Tuesday 17 December 2019

In a Thrush to go to the Zoo, 15th December 2019

Late on Wednesday evening news broke of a Black-throated Thrush that had been found within the grounds of Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. As is often the case these days a certain degree of speculation surrounded the report and when there was no repeated sighting of the bird on Thursday the knives were out and some commentators considered that the report was a hoax and that the accompanying photograph of the bird had been photoshopped! Then on Friday the bird was refound by a couple of trustworthy local birders and a major local twitch was on. I was working on that Friday so couldn't get there and besides, even I could, the traffic would be horrendous. On Saturday I was at football watching my team put in an absolutely abject performance but the Thrush had remained so it was likely that it would still be around on Sunday when Mrs Caley and myself would have the opportunity to go.

We'd seen a Black-throated Thrush before, in Maidenhead way back in January 1999, so it wouldn't be a lifer but would be an unexpected and a bonus year list addition. The fact that the bird was in the Whipsnade Zoo grounds meant that we'd have to pay to gain entry but it's always nice to have a wander round a zoo and check out some of the interesting animals even though I'm not entirely at ease with such animals being kept in confined captivity. There had been much discussion on social media about the high entry fee to get into the zoo but compared with what I paid to watch premier league football the day before it was a mere trifle! The forty odd quid it would cost to get in was also less than we'd spend on diesel getting to Norfolk or just about anywhere else in the country from Oxon so it would actually be a cheap day out!

The weather forecast was favourable with sunny intervals promised until the afternoon at least so when I pulled the curtains apart at home I was a tad disappointed to see gloomy grey skies and a spattering of rain drops hitting the patio. Our garden feeders were graced by no less than three Great Tits which is a high number for us beating the average, as it happens, by about three! It was a good morning for birds since we also had Blue Tits and Goldfinches adorning the feeders too. This glut of small birds didn't go unnoticed either since Mrs Caley suddenly shouted, "Sparrowhawk!". And there stood on the back fence was a lovely juvenile female Sparrowhawk which wore the bemused expression, I thought, of a bird that had narrowly missed out on breakfast. A nice start to the day!

The best of the views and the best photos of the Black-throated Thrush had been obtained in the mornings so it made sense to gamble on the bird still being present and get to the zoo in time for it opening at 10 o'clock rather than wait on news. When we parked up at quarter to ten there were already a few other birders there with the same idea. We were able to pay our entrance money, actually nearer fifty notes when adding in the voluntary 10% "conservation contribution" which is designed to make one feel better about ones self because the animals then get a treat, before the doors opened. We waited with maybe another twenty hopeful souls for the doors to be unlocked and then eagerly made our way towards the children's zoo, known as "Hullabazoo" where the Thrush was supposedly hanging out. Mrs Caley and I don't move too quickly but we managed to keep the leaders in sight so when they stopped abruptly and set their scopes to the ground we realised that they must have spotted the target. We joined them and listened to the directions being given which pointed to a bare shrub at the end of the path ahead of us. Apparently the Thrush had been feeding on the ground and was flushed by the charge of the advance cavalry and had flown into the shrub. I quickly located the Black-throated Thrush, #288 on the Old Caley year list, and erected my own scope so that Mrs Caley could clock the bird as well.

Black-throated Thrush, Whipsnade Zoo, 15th December 2019
The Thrush had been feeding below an ornamental tree, as usual I've no idea what type but some have suggested Pyracanthas while others have said Cotoneaster or even a Holly, and would likely want to return to it to feast on the many berries that hung from the branches. For that to happen we'd all need to move backwards a few metres to give the bird some space. Collectively we all agreed and all moved back, except the chap who had initially suggested it who stayed in the same spot! He then resolutely refused to budge when others tried to persuade him. What is wrong with some folk? Hence the Thrush stayed put in the bare bush for the next ten minutes until the ignorant sod got bored and walked away haughtily proclaiming "I've seen the bird, bugger won't come closer, I'm off for a coffee". Less than two minutes after he left the Black-throated Thrush flew into the tree and began feeding on the berries! I was well enough placed to grab some nice action shots but unfortunately this is December and it was remember a grey morning, not that I'm using that as an excuse for my failings with the camera of course.

Just as the Black-throated Thrush exited stage left and flew off to some trees about a hundred metres away, the sun came out! How I, and others, could have done with that while the Thrush fed on the berries but now at least we had perfect conditions to photograph some of the Redwings that were also dining on the fruits.

