Friday, 19 June 2020

Birding Blasts from the Past - Magnificent Frigatebird, Pallid Harriers and Ospreys

So with birding opportunities limited during Lockdown, I've been having a wander down birding memory lane looking at some blasts from the past. First up, a magnificent seabird that came out of nowhere (actually a fog bank), the ultimate Harrier followed by a Royal fish-eating raptor.

Please enjoy.

Magnificent Frigatebird

During the 2018 World Series of Birding we were heading down the Garden State Parkway towards Brig. when a conversation about Star Trek took place, one of my teammates being a big fan. Somehow in the conversation I mentioned that if we saw a Klingon Starship 'decloak' over the Garden State Parkway then I'm out of here, no matter how good we were doing in the bird race!

Fast forward several days and after checking out of (the wonderful) Stockton Inns, returned a few moments later to Cape May Point to discover all hell had broken loose. It had already been a morning of where to look next with Golden-winged, Wilson's and Canada Warblers amongst many other species grabbing birders attentions during a fall of Spring migrants at CMBO Northwood. This time a Magnificent Frigatebird was patrolling the shore just off the Point, a cracking find a few moments earlier by R Crossley. Watching this wannabe Pterodactyl disappear into and then return out of a rolling fog bank was the closest I'm going to get to seeing a 'decloaking' Klingon Starship!

Time to blow my own trumpet, we (Team 1000birds) won the first prize, the Urner-Stone Cup, a brilliant independent write up of the day can be seen at the National Audubon's Society website.

Pallid Harriers

A mythical species that has now gratefully lost that tag in recent years here in GB. It's becoming a most sought after sight on passage, and with several individuals wintering this as allowed for good studies of this striking raptor. Following the sub-adult male gracing Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent in August 2002 I've been lucky to connect with several in Norfolk, Yorkshire and Lancashire, with the male holding territory in the Forest of Bowland in April 2017 the ultimate sighting to date. Never thought I'd see a skydancing "purring" male this side of the Channel or indeed anywhere.

A beautiful species, intermediate in structure between Montagu's and Hen Harriers. Watching adult males fly in off the Mediterranean in Cyprus is a sight to behold in late March/early April, plus there's a good opportunity to test identification skills of flyby Spring 'ringtails'. One such example was put to the test not on the island of Cyprus but when birding in Germany instead. A 1st summer female flew from the Rhine Rift Valley up over the northwest corner of the Black Forest on 11 April 2014, a bit unexpected especially on changing from scope to camera I moved inadvertently from a Red Kite to the Harrier!

Winterton, Norfolk (Autumn 2006)

Skilift Sieibelseckle, Black Forest, Germany (April 2014)

Flitcham, Norfolk (December 2015)

Welwick, East Yorkshire (December 2016)

Forest of Bowland (April 2017)

Paphos Headland, Cyprus (March 2018)

Cockerham, Lancashire (September 2018)

Paphos Headland, Cyprus (March 2019)


Driving down towards the green bridge at Broomhead Reservoir, South Yorkshire in the morning of 05 April 2010, a big bird of prey was over the woodland above the bridge. I pulled over, just had a feel that it wasn't a Buzzard. Through the windscreen I could see it was dark brown above and it turned to reveal shocking white underparts, my first moorland Osprey. I drove to the bridge and watched it drift towards Ewden Heights from where it was seen about 15 minutes later being escorted north by a pair of Ravens. It then spent time sat out of sight at Midhope Reservoir before leaving back towards the Ewden Valley. My next moorland Spring sighting was late afternoon on 05 April 2012, when one individual flew east over Midhope Reservoir, from Pike Lowe via Langsett Reservoir. It was constantly looking down at the snow covered moorland.

One of my favourite birds of prey, been lucky to connect with several more on this moorland edge and nearby over the last few years, in both Spring and Autumn. The Spring sightings have so far come in 2 clusters, 03 to 09 April and around the Spring Bank Holiday weekend (27 and 28 May).

