30 Dec 2015

Review of my year - 2015.

What a momentous year 2015 turned out to be. As well as some fantastic new birds we had our son’s wedding and a visit from our daughter, granddaughter and son in law from Australia! We’ve gained a wonderful daughter in law. Last year I made it into the 500 BOU club and this year I’ve added 4 more species to that list with potentially a 5th if the Chestnut Bunting gets accepted.
The first new bird of the New Year was actually on the first day of the year! A Little Bustard had been found New Year’s Eve near Fraisthorpe, Yorkshire. I didn’t get the message until late and we were on a family night out. Luckily Al Orton picked me up at some unearthly hour of the morning and we arrived at first light to find the bird was still there!
I had to wait until April for the next new addition and again it was the dream team of Orton & Woollen that made the overnight trip to the Scillies for the UK’s 2nd Great Blue Heron. A pretty boring looking bird but a stunning location and fantastic weather.
The autumn was relatively quiet although we had a fantastic week on Fair Isle where for the 2nd year running we found a BBRC rarity – this time a Paddyfield Warbler. No new birds and no hoped for Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler but we’ll be back on Fair Isle next autumn so fingers crossed.
It wasn’t until the middle of October that another new species was added to the list  and this time it was with Steve Williams that I made the return trip to Lewis to meet up with Tony Marr again and get fantastic views of the male Wilson’s Warbler he’d found behind his house. A 2nd for Britain no less following a bird a few years ago in Ireland.
There was then a flurry of activity with yet another island trip. This time it was Papa Westray for a potential 1st for Britain in the form of a very confiding juvenile male Chestnut Bunting. Again Al Orton was my partner in crime but joined this time by Sean Cole, Chris Bromley & Stu Butchart. There have been other records of this species in the UK but all have been rejected due to the possibility of escaped cage birds. However, this one turned up at the same time as an influx of Siberian vagrants such as White’s Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat and Blyth’s Pipit so it has good credentials.
Within a couple of weeks I was off again - this time, thankfully, more local but probably not as scenic! Incredibly a Crag Martin was found flying around the crooked spire of St Mary’s Church in nearby Chesterfield. There have been around a dozen records of this species in the UK and most have been one day stayers. The only twitchable bird was at Flamborough in 2014 and I happened to be in Australia!
More locally, in my adopted home county of Cheshire, we made national news when a very confiding juvenile laughing Gull was found at New Brighton. Another county first was found by the intrepid Lighthouse crew who walked out to the tides edge at Hoylake to scan the huge flock of scoter that had congregated in the hope of finding something interesting. They did and several trips later I added Surf Scoter to my county list. Incredibly over the weeks the flock was found to contain possibly 9 birds and with Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Duck amongst the same flock of 20,000 + Common Scoter many people added, with patience, more than one species to their county lists!
I’ve been active on both Hilbre, ringing with the Bird Obs and undertaking WeBs counts and with SCAN, where we had a pretty good season on Puffin Island and some good canon netting days. Garden ringing has been quiet with fewer birds ringed than last year due to the terrible weather we had in November which meant the nets weren’t opened once!

What will 2016 bring? Hopefully a spring Blue Rock Thrush somewhere slightly more accessible than Cornwall and for the autumn? A Fair Isle Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler would be a nice find.

24 Dec 2015

Great Northern Diver

I finally managed to catch up with the juvenile G N Diver that had taken up residence on West Kirby Marine Lake! The bird is feeding well and catching plenty of small crabs. Although I've been over to Hilbre several times recently and passed the marine lake the weather wasn't conducive to sitting around trying to photograph a bird that spends a great deal of its time submerged.

Although it caught several crabs whilst I watched it ate them underwater. It appeared to catch them, surface and then shake them with its head underwater before swallowing them. Washing the mud off?

If you look carefully at the bill there's a notch on the lower mandible about halfway along. I've never noticed this before and wonder  if the bill has been damaged or if this is normal.

21 Dec 2015

Redshank in the pouring rain

Talk about biblical rainfall! SCAN's recent canon netting weekend coincided with one of the wettest Saturdays I've ever been out in. After 3 hours sleep I woke up groggily and had some breakfast before heading along the A55 to Bangor in the dark.  We managed to set one small net in the hope of catching some Redshank and ended up with a reasonable catch of  174 'shanks and 5 Oystercatchers. The rain did ease off a bit but not for long.

Rachel, Steve, Molly & me spent 3 hours cooped up in a leaking hessian hide waiting for the tide to rise and push the waders within range. With all the moisture around it wasn't surprising that the firing box wouldn't work at the critical moment entailing a frantic dismantling and drying of components to get things working. It was a case of fingers crossed when the firing button was pressed but it worked!

