Monday 31 July 2023

Flashback #3; 9-10 July 2022

Saturday 9 July; Finally!

The bird that I'd been alluding to in my previous flashback blogs, finally came home to roost when we travelled up to Bempton Cliffs to see the very rare Red-tailed Shrike that had already spent a few weeks on and close to the RSPB reserve. The Turkestan Shrike, as it also sometimes called, forms one half of a species pair with the Isabelline Shrike but has slight differences in appearance, voice and range. Both birds hail from Central Asia and both are very rare migrants to the UK. We'd seen two Isabelline Shrikes before, remarkably both were within just two miles of each other in an area of the South Devon coast but a year apart. The Red-tailed Shrike would be a lifer, my 396th species seen in Britain.

By the time we made the trip, the Shrike had moved to the overgrown part of a farmyard about a mile walk from the parking area at the RSPB visitor centre. The walk was along the cliffs which would be the usual focus of attention when visiting Bempton. It was difficult to ignore the thousands of seabirds that filled the air as we walked but we'd come for the rare Shrike so just about managed it. We'd spend some time with Puffins and the like later. The only bird that I stopped to admire on the way was a fine Corn Bunting that rattled its car keys as it perched on an ear of wheat.

Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra)

We joined around twenty others at the farmyard, paid our "fee" to the farmer who had graciously allowed us all onto his land and studied the scrubby area at the back of a lawned area. Apparently this was the garden to the farm house but was typically adorned with broken down tractors and machinery and I'm sure that if you looked hard enough then you'd find a bottomless hole full of goodies such as dead cows and kitchen sinks (Handsome Family reference right there). We got our first view of the Red-tailed Shrike only five minutes after arriving when it suddenly appeared in the hawthorn hedge.

Red-tailed Shrike (Lanius phoenicuroides)

Shrikes of all persuasions can be active birds and very mobile when hunting but can also sit tight for ages within hedges. This bird was of the less active variety which meant that for the next hour and half I'd take hundreds of very similar photos. I managed to get most of the angles and poses covered and it felt as if this bird knew it was a superstar because it posed like a catwalk model. Not that anyone was complaining about that.

The Red-tailed Shrike was most active on the odd occasion it decided that it needed a snack. We saw it chase and catch bees, a butterfly and a huge green caterpillar (for this Shrike's size) which the bird took several minutes to despatch.

A colony of Tree Sparrows were also residing in the garden and while wary of their temporary neighbour, didn't appear too bothered of it. If it was a Great Grey Shrike then that would be an entirely different matter but Red-tailed Shrikes are not much larger than a Sparrow. With a full memory card we decided that the cliffs demanded a bit of our time. We had seen the fantastic Black-browed Albatross back at the end of May and it had been reported as being in residence again. Nobody could ever get enough of that spectacular creature (read about it here)!

Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

Opposite the gateway that led to the farm was an indent in the high cliffs. We sat by the edge and while enjoying our lunch had superb views of Puffins both stood on the cliffs and flying in and out from them. The Puffins used the updrafts to help with the old air brakes but many looked to be just enjoying the fact that could pull some shapes and stunts.

Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Other birds were also enjoying the clifftop breezes but generally I just watched the birds having taken many photos here before. I still took a few photos of course of Razorbills and Guillemots that shared the cliffs with the Puffins. It was fun watching the Gannets as we walked back to the car as well. Sadly we couldn't find the Albatross and it wasn't seen flying around at all that afternoon.

Razorbill (Alca torda)

Guillemot (Uria aalge)

Gannet (Morus bassanus)

Year List addition;

249) Red-tailed Shrike

Sunday 16 July 2023

A Slow Start but a Lightning Finish; Sunday 11 June 2023

Our first full day in Scotland didn't start as we'd planned. In fact that's not quite true since we hadn't planned to do anything specific. The weather forecast wasn't promising with thunder and lightning likely across the Speyside region. So we took it easy, watched the mizzle through the cottage windows and considered our options. My original plan was to go to the Ythan Estuary and see the King Eider that had been present throughout the preceding fortnight until Friday, but then it had disappeared so there didn't seem much point in keeping to it. After much deliberation we eventually decided to go for the tried and trusted drive around Lochindorb where we'd be able to see birds from the car windows and avoid getting wet.

