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.