27 May 2011

In search of Dunlin

Spent today once again battling into a strong westerly wind, this time on the high blanket bogs of Dartmoor in search of the world's most southerly breeding population of Dunlin. Unfortunately a tough 12 km hike through very remote and rough terrain and a scan of a vast area of bog (photo below by Chris Townend) produced not a single decurved bill or black belly. In fact there were hardly any birds at all, with just 1 Hobby, 2 Common Snipe, 1 Raven and 2 Northern Wheatear of note. Dunlin return to their breeding grounds on Dartmoor in late May so perhaps we were just a little too early? Fernworthy Forest provided some compensation with a singing Wood Warbler, 2 Redstart (1 heard), 3+ Tree Pipit and a pair of Bullfinch.

26 May 2011

Lundy: 24th - 26th May

Just arrived back from a short trip to Lundy (Isle of Puffins) - a small remote granite island lying 12 miles off the north Devon coast. Our aim was to search for any late spring migrants and to check out the seabird colonies, but unfortunately our visit coincided with very strong westerly winds that developed into storm force as time went on, and so things didn't go quite as we hoped.

The 24th started off well enough with a Hobby seen dashing over Jaffa and Helen's back garden in Budleigh Salterton early morning. However, anticipation of close seabird encounters on the crossing over to Lundy were dashed on arrival at Ilfracombe by the rough conditions, and in fact seabird numbers going over were very disappointing with just c.15 Manx Shearwaters, 6+ Razorbill, 1 Guillemot, 1-2 Fulmar and a few Gannet seen. After arriving on Lundy and dumping our gear at our accommodation we trekked north to Halfway Wall, where we quickly located the male Trumpeter Finch that had been present since the 13th (my second in Britain). This 13th for Britain performed brilliantly in the bright evening light to just the four of us, showing down to just 6 m at times. It spent most of the time on the grass tracks and gravel paths feeding on seeds and small shoots, but did start calling and even singing on one occasion. Despite the strong winds we managed some reasonable shots (photos 1-3). Migrants noted throughout the afternoon were a Turtle Dove and 2 Willow Warbler in Millcombe Valley, 1 Sedge Warbler in St. John's Valley and c10. House Martin and good numbers of Swallow elsewhere. 2 Peregrines were amongst the resident birds seen.

Trumpeter Finch with the Lundy landmark of Tibbets in the background

With light south-easterlies forecast for the 25th, it looked like this was going to be our best chance for passage migrants. But instead the day dawned with a strong southerly blowing that quickly changed to a blustery south-westerly. A few hours birding early morning produced virtually no migrants, with just 1 Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Blackcap and the Turtle Dove noted in Millcombe Valley and the same Sedge Warbler in St. John's Valley. An afternoon walk to the north end of the island while being blasted by the wind was equally unproductive for migrants, with just 1 Spotted Flycatcher noted on the East Sideland and small numbers of House Martin knocking about. The Trumpeter Finch was also seen again at Halfway Wall.

Local breeding birds provided the only other wildlife photo opportunities. Northern Wheatears (photo 4) were everywhere on the island plateau, with at least 2 pairs seen visiting nests, and Meadow Pipit (photo 5), Skylark and Linnet were abundant. Also noted were 4 Peregrine (including a pair at the nest), 4 Raven, an adult Water Rail feeding a chick in St. John's Valley and Pied Wagtail and Wren both with fledglings in Millcombe. The strong wind made viewing seabirds very difficult but lots of Manx Shearwater, Fulmar, Razorbill, Guillemot, Northern Gannet and Shag were seen offshore, mostly very distant, along with a few Grey Seal around the rocks. Finally, a late night visit to one of the Manx Shearwater breeding slopes found just a few birds calling.

St. John's Valley looking towards Millcombe Valley - one of the few areas on
Lundy with bushes and trees and a well known migrant trap. Our
accommodation - Bramble Villa West - is the background.

Lundy is characterised by grassy slopes between the cliffs and the island
plateau known as the Sidelands. This is the East Sideland - one of the only
spots sheltered from the wind duing our visit.

Looking north towards Gannets' Rock

North Light at North West Point. Thousands of Atlantic Puffins once bred on the
grassy slopes here, but today only around 32 pairs breed, and Lundy is close
to losing Puffin as a breeding species. Since 2006 Lundy has been rat free thanks
to the Seabird Recovery Programme, which will hopefully help lead to an
an increase in Puffin numbers.

On our last day the winds were so strong (force 6) that the Oldenburg couldn't make the crossing back to the mainland and so we had to be 'evacuated' by helicopter! I managed to grab the seat next to the pilot so the views over Lundy and Hartland Point on the mainland were incredible (photos below). This was my first visit to Lundy and although the weather stopped us doing much of what we wanted to do I can't wait to go back, hopefully in conditions where you can at least stand upright.