However, before we'd reached the end of the drive, Mrs Caley announced that a Red-necked Phalarope had been reported at the RSPB's Loch of Strathbeg reserve on the north-east Aberdeenshire coast so we made a quick change to the Sat Nav and headed eastwards after all. Better weather was to be expected once we'd gotten away from the mountains too so we were hopeful of a good day. Unfortunately after an early positive update on the status of the Phalarope a further report, when we were about halfway there, said that it had been flushed by a Sparrowhawk and had disappeared. We kept on course to Strathbeg anyway because sometimes birds will return once the coast is clear. The Red-necked Phalarope had other ideas though and wasn't seen again, so for the third time this year already, we missed out on seeing one by just an hour or so.

spent a bit of time scanning the marshes at the reserve but couldn't find anything other than Lapwings and Oystercatchers. The vibrant Common Tern colony at the visitor centre had also been deserted this year. The outbreak of bird-flu definitely seems to have affected the status quo this year. In the carpark we watched some of the Tree Sparrows and got a close up view of a Swallow which was sitting out the drizzle that had followed us from Speyside.

Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

We decided to cut our losses and head down the coast towards the Ythan Estuary to the difficult to find, unless you know where it is, Meikle Loch near Collieston. Over the years we've seen many good birds in the area. At the Ythan we saw our first Greater Sand Plover after driving from the Isle of Skye to twitch it before doubling back for a week in Speyside. We've seen a Roseate Tern at the Ythan mouth and of course, Elvis the King Eider on many occasions. Close to Collieston we saw a fabulous Blyth's Reed Warbler, a photograph of which gained me my one and only Photo of the Week award from BirdGuides. At Meikle Loch itself, we saw a Lesser Yellowlegs once. Just in the past week a Pectoral Sandpiper and three Temminck's Stints had graced the shallow Loch but sadly all four had decided to disappear as we were winging our way northwards on the Saturday.

The entry track to the small parking area by the loch side has become more than a little rough since I'd last driven it a few years back. The grass that grows in the middle of track was high enough to give the undercarriage of the car a good brush. I was terrified that the grass could be concealing a rock or two so I drove very gingerly indeed. Once I'd reached the parking area, I even gave the car a once over, but all seemed to be fine. The loch itself doesn't actually look attractive to wading birds, there are no muddy edges and reeds grow around most of it so the waders use a corner of the loch that has a rocky shore and some rocky groynes that fishermen have presumably laid for better access to deeper water. Even though the Pectoral Sandpiper and Temminck's Stints had moved on, I knew that there were three Little Stints still present and I found them readily enough on one of the small man-made rocky peninsulas. Conditions were still a bit grey and dreary and they were a fair distance away so you may have to squint a bit at the photo below, but all three birds are in it.

Little Stint (Calidris minuta)

Year List addition;

245) Little Stint

Friday 14 July 2023

Flashback #2; 2-3 July 2022

July 2022 was a hectic, bird filled month. It's normally a month where little moves, known as the doldrums in birding circles when birds have bred and young have fledged and second broods are started. However, despite the birds being there, they have stopped singing and become hard to see in the lush vegetation. Luckily for the twitcher and year lister, it's also a good month for seeing rare birds and especially waders since they start their long migrations southwards after breeding high up in the Arctic.

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Flashback #1; June 2022

For various reasons a whole load of my birding experiences went unrecorded last year (and indeed so far this year too). In the highly unlikely event that I should ever put some of my birding memories together into a book, I decided to do a series of flashback blogs. There won't be much in the way of text but there will be a few photos.

Sunday 9 July 2023

Feathers in February 2023, Part 2; White-rumped Sandpiper!

Friday 17 February; Slimbridge

A White-rumped Sandpiper had been found at Slimbridge a few days before, a very unseasonal record of a bird usually encountered during the migration periods. Our chance to make it an early addition to our year list came a few days later. Initially the Dunlin sized wading bird had shown only distantly from some of the outlying hides but on the previous day had turned up and fed right in front of the Discovery hide on the South Lake. We had to wait for a space at the windows to come available before we joined the other birders there.

For half an hour there were many claims of the White-rumped Sandpiper but I could only see Dunlins at the spots where the rarer bird was supposed to be. Identifying small wading birds is never easy and in their drab winter garb can be very tricky. But there are enough differences between the two species to enable correct identification but I guess some folk were just too over eager and too expectant that the Sandpiper would be in exactly the same place as the day before. Happily though the correct bird with its broad pale supercilium, short bill and long attenuated body flew in and landed by a small island before taking a brisk bath in the middle of a sea of roosting Lapwings. Not that you could identify it from any of the photos that I took at the time!

