Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: A Day in the Poole Harbour Area (9/4)

I know , I’m absolutely MILES behind with this blog. It’s true that I won’t be up to date with it for a long while yet, as I have been very busy in the past few months and have thus not had much time to write my blog at all. However, now the summer holidays have come, a time of tedium for most teenagers, I’m endeavouring to get that bit closer to getting up to date by posting as much as much as possible. I hope you haven’t lost all faith in me; and if you have, I will aim to make you restore it!

9/4: 20 past 6 (a bit later than the previous day) and off it goes again, that horribly effective phone alarm! I woke up, momentarily bewildered after having been in the middle of dream just seconds earlier, but soon regained my senses and quickly pounced out of bed, opening the curtains to check what the weather was like. Oh dear.... clear skies again; a no-hoper on the migrant front, surely? Rather convenient though seeing that the plan was to spend a day in the Poole Harbour area looking for resident species such as Mediterranean Gull and Dartford Warbler. One might as well hang around for a couple of hours at the Bill though in the event of something kicking off, of course, so we quite quickly headed into the Obs to see if hanging around would pay off. Furthermore I was quite eager to explore other parts of the island, such as the Top Fields and the East Cliffs. On our arrival in the Obs we soon found Peter, who told us he hadn’t ringed anything thus far that morning and that he expected the day not to be dissimilar from the previous one. Not a great sign... Looking out to sea proved equally unproductive as it had done the day before, with a trickle of Common Scoters and commoner auks past but little else. In the 45 minutes or so that we remained solely in the Obs Peter came up only on two occasions, once with a female Blackcap and the other time with a Whitethroat. Lovely to see in the hand, but it didn’t succeed in easing the general disgruntled atmosphere that birders were experiencing at the Obs. After some breakfast we knew that it wasn’t worth hanging around at the Obs much longer, so we planned to investigate the Top Fields and the East Cliffs, and then drive off to the Poole Harbour area.

Portland’s Top Fields are basically just across the road from the Obs, and are very easy to access. As my Dad and I went round part of the Fields, it became immediately noticeable that in good conditions the Top Fields may be teeming with passerine migrants as there was extensive and promising bush cover all around us. However that morning the bushes didn’t have anything notable to offer about from a couple of migrating Chiffchaffs and a Whitethroat. Quite regularly the odd group of Swallow was seen zipping quickly over the fields, an indication of the spring migrants starting to arrive in more substantial numbers (I can’t believe I’m talking about spring migrants when it is now mid-summer!). Once a circuit round the Top Fields had been completed we headed down through an equally quiet Obs Garden (there were a couple each of Chiffs and Willows plus a male Blackcap here) till we reached the cliffs, and headed northwards across the East Cliffs. The scenery was dramatic here and was a pleasant distraction from yet again was seemingly very quiet, save a few shrieking Oystercatchers passing overhead and Rock Pipits sporadically popping up onto rocks both in the quarry areas and in the grassy, level areas of the walk. We walked along the cliffs for about 15 minutes, and then decided to turn back. Once back at the Obs, we quickly got some food to take with us, said cheerio to the crew standing on the veranda, and headed off at about 9:00 to spend the day in Poole Harbour. Below are a few pictures from the Top Fields and the East Cliffs respectively - appealing in their different ways but devoid of entertainment that day. Also below is a map of the Poole Harbour area.

The plan was to head Wareham first, where in the wetland area surrounding this small town a lost Cattle Egret had temporarily found a new abode, according to Birdguides having been: ‘present and viewable from the bridge over the River Frome’, 11 days prior to our attempted search for it. Once clear of Weymouth the drive to Wareham was swift, and we were there within 45 minutes or so, finding what we presumed was the bridge that Birdguides had mentioned across the River Frome and drove into the very quaint, animated town of Wareham (in which we parked up before commencing our search for the Egret). We started our search by walking up to the bridge and scanning the expanse at both sides of it. I had noticed on Birdguides that it warned birders that the Egret was distant, and on the first side we checked there was a massive expanse of wetland in which it could have easily been hiding in without being see-able. I scanned both sides with the bins quite slowly and carefully, but with no success. Perceiving a public path that ran alongside the wetlands, I decided to take it in the hope that it would increase my chances of seeing this seemingly elusive Cattle Egret. At several points I stopped with the scope and meticulously checked the ground I was previously unable to cover. A Little Egret that flew by caused momentarily excitement before I caught onto it with the scope, but as far as I could see there was no Cattle Egret. Was there more than one bridge? Had I come to wrong place? Such questions filled my mind as my Dad and I headed back a little half-heartedly towards the car. It had been a quiet start to the day, and with the heat of the day becoming more intense a soporific air was descending on us. We needed some stimulation in the form of some better birding, and it seemed that our next stop, Arne RSPB, would be most likely to do that. It so happened that no-one else was to ever see the Cattle Egret at Wareham again, the 8th April (the day before we went) being the last day it was seen. Our ‘target species’ at Arne RSPB were essentially Dartford Warbler and Spoonbill (on the adjacent Middlebere Lake). I wasn’t sure if the task ahead of me would pose any difficultly - only the near future would be able to tell me the outcome of that.

Arne RSPB wasn’t very far from Wareham at all, and we were in the Arne car park within 10-15 minutes, having witnessed a transition from wetland and field like habitat to lowland heath scattered with gorse bushes – quite dramatic and pretty, as well ideal for Dartford Warbler (and Nightjar at the right time of year). On our arrival we headed into the hut to pay, and as my Dad did so I had a look at the sightings board. It seemed that Tree Pipits had already returned to the area, and that Dartford Warblers and the Spoonbills on Middlebere were being seen daily. This made me hopeful, and as I entered the vast expanse of heathland I was quietly confident that I may have a good time and find the species that I was in search of. The mix of old oak woodland and heathland was just fantastic, and was quite lively with birds. At various points I could hear Nuthatches, shrieking Green Woodpeckers and the intensely loud and rapid drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers, something you just don’t hear up here in Scotland, mixed with the resonant calls and songs of commoner species. Very early on I picked up a party of 5 Ravens heading southwards over the heathland, their hoarse croaking call sounding rather ominous, as well as a Great Spotted Woodpecker at the top of a tree. As we walked along, we kept our eyes peeled and our ears at the ready just in case we were to hear the unmistakable song or chatter of a Dartford Warbler –sounds I had grown extremely used to on my trip to Corsica the year before. On our way we met a birder who confirmed that there were 3 Spoonbills showing from Middlebere Lake and also told us that he had seen several Dartford Warblers. Ironically enough it was just after the birder we met walked on that we stopped in our tracks as we heard a quiet, single noted call coming from an area of gorse bushes nearby – a definite Dartford Warbler. On hearing it I was keen to locate it, and made my way off the path and into the heathland, stealthily walking towards the area of gorse in which I had heard it. Once there I stood in silence, waiting for it to call again. 20 second past and quite suddenly it started calling again, this time inserting an extra note and sounding much closer. On hearing it I scanned the gorses and duly caught onto a superb male Dartford Warbler, sitting proudly on the highest pinnacle of the gorse it was on just 20ft or so away, its tail attentively cocked. Fantastic! My Dad had taken another route round to the gorsey area so as to increase our chances of seeing the bird, and when I caught onto it I signalled to him. He too caught onto this magnificent little Dartford Warbler, and we stood there for a while just watching it. It was something special to see this species in its very confined, British range, and it was only the second time I had seen the species within the UK (first time in Suffolk 2006). It was a rather fearless and inquisitive little creature, not afraid to make itself apparent and not flying away as it noticed us, staying put for at least half a minute on the pinnacle of gorse that it was on. I admit that in comparison to my views of Dartford Warblers in Corsica, this view was far more prolonged – I was really able to see its dark vinous red breast standing out and its eyes staring intensely around the place, rather than a brief fleeting view. I tracked it as it flitted onto another gorse a bit further away from me and closer to where my Dad was, chattering as it went. Once it had found its new piece of gorse to sit on it duly started to sing – a high speed, rattling warble with a few whistled notes – a very pretty song. We watched it for about a couple of minutes before it eventually decided to fly far away from us. A lovely experience – and hopefully not our last with this species that day, I hoped.

