Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The 'Beast from the East' delivers

The day after my last post, Feb 27th, I tried to get some better photos of the Hawfinches in the churchyard/Manor House gardens.  I did slightly better than my first attempt, but they were never easy and remained fairly elusive and usually hidden away or behind branches and foliage.  It was also difficult to be sure how many birds were there, as they never seemed to be on view at the same time.  I certainly saw four at one time, but felt that there were probably more than that.  The highest single count to date has been nine birds, seen by Jim R on the 2nd and in fact I don't think any have been seen since, so it will be interesting to see if they have moved on or are just being their normal elusive selves.


The long forecast cold easterly air, straight from Siberia, as ever nicknamed 'the beast from the east', began to take hold last week.  By mid week, there were signs of cold weather movements of birds, mainly Lapwings and Fieldfares from my own observations.  Small flocks could be seen moving west and south west ahead of the ever decreasing air temperatures. By the 28th, probably the coldest day of the week with temperatures here peaking at -3 degrees, there had been a small displacement of waders locally within the county.  There were reports of Dunlin, Ruff and even Knot from various sites.  On the 1st, I decided to take a quick look at the lake to see whether there had been any new arrivals.  I didn't stay too long because temperatures were below freezing and there was an uncomfortably strong easterly blowing, part of storm Emma.  In fact, the lake was about as empty of birds as I had ever seen it.  Only a small part of the north western arm was frozen, as the strong winds seemed to be keeping ice at bay on the main lake, but almost all of the ducks seemed to have departed and the spit looked devoid of birds.  I eventually found a lone Dunlin making its way around the spit edge near the main island, but left shortly after.

On the 2nd, Jim R made a visit in similarly horrible conditions and discovered a godwit, which he identified as a Bar-tailed, though it seemed to depart shortly after being found.  There were also now two Dunlin.

Simon R was down early on the 3rd.  The previous couple of days' snow was thawing quickly and temperatures had positively rocketed to high single figures!  He found a godwit again and assumed that it must be the previous day's bird.  By the time Graham S had joined him, despite being distant, they were sure it was Bar-tailed.  Mike M was present also and found a cracking male Goosander out on the east side of the lake.  I arrived around 10:30, quickly saw the Goosander and then made my way to the south bank to look for the Barwit, which was right at then base of the east side of the spit.  As I reached Simon and Graham, they told me that the godwit had just walked into some adjacent vegetation and was out of view.  I have no idea what this bird was doing, but an hour and a half later, when I had to leave, the bird had still not reappeared.  This was gutting, as Barwit is a rare patch bird - I have only had two previous records, both in 2011 when there was a large overland passage of this species.  Typically, later in the afternoon the Barwit reappeared on the spit.  I had to wait until 5pm to make a return visit and finally saw it reasonably close on the west side of the spit, but roosting.  Still, a great birds to see and all thanks to the weather.  There were also now three Dunlin present.  Not too far away at Dorney Lake, Dave C had found 16 Dunlin, Sanderling, Ruff and Redshank, so more displaced waders.

A good record, scarce and usually short stayers
I decided to make an earlier start on the 4th and was walking towards the lake at 7:45am.  As I did so, I heard an unfamiliar call overhead.  Looking up, I saw a gull fairly high up and flying east.  A quick look through bins revealed an adult Little Gull, superb!  It looked to still be I winter plumage and continued flying eastwards over the main island and then veered north eastwards, but kept on going.  A great start to the morning.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Barwit was still present and there were now four Dunlin.  I decided to watch from the viewpoint and managed to get some better shots of the Barwit.  An Oystercatcher flew in and the Barwit seemed very happy to join up with it and they spent some time feeding together.

Just before 9am, I noticed an adult winter Little Gull descend to the near spit and land on the water just behind it.  Could this be the same bird that I had seen over an hour ago, or was I looking at a second? I'll probably never know, as both were non-breeding adults, but whether one or two birds I didn't care as I could now spend time watching this little beauty at close range.  It decided to come out of the water and spent a few minutes standing on the spit with the Black-headed Gulls before taking flight, making the same call I had heard earlier and then flew off west over the STW.


