Tuesday 28 March 2023

Hume's Warbler; Friday 3rd February 2023

Just as happened last year, there were opportunities to see overwintering Leaf Warblers. In 2022 we logged Pallas's and Yellow-browed Warblers in the first week of January, and added a Hume's Leaf Warbler to our list in early February. This year we had already seen a Yellow-browed Warbler and now, again in the first few days in February, we travelled down to a small village near Keynsham in North Somerset to try to see another Hume's Warbler that had been present for at least a couple of weeks. This Hume's Warbler had once again chosen a Sewage Treatment Works, this one close to the quaint sounding place called Compton Dando (which triggered vague memories of gymnast and television celebrity Suzanne Dando) as its winter home, proving that not all is glamorous in the birding game. Sewage plants are long known as top spots to find scarce birds, the sites are a hotbed for flies and other insects attracted by the settling beds and in turn the food source attracts birds.

There had been some fantastic photographs of the Hume's Warbler posted online, my friend Jim (The Standlake Birder) took some crackers just a few days before, so I was hopeful of improving on my own previous bang average efforts of the species. My Hume's Warbler portfolio wasn't large, I'd only seen three before, two together in Norfolk in 2019 and the aforementioned bird in Eastbourne last year, and apart from some grainy shots of one of the Norfolk birds none were particularly noteworthy.

Parking was easy at the sewage plant and we only had to walk for about twenty feet to join the only other birder present at the perimeter fence. Through the fence we could comfortably watch the two small settling beds where the Hume's Warbler had been frequently reported. I checked off all of the perches that Jim had captured the bird on, the guy wires that held the rotating spraying arms rigid, those arms themselves, the concrete walls, and a bramble bush next to them. I began systematically scanning from one potential place to another for the Warbler but for fifteen minutes saw nothing more exciting than a Chiffchaff. Our vantage point was below an overhanging Hazel tree and I suddenly realised that there were several birds moving around in the branches of it. First I noticed a Goldcrest, then another. They were followed by a pair of Long-tailed Tits. Things were warming up. It was the other chap that spotted the Hume's though, barely feet above our heads. It was tricky to observe since, like all of the other members of its family, the small sprite was extremely nimble and moved swiftly and erratically through the tree. Eventually I managed to grab a photograph or two but hardly of the standard I was hoping for. Still, I had my record shots of the 116th bird on the Old Caley year list.

Hume's Warbler (Phylloscopus humei)

In truth the light was poor, it was an overcast day and the surrounding trees made the available light even worse. It was very breezy too. Of course those were mere excuses used to gloss over my own poor form. It didn't help that the target bird wasn't playing ball at all either, in the first forty-five minutes of us being there, the Warbler hadn't adorned any of the previously mentioned perches. Then without warning, and just after I had shifted my position slightly to another gap in the fence, the Hume's Warbler appeared in the bramble bush. It wasn't easy to follow through the thick tangle of thorny branches and leaves but I tracked it as best as I could and fired off shots with the camera whenever the bird partially emerged from the cover. Unfortunately there was never a chance to get a frame filling image of the Warbler in clear view, and it turned out that a better opportunity wouldn't arise either so the few usable images that I took would prove to be the best of the day.

Hume's Warblers are very closely related to Yellow-browed Warblers but are distinct in various subtle ways. The overall plumage of the Hume's is more subdued with a dull green and buff replacing the brighter tones of the YBW. The supercilium and wing bars are less distinct and are more buff than yellow. The most noticeable difference is in the calls. Hume's Warbler has a disyllabic and whistling-like 'dsu-weeet' call as opposed to the high pitched 'tsweeeet' of the Yellow-browed. So far I hadn't heard this Hume's Warbler call at all and two brief observations in almost an hour wasn't great viewing either. But in my experience they are very difficult birds to watch because of their furtive habits, although because of those great photos circulating on the internet, I had thought that this bird would buck the trend.

It was almost an hour later when we picked the Hume's up again, this time it was calling, high in one of the conifer trees next to where the car was parked. Although we could see the bird reasonably well as it flitted in and out of the dense fronds of the trees, there was no real opportunity to add to the portfolio. I tried though. And failed. There was no inclination on the part of the bird to come back down to our level either.