We continued our walk feeling much more positive than we had done previously –seeing the Dartford Warbler was the first thing to have really lightened up our day. As U neared to where the woodland fringing the heath came to a close, an unfamiliar, explosive call came from very close by in the trees just behind me. Behind me, my Dad was signalling me to come over to where he was standing. I did so, and I could see what he was looking at; a pair of Marsh Tits. This was a pleasant surprise and views were astonishingly close, the two of them only 6 or 7ft away from us, busily scuttling up and flitting around the nearest tree to us, presumably in search of small insects beneath the bark. It was undoubtedly these two birds that we had both heard calling. I tried to get some pictures of the birds, but unfortunately they were a bit too quick for me. Marsh Tits are yet another one of those species that you just don’t get in Scotland, so it was lovely to see them so close up, with their glossy black caps, white cheeks and brown plumage making them appealing on the eye. Not only that, but I had not regarded this species as on the agenda on the visit to Arne or Dorset by any means, so it was a valuable year tick for me (remember, I am all the way up in the North-east of Scotland!). They remained on the tree for just under a minute, and then flew higher up and out of sight. Suddenly, it seemed that the day had kicked off. The path then took us round onto open heathland, sparse of trees apart from the odd one scattered here and there, plus plenty of gorses. Walking a long it you could really get an idea of the expanse of the heath. As we walked along we heard another Dartford Warbler singing and soon located it on top of a nearby gorse – a female, although it didn’t stay there long and soon dipped out of view. A bit further on from there, we heard yet another one, and this time located it diving into an area of gorse about 10ft away from us, a male with a couple of small sticks in its mouth. It quickly came back out, and returned with another couple of sticks. This was fantastic to see, as the sticks it had in its mouth were irrefutably there for the making of a nest – and it’s not often in the UK that you’ll come across a Dartford Warbler in the process of nest-making. Very nearby, as the Dartford Warbler passed them, I was able to locate a couple of pipits briefly foraging on the ground. One of them duly went up and sat on top of a nearby tree and started to sing – confirming that they were indeed Tree Pipits, my first of this species for the year.

We left the Tree Pipits and the Dartford Warbler to it, and proceeded towards the adjacent Middlebere Lake, which soon appeared to our left. We walked a little further until we came to what appeared to be a screen-come hide to look out across the lake. Much for Middlebere being called a lake, it is actually a tidal inlet off the much larger Poole Harbour. You could see for miles from where we were, right across towards Brownsea Island (famous for its ternery) and even towards Poole itself. Once sat down at the screen, I had a scan with the scope in search of the Spoonbills that the man we had met earlier on had mentioned seeing. I couldn’t see any close in, which meant they would be quite a distance away. It was a gull haven, with thousands congregating over the entirety of the area. I searched meticulously for those white birds that would be just that bit bigger than the gulls, and eventually, at great distance (far enough that I couldn’t see its eyes), I spotted a single Spoonbill; far bigger and more elegant than the gulls it was amongst and its spoon-shaped bill fairly obvious. When located it was standing still, but after about 20 seconds or so it started spooning in that archetypal swaying motion. With seeing this bird I really felt that my mission had been accomplished at Arne RSPB and that day was really coming on strong. As I watched the distant Spoonbill continuing to spoon in the scope, my Dad caught onto what, as far as he could see through his bins, the other two Spoonbills. I moved round to where he said they were, which was again at great distance and not easy to pick out through the bins (although slightly closer than the first one), and indeed, there were other two Spoonbills. These two were roosting, and at the distance they were at of course you’d want them to be have been more confiding – but even at distance it was great to see them. After looking at these two birds and the more active one further away, I handed the scope to Dad, who watched them for a while. As far as I could see nothing much else was on the lake, save a few commoner duck and wader species, so once we’d had our fair share of seeing the Spoonbills, we decided to head back to the car. It was going on 13:30, so a good time to leave so we could get back for some lunch. On the way back a party of 5 Long-tailed Tits were seen at fairly close range, plus another Dartford Warbler, this time a male oddly placed on top of a tree. We left very pleased with our success – having seen 4 Dartford Warblers, 2 Marsh Tits, 2 Tree Pipits, 5 Ravens and 3 Spoonbills and taking the year list up to a respectable 155. Below are some pictures of Arne and Middlebere Lake, well worth a visit for the diversity of wildlife and the beauty that goes with it.

Once we had had our lunch and had headed off we were slightly unsure of where to go and what to do the next. The primary target for the rest of the day essentially was to try and find basically what was my biggest bogey bird (at the time of course), a bird well known to breed in substantial numbers in the Poole Harbour area – Mediterranean Gull. Of course, Med Gulls could be anywhere in Poole Harbour, so we had to decide which areas of Poole Harbour we were going to investigate, with the additional knowledge that it was quite a big area and would take quite a while to get to different parts of it. We eventually decided on Studland Bay, on the south-eastern edge of Poole Harbour. It took quite some time to get round to Studland Bay and we had to take quite an obscure and long route to get there. Eventually, however, we made it, and I couldn’t help but notice the amount of people that had chosen to stop here and sit on the beaches, a bit putting off if you ask me. As a coastline itself, it was rather glorious, with a golden, sandy beach stretching for miles and views towards Brownsea Island, Poole, Bournemouth, and even the Isle of Wight. In noticing a dead end, we parked on the side of the road, and walked down to the very nearby beach, beholding the dramatic views we had seen from the car. No sooner had I got down there did I hear the inimitable and unmistakable shriek of a Sandwich Tern, and turned to find 2 of these beautiful birds close in, one flying underneath the other and communicating to one another. These were my first two Sandwich Terns of the year, and my first tern species of the year too. Once I had seen the Sandwich Terns I set up the scope and duly scanned the area for any Mediterranean Gulls that might be amongst the vast amount of Black-headed Gulls there were present and in doing so I noticed the presence of some 10 other Sandwich Terns in the bay, fishing together quite a distance away. I scanned the Black-headed Gulls for about 5 minutes or so whilst my Dad picked up on 9 Brent Geese feeding on an area of shoreline which I didn’t have my scope concentrated on, a nice sight and a rare one on land in Scotland (such numbers can be flying at sea in autumn however up in Aberdeenshire). Despite meticulous scanning of all the gulls in the area, no gull stood out as a Mediterranean, they were all Black-headeds. We took a walk up the beach and kept on checking gulls as we passed, but nothing. It seemed that Studland Bay didn’t hold any Mediterranean Gulls, but having noticed a report on Birdguides of an area of Poole Harbour called Lytchett Bay where over 30 Med Gulls had been reported a few days earlier, there was still a very good chance of seeing them. Having checked Studland, we were yet again out of ideas as to where to go next – as we didn’t want to go to Lytchett Bay until the evening. Below are a few pictures of the picturesque Studland Bay and one of a view down onto Poole Harbour from a viewpoint on the way to Studland Bay.

