Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Roseate Terns of Coquet Island, 31st May 2019

After the avian delights provided by our excursion out to the Farne Islands the day before (see Farne Islands), another treat beckoned in the form of the Puffin Cruise trip around Coquet Island. But that wouldn't be until the afternoon so as we drank a coffee in the excellent Beal Barn cafe and watched the rain pelt mercilessly down outside, we discussed our options for our last morning in Northumberland. A drake Lesser Scaup had been seen frequently at the Mire Loch just up the coast at St Abbs Head so considering that would be a year tick we decided to drive the 20 miles or so in the hope of seeing it. We shouldn't have bothered, the rain got heavier the further north we went, most of the St Abbs area was shrouded in heavy fog, there was absolutely no sign of the rare American Duck anyway on the Loch and I got soaked for my troubles! Driving back south again at least the weather improved, the heavy rain turning to just lighter rain, so we decided to go for a last look on Holy Island and settled on searching out the Grasshopper Warbler that we'd heard but failed to see on a previous visit earlier in the week.

It took us less than five minutes before we heard the Gropper reeling away in the same place as before but another ten before I could pin it down. Amazingly it was perched prominently right at the top of a weedy stem but was actually around fifty yards or so away from where we thought! Grasshopper Warblers are incredible ventriloquists. It was reeling away confidently until we got alongside its position at which point it dropped down into the wet vegetation. We waited and it wasn't long before the Gropper reappeared on the same stem and began to sing, if you can call that mechanical whirr singing, once more.

Grasshopper Warbler
The Grasshopper Warbler would reel its whirring refrain for a couple of minutes, drop out of sight for a while and then pop back up again in the same general area. At best it was about 15 yards away in the dunes and at best the precipitation reduced to a drizzle but Groppers are a big favourite of ours so we enjoyed watching and listening to it.

But we had to be off Holy Island by 11:30 since the tide would be in and the causeway covered again and besides our boat trip out to Coquet Island was booked for 14:00 from Amble some 30 miles down the coast. We stopped for some lunch on the way and arrived at the harbour around 13:10. Instantly I was dismayed when I saw the Puffin Cruise boat sailing out towards the river mouth. Had I got the time wrong and it was 13:00 and not 14:00? A hastily made phone call to the offices and I calmed again, apparently they had been so busy that they had organised extra sailings and ours did indeed leave at 14:00. Phew! 

Coquet Island Lighthouse
Since we now had quite a bit of time to kill we walked out along the Harbourside and onto the pier that struck out into the river Coquet. There was a small party of Swifts flying high above the boating pond but I seemed to be having one of off days with my "Swift Camera", simply too slow on this occasion to get any decent shots. I'd have to up my game for the boat. A pair of Eider Ducks attracted my attention at the pier end and we watched them dive for food. The female duck was very active, the male was watching as intently as we were but seemingly uninterested in fishing, and she was highly successful in catching prey bringing all manner of shellfish and molluscs to the surface. Once she'd surfaced with a titbit, she would thrash her head from side to side in order to dextrously extract the meat from inside the shell. The Eider Duck did this several times and rarely reappeared after a dive with an empty bill.

On one occasion the female Eider appeared with a small Starfish which also had to be manipulated into the correct position before it could be dispatched. The fishing appeared to be so fruitful that I was surprised that there weren't more Eiders in the area.

After watching for a while the drake joined his mate in the hunt but seemed to be less skilled since he'd frequently come up with nothing. After several failed dives the male Eider did at last capture a small Crab which, in keeping with his mate, was battered on the water before being swallowed whole. It's always a treat to watch nature in action and my camera was heavily used while the pair of Eiders performed.

As we walked back to the quay from where we'd catch the boat a fisherman from the one of the local fleet threw an unwanted catch overboard which was readily accepted by one of the attendant Black-headed Gulls. The Gull had to fly swiftly away since it was pursued earnestly by several more that all wanted a share of the spoils.