After extracting the birds and putting them in warm dry keeping cages we were able to ring and process in the relative comfort of a nearby hide. All the Redshank were ringed, aged, moult scores taken, tarsus / toe measured, bill to feather and total head measured and finally weighed. These biometrics are important as they enable us to determine where these birds might have originated from. Some were re-traps with the oldest bird being ringed in 2002!

                             Dave checking the ring on a Redshank ringed by a new recruit.
  The weather was dark and dismal we had to use head torches in the hide to see properly!
                               Susan measuring total head with a pair of vernier calipers.
                                           Redshank tarsus / toe measurement.

Once all the birds had been processed and the data recorded it was time to pack up and head for home with all the Landrover windows steamed up. Wet clothing was hung in the garage where it was still drip drying 2 days later and I managed a couple of hours sleep before heading out for a Christmas dinner dance.

This was the last SCAN trip of the year and I'm already looking forward to next years sessions.

16 Dec 2015

Hilbre hosts Avain Ecology Christmas day out.

When Fred Fearn contacted me about potentially visiting Hilbre and the Bird obs with his staff for a a pre-Christmas day out I jumped at the chance of taking a day off to meet him and his team that included old friends Pete Antrobus and Colin Davies. My mother in law kindly agreed to make mince pies for everyone and I set off in the dark from West Kirby to open the Obs and light the stove before the visitors were expected to arrive around 10.30.

Despite the lingering mist there was a beautiful sunrise and with little wind and no rain the omens looked good for a successful visit.

A walk around the north end and trapping areas revealed a small overhead passage of birds with a Snow Bunting and Skylark both heading south. Small numbers of Starlings also flew low over the island.

After the arrival of Fred and the team and the consumption of tea (or coffee) and mince pies we all walked back to the north end where an adult male Long-tailed Duck was picked up in flight followed quickly by 3 Goldeneye. The roosting Purple Sandpipers put on a good show as did the resident Rock Pipits. A flock of Wigeon flew down the east side and a Peregrine harassed the waders on Middle Eye. As the waders were shuffled about by the persistent falcon a leucisitc Oystercatcher was picked out and duly photographed by Pete Antrobus.

As the tide ebbed and we sat on the obs balcony (or by the fire in Emma's case!) Pete picked up a Great - northern Diver exiting the estuary. We thought this might have been the marine lake bird finally departing but it proved to be a different bird.

Eventually the tide dropped far enough to leave the island and the visitors departed after taking a group photo at the south end courtesy of Colin who set his camera on a timer.

With the light fading and time pressing as I had to drive to Somerest the same day I didn't stop to check for the Snow Bunting on Little Eye - I wish I had as Colin found a cracking Lapland Bunting! Dohhh.

10 Dec 2015

Stanney Woods lnr

I flew back from Germany yesterday afternoon and arrived home in daylight so decided to take a walk from home to Stanney Woods - a round distance of around 4 miles. A lone male Lesser-spotted Woodpecker has held territory here for the last few years but this year I've only seen him once and he didn't drum or call in the spring. From 2004- 2008 a single pair of Marsh Tits bred but unfortunately they seem to have disappeared. The problem was there was very little understorey to encourage birds to breed and even commoner migrants such as Chiffchaff and Blackcap have declined spectacularly in recent years - probably due to increased disturbance from people walking dogs as the wood is now surrounded by houses. The local rangers started a programme to coppice the old hazels and clear some of the larger trees to help the understorey develop. Hopefully this will encourage more birds to breed here.

The photo below shows quite nicely how the coppiced hazel is beginning to regenerate and form a new understorey:

Although I didn't find the Lesser-spotted Woodpecker I did find the usual woodland residents including Treecreeper, Nuthatch and greater-spotted Woodpecker. Star birds were a pair of Bullfinches that inhabit a specific patch of woodland with plenty of understorey including hazel and holly.

I spent a bit of time looking for Birds-nest Fungus but unfortunately didn't find any. Birch trees are common here so Birch Polypores are relatively common.

There are a few ponds in the wood as its historically a 'wet wood' - these have a few alders surrounding them so I checked them out for Redpoll. Sure enough a single Lesser Redpoll was feeding and calling right at the very top of one of the trees. In previous years, when there's been an influx of Mealy Redpolls there have been flocks of up to 20 of this species.

All in all a nice  way to spend a couple of hours after being cooped up in meetings or airports since last weekend!

30 Nov 2015

Garden ringing.