Howden Reservoir, Derbyshire (April 2015)

Some of the above feature in these birding videos:

Magnificent Frigatebird - simply speechless! (May 2018)

Pallid Harrier - oh what a Circus, oh what a Show! (April 2017)

Ospreys - no Spring footage but 2 autumn birds on consecutive days (August 2017)

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Previously on Lockdown Birding

Previously on Lockdown Birding...

Black-headed Gull finally dropped onto the from the flat window Birding Lockdown list, a couple of singles through in early May, then with a handful fly-catching early evening on another two occasions. A double tick day as the first flyby followed shortly after a Pied Wagtail undulated onto the list. On warm days, which have been plentiful, Starlings fly-catch like wannabe Bee-eaters.

The occasional Swallow with Swift regular overhead, a pair of the latter providing a backdrop to a wandering Peregrine one lunchtime. One Saturday afternoon this 'angry Parrot' flew over suburban Hertfordshire rooftops in a manner that would make a patrolling Sparrowhawk jealous. On a raptor theme Buzzards took to the skies at their choosing doing a bit of skydancing here and there, and Red Kites literally appeared out of the blue hanging and gliding against deep blue skies on a few dates.

Patch gold early one morning over breakfast as a pair of multiple obs Egyptian Geese moved north. Another mega when one Saturday evening a small bird was sat on top of the flats opposite. Turned out to be a House Sparrow. The from the flat window Birding Lockdown list stands at 44 (08 May 2020). The Sparrow's appearance was welcomed with a cheer as loud as that when I was lucky to find a Black-throated Grey Warbler several autumn's ago on the US Eastern Seaboard in Cape May!

On the wider area exercise walk Blackcap and Whitethroat compete for songster of the month in nearby scrub land where a Garden Warbler sang alongside the former. It showed for a second, quite a prolonged view for that not so boring species. Ring-necked Parakeets continue to annoy, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers have become more secretive, a sign of getting down to nesting, and the area has a healthy population of Stock Doves and regular presence of Red-legged Partridges. My wider area Birding Lockdown list now stands at 67 (08 May 2020).

Friends report garden ticks here in the south east, always nice to hear, and raptor skywatching by a group of us every Saturday between 12 and 2pm has been good but tough of late. The deep blue skies not ideal for picking up any moving avian species. Osprey remain on our wish lists, but can we get lucky with a Honey or a Monty's in the coming Saturday's. Nowt wrong with aiming (and looking) high!

Breaking news from a correspondent at a classified location from a city beginning with the letter 'M'. What's their birding news? Give me a minute, I'll just find a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass, let me inspect the binding of the couriered Collins guide for a message. Hope I've not blown their cover. Here's a bit of paper, what does it say?

Happy skywatching no matter how great or small your field of view may be.

Cracked the coded message?...

I think it's, "River Warblers back on territory and the same for Red-footed Falcons but no sign of Hobby. We want Homeland Series 9 - but give it a couple of years to develop a storyline!"

Sunday, 19 April 2020

The Unwanted Birdrace - Lockdown Birding

Opportunities for birding during Lockdown...

There's staring through the flat window at weekends, and at the end of the working day, not forgetting listening to a dawn chorus, the strength of which seems highly weather dependent. Whilst not having a garden I'm lucky to have a south facing and reasonable view at a decent height for a skywatch of suburban south Hertfordshire (within the London recording area.) Otherwise a daily exercise walk offers birding opportunities through several dry-land habitats.

I've never kept a from the window list or local list for this area, but still concentrate upon adding to my World (IOC), British (BOURC) and then locally Yorkshire, Barnsley and Wath Area birding lists. But Lockdown it is and in keeping in touch with everyone back home and here down south it is interesting to see and hear, sometimes in real time, what folk are recording whilst birding at their homes.