It was decided in the end that we would visit Durlston Head/Country Park, another area of the county that sticks out along way and is effectively like Portland in that it is a stop off point for migrants of all sorts. Of course, on such a beautiful day it would likely be devoid of migrants, but it would undoubtedly be quite a dramatic area, and why not casually check it anyway? Durlston Country Park is situated about a mile south of the seaside town of Swanage, and consists of many acres of very dramatic sea-cliffs – the complex geology of these cliffs being an absolutely fantastic sight. As we made our way in the direction of the Observatory at the bottom, we passed a big clump of bushes that look completely ideal for passerine migrants and undoubtedly would be filled with them at the right time of year; the problem was that there we didn’t see anything apart from the very commonest of species on the walk down, not entirely unexpected. Once we were by the observatory, we sat and looked out to sea briefly – as to be expected nothing was going past. We didn’t stay long, and soon made our way up back up to the Visitor Centre, had a refreshing cuppa, and then decided we’d set out for our final destination of the day – Lytchett Bay – for another stab at Mediterranean Gull. Below you can see where Lytchett Bay roughly is on the map, circled in red, and a picture of the Observatory at Durlston.

Now Durlston CP to Lytchett Bay was an annoyingly long drive – with it taking at least 50 minutes to get there, maybe even an hour. It was about 6:00pm by the time we were getting close, and it so happened that we were hitting rush hour, and the main road in the direction of the nearby Lytchett Minster and Poole was clogged up with cars. We sat for at least 20 minutes in quite a lengthy queue, until we finally reached our little turn off towards the small villages of Upton and Hamworthy on the B3068, which would duly take us towards Lytchett Bay. Once we were in the little village of Hamworthy we found a left turn, and took it in the hope that it would take us down to Lytchett Bay. We found ourselves to be lost briefly going round a housing estate, but soon noticed an area of water that was undoubtedly Lytchett Bay, and we parked up and headed down to it. Suddenly, from having been lost in the middle of a housing estate, we were down by the water’s edge at the scenic Lytchett Bay, the sun just starting to look as if it wanted to set. Lytchett Bay was surprisingly expansive, stretching along way. We took a small path alongside a large wall placed just behind the back of some of the houses on the housing estate, and quickly noticed a large number of gulls in the distance presumably getting ready for roost, mostly Black-headeds, so a good chance of Mediterranean Gulls being amongst them. On first noticing them we were a bit far away, and decided to take the path round a little further so we could get closer to them. As we were doing so we heard the shriek of a familiar wader call, and looked up to see 3 Greenshanks flying at speed away from us. This was a very pleasant surprise and a notably early record for this species, our first of this species for the year. Eventually we were lucky enough to find a little area of beach just off the path for us to watch the birds from, and I thus set up the scope and scanned all the gulls in the immediate area, hoping that a Mediterranean Gull, or maybe more than 1, would be amongst them. I alone scanned the flock for about 15 minutes as meticulously as I could, checking out every bird, but honestly, none of them at that distance stood out; they would be obvious – however, I was rather happy to pick up a group of about 40 Black-tailed Godwits feeding together just in front of where the distant gulls were and a few Little Egrets. The fact that we weren’t getting any luck with Med Gull was a little distressing, and I let my Dad take over to see if he agreed that really weren’t any stand out Med Gulls amongst the hundreds of roosting Black-headed Gulls. He scanned the more distant birds just as I did, whilst I scanned the closer birds. He too put in about 15 minutes of scanning, and he came to the same conclusion as I did – there were no obvious Med Gulls out there. It was now about 7:00pm, and dusk was nearly upon us, the light giving the surrounding water and land a beautiful, scenic, golden tinge (see below). This did, however, mean that viewing conditions were poor.

We were nigh on giving up, and I was becoming increasingly disappointed that I had missed out on a golden opportunity to see a bird that was undoubtedly an embarrassing bogey bird. We were just about to pack up and leave when all of a sudden I heard a sound that I had never heard before but was completely distinctive. It was a nasal sounding ‘yeaaa!’, coming from not far away. In response, we turned quickly to notice a small group of 5 gulls flying in to join the roost. The sound had definitely come from one of the birds in the group, and with that a moment of great joy came in the discovery in that we had been rewarded with not a group of 5 Black-headed Gulls, but 5 Mediterranean Gulls. Just when we were giving up, we had found some! In identifying them and noticing that they were splitting up from one another and about to place themselves amongst some 300 Black-headed Gulls, we tracked 2 of the birds in the bins till they landed, the other birds flying and presumably landing further away. Once they had landed I immediately got the scope on them, and there two Mediterranean Gulls stood beside each other. It felt absolutely fantastic, as I had finally seen a bird that I had long sought after, and had tried hard to find that and been rewarded at the last minute; it really was the icing on the cake for what was a very successful day’s birding. The two Med Gulls were just a little too far away to get really good views (couldn’t properly see the eyes of the bird), and the light meant viewing conditions could have been a lot better - but they were completely unmistakable. In comparison to the Black-headed Gulls they were beside they were noticeably bigger, stockier and thicker-billed. The fact there was no black on the wings, the head was darker, and the black on the head extended down almost to the neck also made them very obvious. We watched these two beautiful birds for about 15 minutes, and by this time it was getting much darker and there wasn’t time to try and re-find the other three birds.

And with the setting of the sun, ended a fantastic day and a successful trip to Poole Harbour in which I had successfully seen almost all my targets for the day + some nice added extras – Dartford Warbler, Spoonbill, Med Gull, Marsh Tit, Tree Pipit, Black-tailed Godwit and Greenshank. We ended the day very content, and drove back to Portland very content and with the yearlist now on 158 species. It had been a truly great day, but would the final 3 days of the holiday match up to it? Tune in to my next entry to find out more.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for not being more up to date!


Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: The First Day in the Portland and Dorset

It’s 5:55am, and I’m abruptly woken up by the sound of my phone alarm ringing loudly inches away from me, piercing my poor ears with its monotone, crescendo and repeated beeps. Not the most ideal of awakenings, I know, but at least it made me get up. As soon as the alarm sounded I pounced out of bed and started preparing to go into the Observatory; I don’t think I had ever been so eager to get up in my life. Such eagerness came from the prospect of being able to properly explore the whole of the Portland area and visit other nearby places, and possibly seeing some good spring migrants. I opened the curtains to find that the skies were clear; was this to be a good thing or not? The ideal of course would be to wake up to low lying dense fog, cloud or mist, but what did it mean at Portland if the skies were clear. Would all of the spring migrants there on the previous day still be there? Put it this way, I wasn’t as hopeful as I could have been, but I was still excited nonetheless and I knew that unpredictable was possible; as it always is when you’re birding. After getting dressed and wetting myself with cold water to help me regain my senses my Dad and I headed into the Observatory. We arrived to find a sizeable group of birders, some of which we had been acquainted with the previous day, looking out to see from the balcony, including the warden of the Observatory, Martin Cade. Upon seeing him we greeted, and he quickly told us that not a great deal had happened thus far that morning and that even though it was early days he had been around and noticed that a majority of the hundreds of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs that had been there the previous evening had moved on. This piece of information acted slightly as an ill omen for the rest of the day, as without bigger numbers of birds like Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler on passage the likelihood of something more noteworthy is not as reliable as it would be in conditions such as fog, mist etc. As I went out onto the veranda I looked out to see a breathtaking sunrise over the Dorset cliffs, which you can see in the picture below. I don’t think the picture quite matches the beauty of it, but you can see what I mean!

As I looked out to sea I quickly came to the conclusion that not a great deal was passing offshore, although there was a steady and fairly substantial passage of Common Scoters, flying in flocks of 3 or more. After a refreshing cuppa and some hobnobs, we decided to have a check of the Obs garden and go down to the Bill again as nothing of note was being seen from the Observatory itself. From Martin’s report I wasn’t expecting to see any signs of fall conditions. I was annoyingly correct in my expectations too, as despite a meticulous check of the Obs garden there were no signs of any of the scarcer species that had been present the previous day; not even any Redstarts. Maybe 20 each of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff remained, but this was a significant decrease from yesterday’s numbers. One word was lingering in my mind, and that word, I thought, could well turn out to prophesise the rest of the day’s birding on Portland; quiet. What can one do though? Admittedly I was taken aback slightly by the sudden change from the previous evening (the change from definite signs of a fall and huge numbers of small birds, to very little indeed), but Portland is obviously one of those places that is dependent on certain winds and weather conditions for providing good birds. On the plus side, I was still very keen to explore other parts of the island, I could always go elsewhere and things could change. As I walked down to the Bill the atmosphere of the morning livened up a little as I discovered that the White Wagtail was still present, feeding busily with a few Pied Wagtails just a few paces away from the end of the huts round the Obs garden. As well as this I was delighted to come across 3 cracking male Wheatears flitting about on the rocks by the shore, their white rumps leaving me in a state of trance and allowing me to ID them instantly. These 3 birds were my first of the year and took the year list up to the big 150 mark. When we got to the Bill itself and had a look again out to sea much the same was passing, basically more Common Scoters plus a few Razorbills and Guillemots. Apart from that though, there really was very little happening, so we trudged back to the Observatory. Our entire walk and check of the Bill and the Obs garden took just over an hour, so by the time I returned to the Observatory it was coming on 8:00am. The sun was well up by now, shining high in the sky and casting an air of warmth on the area; it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. The atmosphere of the day birding wise remained negative though. Little did I know though that I was going to be in for a pleasant surprise when I got back into the Observatory...

I have to confess to being very hungry when I got back, and I decided to disregard birding for a while just so I could have some breakfast... toast had rarely felt as replenishing as it did then. Now for those who aren’t aware of this, a lot of ringing goes on in Portland, and every 20 minutes Peter will go around usually with a few visiting ringers and check if any birds have been caught in the nets. They leave the nets up from dawn till dusk, and anything that gets caught in them is taken out of the nets and is ringed (if the bird hasn’t been ringed already). Once ringed, if the bird is of the scarcer variety they will bring it up and show them to visitors in the hand, although sometimes I was told that they do bring up commoner migrants like Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and Blackcaps. I was yet to see a bird in the nets or being taken up to the veranda, so when I noticed people getting off their seats and stopping staring out to seas and going towards Peter, I knew that something had been caught, ringed and was going to be shown to visitors. The question was which species? With me noticing this, I left my toast and hurriedly joined everyone on the veranda. As I did so I could see Peter walking towards us with a bird in his hand, from a distance looking like a Phyllosc. I wasn’t able to see quite where it was from that distance, but as he got closer I could see that it was far too small (minute) to be a Phyllosc and that it had a bright, orange crest. As he climbed the stairs I could see a whacking great supercilium... It was a male Firecrest!

Suddenly, the negative atmosphere had completely alleviated, giving way to intense and total joy. Peter proceeded to walk right to us, and everyone crowded round the bird. With a big group of people towering round it, the poor thing must have been scared out of its wits! It definitely looked as if it was, looking around the place nervously and cautiously, eyes wide and riddled with fear. I admit to feeling slightly sorry for it. It was a beautiful bird though, its intense orange crest mixing perfectly with its black eyestripe, grey down the side of it its face and broad white supercilium. The plumage was a fine mix of olivey, yellow and bright green. Just beautiful! I stared at it in sheer admiration for a couple of minutes, taking a couple of photos whilst I was at it. There was something really special about seeing it. It felt very rewarding in that I had finally seen a bogey bird long sought after, yet getting to see such an exquisite little passerine at such close range also added to the fantastic sense of the occasion. Was this lovely little bird going to act as a kick start to a successful holiday? I couldn’t be sure, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless seeing it, a moment I’ll think back on nostalgically in years to come... After giving everyone plenty of time to see and admire the bird, Peter let go if and it flitted into a far off bush. Peter told us that there is quite often a bird that sticks around in the Obs for a while during the early parts of spring, and this bird had been one they had already ringed. I returned to my toast very pleased, consuming the rest of it with great ease. I suddenly felt hugely much happier than I h3d been, and was keen to see what the rest of the day would hold. It was only 9:00am by the time we had finished eating and got ourselves fully prepared for the day ahead of us, although it felt like it could be 11:00am. It was turning into a lovely day, with the temperature already have risen at least a few degrees over double figures. I anticipated that it would get a lot hotter, which was good in one way but bad in another. It would be a pleasant change from the chilly weather of Aberdeen, but may not be good on the bird-front... My Dad and I spent another 20 minutes or so standing on the veranda to see if anything would be caught in the nets or if anything was passing through, but it was much the same as it had been before the Firecrest, very quiet. Peter did come up and show us a Chiffchaff, which was lovely at close range. I photographed this bird too. After seeing that nothing much was going on and having a discussion with Martin Cade about the Hoopoe that had been at Suckthumb Quarry, we decided we’d go up to Suckthumb Quarry and have a look for it. Martin had seen it on the Tuesday evening, but whether it was still there we would have to wait and see. Here are a few pictures I got of the Firecrest, plus a picture of the Chiffchaff and where Suckthumb Quarry is located in relation to the Isle of Portland.

