Saturday, 6 March 2021

Birding Blast from the Past 9 - Ring-billed Gulls

Ring-billed Gull, the Delaware River Gull, is a rare/scarce seasonal visitor to our shores from North America, especially sought after as it is now not as numerous as it once was. It used to be a regular visitor since the first accepted British record documented at Blackpill, Wales in 1973, becoming a species associated with several birding sites up and down Great Britain. Immediately the Hayle Estuary and Helston Boating Lake both in Cornwall spring to my mind where several birds would appear over the years. You may be familiar with other sites that have lured examples of this attractive Larid. Not to forget the sites that provided a winter home to regular returning individuals, some if not all were elevated to star status by being named.

My first sighting came in the "Nineties" at one of the typical host sites over in Cornwall, Copperhouse Creek at the Hayle Estuary where a 2nd? summer bird showed really well in August 1990. Not too long to wait for the next over in Norfolk at UEA, Norwich caught up with the 2nd winter present on campus in the winter of 1991/92. It was elusive throughout its stay and at the time was thought to be only the second sighting of this species for Norfolk. Birders studying at UEA tried to get it on the seen from their campus flat window list. Following on from this one another Norfolk record and another 2nd winter example, this time present at Bure Park, Great Yarmouth the following winter. Next up for me in February 1994 a wintering adult at a playing field at Uxbridge on the edge of London, and soon after a pristine summer plumage adult gave itself up to birders in North Wales at Rhyl in April of that year, well worth a long wait and brief views at the boating lake. Fast forward to the end of the century where back at the Hayle Estuary an impatient adult waited for bread at Copperhouse Creek. On arriving at the car park it landed and stared into the car in anticipation of a slice or two. Thought it was going to knock on the windscreen for service.

Norwich 1992

Uxbridge 1994

Rhyl 1994

Hayle Estuary 1999

In the "Noughties" an adult (or near adult) just beyond Southend, Essex, in January 2000 on a drab winter's day, was this 'Rossi'? Another at the Hayle Estuary was the first 1st winter I had seen in Great Britain, a nice id challenge with a cracking stand out immature 'Glauc' like bill. The following year a very elusive 1st summer at Woodbridge, Suffolk and then a more obliging 2nd winter at Helston Boating Lake, Cornwall in August 2001. A similarly aged bird sighted at Helston in August 2003, both seen on the Scillonian Pelagic weekends. Between 2002 and 2006 caught up with the returning adult to the Isle of Dogs, London on at least 3 occasions. Assumed to be a female by its small size, it could be found with a bit, or more often, a lot of luck hiding in a high tide roost of Common and Black-headed Gulls. During this period I definitely saw 'Rossi' down the Thames at Westcliff-on-Sea in March 2005, during the middle of its tenure below Rossi's Ice Cream Parlour.

Woodbridge 2001

Helston Boating Lake 2003

Isle of Dogs 2005

"Rossi" Westcliff-on-Sea 2005

The "2010s" and finally a chance to get it on my Yorkshire list, namely the adult present at Mirfield Gravel Pit, West Yorkshire on a very cold Christmas Eve in 2010. It took a while and we were about to leave where it flew in landing on the ice to the final chuck of the bread. It took its prize and then off it went. Midway through the decade in July 2015 and back in Cornwall where the Hayle Estuary hosted an elusive 1st summer bird moving between Ryan's Field and the estuary, my last sighting in Great Britain of this species to date.

Mirfield 2010

What will the "Twenties" bring? Perhaps Ring-billed Gull will become a 'BB rarity' again? Will it be as rare a visitor crossing the Pond as say a fellow Nearctic Larid, the Laughing Gull? Or, become as mythical as the American Herring Gull? If it becomes a BB rarity no doubt we'll get a bumper year the year after.

Why blog about Ring-billed Gull? Just follows on from a fairly recent trend on social media to celebrate current and past individuals and acknowledge the demise of this species in the British Isles. 30 January 2021 became Ring-billed Gull appreciation day. For more details on the rise and fall of this species this side of the Atlantic Ocean check out the Birdguides article by Josh Jones from April 2019, includes a lot better photos than above.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Birding Blast from the Past 8 - American Bittern, Lancashire, Sunday 10 March 1991

American Bittern - maybe not a once in a lifetime rarity here in Great Britain, but difficult to predict when the next one will occur and then will it be accessible? Started birding in 1987 this being several years after the then last? twitchable one this side of the pond, when an American Bittern was present in Wales in late 1981 continuing into 1982. Therefore, the opportunity to twitch the Marton Mere, Blackpool bird in March 1991 was very welcome. This bird had been present since late January staying into May.
Arrived on site (Sunday 10 March 1991) and remember we had a long walk on a cold and grey winter's day towards a reedbed fringed channel. Along the walk life-ticked a wintering Cetti's Warbler, which gave fantastic views out in the open, scolding anything in sight. Thought these were tricky to see? Still the best views I've had to date of this species. Eventually joined the birders on site looking for the American Bittern to news that it had not been seen for a good while. It could have been 30 or 40 minutes later I wandered off to try viewing the area from a different angle. A few minutes later I saw the bird fly out of the reeds in front of a birder further along the track near the channel. I was lucky as it landed in front of me giving excellent views, I managed to take the photos shown below. A streamline 'Bittern' with warm colours and the rufous neck stripes prominent. When seen in flight the characteristic upperwing pattern where the plain inner wing contrasted with the flight feathers especially a secondary bar, was noticeable. 