It was time for us to board the boat and we made our way down the steps to greet the same skipper that took us out on the same day last year. The previous years trip was made on a low tide so the boat was unable to get very close into the island and our look at the Terns was largely restrained to overhead flight views and disappointingly at the time, long distance shots of the resident Roseate Terns which were the main focus of our trip (see Puffin Cruise 2018). We did get great close up encounters with Puffins and other Auks and even saw a Bonxie sail past but it was the Roseate's that I really wanted so we just had to have another go. I had waited patiently all week for this second chance. I quizzed the Captain whether he'd be able to get in closer this year and his reply was encouraging since the tide was higher although it was ebbing. The rest of the passengers, the boat only ships 10 altogether, didn't appear to be birders and the Skipper quietly told me that he'd spend plenty of time in the vicinity of the Roseate's breeding area so that I could "fill my boots"! You couldn't argue with such first class treatment! The rest of the assembled were delighted with the seals that stared inquisitively as we chugged past and even I have to admit that they can be very alluring.

As we approached Coquet Island from the north we had our first views of some of the thousands of Puffins that breed on the island. But I'd seen more Puffins that you could shake a thousand sticks at the day before so regulated my use of the camera and actually used the time to check exposures and settings, which is very unusual for me! But I have to admit that I love a Puffin as much as the next man or woman. 

One particular Puffin took my eye since its face was dusky grey coloured rather than the normal clean light grey of breeding birds. It was far too early in the season to be a recently fledged youngster and indeed the fully decorated but subdued bill marked it out as non-breeding, probably first summer bird.

I also largely ignored the Guillemots and Razorbills for similar reasons to above and allowed hundreds of Sandwich and "Comic" Terns to pass by unhindered. I did however, spare a couple of frames for a wing stretching Guillemot and then for a "bridled" form that scarpered as the boat approached.

I was primarily here for the Roseate Terns though and concentrated almost all of my efforts to spotting them. The Captain related the history of the lighthouse and of the island itself but as usual I wasn't paying attention. History and culture just doesn't grab me, I always consider history to be so yesterday. Were rounded the eastern flank of the island and came alongside the small beach area next to the landing stage, not that anybody other than wardens are allowed to land, and quite rightly too since this place is vitally important to the breeding colonies of seabirds. Many of the Terns use the beach as a resting spot and as the boat drew a little closer to the sand I spotted a smaller bird stood in with the Sandwich Terns and Black-headed Gulls. It was a Roseate! Species #226 for the Old Caley year list.

Roseate Tern, front & Sandwich Terns

The Skip held the boat steady as I took in the demure beauty of this rarest of of the UK's breeding Tern species. The pink blush to the breast that gives the species its name was clearly visible. The hood was jet black as was the dagger like bill. Soft grey wings overlaid a long pure white tail and the bird stood on short bright red legs, this one sporting a metal ring as most would here at Coquet Island since the Roseate Tern population is intensely monitored.

Roseate Tern & Black-headed Gull 

The boat moved on around the island towards the area where the Roseate Terns breed. I knew where the nest boxes are from my visit of last year. Before we got there though I had spotted more Roseate's flying in and out from the nesting areas. Terns move quickly but fortunately there wasn't too much swell to jostle the boat so I was able to stand still enough to gain some photos of the flying birds. After a few moments I had singled out the slightly different jizz of the Roseate's so was able to pick them up easily amongst the throng of other Terns. I wonder if I'd be able to use the experience to recognise one at Farmoor if one put in an appearance? A lot of good birding is based on experience and practise so at least I'd have a chance.

The nesting boxes, the ones visible from the boats anyway, are mainly on a small ledge in front of a couple of sheds and are numbered, mostly from 70 upwards but there are also others such as numbers 31 & 4! The pilot managed to get the boat in reasonably close this time allowing me to get far more intimate photos than the year before. Terns are birds that you could watch all day since they're active, noisy and gregarious birds but our trip would only last an hour in total so I had just minutes to take it all in and gain my images.