White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicolis), centre 

The White-rumped Sandpiper promptly disappeared and didn't return for another hour so we gave up and headed to the cafe for a coffee. Our luck was in though when the Sandpiper was refound from the Peng Observatory just fifty metres away from where we were. The coffee was gulped down and we were looking out through the glass windows of the (very warm) heated observatory just minutes later. I spotted a small grey wader in exactly the spot where the White-rumped Sandpiper was supposed to be and confusingly, and frustratingly, only saw a Dunlin again!

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

It quickly dawned on me that if the White-rumped Sandpiper was on the Rushy, then it must have moved to the lower pool so, leaving Mrs Caley in the warm, I briskly transferred to the Rushy hide. The presence of at least a dozen other birders (and toggers) indicated that the target bird was there. I found a space and was amazed to see the Sandpiper just metres away on the closest edge of the pool. I quickly took a couple of shots and returned to the observatory to collect Mrs Caley.

Now we could both enjoy the bird together. Incredibly some of the other folk previously hogging the hide windows had left, and we'd clearly been quicker of the mark than most of the other birders present so we were able to get some really good views of the White-rumped Sandpiper as it fed happily at the margins of the pond.

The Sandpiper was steadily working its way along the shore but away from the hide so we'd already had the best views and photo opportunities, so I cast my net further around the Rushy and found the long staying drake Greater Scaup asleep on an island in front of the observatory.

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

A pair of Black-tailed Godwits were either, fighting or loving each other, I couldn't work out which, on the pool. At times they looked as if they hated one another then at other times it all looked very amiable.  After watching their antics for a while, I decided they must be married!

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa islandica)

A female Mallard was less fortunate in front of the hide. When it comes to Mallards, there is no love at all and the females are fair game for many of the drakes at once. This female was having to deal with the attentions of four males and at times it looked like pretty rough stuff. I found it incredible that the duck appeared to be smiling throughout, and she appeared as if she enjoyed it. Just appearances I know because Mallards are blessed with smily faces.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Other birds showing close to the hide included a gorgeous Moorhen, another of those taken for granted species because they are common, although not as many when I was a child, "Moggies" were everywhere back then. Look closely and a beautiful bird is right there. Shelducks are also handsome birds and like the Moorhen have striking red bills.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)

Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)

There are always a fair few of the gorgeous Pintails on the Rushy and they always give extremely close views from the hide. Many of the ducks here loiter all day and wait for the swan feeds that take place late in the afternoons.

Pintail (Anas acuta)

Another duck arrived in time for the afternoon feed but this one, a fabulous drake Mandarin, was better because, like the Greater Scaup, was a year tick. The Mandarin made a beeline for the shore right in front of the hide and afforded us great views.

Mandarin (Aix galericulata)

An odd duck was also waiting for the handouts but I had no idea what species it was although it was clearly a variety of Shelduck. Twitterati informed me that it was considered to be a Cape Shelduck which are kept as part of the captive collection at Slimbridge, but this bird was unringed so had likely come from a collection elsewhere since it's highly unlikely that it had come from South Africa.

Cape Shelduck

We decided to stay on for the swan feed and killed a bit of time by visiting the Tack Piece hides and ticking off some of the Geese on offer, most notably the White-fronted & Barnacle flock but also the Ross's and Snow Geese that may or may not be genuine articles, which they are most probably not but both worthy of inclusion on the Old Caley year list (just means I have to get 302 to be sure if I end up chasing another Big Year total). Snow an Ross's Geese look very similar in being virtually all white but the Snow Goose is bigger and has a much larger bill.

Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens)

Ross's Goose (Anser rossii) & Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)

The swan feed, primarily designed to supplement the diets of the hundred or so Bewick's Swans on site, but which also offers extra food to many other species including the Greater Scaup, Mandarin Duck and Pintails that we saw earlier, made a relaxed change to our birding despite the frenetic activity outside the windows. The presentation by the Swan master was interesting and worth listening to. There is never a dull day to be had at Slimbridge and there is almost always a scarce or rare bird to enjoy.

Bewick's Swan (Cygnus colombianus)

The Swan Feed 

Year List additions;

138) Black-tailed Godwit, 139) White-rumped Sandpiper, 140) Greater Scaup, 141) White-fronted Goose, 142) Barnacle Goose, 143) Snow Goose, 144) Ross's Goose, 145) Mandarin Duck