I've been lucky to visit Cape May, NJ, USA quite a few times and had several opportunities to see American Bittern on autumn passage frequenting the reed fringed Bunker Pond or the Meadows at Cape May Point. Conversely, scarce to rare in Spring, only glimpsed the bird on a couple of occasions but did hear the strange pumping boom at a marsh in northern New Jersey during one of our World Series of Birding runs. The photos below are from Cape May in 2001.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Birding Blast from the Past 7 - Red-footed Falcon, Derbyshire, 27 May 1990

Red-footed Falcon...a fantastic Falcon. The shocking deep blue colour of the males and the variegated females, so different from our own familiar Falcons. The unfamiliarity adds to the excitement as these summer visitors to eastern Europe and Asia are rare visitors to these Isles arriving here on passage with favourable winds. Sightings in both passage seasons but more likely to appear here in the Spring than the Autumn. What about their hunting behaviour? Compare with the four GB falcons first. Merlins perfect the low chase, Kestrels typically hover in search of prey, the Hobby tears through the sky after 'dragons' and hirundines and then there's the stoop of the Peregrine. Now, 'Red-foots', whose size and flight silhouette can be described as intermediate between that of the Kestrel and the Hobby, will hawk insects on the wing moving in circles like an unleashed clockwork toy. Alternatively, they may prefer to wait patiently then drop from a perch in search of insects, returning to the same perch or one nearby like an aggressive 'Spot Fly'.

News of a female appearing on a golf course south of Sheffield in May 1990 and showing very well, was our first chance to see this sought after rare Falcon. A hot sunny Sunday morning (27 May) just over the South Yorkshire/Derbyshire county border into Derbyshire at Unstone, Dronfield and the 'Red-foot' was working its way along the fence line by a path near the golf course. What I do remember is that at one stage it kept coming closer to the birders and wasn't fazed by its admirers. I took a few photos below and it was nice to get the subject matter in range of the 500mm Mirror Lens. You may have guessed the lens type from the doughnut rings.

Red-footed Falcon (female), nr Dronfield, Derbys. 27 May 1990

Seen a dozen more Red-footed Falcons here in GB all bar one in the Spring, the exception being an immature male present in Lincolnshire one August...and its underwing looked barred. However, the first one still ranks as the best, probably because it was my first sighting, but this combined with the fantastic views that allowed for a nice study of its behaviour and plumage. Was it an adult or (advanced) immature female? Not the greatest of photos, it looks mature in the main but just about remember the presence of some brown amongst the blue upperwing feathers that may be discernible above.

Here's hoping for another irruption just like in Spring 1992.

Red-footed Falcon (male), Deeping Fen, Lincs. August 2003

Red-footed Falcon (female), Ingleby, Derbys. 24 May 2008

Red-footed Falcon (male), Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk. 04 May 2019

I've seen this species on a few occasions away from GB over on Cyprus, notably in Sep/Oct 2014 and October 2017.

In Sep/Oct 2014 there were many Red-footed Falcons staging in the southern coastal fields near Mandria, a favoured spot for them on autumn passage. Timing is crucial here, their appearance at and departure from a staging site can be unpredictable. I was lucky to share an amazing birding spectacle with other birders as it unfolded one afternoon. Scanning from the church by the coast around 30 Red-footed Falcons could be seen sat in the furrowed fields or hanging in the wind looking for food. Most being female or juveniles with a few adult males present as well. An impressive number but only when the birds were spooked did the true number reveal themselves with at least 200 airborne, a sight stretching back a mile or so towards the village.

Red-footed Falcons Mandria, Cyprus, Sep/Oct 2014

In Oct 2017 a dozen or so were present in the same fields near Mandria but at distance. In the evening, a few miles inland above Paphos Plain at Asprokremmos Dam, 4 Red-footed Falcons were hunting insects along the road leading in from the south, and barely above head height. A Hobby joined them and gave an excellent opportunity to study the two species hunting flights. The 'Red-foots' were unpredictable, each moving like like an unleashed flying clockwork toy whereas the Hobby curved out a regular flight path in search of the dragonflies on offer. It was easier to track onto the Hobby when trying to video the spectacle. Video footage from about half way in at Birding Cyprus (October 2017). Enjoy.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Birding Blast from the Past 6 - Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, East Yorkshire, Sunday 09 July 1989

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. A what?

Birding Broomhill Fash and Worsbrough Country Park on Sunday 09 July 1989 produced some nice sightings including a returning Greenshank, summering Common Terns, a selection of Warblers and Ruddy Ducks, remember those? 