I made my usual circuit on the morning of the 6th, the Barwit had gone, being last seen on the 5th, a stay of four days and the previous day's four Dunlin had dropped to two.  I counted the Shoveler and reached 68 birds, a reasonable total.  They always seem to build in number as Spring approaches before departing en masse.  Strangely, all the Wigeon left the site a couple of weeks ago - really odd and I'm not really sure why, but there were four Shelduck.

As I approached the northern fields, I noticed some Meadow Pipits on the wires.  They soon took flight and I counted 13 birds as they flew over the middle hedge to the field the other side.  This area often produces flocks of Mipits in the Spring as they migrate through and I have seen up to 80 birds together in the past.  I passed the hedge and began to watch the Mipits feeding in the field.  A few took flight to the top of the adjacent hedge and as I followed them, I suddenly noticed a Stonechat perched up a little bit farther up the hedge.  I am pretty sure that I would have missed this if not for the Mipits, so was well pleased.  I have only ever seen one previous Stonechat here in Spring, with most of my records being Autumn migrants.

Distant crops - bird was 80-100 yards away

With the onset of Spring upon us, I cant wait to see the returning summer birds in a few weeks, when patch birding should really take off.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Hawfinch makes a 2018 appearance

Since my last post, as with many other local inland water bodies, Oystercatchers have returned.  The first bird was seen during half term week, when I was away.  I caught up with my first bird last week on the 21st and by the weekend, there were two.  They have never bred here, though last year there were signs that they might, but there are usually 2-4 birds around until the summer.  Last year a pair appeared in mid summer with a well grown youngster and stayed a while.  They may well have been signs of local breeding success.

Prior to last Autumn, the only patch Hawfinch I had seen and I think was also a patch first, but I'm not sure on that, was a female that spent some time around the churchyard during the first winter of 2006.  This is not an area that I actually stop to look around very often, though I had been doing very slow drive bys as I passed in the hope of seeing a Hawfinch sitting up in the trees.  Last Friday, the 23rd, Tom C actually stopped to look properly and came across at least three Hawfinches in trees around the churchyard and also in the adjacent manor house.  Further sightings that day revealed at least five birds.

Saturday morning found me actually in the churchyard for once and it was not long before I could hear the distinctive call of Hawfinch.  Three birds eventually appeared, either feeding in yews or atop tall trees calling.  It was difficult to tell exactly how many were there, but I think at least five and possibly more.  They weren't together in one flock at any time and the most I saw at one time was three as they flew over.  That morning, I met David B, a birder I don't know, who said that he thought he'd had a Hawfinch here on January 26th, so these birds could have been here for some time undetected.  It is fantastic to get the chance to see these birds again on patch and also to actually see them on the deck as opposed to last year's migrating birds, lovely though those were.  I only managed one reasonable record shot of a male, but hope to be able to get better views if they stick.

Also present that morning was a male Blackcap feeding on Mistletoe.  This was my first of the year anywhere, so nice to get it on patch. There was also singing Nuthatch and a pair of prospecting Ring-necked Parakeets.  A reminder that you should always check all corners of your patch rather than just concentrate on the favoured areas.

I have been checking the gull roost as often as I am able, but it has been fairly unproductive in terms of the scarcer gulls to date.  Yesterday, despite the freezing easterly blowing right in my face, I decided to check it again.  I had been surprised at the lack of Med Gulls amongst the 5-6,000 smaller gulls, especially as mid February through March is one of the best times to pick them up on passage.  I had also missed a lingering daytime bird a few weeks back.  Anyway, it was with no great surprise that an adult Med Gull did arrive in the roost yesterday.  The black hood was almost complete, just a few white feathers above the bill and hopefully the first of a few this season.  A short while later, a nice 1st winter Caspian Gull appeared, though as with past birds this year, something disturbed the gulls and the Caspian flew off.  I've had four Casps so far this year, three 1st winters and an adult and all the 1st winters look to be different birds.

I keep hoping for an Iceland/Glauc and will continue to check the roost when I can.  Now off to brave the cold weather again to see what I can find.....

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The first five weeks....