A few birders came and went, much easier satisfied than myself, while the Hume's Warbler remained high in the conifers, we knew it was still up there because it carried on calling periodically. One of the other birders got our pulse rates raised for a few moments when he announced that a Firecrest was in one of the trees overhanging the road. I quickly got on the bird in question and saw a Goldcrest. My news when imparted to the finder didn't go down too well and I was basically called an idiot by him and his mate. The bird in question flew across the road into a small orchard there and the two chaps continued to confidently call it a Firecrest. It was the only bird in the tree and yet I still only saw a Goldcrest and when I mentioned that it was still "just" a Goldcrest, I was informed that I must be looking at a different bird. So after getting them to point at the bird, which was the same one that I'd been following, I took a couple of photos. And showed the best of them to the chaps. We all make mistakes some times, it was a Goldcrest.

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

My two new best friends left, somewhat annoyed with me I think, while Mrs Caley and I vowed to give it another half hour. One of us was getting very bored at staring through the metal fence at the less than salubrious scene and the smell at times made your nose wrinkle. Another year tick presented itself in the shape of a couple of Siskins even higher up than the Hume's had been in a tall tree. There were lots of other species that were visiting the beds to feed. At least four wintering Chiffchaffs showed well out in the open as did Pied and Grey Wagtails, Blackbirds, Robins, Dunnocks and a Wren. All were attracted to the insect feast. Unfortunately the Hume's Warbler didn't join in the banquet and I thought it was maybe because it was just a tad too breezy and chilly so the Hume's preferred to feed in the more sheltered spots within the trees.

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii)

A Treecreeper clambered up a nearby tree trunk and a Dunnock briefly got us interested again when it shuffled out of the bramble bush. More Goldcrests kept the interest level up but increased the frustration. The Hume's Warbler was still staying hidden.

Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Eventually the Hume's Warbler did show in the bramble about forty-five minutes later but again only briefly. It almost gave me the perfect photo opportunity, almost, but frustratingly there was always a branch or three in the way or the bird was facing away.

Watching and trying to photograph small Warblers shuffling through bushes and foliage is one of my favourite things to do while birding. I love a challenge and trying to track the sprites as they flit about is a joy. It isn't the easiest sport but if you get a good view or manage to capture a decent image or two then its very rewarding. I look forward to seeing my next Hume's Warbler and once more attempting to nail that photo.

Year List additions;
116) Hume's Warbler, 117) Siskin

Friday 24 March 2023

Twite a Nice Day! 28 January 2023

My last blog was titled "Almost the Best of the Rest of January" for good reason because at the end of the month we undertook the long journey to the top of the Fylde peninsula and had an excellent days birding which surpassed the sightings of the previous week. The main purpose of the trip was to observe Twite, one of the smallest and rarest of our resident finch species. Twite are birds of upland areas, usually breeding on moorland or high hills. In winter however, like many upland species, they migrate to low lying coastal areas. At Knott End-on-Sea next to the mouth of the River Wyre, a healthy flock of Twite spend the winter months, attracted by a supplementary feeding scheme.

We've seen plenty of Twite of before but they have definitely become harder to find both on our Scottish summer holidays and in winter by the sea. We used to go Dunwich beach in Suffolk to see them, but where there used to be over fifty wintering amongst the rank vegetation there, recently that number has declined to the extent that if just a couple are found there then that is deemed a noteworthy event. There are still some good areas to find them in Scotland although in summer they were never easy to find owing to their liking for remote places which often entails long journeys to reach. So, keeping true to my aim of attempting to see the species that we've struggled to see well before or for a while at least, we undertook the three hour drive north.

We arrived at the carpark close to the favoured spot for the Twite next to the slipway which serves the Knott to Fleetwood foot-ferry. Unfortunately the weather had again turned a bit grim and we geared up in a constant dreary "mizzle", that horrible fine rain combined with mist which makes everything and everybody appear so miserable. But we were not to be deterred so donned our waterproofs and went to check the immediate area. The slipway was just fifty metres away, as was a fine looking cafe which would be getting our custom pretty soon if the conditions didn't improve. There was no sign of any small brown birds though so we expanded our search area. I had also brought some sunflower seeds with me (at that time I hadn't realised that the Twite flock were being given supplementary feed) and scattered some on a smaller grassy mound next to the cafe. As soon as our backs were turned, birds were attracted to the seeds, unfortunately not Twite but some very quick and eager Jackdaws and a Wood Pigeon.