All of the above were overshadowed by the news of a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater present on the Yorkshire coast. Sage words from local birders to my dad was to go and see this once in a lifetime sighting in GB!
The trip in the afternoon seemed to take an age, it was the afternoon of the Wimbledon's Men's singles final Becker against Edberg, but we found the site fairly easily to the south of Hornsea near Mappleton soon joining a bucketful of birders scoping a hedgerow. There it was perched in the hedge and with mum and dad watched it for an hour from 17:20. It spent most of its time sat in the hedge but occasional hunted Bees from a telegraph wire. Stunning plumage and a massive rarity, the 'record' photo below does it no justice.

Many, many years later and my next encounter of this species was at Phassouri Reedbeds, Cyprus in April 2016, where a group of 3 spent some time on passage hunting from the reedbed fringed channel. What struck me about them was the behaviour, almost reluctant to fly, spending most of their time sitting on the reed tops. Could be easily missed, I remember a conservation working party putting me on to them when I was in the area. Were they not active and resting having crossed the Mediterranean Sea, or is this a trait of this species compared to European Bee-eater, that seems to be here, there and everywhere?

The best views I've had to date were back on Cyprus in March 2018 when birding the archaeological complex at Paphos Headland late one afternoon. A glance to the southern end and a Bee-eater sp. was in flight, fresh in as not seen when in that part of the site about half an hour earlier. I rushed down the path and had a fantastic look at the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater shown below. This one spent most of its time hunting from a tree for which it then then settled upon. I gave it some space leaving it resting on the tree, and continued walking the rest of the site.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Birding Blast from the Past 5 - Montagu's Harrier, Midhope Moors, South Yorkshire, Sunday 25 June 1989

We were down at Broomhill Flash late afternoon on Saturday 24 June 1989, instead of being on site the following morning, family day trip to Bridlington on the Sunday. Timed it nicely as found out exciting news from Mick Turton of an immature male Montagu's Harrier present earlier that day up on the moors at Midhope.

Fast forward to early the next day, just after 6am, and we were overlooking Midhope Moors, viewing the area below Pike Lowe from the bend on the road where the track starts leading down to the back of Langsett Reservoir. You know the place, it's where there's space for about five cars but fast forward thirty years and you now expect a dozen plus present, with parked cars digging up the roadside verge up and down from this spot.

It was a fine sunny start to the day in late June, nobody about and the air filled with the calls of Lapwings. A few minutes later there it was hunting just over from the bottom of the first field just below Midhope Moors. A beautiful delicate Harrier patrolling the field edge much to the annoyance of Meadow Pipits, one of which buzzed it continuously. The raptor characterised by a distinctive upperwing pattern, three toned, predominantly dark grey with a distinct dark secondary bar and slightly paler dark primaries. It had a grey head, I noted not as clear cut as an adult male Hen Harrier, and having distinctive grey central tail feathers. It was on show for 10 minutes hunting the field and then continued on what was its final pass heading right (north-west) behind the wood towards North America farm. I managed to get the record shot below, not brilliant, a bit out of focus.

The only 'Monty's' I've seen on the moorland edge, and in the Barnsley birding area over the years. You could say that 'Monty's got a raw deal' as the chances of a future one on Spring passage are slim given the decline of this waif to these shores over the last decade or so. Will still keep looking though.

Before going to Brid. and being an age before social media we went down to the hide at Broomhill Flash to scribble in the notebook that it was still present early Sunday morning. Shame it didn't linger.

Always like to watch Harriers, the male Montagu's Harrier below was a Spring migrant over a hillside at Anarita Park, Cyprus in 2019.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Birding Blast from the Past 4 - Purple Heron, Wath Ings, South Yorkshire, Sunday 21 May 1989

Sunday 21 May 1989, a warm and sunny day in South Yorkshire, birding The Wath Area with my dad. Broomhill Flash hosted a couple of Little Ringed Plovers, several duck species, a Cuckoo, Swallows and Swifts airborne plus a more stationary Little Owl. Looking though my notes and a Turtle Dove was also present. We saw a drake Garganey over on Wombwell Ings.

A nice morning of Spring birding and we went off up to the Wintersett Area where we had a lot of singing Warblers around Cold Hiendley Reservoir, with nice views of Garden Warblers and Lesser Whitethroat. Returned to The Wath Area to news of a Purple Heron being found at Wath Ings. Sadly we dipped in the morning but after returning home received news later in the day that it had been relocated, viewable on the main marsh. We twitched it in the evening and had decent views of the snake like neck and head of this 'lifer' in the reeds, the record photos below showing its secretive nature. I believe at the time it was the 1st for the Wath Area and the 3rd? for the Barnsley Birding Area.

With thanks to all involved in the finding and in passing on news.

I've been lucky to see several Purple Herons in GB since and most have been secretive, typical of the species. Best views to date have been overseas at a breeding colony at Waghäusel, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, where you can have good views of the tower reedbed nests characteristic of this beautiful Heron.