Well I've made a reasonable start to 2018.  January is often a quiet month on patch and can get a bit monotonous as there is generally little movement and we didn't have any good hangers on from 2017 to keep us going.  Once you've checked that no new water fowl have arrived overnight, you tend to look through the same birds that you've seen the day or week before - the gull roost is the exception to this and can provide interest as the scarcer gulls move about - one night there might be a Med Gull, another night a Caspian and I keep checking for the scarcer white-wingers.

Having said this, I've actually had my second best January ever, reaching 79 species by the month-end, only surpassed in 2016 when I had 82.  I'm three ahead of last year at this stage, though it's a bit of swings and roundabouts until Spring passage kicks in.

Best bird by a country mile has been a Whooper Swan.  This adult bird arrived during the afternoon of the 30th.  It had not been seen during my morning round or Alan S's early afternoon round, but was found by Mike M at about 1:30pm.  I couldn't get back to site until 3pm, but found the bird on the far east side of the spit swimming up towards the works bay.  This is about as far away from any lake edge that you can get and coincidentally is exactly the area chosen by a family party of Bewick's Swans back in December 2010.  There were obvious assumptions being made that this was the same adult bird of unknown origin that had graced the patch almost daily from late June last year until early/mid October when it disappeared.  However, even though I could only get distant record shots, the appearance of both birds seems different, most notably the pattern of yellow on the bill and the shape of the bill.  Whilst watching the swan, it was also interesting to note how alert, yet tired, it seemed: alert in that it was constantly swimming with upright neck, but also kept closing its eyes as if trying to rest.  Coupled with the fact that it remained to at least 3:45pm but was not seen the next day or again, here or locally, led me to give this bird the benefit of the doubt.  So a great way to round off January with an ultra rare patch bird (I'm not even sure that it was on the site list!) and a patch tick.

Heavy crop, as distant

Even heavier crop to show detail of bill
Last year's bird for comparison. Note the apparent differences in bill pattern and structure
The gull roosts that I have done have only been rewarded with scarcer gulls on two occasions and that is despite there being upwards of 6,000 gulls to look through.  Most of these are generally split between Black-headed and Common Gulls, but there are also around 1,000 large gulls to sift through and in excess of 100 Great Black-backed Gulls, which are still coming in in good numbers at the moment.  An adult Yellow-legged Gull came in late on Jan 6th (we generally do much better for these in June/July) and two Caspian Gulls were seen on Jan 13th, a striking brute of a 1st winter, undoubtedly male and a more petite adult, which may well have been the bird I saw back in December.  I didn't manage photos of any of these as the light and distance were against me!

Other good January birds were a Dunlin on the 9th.  I watched this bird fly in to the spit mid morning, though there were apparently three birds by mid afternoon, so obviously a few flying around that day; a fly through Peregrine on the 22nd and a Cetti's Warbler on the 30th.  I was particularly pleased to see the Cetti's, as there had been one (and two for a while) around since last summer, but I hadn't seen or heard one since mid December.  I am hoping that with the increased sightings over the past couple of years that they are on the verge of colonising.

Other than that, as I noted at the start, it has been usual January fare.  No unusual ducks yet, though I managed to miss two separate records of Pintail, a four and a two on two dates.  Shelduck probably the best and being seen on most visits, with up to three birds, a pair and a separate male.

I had a nice visit to the farmland part of my patch on 5th Feb and added a further three species for the year.  The game cover has been cut down recently and attracted a large flock of finches.  I watched them flying between the hedgerow and the stubble to feed on fallen seeds.  There were in excess of 150 Chaffinches and amongst them, 2-3 Brambling, about 10 Yellowhammers and a few Reed Buntings.  The usual Winter flock of Linnets was also present and numbered around 90 birds.  It was also nice to see two Grey Partridge following the birds I saw last year.  I think I was a bit harsh on those in not counting them on my list, as even if they have been released, which is not definite, they are at least as worthy as all the Red-legged Partridges and Pheasants that I merrily count each year, so I have upgraded them this year and ought to do a retrospective 'add 1' to last year's total.

I also saw a nice 1st winter Yellow-legged Gull loafing with a group of Herring Gulls on the 5th.  It was rather a smart looking bird, a shame that my record photo is a bit over exposed in the bright sunlight to do it proper justice.