Hartland Point, Devon

For an alternative take on this trip, which highlights some of the psychological issues that arise within a group stuck on a lump of rock in the Atlantic in storm force winds seeing bugger all, click here.

23 May 2011

Lundy calling

Down in Devon this week visiting the Cream Tea Birder and his better half, the Cream Tea Bird. A quick look at the sea off Budleigh Salterton this morning revealed 33 Manx Shearwaters, 2 very distant skuas, probably Arctic, several Northern Gannet, several Northern Fulmar and an Oystercatcher, all moving west in a moderate south-westerly. A few hours filling our faces at the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster was undoubtedly the highlight of the day. Off to Lundy tomorrow for a few days so lets hope the weather improves and we find a stonking rare!

As a footnote to this post, later that evening we had a Nightjar flying around over the park outside Jaffa and Helen's house as well as over the garden. A local breeding bird from the nearby heathland or a migrant?

20 May 2011

Late spring at Staines Moor

A few hours at Staines Moor this morning failed to locate any late passage migrants, however, it was good to see some early breeding successes. Recently fledged Starlings have formed a small flock around the cattle on the moor, and Great Tits were also seen feeding fledglings. Breeding is also well underway for summer visitors - this fledgling Blackcap (1st photo) was being fed by an adult and Common Whitethroats are now busy feeding young (2nd photo).

Counts today include 1-2 Hobby, 2 Lesser Whitethroat, 3 Garden Warbler, 3 Sedge Warbler, 3 Reed Warbler, 10 Common Whitethroat, 3 Chiffchaff, 10 Swallow, 10 House Martin, 8 Swift, 3 Common Tern over, 1 Little Egret on the Colne (3rd photo), 3 Reed Bunting (including a female performing a 'broken wing' display at me), just 1 Lapwing, 2 Greylag Geese, several displaying Meadow Pipit and the usual Skylark and Linnet.

Lots of Banded Demoiselles Calopteryx splendens are now on the wing (male - 4th photo, female - 5th photo) as well as a few Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum, and the moor is covered with flowering Marsh Marigolds Caltha palustris and Yellow Flag Iris Iris pseudacorus.

19 May 2011

Neotropical Birding article on REGUA

Just had an article I wrote about REGUA published in the spring 2011 issue of Neotropical Birding. REGUA is an NGO in south-east Brazil protecting over 7,000 ha of Atlantic Forest - the second most threatened biome in the world and home to a very high number of endemics. An incredible 455 bird species (and counting) have been recorded at REGUA, including 62 Brazilian endemics and 118 Atlantic Forest endemics! 13 species classified as Threatened by BirdLife International are also found here - a very high total for one site. REGUA is a fantastic birding destination, and moreover, the lodge is non-profit, with all income going towards REGUA's conservation work. This article, Seeking out Atlantic Forest specialities at Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu, describes where and when to find the Reserve's specialities, such as Elegant Mourner, Russet-winged Spadebill, Salvadori's Antwren and Giant Snipe. If you would like a copy, or are interested in neotropical birds, please join the Neotropical Bird Club.

18 May 2011

Polish colour-ringed Caspian Gull at Dungeness

While photographing gulls around the fishing boats at Dungeness on Sunday evening (15th), I found this colour-ringed bird that I suspected might be a first-summer Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans (below). The mainly unmarked white head and underparts (with just a few faint brown markings on the breast sides, flanks and under tail-coverts), dark beady eye, worn dark tertials and the worn and therefore rather plain pale brown greater coverts contrasting with fresh grey feathers on the scapulars made it stand out (oh, not to mention the bright yellow ring on the right leg). Structurally it also fit the bill: narrow bill, long legs (particularly the tibia), fairly small head with a gently sloping forehead and slight peak at the nape, long primaries and a full-chested appearance. I often struggle identifying immature large gulls, but after checking the literature I'm happy with the ID. A look at the European colour-ring Birding website reveals the bird was ringed in Poland (click to enlarge).

Also present was this adult colour-ringed Herring Gull, ringed somewhere on the south coast of the UK (below).

15 May 2011

Late spring at Dungeness

Spent the day at Dungeness with Rachel (yep, you read right! After hearing so much about this unusual place, Rachel wanted to see Dungeness for herself!). With a high pressure situated south-west of the UK producing moderate WNW winds, migrants were thin on the ground today, with just 1 Whimbrel, 1 Common Sandpiper, 1 Dunlin and c.80 Swift noted on the RSPB reserve and 3 Turnstone at the point. Personal highlight today was a pair of breeding Black Redstart at the power station, that did their best to avoid being photographed as they collected food along the perimeter fence (photo 1 below).