You can’t see it on the map above, but Suckthumb is situated between the small communities of Weston and Southwell. The quarry itself mines the famous Portland Stone, a type of limestone mined only on the Isle of Portland that has been used since Roman times and is the stone to have built several famous buildings such as Buckingham Palace and St Pauls Cathedral in London. We had been told that Hoopoe had been favouring some fields on the very edge of the quarry, pecking around by some horse paddocks. We were given precise directions as to how to easily access these fields, and were there by 9:45am. Parking up just as the fields came into view, we got out of the car and proceeded to enter the quarry. I set up the scope and scanned the whole field as meticulously as I could whilst Dad scanned through the bins. A few Pied Wagtails were scuffling around, along with at least 5 Wheatears (2 females and 3 males), which was quite nice. The Hoopoe, however, was conspicuous by its absence. There just wasn’t one there. Hmm, what to do... The best thing was just to have a look around the whole quarry for it, plus check for anything else. The bushes looked ideal for catching a fall or a rare passerine, but it was by no means the right conditions for this. We trudged round the quarry, sweating as the heat of the day intensified, with no success. The best that Suckthumb Quarry had to offer bird-wise was those Wheatears plus 2 migrant Willow Warblers. I wasn’t surprised that we had failed to see the Hoopoe. After all it was bound to have moved on due to the lovely weather and clear skies. Having done this, we decided it would be most appropriate to head to Radipole Lake RSPB, not far as it was only in Weymouth. There had been an Alpine Swift around there a few days before. Plus, Portland was destined to be quiet all day with the sheer lack of migrants passing through. We didn’t plan to go towards the Poole Harbour until the next day, so birding locally seemed to be the best idea. A couple of pictures taken at Suckthumb Quarry are below.

It took surprisingly long to get from Suckthumb Quarry to Radipole Lake, with traffic acting as a constant hindrance to our birding time (WARNING: The traffic is terrible in Weymouth). It probably took around 25 minutes to half an hour to get there, plus time spent getting food for the day. When Radipole came into view I couldn’t help but think about how strange its location was, a lake fringed by dense reedbeds in the heart of hectic Weymouth; convenient for those living locally, definitely. On our arrival we paid at the car park, and headed off for a look around. The species I was most wanting to see here was Bearded Tit, a specialist bird to the reserve and a bird that is very hard to see here in NE Scotland (although they are just about annual at Loch of Strathbeg but very elusive). I was also looking for Reed Warbler (even though it was a bit early for them), yet another bird that you don’t get in North-East Scotland. I had seen both species on plenty of occasions before, but to see them both would be very useful on the year-list front. As we crossed the bridge to enter Radipole I couldn’t help but notice the escaped Hooded Merganser hanging around and feeding with the Mallards in its semi-tame fashion, and decided to photograph it just because it was an aesthetically pleasing creature. See below for a photo. If it only it was wild... hey?

Looking out from the other side of the bridge, there were a variety of species of commoner ducks, ranging from Shelduck to Gadwall, as well as a couple of Little Grebes and plenty of Black-headed Gulls. I quickly felt the need to get away from the general populous and thus headed onto the reserve quite quickly. It wasn’t long before we heard the explosive song of a Cetti’s Warbler, and it wouldn’t be the last time we’d hear it, as there were plenty around on the reserve. A Sedge Warbler was also singing nearby to where we had heard our first Cetti’s. It was rather pleasant walking around and being surrounded by reedbeds in the sunshine and hot weather, a far more tranquil scene than the hecticness of the car park. As we walked towards the North Hide I had fleeting views of at least 3 Cetti’s Warbler, with one individual briefly hanging onto a piece of reed very close to us before flitting out of view. A few more Sedge Warblers were singing and one was seen. However, despite meticulously searching for them, there weren’t any signs of Bearded Tits. I found this somewhat odd as I had the impression that there were a good number of Bearded Tits on the reserve. Furthermore, I hadn’t even heard any. On a couple of occasions we came to openings in the reedbeds and had a look for avifauna, but there was nothing apart from the same variety of wildfowl that we had seen earlier on. The word was once again staring me in the face - ‘Quiet’. Mind you, what do you expect? There is minimal wind, the skies are clear and it’s hot! When we finally reached the North Hide, which was quite a walk, we had a look out. After sitting there for 20 minutes we had seen much of the same, which was perfectly nice but was not enough to keep us fully occupied. As I sat there, staring out onto the reedbed fringed lake, I felt slightly soporific. The fact that I had only had around less than 8 hours that night was starting to tell on me, and I was feeling somewhat tired. As was my Dad, so we headed back to the car park to have something to eat and drink to fuel us up, yet again failing to hear or see any Bearded Tits. I now knew that seeing Bearded Tits at Radipole wasn’t as easy as I had originally thought. My overall impression of Radipole was that it was a nice reserve and could easily have potential when conditions were better; however it was a little too disturbed for my liking.

Lodmoor RSPB, where I visited next, was much the same habitat wise but was out the town more and was more peaceful than Radipole. It seemed generally prettier too, and come to think of it I didn’t see a single person, birder or non birder, on my visit to the reserve. Soon after arriving I was pleased to latch onto my second Little Egret of the year gliding across the reeds, always a nice sight. On the lake there were notable numbers of Canada Geese, as well as 6 Gadwalls. Lodmoor unfortunately but predictably proved quiet like Radipole and unable to produce any Bearded Tits, but was probably that little bit better on the day. The Little Egret was nice to see, and hearing a Water Rail was also a good bonus. Both locations were pleasant, but unfortunately lacking in good birds. It was lunchtime by the time we had visited and been round both Lodmoor and Radipole, and I decided, having received no texts from Simeon, that I might as well check Birdguides. In doing so I discovered that nothing had been reported in Dorset whatsoever, save Spoonbill at Middlebere, where I was planning to visit the following day. After having lunch, it was kind of a sense of what to do next. After all, there wasn’t anywhere locally that may be worth visiting and nothing had been reported. In the end, we decided to spend the afternoon down by Chesil Beach at Langton Herring, where a long stay Hoopoe had been. However, having missed out on one Hoopoe that day and because of the weather I wasn’t hopeful that I was going to see this bird at all, but why not have a check when you’ve got nothing else better to do, I thought to myself, even when there’s 99% chance it won’t be there? Here are a couple of pictures of Lodmoor and Radipole respectively.