In the absence at that point of any Twite, we knew that there was another notable bird present in the area, so we turned our attention to finding that instead. The Black Redstart, reported as a female, was frequenting the grounds of a block of very attractive seafront apartments. Except that at Knott End, at low tide as it was, it is more mud-front than seafront with the vast muddy scape of Morecambe Bay stretching for miles, and in the grey conditions the sea was not visible at all. The apartment block was private so we could only view from either end where the paths allowed access to the mud-ward side. A decent view was afforded by standing next to a derelict building on the promenade but we could only find a pair of Pied Wagtails feeding on the manicured lawn and garden. The day wasn't going well at all so when the rain started teeming down, we decided to head for the cafe and grab some breakfast. That proved to be a good move since when we rounded a bend and the cafe came into view we noticed a flock of small birds alight on the cafe roof. A quick check through the gloom revealed the Twite that we cherished. The Twite, I counted forty-seven in all, stayed put and I was able to gain a few record shots before heading into the warmth and dryness of the cafe. We found a table by a window so that we could watch the patch of grass where I'd scattered the seeds earlier and decided to make our breakfast and coffee last until the rain stopped before returning back outside.

Twite (Linaria flavirostris)

One full fat breakfast, and one healthier version later, the rain appeared to have eased so we went back out to look for the Twite. Of course, they were no longer on the roof and had disappeared. A few minutes later the rain returned again. Luckily our gloom was lifted almost straight away when the flock of Twite flew over the roof and headed towards the slipway. They landed on the bright yellow railings of the paved causeway. Even though they were sodden from the rain and looked even more plain than usual, I thought they still sparkled like little soaking wet jewels.

On the railings the Twite chattered away to each other and jostled for position. I hadn't realised that the slipway itself was used a gigantic feeding platform and the Twite assembled on the railings before dropping down to feed on the supplementary seeds that somebody must have scattered there earlier. Most of the flock were soon pecking away between the cracks in the stones.

The Twite were disturbed by a newly arrived birder who hadn't realised that they were on the slipway but the flock only flew back to the railings. I manoeuvred myself into a position where I could take an interesting shot or two whereby I was shooting down the length of the string of birds. One of the images which I submitted to BirdGuides actually won me a Notable Photo. Probably the last one I'll ever get.

The flock of Twite were away again, this time flying off out of sight towards a golf course where I guessed they'd spend time now that they'd fed. We turned our attention back to finding the Black Redstart again and this time connected almost instantly finding the bird flitting between the railings of the apartments garden and the rocks on the mud below. We spent a bit of time watching it chasing and catching flying insects. It would frequently perch on the railings guarding the garden which allowed for a few photographs. My thoughts were that the pale wing panels designated the bird as a first-winter male but it seemed as if the general consensus was that it was a female type.

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

The Black Redstart disappeared again although we saw it briefly again at the far end of the garden. A couple of Meadow Pipits replaced it on the garden fence, alighting long enough for a photo.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

All the time we'd been watching the Twite and the Black Redstart the state of the sea and river had been very much at low tide with the latter being further down the mud than the end of the slipway reached. A Velvet Scoter had been seen there over the past few weeks but there had been no sign of it while we'd been there. The sea couldn't be seen at all, the mud of Morecambe Bay extending all the way to the edge of our visibility, hampered as it was by the rain and drizzle which still persisted even up to lunchtime. There were some other birds feeding on the mud though, and we saw Oystercatchers, Redshanks and our first Knot of the year.

Knot (Calidris canutus)

We could see Fleetwood on the other side of the Wyre. The day before a Snow Bunting had been seen on one of the beaches of the town so thinking we'd return to Knott End later in the day when the tide should be high, we decided to drive over to Fleetwood and look for the Bunting. Fleetwood via the ferry is probably only half a mile away, to drive there took almost an hour and was fourteen miles long since we had to go via the first available bridge over the river!

