Sunday, 29 January 2012

Southern Portugal (1)

Back in early October I was asked to head off to Southern Portugal by the good folks at Bird Watching magazine to spend five days in the company of top Portugese birder and guide Joáo Jara and then produce an article about the area for the magazine. The February issue of Bird Watching, on sale now, has a 'Portugal Special' and my small contribution features in amongst several others.

As well as the piece in Bird Watching I've also drawn on my experiences in that trip to write about a fantastic site in the Alentejo region called Noudar Nature Park over at 10000birds. An incredible place on so many levels and not just the birds, if anyone gets the chance to go and stay there do as it is has a tremendously relaxed and peaceful ambience (as well as some fantastic birds).

As I hadn't added anything here about that trip, I though I would post a few images and highlight just a few of the great birds we saw whilst there.

No time to waste, we had barely touched the tarmac in Lisbon and the birding started in earnest. The Tagus Estuary is a hugely important wetland reserve just south of Portugal's capital. We headed for one area of the reserve known as the Giganta Rice Fields to sample what the area had to offer.

These fields teemed with life, some crowded with Greater Flamingoes others with large flocks of waders, Glossy Ibis wandered on the periphery of many flocks, whilst a field corner here and there seemed to be especially attractive to Black-winged Stilts. Armies of White Storks rose and fell from one field to the next.

Amongst the massed ranks of waders, flamingoes and flights of egrets, dotted around the bars of idle agricultural apparatus, sheltering from the glare and heat of the afternoon sun, a small number of Black-winged Kites. We were never close to these attractive raptors but we saw enough at this site and at following stops as we made our way south to ensure that everyone tumbled from the transport every time there was the hint of a sighting.

Our lunch taken in a small crowded restaurant providing fresh locally caught fish and local speciality dishes was somewhat fitting after the hectic vistas of the rice fields. After lunch the inevitable post-lunch lethargy was mirrored at the local saltpans, the causeways crammed with Kentish Plovers and lounging Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The journey south was slow but not from traffic, paced to allow us time to visit several small sites and add much more Mediterranean flavour to the day with Hoopoes gently lifting from dusty tracks and Azure-winged Magpies lurking in shady Eucalyptus. Squacco Herons and some of Portugal's established exotica such as Black-headed Weaver and Yellow-crowned Bishop provided further interest as the sun headed west. Beyond dusk when we arrived at our 'base' for the next few days, the white-washed walls of the town of Mertola lit and reflecting in the Guadiana river below.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Holy Island/Budle Bay

With ADMc back from visiting Paddington, sun-tanned and a list as long as your arm we headed off up to the north of Northumberland today for some winter birding on a cold but bright day.
First stop Beal where we spent a little time noting colour rings on some of the confiding Pale-bellied Brent Geese, single Skylark and Reed Bunting were year ticks for both of us, at least ADMc had an excuse.

Over to Holy Island and from the lower reaches of The Heugh we had soon picked out five Slavonian Grebes, a single Red-throated Diver and one or two Razorbills. A little further along overlooking the harbour ADMc spotted a single Red-necked Grebe feeding just off the harbour. Suprisingly we couldn't find another diver or a single Long-tailed Duck in an area normally very good for both.

The 'Rocket Field' was quiet with just a single Black-tailed Godwit and a single Short-eared Owl so we headed south to Budle Bay. Lots of Barnacle Geese and common wildfowl and waders whilst we dipped into lunch. Surprise of the day was a smart looking Hooded Crow at the south end, presumably the same individual that has been recorded at Rock and Howick (early Jan and November 2011)? We watched it repeatedly picking up 'cockles' and dropping them from a height to try and break them open.

A brief look from Stag Rocks produced more Slavonian Grebes, a small number of Common Scoters, a single Stonechat and a few Purple Sandpipers. Incredibly here too we found not a single diver or Long-tailed Duck in an area that would have teemed with both a few years ago, the mild winter or long term trend?

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Iceland Gulls (Ardglass)

A selection of images taken of some of the Iceland Gulls (all glaucoides) at a range of ages at Ardglass on Saturday.

Juvenile with dark underparts and some brown peppering on inner webs of some primaries.

2nd-winter - note pale eye and more rounded primary tips


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Yank Teal

With but a couple of hours this afternoon and a promise to cut the fuel bill after going over budget on the Ross's Gull I remained close to home. I caught up with the long-staying drake Green-winged Teal at East Chevington, though it's so far south on the south pool it could almost be a Druridge tick. The wildfowl on the north pool were restless and airborne and a single female Pintail was the best I could pick out.