There hasn't been much opportunity to do much ringing over the last month or so due to either poor weather or being abroad on business trips. I've managed a session in our garden where highlights included a flock of Long-tailed Tits (including a bird I'd ringed earlier in the year) and another Great-spotted Woodpecker.

These are always a pleasure to see and I'm always amazed at the length of their tails as shown in the photo above. Long-tailed Tits can't be aged in the autumn as both juveniles and adults undergo post complete post juvenile/ post breeding moults. In the 70's I remember there was some talk about aging them on eye ring colour and we were asked to record when I was training at Wicken Fen. It was soon realised that this was unreliable as re-trapped birds were being caught with different colour eye rings than they were first ringed with!

We also managed a session at Barry's place in Burton. A fantastic day with over 120 birds processed. Highlights were the first Siskin of the autumn and not one but tow Blackcaps. A male and a female! Are these late autumn migrants or overwintering birds that might have come to the UK from the continent? Hopefully we'll get a ringing recovery and find out.

With ringers complaining about Blue Tits being gram for gram the most vicious birds on the planet it was quite apt this bird was ringed with a ring number ending in 007. Blue Tit 007 - licensed to kill!

23 Nov 2015

Leach's Petrel!

With strong north westerlies for several days last week small numbers of Leach's Petrels were being reported off Hilbre & the north Wirral coast. As the winds were continuing into Saturday I headed across to Hilbre as soon as I could after the tide to do a bit of sea watching. Sure enough I soon picked up a single Leach's Petrel. A good omen I thought. Mistake! It was the only one I saw during the three hours I froze in the sea watching hide. There were actually very few birds around but a Great Northern Diver was picked out on the sea.  It was very actively diving and fishing & I soon lost it in the swell.

A female Eider rode out the storm with her head tucked under her wing with the occasional glance around to get her bearings.

As the tide receded thousands of gulls started feeding along the waters edge. Zooming up through the 'scope I could see they were feeding on Starfish & Razor Clams wrecked during the storms. The picture below shows the mass of Razor Clams washed up on one part of the beach.

Although windy and very cold the skies were clear and the visibility was good enough to see the snow covered Carnedds in N Wales.

After three hours during which I lost the feeling in my fingers I retreated to the warmth of the Obs before heading off the island. 

17 Nov 2015

Wet and windy

An early morning start Saturday saw me awake at 5 am waiting by the phone for news on the proposed canon netting session with SCAN in N Wales. A decision was being made at 6 am depending on the weather. I'd been checking the weather forecasts for the previous 24 hrs and so it was no surprise when Steve emailed me to say it was off! That left me with a simple decision - join Steve for some sea-watching off Hilbre later in the morning!

The weather was pretty grim but unfortunately the forecast gale force westerlies didn't materialise. However, our perseverance was rewarded with  5 Bonxies - including one that chased own and killed a 1st winter Herring Gull by drowning it and then proceeding to eat it - and a Skua species that we tentatively identified as a Pomarine. Good numbers of Great Crested Grebes and smaller numbers of Red-throated Divers were logged along with a small number of Guillemots and Gannets. Our vigil was made more bearable by Clare's gift of a Banana Loaf which we proceeded to devour with enthusiasm.

Star birds though were the 16 Purple Sandpipers roosting snugly on the west side and then appearing in front of the slipway as the tide ebbed.

These charismatic little waders are a feature of winters on Hilbre but in recent years their numbers have plummeted. A flock of 16 is a good number for November and hopefully will increase as the winter progresses.

The resident Rock Pipits put on a show feeding on the walls of the old lifeboat station directly in front of the seawatching hide and we were able to read the ring number from the photo's and determine this was one of the adult birds ringed in April this year.

The pipit was joined by a Pied Wagtail on several occasions but was chased off!

With the tide ebbing and the wind rising we left the hide and retired to the Obs to complete the daily log before heading off pausing only to check the waders on the tide edge and photograph a miserable looking Little Egret hunkered down out of the wind.
By now the rain was torrential and as I headed down the M53 toward home the battery warning light came on in the Landrover. Limping home I found the alternator belt had jumped off its pulleys and can only think the volume of water being thrown up off the road into the engine bay must have caused it. Sunday morning was spent cursing and swearing trying to fix it as one of the alternator bracket nuts had been rounded off!

9 Nov 2015

Crag Martin

Crag Martin is an extremely rare bird in the UK with less than 10 accepted UK records. Most have been one day birds seen by a few lucky local observers. The last twitchable one was at Flamborough Head in 2014. That one stayed a couple of days but I was in Australia.