We staked the tree out for another half hour in the hope that the Black-throated Thrush would return but it was just Blackbirds and Redwings that were interested. We decided it was time to move off and look elsewhere around the zoo and see if either we, or much more likely one of the other twitchers, could re-find the bird. By the miniature railway sheds there are some other berry laden bushes and the Thrush had been seen feeding there at times on Saturday. A good few twitchers were assembled there and apparently the Black-throated Thrush had been seen briefly but had flown off with a large flock of Redwings towards the Elephant enclosure. Whipsnade Zoo covers a large area and it was beginning to look as if we'd have to cover most of it in order to keep up with our quarry! I've learned from experience that it pays to watch your fellow birders when on a twitch, you can't find everything yourself, so when a mini stampede erupted amongst the scope and camera carrying army towards the Elephants (luckily not the other way around), we followed as quickly as we could. The Black-throated Thrush was in full view on a narrow strip of grass beneath some tall Beech trees and between a carpark and one of the service roads. It was showing beautifully well but we were about fifty metres away which is too far for my lens so after setting Mrs Caley up with the scope I sidled along the line of twitchers to get a bit closer. For ten minutes I took one hopeless shot after another blaming the fact that it was so dark under the trees that shutter speeds were snail paced. I collected Mrs Caley and the scope and found a spot where we were able to use a road sign to allow a slightly closer approach and at least managed to grab some useable shots.

One of the free roaming park Wallabies appeared less than impressed by mine and others efforts!

The Black-throated Thrush was once more disturbed, this time by a car whose driver stopped to see what all the birders were looking at, which was now nothing since he'd scared the bird off! Another fifteen minutes or so passed and the birds didn't return so, having some passable images in the bag, we decided that we'd at least get some value for money and have a look at a few of the zoo attractions. Then we saw another sudden rush amongst some of the birders, apparently the Black-throated Thrush had returned to the berry tree by the children's zoo where we had seen it earlier, so we also made tracks there as quick as we could. The Thrush was partially hidden in the top of the tree but soon emerged to give up some excellent views. It was now feeding voraciously on the berries and was also defiantly guarding a couple of bunches against all comers which included a fair few Redwings and Blackbirds.

While the views were unrivalled, the sun had also put in an appearance, I was struggling to get some really decent shots since the light was slightly against me so once again I left Mrs Caley enjoying fine scope views while I moved along the line of twitchers and toggers and positioned myself with the sun more at my back. Unfortunately the Thrush didn't help me by moving back into the shadows of the tree. They just don't read the script!

It wasn't long though before the Black-throated Thrush re-emerged from the shadows to feed on the berries again and I now had a chance of getting some better photos. Able now to use a lower ISO and much faster shutter speeds I was delighted, if I may say so myself, at what I captured. It's always a good feeling when good fortune shines on you as brightly as the sun. While I was shooting away I found myself thinking that I must surely have a late entry onto the Old Caley calendar for next year.

My luck was also in when the Thrush flew to another nearby tree because I was primed to keep shooting and consequently managed to get some respectable flight shots, always a bonus!

The last couple of frames of the bird perched in the bare upper branches of the tree showed just how grey the Black-throated Thrush's plumage is. But of course the black throat is extremely prominent. I do like birds that are named "like it says on the tin".

The Black-throated Thrush departed high back towards the Elephant enclosure so we did call it a day, on the twitching front at least, and went for a coffee while I tweeted out a few back of camera photos with a few happy smiling emoji's attached. We then explored the Zoo for a couple of hours heading first to the Penguins. There are two types of Penguin at Whipsnade, Rockhoppers with their wild head feathers and Black-footed which are also known as Jackass Penguins owing to their loud braying calls that sound similar to that of a Donkey. Hopefully one day I'll get to see some Penguins in the wild.

Black-footed or Jackass Penguin

Rockhopper Penguin
We passed the very impressive looking Lynx, a species of cat that many are keen to see re-wilded into the forests of Scotland. I wonder though how detrimental their reintroduction would be on the already dwindling and threatened local Capercaillie population. Unfortunately predators such as Lynx and Wolves won't be picky when it comes to choosing to prey and may not feast exclusively on the Deer as people hope.

European Lynx
The Zoo boasts most of the larger and more noteworthy of the big mammals of Africa and Asia, for example there are Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Chimpanzees, and the huge Rhinos as well as having many smaller and less well known Antelope and Deer species. I spotted a Magpie stood on the back of one of the Rhinos and thinking that it would make for a shot similar to the Oxpecker meets big animal photo that you see in many of the coffee table books, went for the capture. But of course it obviously wasn't allowed and the Magpie flew off before I could press the shutter but at least I had a nice image of a couple of the Rhinos. It is a sadly sobering thought though to see such magnificent creatures safe in the confines of a zoo park when you consider the daily perils they face in their own environments. If I could have one wish granted it would be for Humans to stop slaughtering life on this planet for their own greed. Money will be worthless when there is nothing left.

Northern White Rhinoceros
Meerkats are universally liked and amuse everybody with their antics and poses, I clicked away at a couple and, of course, exclaimed "simples" as I did so.