Langton Herring itself is a beautiful little village, and to access where the Hoopoe was hanging around you have to park at the end of the village and walk down through rolling fields towards the coastguard’s cottages by the beach. The field that the Hoopoe had been favouring was in fact before you reach the coastguard’s cottages, on the edge of the only oil seed rape field in the area. It took us a little while to find where we were supposed to be going to get into the area, but with the help of a birder (who unsurprisingly said that he hadn’t seen it) we found out where to go and proceeded to walk down. The area itself was very scenic, the ideal place to spend a sunny afternoon. When we reached the rape field, we walked slowly down the edge of it, seeing if we could flush up anything orange. But no, it wasn’t to be, as I had expected. Once we had walked down the side of the whole field we came to a lagoon, situated in front of the beach. It held a few species of wildfowl, the commoner suspects and, on the more notable side, at least 6 Red-breasted Mergansers. A Little Egret also flew by. Yet again though, it was quiet. With the feeling of quietude and being soporific, my Dad and I couldn’t help but just sit there and relax for a while, admiring the beauty of the area. After a while we moved on, slowly wheeling round past the coastguard’s cottages and back up the track towards the car, with still no sign of the Hoopoe. Not that I felt at all disappointed though, I wasn’t expecting to see it by any means. From here we couldn’t really think of much else to do or anywhere else to go. It was nearing 4:30pm, and we were both feeling tired. We both agreed that we might as well go back to the Observatory. Below is a picture of Chesil Beach.

And we did return to the Observatory, to find out that nothing but a few more Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps had been ringed. Nothing new had been seen apart from that. Dad was more tired than me, and shortly after we arrived back he had a kip. I had a brief look around the Obs garden, but with little success, the best I could see being a few Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers. At this point, I gave up for the day, and woke Dad up. We spent the rest of the day sitting in the Observatory chatting to other birders, and as it got dark, went to the local pub with one of the birders and the ringer Peter. Overall, a very quiet day, which was frankly rather disappointing, what with the fall on the previous day. However the Firecrest was lovely. Without that, it could have been even worse. Not the ideal start for the holiday, but there was room for improvement. The next day we would spend the day in Poole Harbour, which we hoped would prove more productive. Whether it would or not is a story yet to be told. For more on that, tune in to my next post.

Thanks for reading,


Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: Casual Somerset birding, the visit to Shapwick Heath/Ham Wall RPSB and the arrival at Portland

First things first, I apologise for not posting in so long! I've had to do a lot of exams at school recently and thus have been very busy. I am aware that this puts me way behind again and that I probably won't be up to date for a long time now, but I'll get there eventually! If you wish to know any more of my recent sightings keep up to date on the latest sightings part of the sidebar to the left of this post.

Birding was really at a minimum up until the 7th April, when I'd leave for Portland. From the 30th March till the 4th I stayed in Bristol with my grandparents, taking the one day out (1st April) to visit Chew Valley Lake, where I started the holiday superbly. On the evening of the 4th I headed westwards. My relatives have a cottage in a little village bordering the Exmoor National Park and we stay here annually (sometimes twice a year). This was the first time I had visited this year, and I was going down there to spend some time with my auntie, uncle and cousin. We would stay here for just a couple of days (5th-7th), and then head down to Portland. There are several nice countryside walks you can take near where the cottage is positioned, and on the 5th I found myself doing some casual but very pleasant birding whilst on a couple of hour or so walk. I managed to get very nice views of a Nuthatch, a bird which you don't get in North-east Scotland but I do see on most occasions that I'm down in England, as well as fleeting views of a Green Woodpecker that I tracked down when I heard it calling nearby, yet another bird which you don't see in North-east Scotland. The biggest surprise of all, however, was a Red Kite which my Dad first saw when he did a casual scan of the fields around us. This magnificent creature was in one of the closest fields to us, and rose suddenly to the air. There were a few buzzards circling nearby, and it looked positively longer-winged and bigger than them. It circled briefly, showing wonderfully, and then flew eastwards and out of sight. What was really significant about this sighting was the fact that, after nearly 20 years of my family staying in the same cottage and walking around the same countryside, this was our first Red Kite in the area; I had never seen any there in the past. This almost certainly suggests a recent arrival of Red Kites in the area, which is very good news. I reckon they're in very small numbers, but there may be a few pairs dotted through the area's countryside. So, this walk provided me with three useful yearticks. Later that day I was rewarded another new bird for the year in the form of a Tawny Owl that flew in front of the car as we returned from an evening's meal late on, which rounded off what was a surprisingly beneficial day, even though it wasn't intended to be a proper birding day.
One annoying thing about the place I was staying was that I couldn't get a signal and thus couldn't receive any texts (I had made a deal with young BF member Simeon that he would send me texts from Birdguides). It so happened in the end that Simeon couldn't text me updates anyway as he was busy, but I was keen to keep up to date with what was being seen in Somerset and Dorset. As a result I had to take a walk each evening to gain enough height to get a signal, and on top of that use up quite a bit of my credit to see what was around. I did manage to keep up to date, noting on paper any significant sightings from the abovementioned counties. I became quite excited at news of a Rose-coloured Starling seen in the centre of Weymouth (the closest town to Portland), but it turned out that this disappeared on the day before we would go. I also kept track on the two Hoopoes at Portland and Langton Herring. The Langton Herring bird was present on the final day before we'd head for Portland, but the Portland one hadn't been seen since the Monday. Apart from this, there wasn't anything over significant reported. However, I was becoming very excited. I couldn't wait to stay in the Observatory and discover what wonders Dorset birding would hold...
Then the day came, Wednesday 7th, possibly my most anticipated Wednesday ever! When I got up that morning I was raring to go, and we were away by 10:00am. Portland is probably just over 2 hours away from where we were staying, so there was no need to hurry straight there. I had planned in advance that we do a bit of birding on the way, suggesting to my Dad that we stop at Ham Wall RSPB and the adjacent Shapwick Heath NNR. The last time I had visited this reserve was July 2009 when I went in search of the long stay Little Bittern that was seen at Ham Wall RSPB. Unfortunately I failed to see the Little Bittern (missed it by 5 minutes!), but saw some fantastic marsh species including my first ever Bittern and Cetti's Warbler. It's a fantastic site, and I felt that it would be a crime not to visit it on the way. My Dad thus obliged, and we arrived there just before 11. When you park at the car park you have a choice of crossing the road and going east towards Glastonbury and Ham Wall or heading westwards into Shapwick and Meare Heath, Shapwick being the first area you reach. For the previous two days before our arrival there had been a Great White Egret at Meare Heath, so it seemed a reasonable idea to go and look for this as well as check both Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall. We were in vague hope that we may be in luck and see a Bittern as well, but of course this would be difficult. We wanted to head off towards Portland by around lunchtime so we had a couple of hours or so to spare. Thus we set off.