Red Kite has been added to the (flyover) garden list back home during the period and several of us noted Raven(s) overhead on the same day in Herts and Essex. If only yesterday's Osprey over Hornchurch had turned west! Spring migration is well underway and this restricted birding, which I perhaps cruelly call, 'The Unwanted Birdrace' is a way of enduring the lack of freedom of movement. However, birding plays second fiddle to the welfare of all, everyone stay safe and well.

So, the prologue over with, what else has been spotted?

The south Hertfordshire vista sees daily sightings of Red Kite and Buzzards, both of which are showy on warm days. The Kites interested in looking for scraps from the gardens whereas the Buzzards are in display. Sparrowhawk and Kestrel sightings are regular and over two days during last week a male Peregrine flew by. Yesterday (18 April) saw a Raven fly north and met with equal excitement experienced when the first Lockdown list Greenfinch, Canada Goose and Jay flew by earlier in the period. Two high flying (away) Little Egrets were statistical if not enjoyable Lockdown ticks, the list is currently at 39 having added a 'yaffling' Green Woodpecker and flyby Swallows this morning (19 April). The noisy Ring-necked Parakeets have filled the niche left by the seemingly long gone Monk Parakeets and are now ever present, but I await a fly by House Sparrow and Pied Wagtail with the same anticipation of seeing an October rarity on the East coast! Surely the brambles along the in view railway line must hold Warblers other than Blackcap? Chiffchaff are everywhere roundabouts but here!

Skywatch Saturday 12-2pm has been hit and miss, more local raptors than passage here but it's been good to compare sightings with birding friends in the South East, back up north and overseas when time allows.

The wider list and a nice variety of habitat, be it a walk through fields with rarity inviting scrubland bordering one such area, small pieces of woodland and a golf course. The latter screams out Wheatear and Ring Ouzel on the deserted greens, but as time progresses offers diminishing returns as staging grounds for these summer visitors. I have settled so far for cracking views of Green Woodpecker and singing Mistle Thrush. An area of scrub has yielded the two Whitethroat species, a lone and probably passage Willow Warbler, with the air dominated by the sounds of singing Chiffchaff and Blackcaps. Not always a focus on summer visitors, the start of the period saw a morning of snow showers with Redwing passing by the flat window and Fieldfare noted for the wider area Lockdown list.  A late Fieldfare today (19 April) was perhaps unexpected on the daily exercise walk. The woodland areas gave up Nuthatch territories, one bird in dispute with Ring-necked Parakeets, and an evening walk produced calling Tawny Owl in such woodland.

Butterflies have also been on show, with early season examples of Orange Tip, Green-veined White, Peacock, Brimstone and Comma noted. A Holly Blue was a first of the year for me today (19 April). Foxes seen on a couple of evenings as Bats skirt the treetops, and a Muntjac deer moved through undergrowth one evening, it's small size almost making it undetectable along the edge of a grassy field. I might be stretching the limit of mammal listing with the photo shown below, could I argue this one is a first for Hertfordshire?

I'm grateful for the limited birding opportunities open to me, others are not so lucky be it due to their lockdown location or current health. Whilst Lockdown birding is like a birdrace over X days/weeks/months, the question is, what's the prize at the end of this birdrace?

Not a big trophy as the World Series of Birding our team were very happy to win in 2018. This time the prize will simply be to return to some form of normality, for me to travel to see and spend time with mum and dad, and friends back home and more local across the London and south east, plus when at Rainham Marshes RSPB to have the freedom to wander around and have a good moan about missing rarities on site!

We did like to have a good moan about missing rare/scarce birds, those days are sorely missed.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Siberian Chiffchaff trumps Yellow-browy pre lockdown

Taking points as my sightings of the following, this mini league table shows a close battle between Firecrest and "Yellow-browy". 'Siberian' Chiffchaff well behind.