A few Common Scoters close in off Hadston Scarrs and a half dozen Red-breasted Mergansers on a choppy sea were to be expected; what wasn't expected was the Woodcock that came tearing in off the sea, straight over the dunes and into the country park. There seem to be a few reports along the east coast mentioning Woodcock today so I wonder if there has been a late winter cold weather movement? A male Stonechat was by the boardwalk onto the beach at the south end.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Kumlien's Gull (Ardglass)

One of the many highlights of Saturday's trip was catching up with one of the two juvenile/1st-winter Kumlien's Gulls that have been around the harbour. This individual has fairly dark looking primaries with obvious white tips that don't seem to extend into long 'chevrons'. Nice smooth 'velvet' breast and belly and some interesting u-shapes on moulted scapulars. I had wandered over to the mudflats north of the harbour for a break from the Ross's Gull and some chocolate and was picking through the various Glaucous, Iceland and Herring  and a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk on offer when I came across this one.
I hadn't really paid much attention to earlier images of these two before I went out but now I've had a look and this seems to be an individual that has been present since at least 6th Jan. The primaries are fairly dark and I did wonder about the possibility of something better but after a night spent trawling the net for equivalent aged gulls that might be well out of range ( and a little help from friends) it would appear to be too pale. Another day maybe....

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Ross's Gull - Ardglass, Northern Ireland

I had been planning a trip to Ireland this winter. most probably to Killybegs towards the end of January/early February to look for gulls but with the current influx of white-winged gulls and the bonus of an adult Ross's Gull in Ardglass, Co Down I decided to go for it this weekend rather than wait. It probably ended up costing me a little more as I flew over to Belfast and hired a car from there on Saturday morning. I managed to get through Easyjet with camera bag, scope and tripod on the way out but not on the way back adding an extra £25. On the plus side with the car hire, I booked a cheap Fiat Panda type and benefited from a free upgrade to a Vauxhall Zafira; at least I drove around in reasonable comfort and luxury.

Ardglass is a small village about an hour southeast of Belfast with a natural harbour on one side protected by some typical rock formations and a man-made pier/sea wall at the south.

There was a bit of a breeze but otherwise reasonably pleasant. As the Ross's Gull had been parading off the harbour entrance there was reasonably good vantage from atop the sea wall where about a dozen birders were gathered when I arrived mid-morning. The first time the Ross's came in it moved back offshore very quickly but it soon returned and spent much of the rest of the day moving to and fro and feeding actively on a circuit ensuring plenty of time to enjoy it. A superb looking adult in winter plumage with just a smudge of pink on the breast the pale grey wing and big eye gave this a distinctive look. The first image below also highlights the narrow black outer web on P10 and the wedge shaped tail quite nicely too. After a short while it's deep wingbeats and habit of flying in high and then dropping rapidly to either patter briefly or plunge feed allowed it to be easily picked out with the naked eye at some distance (probably helped by the lack of many other small gulls).

The plunge diving in particular was quite an interesting behaviour and not one that I've seen another gull species perform as regularly as this individual, It's mentioned in the literature so is obviously a regular feeding technique employed by the species. The Ross's Gull would continually fly in to within 25m of the sea wall at a height of c25m then drop rapidly, almost tern-like into the sea. Whilst not the sharpest set of images these give an idea as how this looks.

Not once during 4-5 hours did it settle on the sea for more than a split-second, constantly active sometimes heading hundreds of metres out to sea before coming back in and resuming the short feeding circuit along the sea wall and into the harbour mouth. There was lots of other gull action but I'll save that for another post as I won't have too many opportunities to bang on images (even ropey ones like mine) of one these charismatic little beauties.

I can't go without saying a big thanks to Craig and Penny Nash though for kindly putting me up in their wonderful cottage overlooking Strangford Lough, generously cooking and providing an evening of bright conversation that just put an extra shine onto a very enjoyable day in a beautiful location with a stunning little gull. You can find Craig's images of the area and further afield, some of which are incredible, here.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Glaucous & Iceland

I had an appointment at one of Newcastle's finest hospitals this morning. Arriving at reception I was handed a pager, told to wait till it went off then head off down the corridor to see someone. For once I felt reasonably qualified to follow the instructions, though the experience of sitting in a room full of people with pagers going off left, right and centre was mildly bemusing.

