came in, more and more Storm Petrels appeared, as did birders, until there was quite a crowd spread along the seafront and considerable numbers of Storm Petrels coming up river. Bemused passers by enquired what all the fuss was about. They were informed about the winds and seabirds. 

The Storm Petrels seemed to be flying up river from the estuary and possibly even under the new Severn Road Bridge and others or the same were coming back down river. It was impossible to accurately assess how many there were but I had around one hundred and fifty sightings, (I stopped counting after I reached a hundred), between  when I commenced watching at 7.30am until I left at 1.30pm and estimated that I had seen getting on for a hundred Storm Petrels. It may have been more it may have been less. Who really cares. I was getting probably the best views I have ever had of Storm Petrels, better even than at Pendeen. It was just brilliant and another birding gamble had paid dividends.

Many were close into the shore, giving exceptional and prolonged views, even flying along the tideline and they moved surprisingly fast. It was noticeable how many coming up river did not feed but just flew at speed often almost shearing over the waves but on the way back down river many would foot patter on the water feeding and at the peak time there were at least five or six birds visible at the same time fluttering over the sea, feeding head into the wind. One bird settled on the water looking tired and dejected just off the sea defences. I could clearly see its down curved bill and tubular nostrils. It drifted in towards the shore a picture of discontent but then lifted lightly off the sea and commenced feeding as if nothing was untoward.

The petrel bonanza and adrenalin rush became even better when the shout went up that there was a Sabine’s Gull out there somewhere in the estuary. Panic. Where? Instructions were shouted out but got lost in the wind. I just could not locate it even though the guy sitting on a bench in front of me could see it clearly. Patiently he gave me really explicit instructions involving distant pylons, radio masts and turbines on the far shore but still I could not locate it. Then it apparently settled on the sea and was lost to sight. Oh no! I followed his continuous directions as it apparently floated fast up river occasionally visible on the incoming tide as it rose on wavecrests then descending to become invisible in the wave troughs. Why could I not see it? It became all too apparent why when the gull much to my relief lifted into the air and it was obviously far closer to us than where I had been searching. The instructions had been that it was distant but it was anything but. Never mind. What a beauty and now well and truly in view. An adult in full summer plumage. Black ,white and grey wings and a beautiful black hood were visible as it rose ever upwards apparently going to fly over the Severn Road Bridge. A birder who I never actually saw, as I was glued to my scope, ran up behind me gasping for breath. “Where is it mate”. I gave him instructions about it flying up near the top of the bridge. Unlike yours truly he found it quite quickly. “Cheers mate. Nice”. He disappeared with me still glued to the scope. As I watched, the gull, like so many seabirds do, baulked at crossing over the bridge and retreated down river eventually settling far off on the sea never to be seen again. What a relief and what a great bird to see. The Storm Petrels meanwhile just kept coming up and down the river.

Cameras including mine went into overtime as the birds were so close. They were however very hard to capture in the camera lens as they moved surprisingly rapidly across the water. Eventually the tide turned, the birders slowly disappeared and the petrels declined in numbers. A Yellow Wagtail calling loudly landed behind me on the only patch of grass available. An Arctic Tern put in a brief appearance. It was time to go. It was1.30pm. What a morning.