  • Firecrest - 43
  • Yellow-browed Warbler - 42
  • 'Siberian' Chiffchaff - 3

  • Why the above? Well, pre-lockdown birding and I caught up with the wintering Yellow-browed Warbler at Mitcham in south London, but to be honest I was more interested in seeing the rare Siberian Chiffchaffs (2) present alongside and the always stunning Firecrest had been seen in the area as well. Concerning the rare Chiffchaff I saw my first of this subspecies (as currently treated by the BOURC) at Rainham Marshes RSPB back in January 2016. It was easily picked it up on it's sad peep call, a trait presumably associated with its scientific name 'tristis'. At the time I described it as almost as good as seeing a 'lifer'.

    'Siberian Chiffchaff' - why only 3 sightings for me? I've had possibles in Norfolk and the West Midlands in the past but I couldn't nail them. Not that I disagreed with their identity, just that my lack of experience with this taxon meant I could only note them as such. Back to the question at hand. As well as potentially/probably overlooking late autumn east coast Chiffys when I seldom had the chance, it has generally been a case of not being in the right place at the right time and compared with YBW and Firecrest, their brighter plumage and tickability trumps the dull Chiffy. However, I hope the photos below show they are not as dull as I may otherwise suggest.

    The Yellow-browed Warbler was more elusive as the following photos try to prove, and the Firecrest present nearby evaded the bridge camera lens.

    Lockdown birding, it's a good time of year to get some of these on your #BWKM0 list. (birdwatching at zero km)

    Anyone for Skywatch Saturday - 12 to 2pm?

    I never thought I'd run to the flat window to get flyover Canada Geese for the #LockdownList #BWKM0.

    Looking forward, as Arnie says , "I'll be back".

    Also as Arnie says, "Stay at home'. Go on, give it a click, this video brightens up a dull day. It's been snowing here in south Herts., 29 March.

    Sunday, 8 March 2020

    Early year birding - gulls save the day!

    As I draft this blog update a look through the window and it's an almost Spring like Sunday afternoon, a band of showers has moved through and the westerly wind drives the following clouds from which the sun peeks through. A good raptor spotting sky, not enough participants for raptor football but quality outweighed quantity as a local Red Kite patrolled the skies over suburban Hertfordshire. This weather is in contrast to that experienced throughout this early year winter period in which every weekend was, or seemed to have been, dominated by rain and wind. Far from ideal birding conditions and more importantly, upsetting for anyone affected by the floods.

    Only a few visits to Rainham Marshes RSPB so far this year due in the main to the weather, but the reserve does look good with the permanent and seasonal pools full of water. However, the weather didn't allow for change in their occupancy. Winter duck remained and of the raptors Marsh Harriers and Buzzards showed well and I managed to connect with sightings of the occasional Peregrine or two. The presence of which was usually characterised with the Lapwings staying airborne a little longer than usual when spooked. The small wintering Avocet flock went AWOL or was I just unlucky? Curlews continued to fly onto the winter flash at high tide and a couple of Oystercatchers had returned to the Thames foreshore as the weeks moved on.

    Nearby Wennington Marsh held lots of loafing gulls throughout, but I could not pick out any of the wintering Caspian Gulls. A rather smart adult Yellow-legged Gull could be seen here late February and in early March a 'meowing' adult Mediterranean Gull spent half hour alongside Black-headed Gulls. It showed a white colour ring on stepping out of the water, sadly too distant to read the code but this ring type possibly indicates Belgian origin. The nearby landfill holding the gulls attention throughout and early in the period saw a 1st winter Iceland Gull at 60x zoom from the Shooting Butts hide, not the most comfortable of viewing!

    Another chance of looking for Caspian Gulls saw me at Erith Pier across the river from Rainham, Sunday 01 March. Lots of adult Black-headed Gulls and immature Herring Gulls with all 5 of the standard UK gulls present. Out of nowhere a scan on the shoreline north of the pier and this stunning 1st winter Caspian Gull shown below was present. It moved onto the jetty to the west but had moved on by the time I walked round for closer views. Nevertheless the initial sighting on the shore and then about 10 minutes swimming near the pier allowed for a few nice photos and video footage. The elegant structure and features characteristic of this taxon seen in the field are reflected in the footage. En route, a couple of Peregrines along the Thames in central London, one spending time hunting from the Tate Modern, many visitors to the South Bank oblivious to the presence of this iconic raptor.