Afterwards with a couple of hours to spare before recovering the kids from their respective schools and nursery I headed across town towards Blaydon to look for gulls. Recent reports had suggested that there was a juvenile Glaucous Gull in the area. Heading through one of the industrial areas I noticed a spiral of gulls dropping into an area of grass with some small floods ahead of me so I parked and walked the 300m or so to find a group of 150-200 bathing gulls. A typical mix of Herring and Great Blacked Back with groups of Black-headed Gull nearby. Second scan produced an adult Iceland Gull that I was able to show to another lunchtime gull watcher from Natural England.

Ten minutes later after a little turnover a cracking juvenile Glaucous Gull dropped in, presumably the individual that has been at Stella and Shibdon Pond over the past few days. I managed to get some Iphonescoped record shots of this one as it was on the outer section of the roosting gulls.

 Glaucous Gull- juvenile

 Tomorrow I get to do more gulls, this time in a different country.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Black Red Boy Girl?

Had an hour spare in between checking over the repair/improvement work on Seaton Sluice Watchtower and picking up the kids so after a short look for gulls in Blyth Harbour I nipped down to Newbiggin to catch up with the Black Redstart that has been reported from the lifeboat station in recent days (as a female). It seemed to be given a few folk the run around this afternoon. I caught sight of it sat under a boat before it dived into nearby gardens and then reappeared on the roof of the lifeboat house. I left with two birders still circling the lifeboat house as it had once again vanished. I said reported as a female but with a fairly obvious white-wing panel might this be a 2nd or 3rd calendar year male? Svensson seems to suggest that females never show any white in the wing...

CR Shag

Just had a nice email from Hannah Grist (thanks for the direct mail Steve) about the colour-ringed Shag I had saw last week at Blyth South Harbour. A quick cut and paste and...

"She was ringed last year (13th May) on the Isle of May as an adult when she bred there for the first time, so we don't know exactly how old she is or where she comes from. It is unusual to have a bird turn up and breed from elsewhere, as about 97% are philopatric, in that they return to the colony where they were hatched to breed themselves. She hasn't been seen since"

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

More Geese, Gulls and a Goldcrest

This winter's goose-fest seems to be showing no signs of abating, whether that is from birds moving south from further north or existing flocks fragmenting and moving around locally it's hard to tell. As mentioned in my previous post I took another look at the Maiden's Hall flock at the end of last week, here are a couple of Iphonescoped Tundra Bean Geese with a few Pink-footed Geese from Friday.

Saturday after spending another hour looking at not much on the sea I stopped off at Bothal Pond  and was happy to find a small party of White-fronted Geese. I was even more pleased when it became apparent that both races were present with a single 'Greenland' race individual and six 'European' race birds. The Iphone image below whilst poor quality does highlight the different bill structures of the two races reasonably well.

Monday I headed out to the fish quay with the kids for a bike ride and after an energetic hour I managed to squeeze in a short look at the Black Middens and managed to jam in on the 2nd-winter Iceland Gull that had been around two days earlier, at least I presume it was that individual but this year who knows! Always roosting, in the short time I had it never moved and I'm still waiting to see a bill.
A Brambling in the garden on Sunday reminded me they seem to be in scarce supply this winter so far. This afternoon we took a woodland walk and I had my first Goldcrest of 2012, flitting around in some Hornbeam as well as some splendid Redwings doing their best to blend with the burnt orange of the setting sun. At least two Short-eared Owls were circling the community park as we came past late afternoon with all three kids getting another look at the 'Shorties'.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Short Post on Local Snobs

Sunshine and a lighter wind than all the weather apps were forecasting this morning. It was a toss up between staying local or heading off to the north, with christmas, car tax and insurance and the summer hols all putting on the squeeze I decided to stay local.

First port of call was QEII where the East Chevington redhead Smew seems to have relocated to (as reported by Tim Dean last night). Sure enough showing well just in front of the lakeside early morning offering better views than it had at its previous location.

A 2m swell but little wind meant that their wasn't much movement on the sea at Newbiggin, bird of the morning was a tern (sp) that was dip feeding but too far out to do anything with. A single Great Northern Diver moved north and 3 Common Scoters were a year tick. Up the north beach I added Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit and Bar-tailed Godwit as new for the year. Three Snow Buntings fed just north of Beacon Point in typical, er, Arctic habitat, but the walk back over the golf course produced little else.