So that's about it so far in 2018.  I'm on 83 for the year, which is my quickest to this total since I started keeping accurate year lists in 2014 (the start of patchwork challenge).  There is still time to get some the scarcer Winter birds before Spring kicks in, but there a few gaps this year - Woodcock is looking doubtful as the regular roosting birds we used to get seem to have deserted since the mass felling of trees on the north side; I haven't come across any wintering Chiffchaffs this year (unusual), which doesn't bode well for picking up Siberian Chiffchaff, which has shown up in three of the last four years; I haven't seen or heard any owls yet, though hopefully at least two species will show up sooner or later - I think Little Owl is no more, unfortunately, my last record on patch was from 2014.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

A review of 2017

2017 has been a great year on patch with 149 species seen in total of which I managed 146.  This is a whole 10 species higher than my previous best of 136 in 2014 and included five patch ticks!

I've tried to capture the best birds below:

21 Barnacle Geese assumed to be part of a cat C population
moving around in the cold weather in late January
Only two Red-crested Pochard records this year - this one in February
A 2w Med Gull in February - fewer records than normal this year
This 1w female Ferruginous Duck appeared on 27th Feb
 - a self found patch tick for me, but still with BBRC
A scarce Brambling in March, only my 2nd on patch
The first of two drake Garganey arrived in March
Arrived during rain on the same day as the 1st Garganey in March
and stayed for only 5 minutes. Third record in 2 years, but still rare here
These two Little Gulls came through in late March
Surprisingly, my only Arctic Tern record of the year - in mid April
April 20th and this fantastic pair of Black-winged Stilts remained
all day for me to see them after work - not surprisingly a patch first

Conditions were right on April 30th for this Black Tern to pass through.
Two Little Terns and a Temminck's Stint also appeared that day,
all seen but not photographed.
More Black Terns passed through early on May 1st
My only Redstart was a late female in mid May
A summer plumaged Little Stint in mid May was just my second on patch - rare!
This pair of beauties in early June were just my second on patch

Mandarins are never easy here, but this female stayed a month during its moult
Yellow-legged Gulls started to appear in small numbers
post breeding in June, but numbers were down this year.
An unringed adult Whooper Swan arrived in late June and remained
until early October. Its origin is unknown, but I did not count it as suspected
 a feral bird.
An unexpected visitor was this drake Scaup in early July

By the end of July when it departed, it was looking quite tatty
For the second year running, Reed Warblers raised a Cuckoo.
It could be found in July calling loudly for its food.
My only Greenshank was in early August
I watched three Sandwich Terns arrive on Aug 6th. 
Amazingly, I had another fly through four days later.
This juvenile Spotted Redshank was a brief visitor on Sep 1st.
Another was present a week later - scarce birds here.
Only my second patch Marsh Tit was a surprise find in September
Ravens were much in evidence in September

Two Ruff in early September were followed by a fly through in October
Thought I'd missed Spotted Flycatcher this year,
until this beauty turned up on Sep 19th
Two more moulting adult Black Terns passed through in late September

My find of the year was this Yellow-browed Warbler,
from Sep 27th to Oct 2nd, a site first. Photo copyright Mike Wallen.
A site second Great White Egret was present briefly on a murky mid Oct day
Only one Caspian Gull in the 1st winter period, this 1w in mid Oct
was my second but has been followed by about four others including
an adult and 3w by year-end.
Usually very brief, scarce visitors, three Goosander stayed for 2 weeks
from late Oct and a further single stayed until late Nov 
Three Pintail were present for a day in late Oct and a further five
for a day in late Nov
Further good birds that weren't photographed included an Osprey that flew through in late March; a reeling Grasshopper Warbler briefly in late April was only my second on patch; a fly through Curlew in early August; a Firecrest in the same bush as the Yellow-browed Warbler in late September was only my second on patch; a single Hawfinch over south in October, followed a week later by a superb flock of ten birds over low south east were my second and third patch records; a patch tick fly through Merlin in early December and lastly a Jack Snipe in mid December.

So a great year in 2017, the pictures bringing back some fantastic memories.  Hopefully 2018 will be equally as good.