I spotted a Roseate Tern carrying a fish in its bill which it appeared to be saving for its mate. It was still early in the season so I don't think that there were chicks to feed just yet. I followed the bird as it flew around in circles taking as many shots as I could. The resulting images, and the ones before, are easily the best I've ever taken of a Rosy, not that I had much to surpass.

I paused in my pursuit of the Roseate to snap a group of Puffins that were lounging on one of the shed roofs. Birds will happily take advantage of man made structures, I guess a shed roof is just the same as a rocky ledge to a Puffin, a place to loiter and pass the time of day.

I returned to studying the Roseate Terns, again easy to pick out now as they flew around the boat. About 120 pairs nest on Coquet Island, the largest colony by far in the UK and their success depends greatly on constant wardening and from lack of disturbance. Boats and visitors are not permitted to land during the breeding season and that gives the birds space to breed unhindered.

As the boat left back towards the mainland and the overhead sorties had dissipated I finally put the camera down, I'd been shooting almost constantly for over 20 minutes. My arms ached! But it had been exhilarating and an experience that I will be keen to take up again next summer. Hopefully Mrs Caley and I will get some decent weather too and have the chance to see the birds in sunshine!

Friday, 26 July 2019

Rare Sandpipers! 21st July.

After bailing out on the drive to Lincolnshire because of the traffic on Saturday I spent most of that afternoon and evening studying the bird news for updates on the White-rumped Sandpipers at Frampton Marsh which appeared to be settled although they did disappear at times. There was another attraction there as well in the form of the returning Long-billed Dowitcher, a bird we'd already seen in February so wouldn't be new to the year list, but it was now in stunning summer breeding plumage a state we'd never seen one in before. Intriguingly there was also a Semi-palmated Sandpiper at Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, a species that would be new for us so I got to work on the AA Route Planner once again and hatched a plan. Titchwell and Frampton are only around 20 miles apart as a wading bird flies but nearly 55 miles for us folk dependant on cars. Thinking that the good weather would attract a lot of sun worshippers out to the seaside and knowing how popular the North Norfolk coast is, and of course the fact that the Semi-palmated Sandpiper would be a life tick, it made sense to hit Titchwell first and then drive to Frampton afterwards on two counts, one to secure that lifer and also logistically since Titchwell is furthest away from home.

We were on the road at 6 o'clock on the Sunday morning and made good progress along the near deserted roads. Luckily most day-trippers don't seem to get mobilised until much later in the day. We made Titchwell by 9 and ambled down to the fresh-marsh where the Semi-p had been hanging out. It was already getting quite warm and the local Clegg flies were out in force making me instantly regret wearing shorts! Those buggers hurt!  This wasn't the best time to be viewing the fresh-marsh either with the strong sunshine right in our faces but, hey, you shouldn't bemoan good weather too much should you, after all it could be raining. The fresh-marsh was loaded with birds as usual but unusually most were fairly distantly stood and feeding way out from the path. Because the Semi-p would be a lifer I didn't waste any time searching through the flocks to find the bird myself, which I usually enjoy doing, but instead asked the assembled birders already looking if they had located it. Some precise location details gained, it wasn't long before the both of us had Semi-palmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) on our life lists. Not one of the most remarkable additions, we were watching from roughly 100 yards away, but they all count. 

Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Titchwell Marsh 21/07/2019
The Semi-palmated Sandpiper was actively feeding within a flock of resting Bar and Black-tailed Godwits. It was dwarfed by the larger birds but, helpfully at times, came close to a Dunlin which enabled its smaller size, even smaller than that bird, to be really appreciated. It was difficult to get an exact idea of plumage tones at such long distance but I had the impression of a brownish backed bird with a neat pectoral band and white underparts. The shortish bill was black as were the legs (what could be seen of them). The feet which couldn't be seen would have the partial webbing which gives rise to the birds name. The overall impression was of a fairly compact bird, similar to a Little Stint, but it was bigger and lacked the bright rufous tones and the white "braces" of that species. The Semi-p, bird #249 on the Old Caley year list, was too far out to get any decent images with my set up but I took a few for posterity anyway.