    Elsewhere, a short visit back home was cut short by Storm Ciara. Birding on the South Yorkshire Moors on the Saturday before the wind grew too strong saw Ravens tumbling, a few Kestrels airborne and Buzzards likewise as the air warmed up relatively speaking. A Red Kite was 'inland' of the moorland edge. Continuing the gull theme above and a much sought after 'Wath Area' tick in the South Yorkshire lowlands came in the form of Caspian Gull, 2 birds - an adult and sub-adult (3rd winter?) on the grassy bank separating the Wader Scrape and Mere. Nice views from a windy Warbler Way as Ciara started to wind up.

    'Wath Area' List now at 196 - plus Mandarin Duck September 2019, were the group of 4 on the Willow Pool tickable?

    Monday, 13 January 2020

    Christmas 2019 Birding - a lot of twitching

    Speyside and Glenshee
    First time birding the ancient woodlands and lochs of Speyside that form the north-west border of the Cairngorms, and it didn't disappoint. Essentially a 3 day twitch of Capercaillie, Scottish Crossbill, Ptarmigan and Crested Tit.

    First up the Capercaillie silent in the pines, indeed most locales were deadly silent, and a chance encounter after a couple of hours traipsing the forest tracks in when the umpteenth dark shadow finally turned out not to be another tree stump. I was lucky to share the spectacle with a couple of local walkers. After a couple of minutes it melted away into the primeval forest.

    Scottish Crossbill, well this one is tricky. Walking down a track a few miles to the south of Loch an Eilein a "Crossbill" flew over, calling. This was an unfamiliar call. I have fair experience of Common Crossbill calls over the years and the Parrot Crossbills different "jeep" calls in irruption years. It may be cliché but it was intermediate of the two, still drawn out like the Parrot Crossbill call but with perhaps a third syllable giving it a distinctive sound. It perched up, a female, allowing scope views. The bill was deep based reasonably big with a Parrot like curve to the upper mandible and both mandibles crossed. The head appeared big but not flat crowned or bull-necked of Parrot Crossbill. It joined 3 others but I could not get a good look at those and soon they were off. I hear that the Crossbill situation in this area is, to put it politely, "complex". In the absence of DNA and/or sonograms I guess claiming to species type is down to the conscience of the head scratching observer. Makes silent Empidonax Flycatcher id look easy!

    Whilst Crested Tits melt into the pines in the summer months they were reasonably showy in late December. Not as numerous as Coal Tits with which most associated and were quickly picked up on their trill call, a sound I've heard previously in Sweden, France and Germany. Difficult to photograph as they were constantly on the move. Seen at several sites from near Loch Insh all the way up to Loch Garten.

    Ptarmigan. On the way up a look from the ski lift car park at Glenshee, south of Braemar, produced only Red Grouse, Red Deer and Mountain Hare whilst a Buzzard flew across the valley. No sign of the master of disguise, Ptarmigan. Where they absent, not enough snow to force them down from the mountain tops? A return visit was pencilled in on the way home, but with weather forecast to close in here on the Monday I made back for this site Sunday afternoon. This was a 2 hours drive from Speyside firstly heading east from Pitlochry, with Red Kite and Red Squirrel (GB tick) seen from the car a few miles before heading north towards Glenshee. Back at the ski lift car park The Cairnwell was cloaked in cloud, but it cleared on occasions has the clouds moved east to reveal its peak. One such clearance saw walkers coming down the mountain side. I scoped a couple of Red Grouse in their path a few 100 feet below, they were ready to take flight. Just up from them another "Mountain Hare" appeared to be on top of a snow covered crag? On zooming in this was no hare. It had no ears and was pure white, turned out to be cracking views of Ptarmigan. As the walkers descended 4 other Ptarmigan appeared from out of the snow walking with ease on this terrain in their snow boots. They then took flight before coming to ground by the boulders shown in the following photo. Can just about make two of them out, honest!