The long staying tail-less first-cycle Glaucous Gull gave excellent views at the fishing boats in the evening (photos 2-5). Also present here were large numbers of (mainly immature) Herring, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (as well as a few interesting birds I'm not certain of), exhibiting some interesting behaviour as they squabbled over Spider Crabs and fish scraps dumped by the local fishermen (interestingly, discarded dog fish were completely ignored?). A couple of Herring Gulls were also cracking open periwinkles by dropping them from the air onto the pebbles (photo 8).

The most intriguing sighting of the day was a possible Montague's Harrier, heading south over the A259 near Old Romney, seen briefly from the car on the way home! Unfortunately, a thorough scan after frantically turning the car around failed to relocate it. The only other notables were a male Northern Wheatear at the point (looked like a nominate oenanthe and so probably a local breeder), a 2nd summer Mediterranean Gull and c.200 Common Tern at the Patch, and 1 Hobby, 4 Marsh Harrier (1 male and 3 females), 4 Reed Warbler, 1 Lesser Whitethroat (heard), 1 Cuckoo (heard), 1 Cetti's Warbler (heard), 20+ Barn Swallow, 2 House Martin, 1 Sand Martin and 1 Gadwall at the RSPB reserve. Also, many wild flowers on the shingle are now in bloom, such as Yellow Horned Poppy Glaucium flavum (1st photo below), Sea Kale Crambe maritima (2nd photo below) and the invasive Red Valerian Centranthus ruber.

14 May 2011

Bundles of joy

Amazingly, this year we've got a pair of Blue Tits nesting in our garden. I first noticed the birds checking out the nest box during the winter and nest building began a couple of months ago, but I say amazingly because these birds have had a lot to contend with, including a local moggie sitting on top of the nest box peering into the entrance hole and even a Red Fox trying to get at them! The chicks are now pretty well developed (photo below) and should fledge in the next week or so. Although impossible to tell for sure from this photo, this brood appears to be very small, perhaps as few as 3 or 4 chicks, but hopefully I'll be around when they fledge so I can find out exactly how many there are.

8 May 2011

Pulborough Brooks RSPB

Spent a very relaxing afternoon with Rachel and good friends Geraldine and Dave sauntering around this excellent reserve in West Sussex. The highlight was great views of my first Nightingale of the year (with at least another 2 heard). Other species seen include 1 Little Ringed Plover, 1 Greenshank, 1 Cuckoo, 1 Hobby, 3 Redshank, 2 Common Swift, c.15 Sand Martin, 5+ Barn Swallow, 6 Eurasian Wigeon, a pair of Gadwall, 18 Shelduck, 2 Teal, 1 Little Egret, 3 Sedge Warbler, 4 Blackcap, 6 Common Whitethroat, 4 Chiffchaff, 2 Bullfinch and 2 Lapwing chicks were also noted. Heard only were 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Lesser Whitethroat and 1-2 Willow Warbler and a return visit at dusk to the heathland on the reserve produced my first Nightjar of the year heard churring away. A male and female Broad-bodied Chaser were also seen.

2 May 2011

Wader passage at Dungeness

With the persistent high pressure over northern Europe continuing to produce strong north-easterly winds, I was hoping to catch some of the incredible seawatching thats been happening at Dungeness over the last couple of days. However, soon after arrival it became apparent that there was far less moving today and seawatching was a little disappointing, perhaps due to the increased wind. Unfortunately I wasn't able to arrive until quite late so I missed out on 10 Pomarine Skuas, Little Gulls, Velvet Scoters and greater numbers of passage waders (see here). Nevertheless, a three hour seawatch still produced 150 Bar-tailed Godwits passing in small flocks (1st and 2nd photos), many in full summer plumage, along with 21 Whimbrel, 4 Grey Plover and 12 Sanderling, all heading east up the Channel. 68 Common Scoter, 4 Little Tern, 2 Gannet, a Yellow Wagtail 'in off' (3rd photo) and 3 Barn Swallow were also seen, and at the Patch another 2 Little Tern, 2 Black Tern, 1 Sandwich Tern and 200+ Common Tern were noted.

An afternoon visit to Dungeness RSPB found very little activity due to the very windy conditions. However, this Red-rumped Swallow was a nice surprise (found just before I arrived) and showed well for about an hour between Hooker's Pit and Boulderwall Farm, although it was far from easy to photograph (below)!

Also seen around the RSPB reserve were a further 60 Bar-tailed Godwits, 11+ Whimbrel (photo below), 1 Spotted Redshank, 6+ Greenshank, 1 Turnstone, 4 Dunlin, 4+ Common Swift, 20+ Barn Swallow, c.25 Sand Martin, a House Martin, another 2 Yellow Wagtail, 3 Marsh Harrier, 1 Redshank, 6 Ringed Plover, 2 Oystercatcher and 4+ Shelduck.