I scanned the fresh-marsh to see if I could find anything else of note. In addition to the Godwits there were the expected Avocets and a small number of Knot were tucked in with the Godwits. I asked the warden whether and where we could see Bearded Tits on the reserve since we still hadn't seen one this year. I was somewhat taken back by his reply of "just about everywhere"! "Really?", I said and he reiterated for me "yes, just study the bottom of the reeds next to the muddy margins and you'll be sure to see them". So we did and less than a minute later we had #250 up for the year in the form of two juvenile Bearded Tits that were feeding on flies captured off the mud. We have tried lots of times for Beardies this year and have failed every time. Should have come to Titchwell earlier!

juvenile Bearded Tit
There had also been a Curlew Sandpiper reported on the fresh-marsh so, with the help of the warden, I set about finding that. Naturally I was beaten to it by the resident expert but I was pleased to add that, #251, to the year list. We were on a roll, if only we lived in Norfolk! The Curlew Sandpiper, still sporting most of its red breeding plumage was feeding close to the Semi-palmated Sandpiper but able, because of its longer legs, to do so in deeper water. Again I took record shots but for some reason I just couldn't get a photo of the Curlew Sandpipers head. In every shot it was under the water! I did at least manage to get both the Curlew Sand and the Semi-p Sand in the same panoramic shot.

Curlew Sandpiper and Semi-palmated Sandpiper
We took refuge from the Clegg flies by sitting in the Island hide for a while, from where we were afforded closer views of the Bearded Tits. At least 4 juveniles were seen but again, the sun against us and the fact that the birds were in deep shadow made getting reasonable images impossible. A Water Rail also slinked by partially hidden in the reeds, a nice surprise at this time of year.

juvenile Bearded Tit
The cafe on site at the visitor centre offered us a reasonable lunch and coffee and so we set off for Frampton Marsh more than happy. My decision to hit Norfolk first appeared to be well vindicated when we saw the lines of traffic heading into Norfolk as we left in the much quieter southbound direction. We were walking out into the heat at Frampton less than 90 minutes later making our way directly towards the sea wall where the White-rumped Sandpipers were supposed to be. A lot of twitchers had been drawn to the site hoping to see them and the Long-billed Dowitcher but early inquiries as to whether they'd be seen recently drew negative responses. The top carpark, as I had thought, was rammed and unfortunately a large motorhome had been parked in such a fashion as to obscure a lot of the scrapes from the usual viewing mounds. Because of the amount of birders searching, finding anywhere to look from wasn't easy but we finally found a spot. There wasn't much to see looking southwards and certainly no sign of any small wading birds so I settled for decent views of a fine Ruff which was decked out in a harlequin post breeding plumage.

Many birders were lined up on the sea wall scoping over the various pools so we decided to join the group assembled to the south and see if any of the rarer waders had been spotted. At least there was a large group of assorted waders to look through and a lot of them were Dunlin sized, mainly because they were Dunlin! I found Spotted Redshanks, Common Redshanks, Lapwings, Ruffs, Black-tailed Godwits and a Grey Plover as well as the Dunlin. Then a ripple coursed through the crowd, somebody had found a White-rumped Sandpiper! The usual panic ensued as people all tried to get on the bird which unfortunately was very distant as per the Titchwell birds earlier. We were all helped by a volunteer, @tobywarbler, a fine young chap and who has a great career ahead, who had the patience to get everybody who needed to, to get on the bird. The views through the scope were good enough to make out the Dunlin sized bird but which was longer in profile owing to its longer wings and slightly paler plumage, particularly on the head. I fired off a couple of record shots of bird #252 of the year and the fourth year tick of the day. Not bad considering we were still in July! 

Mixed bag of Waders containing the White-rumped Sandpiper
The whole flock of waders suddenly took flight and wheeled around a few times before settling back on the scrape right by the top carpark and where we'd been stood just a few minutes earlier! That always seems to happen. 