Even as we exited the car next to the Boating Pond on Fleetwood's north side, we added another year tick when four Red-breasted Mergansers flew over us and then around the pond a few times before flying out to sea. They were joined in the air by a couple of Goldeneye as well. Unfortunately I didn't have time to get the camera out of the boot. We walked to the beach which was pretty much deserted apart from a few hardy dog walkers and their four-legged friends braving the increased wind on the exposed sands. I followed the wide tarmac path towards the pin-drop on the BirdGuides App where the Snow Bunting had reportedly been the day before. We found a small flock of Linnets, and a pair of Greenfinches feeding quietly amongst the rough grasses next to the wall. Then more movement alerted us to a couple of Skylarks that were surreptitiously picking out seeds from the plants.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

There was no sign of the Snow Bunting though and despite much searching over the next fifteen minutes we couldn't find it so assumed it had moved on. We were ready to return to the car and would have missed out if a very noisy family hadn't walked down the path screaming at their two dogs. As the dogs careered past followed by two small children, just thirty feet away a bird was startled up a few feet and then descended back into the grass again. Instantly I said to Mrs Caley, 'Hey up' (I was in Lancashire), and 'there it is!' The unmistakable white & black wings of the Snow Bunting had dropped into the rough vegetation not far from the other birds. It had obviously been there all along but we had managed to miss it. It flew again, a little further up the beach, and this time stood out in the open on the sands and pebbles.

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Snow Buntings are beautiful little birds to see, whether in their breeding finery on a Scottish Mountain top in lovely sunshine, or surviving the winter on a desolate beach in Fleetwood on a dreary grey day, so we were more than happy to re-find this one. Wherever they are, Snow Buntings ooze character and are relatively tolerant of humans so it's not too difficult to get some decent photos of them.

We watched the bird flit about the sand for a few minutes, during which time it very obligingly posed in a variety of different places, including an old groyne stump and the retaining beach wall, then left it because we wanted to return to Knott End and see if the incoming tide had changed the situation there.

Back at Knott End we resumed our position close to the slipway and it was noticeable that there were now a few more birders present. Folk in these parts obviously time their birding with the rise of the tides since the birds are pushed up closer to the observers during high tide. Unfortunately this wasn't a very big high tide so the shoreline, although now finally visible, was still a good half a mile away and hence the birds that were on view, and there were many of them, were still very distant. We did manage to scope some nice year list additions in the shape of a small flock of Sanderling, a raft of Eider Ducks and a lone Pink-footed Goose. The incoming tide had brought the river up to the slipway and the ferry was running with a few people walking down to board the small boat.

The Velvet Scoter that we had hoped for earlier, suddenly flew into view, did a complete circuit of the river mouth, made as if to land on the water, and then as if to thwart our wishess, flew out to sea again and was lost in the offshore mist. The broad white wing flash was enough indication to be sure of the identity of the bird.

In the absence of anything different to photograph, I re-engaged with the flock of Twite that were still around the slipway. There were fewer than earlier, maybe around thirty, and they were very active, dropping down from the concrete onto the small beach below where there must have been more of the supplementary food provided. I have no idea who was scattering the food but was very grateful that they had since it allowed me to get my best views of Twite since watching a pair at length on the famous Coral beach on the Isle of Skye some years back.

Twite are the quintessential 'Little brown jobs', those small brown and (supposedly) drab birds that many folk find hard to identify. But look closely and you see lovely streaked brown and buff (almost peach) coloured finches with stubby yellow bills (which turn grey in summer). Adult males also sport a delightful pale pink rump when in full breeding plumage but a couple of the birds here had retained those pink feathers (see photo at the top). They are similar to the more familiar Linnet and replace them at higher altitudes. They also have a very distinctive and onomatopoeic call (often written as "tveeiet") which lends itself to the species name.

With the weather closing in again and darkness not too far away we called time on a very good days birding on the Fylde peninsula. We took one last look at the Twite feeding amongst the seaweed and headed for the car. The next time I see a Twite, I'm hopeful that it'll be on the species breeding grounds on the west coast of Scotland. They are really Twite nice!

Year List additions;

107) Twite, 108) Black Redstart, 109) Knot, 110) Snow Bunting, 111) Red-breasted Merganser, 112) Eider, 113) Velvet Scoter, 114) Pink-footed Goose, 115) Sanderling