Aleksander & Sergei Meerkat
My interest is always more with birds than other animals so I was a little disappointed at the relative paucity of them in the Zoo but we found a pond that had a few stunners around it in the shape of some Pink Pelicans and White Storks, a bird that is now almost impossible to count on a UK list owing to the recent reintroductions in the south of the country, as well as a few Geese and Duck species. Next to the Base Camp Cafe, relatively expensive but cheap compared to Wembley on Cup Final day, there is a nice collection of Ibis species including Sacred and Black-faced. There are also Snowy and Great Grey Owls, sadly in small aviaries although there is a flying display area for them. Cranes are also well represented with Eurasian, Demoiselle and Crowned varieties. On our walk around the grounds we also encountered many common wild species in the pens, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Kestrel to name just a few.

"Pink" Pelican

White Stork
We warmed up in the Butterfly House where there are tons of free flying exotic species and also an interesting glass case that contains "hatching" imago's from rows of hanging chrysalises although you'd probably have to stand and stare at it all day to see something actually happen. A bit like the row of twitchers, which contained a friend of mine, that were still stood by the berry tree waiting for the Black-throated Thrush to return. According to Jim, the Thrush didn't and he had to be content with just a distant view of the bird high up in one of the trees. Lucky we went earlier then....

Friday 6 December 2019

Only Here For The Skua! 24th November 2019

One of my favourite birds that I saw last year was a fabulous Pomarine Skua that had taken to loafing around on a beach at South Gare near Redcar. That "Pom" was only the second I'd seen and even though for most of the time it had just "sat" on the beach and we only witnessed a couple of flypasts and nothing of the piratical behaviour that Skuas are renowned for, the bird filled one of those treasured memory slots in my head as well as most of a memory card on my camera. To read about what it takes to overload my senses see my write up of that encounter here, Pomarine Memory.

Pomarine Skua, South Gare, 11/09/2018
I had hoped all year to see another Pomarine Skua to add to the Old Caley Year List but somehow, despite many trips to the coast, they had all managed to avoid me up until the end of October. The lack of a Pom left a gaping hole in that year list and I was thinking that the chance to see one this year had gone. You don't get many Skuas of any description in Oxfordshire and, as far as I know, Pomarine Skuas are unheard of in this part of the country. 

Pomarine Skuas are very much birds of the sea and are almost always seen flying past the coast, usually in the East of the UK. Occasionally one settles into a coastal area such as the one at South Gare last August and September. Midway through November one was reported at the famous Seal breeding sanctuary at Donna Nook in North Lincolnshire. The Skua was reported to be feeding on Seal placentas. Yuk! For the next week or so the Skua was reported as still being present on the beach and the many decent photos emerging of it, proved that it must be showing pretty well. Our first opportunity to try to add the species to the year list then was the following weekend.

I actually, almost, enjoy driving on Sunday mornings. It's the only time that the roads in this country are quiet. Apart from a couple of trips for football and a detour once to twitch and life tick an American Robin, still the only one I've ever seen, at Grimsby also on the way to football in Scarborough, the North-eastern corner of North Lincolnshire is entirely unknown to me. It's about three hours from home and we were scheduled to arrive around ten o'clock when I assumed it would still be relatively quiet since most folk don't get out and about until later. Imagine our surprise and horror then when it became obvious that an awful lot of people were heading the same way as us once we neared our destination and we found ourselves at the back of a sizeable queue of traffic once we entered North Summercoates village. The last mile or so was more akin to trying to get into one of those major tourist traps that entice half the country to visit. I asked a steward, who was directing the traffic towards a muddy field for parking, that I was looking for the Wildlife Trusts own car park but was politely informed that it was closed at weekends and that I'd need to impart with a fiver to park in the field instead. I never like paying for parking and a little part of me wanted to turn around and drive grumpily away but apparently 20% of the fee goes to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust which lessened the blow a little. That fact however raised a few questions in my head. Firstly who gets the other 80%? The farmer, just for providing a muddy field for parking, good little earner if you ask me, or the Ministry of Defence since Donna Nook is used as a Weapons Research Area, ie a bombing range (hopefully they'd refrain today). Secondly I felt that the Wildlife Trust was actually missing out big time by not charging a small entry fee, they were effectively running a popular zoo after all and there was clearly money to be made. Having finally parked the car we were both grateful that we'd got wellies in the car since the field was quickly becoming a quagmire, later in the week it had to be closed since it deteriorated further and actually disappeared under water. 

We made our way through the dunes to the sanctuary and were, to say the least, shocked once again. There were people everywhere! I never realised that a Pomarine Skua would be so popular! This was some twitch, as big a turn out that I'd ever seen on the many that I've been on. But of course the hundreds of families and couples that were stood alongside the low fence that offered protection to the mudflats and the attraction, were here to see the Seals and not a bird.