The wheeling Wader flock, spot the White-rumped Sandpiper?*
The chap stood next to me managed to re-find the White-rumped so we hastily walked back to the carpark. There was more room now and I set about trying to find the bird in amongst the Dunlins. Most birds were snoozing and had their heads tucked away which made things a lot more difficult and I couldn't for want of trying pick the rarer bird out. I sent Mrs Caley down the line to ask other birders if they had found it. Remember a big chunk of the viewing area couldn't be used because of that bloody winnebago! She returned with good news, the White-rump had been seen so we made our way to join the group who were on it. I wedged myself into the throng and inquired to the chap next to me where it was. The bird was hidden behind a large tussock of grass directly in front of us and only around 20 yards away so I was hopeful of gaining some more useable photos should it reappear. Luckily after a few minutes the bird did indeed walk out from behind the tussock and proceeded to feed along a muddy edge to the scrape. I rattled off a lot of shots but realised that, once again, we were staring straight into the sun, so I was less than delighted with the results but at least I now had some recognisable images of a White-rumped Sandpiper.

White-rumped Sandpiper, Frampton Marsh 21/07/2019
The White-rump disappeared once more behind the tussock but was soon out on view again this time to the other side and in clear water. There we had excellent views, Mrs Caley through the scope and me through the camera viewfinder. 

From there the bird wandered back towards the tussock but this time walked in front of it where the darker grass gave some definition to the bird enabling the plumage details to be gained more accurately. The back and mantle were more brown than grey and you could see a white supercilium, not as bold as some field guides would indicate but striking enough. Half way along the tussock the White-rumped Sandpiper stopped and began preening during which time it finally showed its white rump!

Toby came half running down the path shouting 'they've found the Long-billed Dowitcher" which started a mini stampede of eager birders, ourselves included, who rushed to the scene. Unfortunately the only place available for a view of the bird was from a small raised mound which was already overfilled with jostling birders. I could just about see over the reeds but Mrs Caley couldn't so I muscled her into a small space on the mound. I then received duff information from a fellow birder which meant I looked in totally the wrong place for the bird and only locked on to it when it flew directly towards us and landed right in front! Now I somehow had to gain a place that I could view it from which wasn't going to be easy owing to the reeds and the lack of the room at the top. My first efforts were obscured by the reeds but I'm patient if nothing else and as soon as a gap appeared I was in it. Now I had an unhindered view of the Long-billed Dowitcher which I have to say is a very smart bird indeed with its rusty orange barred underparts, chequered brown back, bold brown stripe through the eye to the lores and of course that long snipe like bill.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Frampton Marsh 21/07/2019
When we'd seen the Long-billed Dowitcher in February it was decked out in drab greyish winter plumage so the transformation into the completely different summer plumaged bird was remarkable. So many of the wading birds that we see in the UK have this orangey-red summer plumage such as the Knot, Curlew Sandpiper and Godwits seen earlier in the day. We mainly see them later on in the year when they are almost all shades of grey.

The Long-billed Dowitcher continued to feed happily until it was disturbed by an Avocet that decided that it was far too close to one of its offspring. The Avocet forcibly chased the Dowitcher off back into the longer grass. Time for us to leave and set off for home. On our way we firstly bumped into a chap who had shared the Honey Buzzard experience with us the week before and the into one of Oxfordshires finest birders (although he's a staunch Yorkshireman) in Mick C. Mick studies the birds like few that I know and gathers every detail of plumage extremely quickly, often sketching them very accurately. I wish I could exercise just a modicum of the skill that he possesses.

Avocet, adult left, juvenile right & Long-billed Dowitcher, middle
On our way back to the car I stopped to admire another Ruff, this one all decked out in grey and white barring. The Ruffs are so varied in plumage. A Black-tailed Godwit caught my attention too.

Black-tailed Godwit
At the visitor centre we were able to watch one of the resident Black-necked Grebes feeding one of its Grebelets (we'd missed the young when visiting here a fortnight ago). This year is the first time that these birds have bred successfully at Frampton Marsh and is another feather in the cap of what must be, along with Titchwell, one of the UK's finest reserves. Birders in this part of the country are truly spoiled.

Black-necked Grebe, adult & juvenile

*No? Me neither!