Like Ham Wall RSPB, Shapwick Heath was a marshland paradise. Everywhere you looked there were reedbeds and muddy pools, and a flooded scrape. This habitat is ideal for marshland specialities such as Cetti’s Warbler, Bittern and Marsh Harrier and for waders and wildfowl. As we viewed the scrape at Shapwick Heath we could constantly hear the rapid, staccato song of several Cetti’s Warblers reverberating the area and dominating the other warbler songs that could be heard. It seemed to be literally teeming with them. The other warbler that seemed particularly in abundance was that of the Blackcap, although Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were also singing a lot. Whilst we could hear this pleasant harmony of warblers, I was meanwhile having a look on the scrape at 51 fantastic summer plumaged Black-tailed Godwits. These beauties with their plumage mix of rufousy-orange and silvery grey were my first of the year, and a sure sign of spring. Whilst these Blackwits busily fed, several species of commoner duck including Shoveler and Pochard were also present on the lake. Whilst we stood on the scrape we asked a couple of birders if they had seen the Great White Egret today. Unfortunately the news was that it hadn’t been seen all day, but this didn’t surprise me too much as the sheer expanse of reedbeds gives the Egret plenty of space to hide! With the Egret not having been seen all day, we came to the conclusion that it was best not to go as far as Meare Heath and thus spent more time at Shapwick Heath. We were just about to move off towards Noah’s Hide, arguably the best hide on the reserve, when all of a sudden there was a cry from one of the birders viewing the scrape of:


With this everyone that had been watching the scrape stopped what they were doing and looked to the skies. I too turned and looked up to see a magnificent Bittern gliding high above the reeds behind the scrape. This glorious create glided slowly away from the reeds behind the scrape, passing high right over my head, lowering as it passed the muddy pools and finally descending into the reeds behind the pools. This was a moment of pure magic as that was only my second Bittern ever and in comparison to the few seconds view of one rising above the reeds at Ham Wall the year before, the views were far more prolonged and at much closer quarters. I reckon it stayed in the air for about 45 seconds, which is quite impressive for a species that can be very elusive. As we left the scrape and continued towards Noah’s Hide, I felt as if I had been tinged with good fortune. I certainly didn’t expect to see one, that’s for sure. Shortly after this Bittern sighting I managed to hear and locate my first Sedge Warbler of the year which luckily was singing very close by. Arriving at Noah’s Hide nothing of great note was around, although at one point an impressive female Marsh Harrier was seen quartering the reeds, another new bird for the year. Plenty of common wildfowl species were present too. After about 20 minutes here we left, and due to no sightings of the Great White Egret, headed for Ham Wall. As we were walking back along the scrape and heading towards Ham Wall when I heard the most peculiar sound coming from the reeds. However, I didn’t fail to recognise it; there really was no mistaking it. It was extraordinarily low pitched, almost foghorn like ‘wooooomp’, heard just for a few seconds. I had just heard my first booming Bittern. I stood and listened in delight as it sung, and as it died down I couldn’t help but think what a bizarre but fantastic sound it was and how privileged I was to have heard one.

The walk to Ham Wall is quite a long one and can be tiring, but we were kept entertained by a few Cetti’s Warblers that showed themselves, my first two Little Egrets of the year at the first viewing point which was the same viewing point that I had seen my first ever Bittern and dipped on the Little Bittern, gorgeous views of a male Blackcap, good views of a Whitethroat (yet another year tick) and by the beauty of the commoner birds. By the time we had checked both Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath it was nearing lunchtime, just the time we were hoping to leave. I felt that I had real felt spring coming to life at these two reserves. Numerous species of warblers were in abundance and constantly singing, there was a decent flock of Blackwits, a Bittern was booming brilliantly and the first Marsh Harriers were quartering the reeds. It was a lovely thing to experience. Not only was it great in this way, but as a result of this visit my year list had now increased to 148 species when the initial target when I got back from Norfolk was 150 species. Not reaching this total by the end of the holiday would be virtually impossible, so I was now aiming for 160 species on my return to Aberdeen. I did manage to not see the Great White Egret, which was a bit annoying, but look at this way, I did get fantastic views of a Bittern in flight, and Bittern isn’t a species I normally expect to see! After a plain lunch, Dad then commenced the drive to one of the most southern points in Britain, Portland. Within a couple of hours I would be at the Portland Bird Observatory, where I’d be staying for 5 days. The time had now come... Here are some pictures taken from Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall RSPB.
As we drove out of Somerset and into Dorset I decided I would have a check of Birdguides in the event of anything notable being present en route to Portland. As I progressed through the long list of birds that had been seen that day, nothing caught my eye at first. However, about a quarter of the day something caught my eye that made me feel even more excited than I already was... Here was what the phone read:

“Pied Flycatcher – 1 male in the obs garden, as well as 2 Grasshopper Warblers, 12 Redstarts, 2 Firecrests and a Black Redstart. Also upwards of 200 Willow Warblers and 100 each of Chiffchaff and Blackcap”

A fall! Of course this fall had not producing any major rarities, but as a matter of fact it happened that a majority of my passerine migrant target species had been seen there today. With this news I was starting to feel that I may have a very nice start to the holiday, but would all these birds still be present, or just passing through? I was soon to find out... At 4:00pm we arrived in the bustling town of Weymouth, the closest place effectively to Portland. Now, for those that are unfamiliar with this area of Dorset, Portland is actually an island which is linked to the land and only by a causeway by the famous Chesil Beach, hence why Portland is accessible. Portland as an island is quite large, and the Bird Observatory is right on the tip. Here is a map of the island. Note that when I mention my explorations of different parts of the island, this map will crop again and the areas I am mentioning will be circled/cropped so you can get an idea exactly where they are in relation the island. You will see below that I have circled the Observatory’s position on the island and that it is incredibly to the southern-most tip, Portland Bill.

As we progressed up through the causeway into Portland and through the small community of Fortuneswell and Easton, we eventually turned a corner and all of a sudden we had alighted on verdant green fields and the Portland Bill Lighthouse. It was an exciting sensation seeing the Portland Bill Lighthouse come into view as I knew that not far from there stood the Bird Observatory lighthouse. After travelling through the little village of Weston we turned another corner and the Bird Observatory came into view. Within a minute or two we had arrived in the bird observatory car park and upon entering the lighthouse met a small, old man with some binoculars round his neck.

“Are you Joseph and Mr Nichols?” he asked kindly (I'm not giving the name of my Dad), “I’m Peter Morgan, the assistant warden and ringer here at Portland Bird Observatory, pleased to meet you.”

Peter told us where we would sleep during our stay, which unfortunately wasn’t the Lighthouse but a small annexe nearby. We duly put our luggage into our room, and then headed back into the Observatory for a small exploration. The living room in the observatory looks out onto the sea ‘obs garden’ as it known, an area of dense bush which is ideal for and hosts a majority of any passerine migrants passing through. A few birders sitting in the living room greeted us and we became acquainted to the adjacent kitchen. On the table in the living room we had a look at the day’s sightings, scrolled down a notebook. These sightings reflected that of the Birdguides report. Peter told us that plenty of people were out checking the Obs garden and advised that we have a look as migrant activity was still high. We agreed to this, and headed into the bush for our first exploration of the area and some early evening birding on what was a lovely sunny day. We aimed to start with a meticulous search in the obs garden, then heading down to Portland Bill and coming back round to the Observatory. To give you an idea of what the area looks like here are several pictures, including a picture of the Bird Observatory, a view from the balcony of the observatory onto the sea and the obs garden and the coastguards huts behind them, the obs quarry (which is just beside the obs garden), and a view down to the Bill lighthouse and a view of the obs garden from the very top of the lighthouse, where I went a couple of times a day to get a signal so as to receive texts about sightings from Simeon and others.