Regaining my composure I found a raised mound away from the fence, you couldn't get near it anyway, and scanned the expanse of mud and short grass for the Pomarine Skua. I found the gruesome sight of a Great Black-backed Gull eating an unfortunate and recently deceased Seal pup. Even more grisly was seeing a couple of Turnstones and a Redshank sharing in the feast. I must confess to having little interest in watching big fat creatures floundering around in the mud, even the supposedly cute little pups don't stir much emotion in me. Seals are made for the sea and look much better in water where their awkwardness on land is replaced with supreme grace and agility.

Great Black-backed Gull
I scanned a little further away and found the Pomarine Skua, #285 for the year, resting about twenty metres away from the fence. We walked towards the spot and found maybe the other ten people present who were just as disinterested in big blubbery stranded things, that's the Seals and not me thank you very much, and instead were all concentrated on the rather handsome looking Skua. We couldn't find any room next to the fence so had to find another elevated platform in the dunes to view the bird. That meant that we were further away so it would be record shots only to begin with. It was also tricky getting a clear viewpoint through the wispy grasses that the Skua was managing to hide behind.

Pomarine Skua, Donna Nook, 24/11/2019
The Pomarine Skua soon did the right thing by standing up, stretching its wings and then flying off. It did, however, somehow manage to remain partially obscured by those same wispy grass strands although it then whirled around again and flew past at more height enabling me to at least gain some slightly better images. It was noticeable when in flight just how "tatty" the Skua looked. The two "spooned" tail feathers that Pomarine Skuas have were absent as were a couple of primaries.

We followed the line of the Skuas flight and its attendant mini-paparazzi a hundred or so metres up the path to where the bird had landed. By standing on yet another hillock I was able to see the Skua was now much closer to the path than previously and had also decided to dine out on another dollop of Seal placenta. I managed to get a line of sight through some spectators heads and get some closer views and better record shots but the grass stems were still a problem.

Mrs Caley and I found a better hump to stand on but still we had to contend with people stood by the fence who just wouldn't keep their heads still! There were also the Seals who occasionally obscured the view and photobombed several times.

Then we finally caught a break when a family moved away from the fence to go and goggle some more of the same further along the path. I managed to move quickly enough to secure a position in the gap although it took a couple of well placed elbows to make room for Mrs Caley. Now we had an unrivalled view of the Skua and watched as it heartily tucked into the afterbirth delight. I made a note to swerve on tripe and liver whenever it's presented on any future menus, unlikely maybe but you never know.

Having gorged on its meal the Pomarine Skua shuffled away from the leftovers and stood watchfully against anything that might have wanted a bite of it. It paid particular attention to a female Seal that came wobbling past. That Seal was the only one that I bothered to photograph and that was mainly because of its "peaky blinders" haircut which I thought looked a bit daft, as stupid as the ones worn by the pseudo Brummie actors.

The Skua had an injured leg which it hobbled about on and that may explain why it was lingering so long at Donna Nook although the free and constant warm meals would also be an attractive retainer. The bird had no problems flying though and it took off again, taking a fair run-up too, so the leg didn't hamper it much at all. The poor weather, which I do try hard not to mention and to be fair is par for the course this autumn, didn't help with my camera settings with low shutter speeds ensuring far from sharp flight shots.

Once the Skua had disappeared back in the direction of where we'd first seen it, we called it a day, morning anyway, and headed back to the car. If we were amazed by the amount of cars and people that arrived with us at ten o'clock, we were now absolutely flabbergasted at the queues of cars that were now waiting to park. I estimate that there must have been nearly five hundred cars in all and with each containing a family of occupants it wouldn't have been unreasonable to guess that they'd be a couple of thousand of Seal lovers at the reserve. As we passed one chap I was asked "if the seals were showing well?". "What Seals?", I replied adding, "I only came for the Skua!". I really must work on my jokes......

After stopping for a "quantity over quality" Sunday lunch carvery, a lot of which didn't look a far cry from what the Skua was feasting on, we drove to a site just south of Lincoln to catch up with another year tick. Slight, well big really, problem with this one though since the bird(s) in question were a pair of Ruddy Shelducks which are never given full provenance and acceptance by county recorders even in years such as this when lots appear in the country at the same time. Many Ruddy Shelducks are kept in captive collections and frequently escape and the species is also subject to reintroduction attempts so any seen are most likely only part wild at best. But we're year ticking and as far as I'm concerned any bird that I see that takes effort to find and see and is also "living wild and free" is good for us. Thus the two Ruddy Shelducks that we now looked at from about half a mile away near the village of Harmston was counting as bird #286 on the Old Caley year list! I will stop myself from adding the Guinea Fowl that I saw in Cornwall though.

Ruddy Shelduck, Harmston Lincs, 24/11/2019