When news broke on Sunday of one in the centre of Chesterfield only a county away in Derbyshire I didn't hear about it until late on as I'd left my phone in the house whilst working in the garden raking up leaves. A second message came out around 13.30 and I decided to head across towards Stockport and wait and see what materialised. The last news was that the bird had flown off N W and I figured it might end up at Audenshaw reservoir...................................fat chance and with the weather closing in I took the decision to head for home. A wise move as news came out that there was no further sign of the Crag Martin until dusk. That was that or so I thought but I had a lingering suspicion the poor weather meant it wouldn't have got far and would probably get relocated in the morning so I came to work prepared with binoculars and camera. Sure enough I'd hardly walked through the office door and made myself a brew before the news came out is was back flying around the crooked spire of Chesterfields famous parish church.

The weather was appalling and it seemed highly likely the bird was going to hang around at least until the rain cleared so after changing a few work commitments I set off for Chesterfield firstly passing through Stockport and then over the peaks and down into a car park directly below the church. As soon as I got out the car I could see the bird flying around the spire but by the time I'd   grabbed my binoculars it had gone again! After 30 minutes of getting wet through I decided to go back to the car and get my coat on - just as the bird reappeared. This time it hung around for 40 minutes and I enjoyed the surreal experience of watching an ultra-rare Mediterranean vagrant flying around a wet and windy Derbyshire church spire from a public car park!

The conditions for photography weren't good and I settled for a few record shots.

With news that a quorum of the Hilbre Bird Obs committee were on their way I hung around until they arrived before setting off back to the office.

The famous twisted spire of St Mary's church. Apparently the wood used for the spire was still 'green' and the whole thing twisted as the timbers dried out.+


A quick trip to Hilbre resulted in an increase in Purple Sandpiper numbers to three birds and great views of one of the local Curlews. With poor weather all weekend patch birding was confined to sitting in the conservatory watching the feeders and waiting for the appearance of the first winter Blackcap or Brambling.

3 Nov 2015

Thrushes & Goldcrests.

There's been a good movement of thrushes and Goldcrests over Hilbre recently and the spell of misty / foggy weather has grounded a few and we've caught and ringed a few Blackbirds. A quick visit to the island this morning with Chris & Colin was rewarded with a good passage of birds overhead and some on the island with Redwing, Song Thrush and four Blackbirds being ringed.

Star bird though was a first winter male Blackcap caught late morning.

As well as the thrushes there was a good movement of ducks with Wigeon, Teal, Pintail & Mallard also being logged along with a total of 7 Shoveller which are an unusual species to see on Hilbre. The first Purple Sandpiper of the autumn was recorded several weeks ago and it has been joined by two more whilst Brent Goose numbers have built up to over 120 birds with good numbers of juveniles suggesting they've had a good breeding season.

27 Oct 2015

Another week another Island - Chestnut Bunting, Papa Westray

I was in Vienna last week when Fred Fearn sent me a photo of an unusual bunting that had been found on the remote Orkney Island of Papa Westray. The bird was partially obscured but the thoughts were it was a Chestnut Bunting, a bird that so far hasn't made it to the British list due to the uncertainty about escaped cage birds in the past. This bird had all the right credentials though turning up at the same time as other Siberian vagrants on the Northern Isles such as Whites Thrush & Siberian Rubythroat. The bird was forgotten though as it had promptly disappeared and no more thought was given to going to see it.

However, the bird was re-found at the weekend and with space available on a flight I found myself picking up Al early morning and setting off for the airfield. Luckily we received news the bird was still present from the ranger on the island so we  were pretty confident! At the very least Papa was a new island for me.
Co-pilot Orton keeping an eye on proceedings in the cockpit

Jonathan (the ranger) met us of our flight and led us to where the bird was feeding unconcernedly in long vegetation. For the next couple of hours it played hide and seek occasionally showing but only partially whilst feeding voraciously.

Our patience was rewarded though when it flew onto an adjacent dry stone wall.

It showed here for a few minutes before flying over the wall into the next field and suddenly appearing below a 5 bar gate no more than a few metres from where we stood. It showed here unconcerned by human presence, occasionally feeding,  before scuttling off back to feed in its favoured area of pineapple mayweed and annual meadow grass!

A great trip and a fantastic island. Although we didn't see many other birds I did pick up a flyover Lapland Bunting and a small flock of barnacle Geese. With a relatively uneventful flight home (apart from the plane not starting and having to be jump started with the airfield fire engine!) it was a long but satisfying day.
Papa Westray International airport...........................

Hopefully this will be the 1st Chestnut Bunting on the British list! The close views gave us opportunity to check for any signs of captivity such as abnormal feather wear and broken / damaged claws.

Sunset over northern Scotland.