Bolstered by a lunchtime Cornish and an Apple and Raspberry Slice I headed north, first to Amble to look for gulls with no joy, via the country park which apart from half a dozen Red-breasted Mergansers and 25 Moorhens produced nothing of note. East Chevington still had two Bewick's Swans on the north pool as well as the female Long-tailed Duck. Two Short-eared Owls were present too.

The goose flock at Maiden's Hall Lake is still hugely impressive though hard to work at times depending on where they are feeding. I counted 16 Tundra Bean Geese there were probably many more roosting individuals. As well as the impressive numbers of European White-fronted Geese (250+) there are also 21 Barnacle Geese that have been sucked in now.

After collecting the kids we headed for our usual meeting place with my older son and a short stroll along the river; yesterday we had splendid views of a Kingfisher but there was no repeat performance today. However heading home I picked up an 'eared owl' from the car at Pegswood Community Park. As we slowed alongside J picked up a second so we stopped to take a look as there was good light, the sun just about to set behind us. Not two but three Short-eared Owls put on a great display circling high and tussling over the rough grass for the kids. Such a good year for them and not just at Prestwick Carr, a further two are lingering around the dunes at Cresswell.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Since I last Blogged...

The kids and I had a morning out on Monday, duck-feeding at Druridge Bay Country Park, Little Grebe, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll and Coal Tit were all duly noted as new birds for the year. On the road home the small flock of 50-60 Twite were visible just north of Hemscott Hill and two Mistle Thrush were on wires south of Cresswell.

I got itchy feet around 23:30 so jumped in the car for some owl-hunting; a Barn Owl topped a fencepost in the corner of Pegswood CP and a Tawny Owl behaved in the headlights for a while not far away.

This morning we picked up 7 European White-fronted Geese and a Pink-footed Goose in a field just south of Longhirst Golf Course, I had no optics the first time and to be honest I thought one looked very dark-bellied and orange-billed but back with a scope they were all Euros. The horse field on the north side of the road held a small flock of Fieldfare the first I've seen this year.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Bay Day

A pleasant couple of hours pre-work yesterday morning around Druridge Bay. Two fenceposts adorned with Common Buzzards on the way to East Chevington in the half light before dawn. I arrived at East Chevington just as the first golden crescent of dawn was visible over the sea in the east. The North Pool was packed with wildfowl, a redhead Smew that has been around for a few days along with a female Long-tailed Duck performed well. Two Shelduck were the first of the year as were a few Gadwall and Goldeneyes. A tribe of Long-tailed Tits in the birch behind the hide added another new species for 2012.
Druridge Pools was thick with Wigeon and Teal but 3 drake Pintails and several drake Shovelers added some variety. Amongst the Curlews and Redshanks a single Common Snipe was noted. After a week without a Dunnock (how is that possible?) I finally set my eyes on two in the shelter belt. A small party of Linnets fed in the dunes north of Hemscott Hill, no Twite despite looking, maybe my mistake was stopping the car.
A male Stonechat sat just off the roadside south of the Cresswell Pond entrance and a single Purple Sandpiper and 3 Grey Plovers at Snab Point ended my short session before work.

Friday, 6 January 2012

More First Week Birding

Yesterday's north-westerly offered the hint of miniature auks off of Church Point, I headed down sure of finding some shelter in the 'hide' after all it was a Thursday and only 5 days into January. I had to take a quick look around the corner of the caravans to convince myself that someone hadn't opened a birdfair style marquee with refreshments such was the footfall heading north for 'the wheatear'. At the point my modest arrival time after the school run was only enough to guarantee me fourth place in the line of  seawatchers, not even on the podium. I had stopped for a little glance at the, long staying (2nd year now so I think I can use that phrase) Tundra Bean Goose still loafing around the Church Pool with Greylags and the four Greenland White-fronted Geese. (not pictured before anyone tries it on)

 Tundra Bean Goose

 The seawatch was less than eventful, Razorbill, Gannet (an adult) and 4/5 Red-throated Divers the best I could muster. An adult Mediterranean Gull I picked up a long way out to the north west came in to Newbiggin, I later counted seven in the south bay.

The plan today had been to do some gulls around Seghill Tip but the tip was closed and I could only find a small group of perhaps 80 gulls at best. I had arranged a meeting with a joiner regarding some internal work on the SSWT so I couldn't move too far from the general area. I headed for North Shields Fish Quay calling in at Marden Quarry on the way for the 1st-winter female Lesser Scaup. Marden Quarry provided year ticks in the form of two drake Goosanders, Sparrowhawk and er Wren!