    Other birds of note in Speyside/Cairngorms included 4 fly by Snow Buntings just beyond the Cairngorm car park with about a dozen distant in flight about the lower slopes of The Cairnwell, Glenshee. Carrion Crows were widespread and Ravens plentiful on the approach to Glenshee ski lift, with flyovers along the A9 in Speyside. The woods were deadly silent unless a Title flock came by. A Golden Eagle was a welcome sighting hunting a Cairngorm mountain side.

    The North East
    On the way up to Speyside I stopped off at Prestwick Carr near Newcastle airport where the 1st winter Eastern Yellow Wagtail showed well, yet silent, mid morning on Friday 20 December. Another chance on the way back a week or so later after twitching the Goswick Black Scoter saw the rare visitor more distant feeding around a group of horses. However, it called several times giving a distinctive "wizzit" call. On the first visit it didn't look monochrome in the field, but did so in the video and photos. The light on the return visit made it look particularly monochrome in the afternoon.

    Of the Black Scoter it showed fairly well from the dunes bordering the Goswick golf course but at mid distance in a flock of several hundred Common Scoters. This was at lunchtime on Saturday 28 December. Clear enough to see the distinctive orange blob on the bill and bill shape as well as the box like shape of the head. Such subtle differences between it and drake Common Scoters could be noted as it moved through the Common Scoter flock. A Velvet Scoter's presence was betrayed by its white wing panels when the flock took flight and in the area were double figures of Red-throated Divers, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers. Moving south were a couple of small skeins of Pink-footed Geese overhead in off, and 10 or so pale-bellied Brent Geese skimming the sea heading towards Lindisfarne. Cracking scenery and with the atmospheric low winter light against pale grey skies.

    East Anglia
    The amazing run of Eastern Yellow Wagtails in GB and elsewhere in western Europe continued with the striking male frequenting a dung heap by the minor road leading north of Sedgeford, Norfolk. It showed well mid afternoon on Monday 30 December and, to my ears, gave the same "wizzit" call as the Northumberland bird when it was spooked by a Pied Wagtail. Skeins of Pink-footed Geese overhead typical of winter birding in north Norfolk, and driving up to Wells-next-the-Sea saw Marsh Harrier, Red Kite and Barn Owl in flight. The Rough-legged Buzzard was seen briefly over the pines heading to roost just before 4pm, and on driving towards and past Fakenham 3 different Woodcocks took their dusk flight.

    Earlier in the day the Eastern Stonechat took a bit of finding at RSPB Hollesley Marshes where a "yapping" flock of about 25 White-fronted Geese were over the flash. The Stonechat was a cold looking bird, let's see what the DNA says over its identity (...apparently not conclusive at the time of writing).

    The North
    Back home and the South Yorkshire Moors were as stunning as ever, but quiet. Common Buzzards present, one buzzed by a Peregrine, and Ravens started to 'tumble'. Up to 6 Common Crossbills were present at one site and a bit of movement of Lapwings and Golden Plovers noted over the tops. Fieldfares and Redwings moved along the moorland edge where a Mistle Thrush started its haunting song.

    Whilst the upland Moors were without a wintering Rough-legged Buzzard, the juvenile frequenting farmland in South Yorkshire west of the M18/M180 junction showed nicely. The grey skies and distance on the two visits were not brilliant for photography. Not a million miles away a ringtail Hen Harrier ghosted over birch covered scrubland and quickly out of sight. Several hundred Pink-footed Geese rested on farmland by the South Yorkshire / Lincolnshire border.

    Eastern Stonechat on Boxing Day at Ashton's Flash, Northwich, Cheshire in the rain showed eventually. One more for the DNA experts. A Cetti's Warbler scolded and a male Peregrine flew over as the front edged its way through.

    For more photos from this period please click on the 'Latest UK Bird Photos' tab at the top of the page.

    For a birding video compilation of this period upload to my YouTube channel, please click here.