 Lesser Scaup - 1st-winter female

The Fish Quay was very quiet so I moved on to Gloucester Lodge Farm via the chippy and had reasonable views of 16 Snow Buntings around the stubble south of Blyth Cemetery, in the field I saw my first ever Lapwing display as a teenager in the seventies. A nice finch/bunting/sparrow flock to boot.

Meeting over and nearly time to retrieve the kids I dropped into Prestwick Carr for another year tick, it's January I just can't help myself in the first few days. When I arrived birders on site said it hadn't been seen since early morning. I walked 100m down and scanned south and luckily within seconds had latched on to the Great Grey Shrike about 600m across the carr on wires. A couple of Short-eared Owls looked resplendent in the mid-afternoon sun

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Domesticity and a Dipper

We slipped easily back into the school week routine this morning. With J at school we were through the doors at Asda before nine and back home before ten with two year ticks, Mallard and Canada Goose, rattling around with the diced Lamb and River Cobbler in the bag.
An occasional glance from the window as the morning and domestic chores wore on produced another two, a garden Tree Sparrow easily picked out from its greyer cousins by its paler underparts, whilst out over the fields to the north a Jay flicked along the same hedge that had been Buzzard-topped a couple of days earlier.

A couple of hours work on a piece on Southern Portugal moved me close to completion so I used the last half hour before claiming the kids back to have a short walk along the hedges towards Highford Bridge west of Morpeth. A male Pheasant huddled in a field corner and the quiet tseep of a Redwing was the prelude to nine bursting from the hedge into the grey sky. Further along the same hedge a short tsip revealed another thrush year-tick with a Song Thrush deep in the Hawthorn.

I found a vantage overlooking the river and began to search the edges for signs of life; whilst not in flood there is still a faster force to the Wansbeck in winter months. After a couple of empty scans a movement downstream caught my eye and my first Dipper of the year lived up to its name. Moments later a Grey Heron arrived pushing the Dipper closer into the slower moving shallows below the bank I was stood on. I may have felt the cold on its behalf but there were no obvious signs that it was feeling anything but comfortable as it stood half submerging its head and breast into the water, occasionally emerging with a tasty morsel.

A Collared Dove lifting from a garden bird table as we arrived home on the school return journey turned a non-birding day into a ten tick day. Don't you just love January?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Hedges & Funds Management

One of the most annoying sights in late summer is that of a hedgerow being flailed to within an inch of its life, regardless of the loss of food for the millions of recently fledged juvenile birds of countless species through the late summer/early autumn period. Billions of berries and insect larvae that could contribute to fattening up residents and migratory species alike consigned to the ditch for no other reason than neatness.

I can hear the arguments, 'if we don't cut it early the ground gets wet, the weather gets in the way... blah blah blah' well what if you could reduce the cutting from an annual event to one in every three years? A third of your cutting costs and you get to benefit wildlife at the same time - win/win they call it in business. Not only do your costs go down but you get to demonstrate how farmers really are the custodians of our countryside as the NFU et al regularly claim.

Well those farmers that cut annually (and not all do) can now do just that, according to research just published from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology wildlife would receive a huge boost from a 'one in three' cutting regime. It's not rocket science but what's needed is an awareness campaign from our conservation and farming organizations to promote this to farmers and encourage more to change their practices. Helping to educate Joe Public that an uncut hedge is not an eyesore but a key wildlife habitat wouldn't go amiss too.

Monday, 2 January 2012

2-0-1-2 - - - - - ->

Is go.
Working yesterday through most of the daylight hours so the New Year big list totalled a massive 17 by the end of the day, a male Bullfinch providing a splash of colour and a hedge hopping Common Buzzard the highlights.

We've been dog-sitting the wife's brother's durg for the past few days and eldest son J has risen to the challenge of the morning walk. Not working today he and I headed off for an early morning jaunt to Beacon Point. A lifer for J the Desert Wheatear duly obliged and as a result my wife is now the only member of our house not to have seen a Desert Wheatear. A single adult Mediterranean Gull was conveniently yards from the car on our return and a slow-down as we past Woodhorn allowed me to add Greenland White-fronted Goose to 2012's big list, though picking out the Tundra Bean that's been hanging about from a moving car was beyond me.