Upon entering the obs garden I could instantly see signs of the fall caused by the covering of cloud early in the morning. Almost every bush that we checked had at least one Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler; they were literally everywhere that you looked. I had never seen so many of them before in my life, and I revelled in the fact that these two species were so abundance. I would have said that Willow Warblers were the more plentiful of the two, yet again reflecting the Birdguides statistic of a 200+ total of this species. As well as watching these Phylloscs, we kept our eye out for those species that had been reported earlier in the day – Redstart, Black Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Firecrest, and Grasshopper Warbler. Unfamiliarity with the Obs garden meant that if these birds were being seen in certain parts of the garden that we wouldn’t know where to go to find them, which frankly lessened our chances. As we wondered around the Obs garden without any real knowledge of our way round we continued to scour the bushes for anything that wasn’t a Phyllosc. Whenever we saw any sign of movement from any birds, I’d quickly latch on them but would normally find that they were Phylloscs. On one occasion, however, this wouldn’t be the case. Quite early on, as we came to a slight opening in the bushes I was keeping my eyes peeled when all of a sudden I saw a bright red flash of a passerine’s tail on the ground ahead of me. Eagerly, I got my bins on the bird, and to my delight had found a cracking female Redstart. I quickly alerted my Dad, but as he turned to look it flitted off the ground and dived into the nearest bush, leaving us both mesmerised by that iridescent red flash. The views were brief, but it was a good start to our search and took the year list up to 149 species. This sighting was also pleasing in the fact that I had regrettably managed to not see a Redstart in 2009 and that this year I had finally managed to catch up with this stunning species once again.

Unfortunately for us, things didn’t turn out as successfully as we thought they might in terms of seeing the scarcer species that had been present earlier in the day. Despite a full search of the garden (there weren’t any areas that we hadn’t covered even with the addition of the quarry) we could not find the male Pied Flycatcher, Firecrest or Grasshopper Warblers. It was fair to say that these species had either passed through or were keeping themselves very secretive, although for Pied Fly and Groppers the first of those factors was the most likely. We were however lucky to get a fleeting view of another Redstart briefly as we were heading to the western edge of the obs garden, although we didn’t get sufficient enough views of this bird to determine its sex. Also the sheer abundance of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers kept us well entertained. The walk from the obs garden to the Bill itself was about 10-15 minutes long, and on the way we were fortunate in coming across a White Wagtail amongst a small group of Pied Wagtails busily scuttling around the in the grass surrounding the huts. Of course, I couldn’t year tick this as it is merely a subspecies, but it was arguably a smarter and prettier equivalent to our Pied Wagtail and a nice bird to see. When we finally did arrive at the Bill we went behind the lighthouse and had a look out to sea. It was a remarkable experience looking out from here, as the Bill and Portland itself sticks out so far into the sea. This meant that any birds that were passing were often much closer than you would expect them to be. We didn’t expect much to be going past, and nothing much did, but it was just the fact that we were having a look out to sea from one of the most southernly tips in Britain that was so fulfilling. On the way to and from the Bill we had a look for the Black Redstart that had been reported early on the day on the rocky shoreline, but alas it wasn’t present.

Due to having to sort several things out such as getting the dinner and unpacking our stuff, when we returned to the Observatory we didn’t go out again that day. After doing these things, we sat in the lounge and got to know a few of the birders that were staying in the observatory, sharing a few birding experiences and commenting on how good the day had been until there was sunset and then darkness. At 9:30 we retired to bed, as we were going to get up very early the next morning. At Portland, it is always vital that you get up at sunrise as this is when you are most likely to catch the first migrants of the day arriving and migrant activity is at its peak. Sunrise in this case was around 6:00, so I set the alarm on my phone for 5:55. Whether my Dad and I were going to survive getting up at this time for 5 days straight, we didn’t know, but nonetheless I was eagerly anticipating what the next day would hold! I wasn’t too bothered that I had missed a few of the migrant species that had been seen that day, there was still 5 days to go! In my next entry you can read about how my first full day in Portland and Dorset went.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: In Search of Rare Ducks at Chew Valley Lake

For some teenagers, holidays seem to be received with great joy but end up being a source of deep and intense boredom. The boredom occurs due to the general lacaidaiscal attitudes that some teenagers possess and the fact that they can't think of how to use their time. Of course, I am not referring to all teenagers. Some teenagers manage their time brilliantly and get the most out of their time off. On my Easter holidays I certainly wasn't bored. I was the exact opposite, I was fully occupied! Just a few days after I had seen my first Bewick's Swan and had spotted an Egyptian Goose in the Ythan area, it was time for my Dad and I to travel down to South-west England. I am often down that way to visit relatives, and on this occasion I was down there for that reason. Well, partly. The difference was with this trip down to the South-west was that as well as visiting relatives, I would be doing a lot of birding and staying at the Portland Bird Observatory, a place renowned for the multitude of migrating bird species it gets. I would be staying in the Observatory for 5 days (7th-12th April), which would maximise our chances of spring migrants. For a whole week before this, however, I'd be seeing relatives. So on the 30th March we travelled down to Edinburgh and took a flight from here to Bristol, where my grandparents live. We arrived at my grandparents' house that evening and would be with them until Sunday 4th April, when we'd travel to Exmoor to see my auntie, uncle and cousin. One day between these dates though my Dad had said to me that we could go birding on one of them. Now, there were two birds that enticed us to get out birding during one of the days we spent in Bristol. Both birds were at a place called Chew Valley Lake, a massive area of freshwater that is just outside Bristol. The fact that it was just outside Bristol meant that going there was a perfectly good idea. Not only that, but my Dad was very familiar with the lake due to him birding there a lot in his teenage days, so not going would seem a bit stupid. The two birds that had been seen regularly for at least two weeks prior to our arrival were a Lesser Scaup and a Ferruginous Duck, both of which I had never seen before. On my visit to the lake I hoped to see either one or both of these ducks. The question was, which day was I going to visit?

In the end it was decided that we would go to Chew Valley Lake on Thursday 1st April, so after a day of pleasant socialising with my grandparents we headed down in our Renault Megane hire car and were there by half eleven. I had visited Chew Valley Lake before back in 2005 but my memory of the place was blurred, so visiting it again was actually like visiting it for the first time. Chew Valley Lake is a semi-natural reservoir ten miles south of Bristol, and it's the largest lake in south-west England. Fringing the water are plentiful reedbeds, rolling green fields and several areas of decidious and conifer woodland, an ideal range of habitats for birds. The one downside is however that fishermen and sailors use the lake a lot and thus it doesn't possess the splendid isolation of a lot of birding spots. Access to the several viewpoints on the lake is achieved by car with a road going round the whole lake, but to go to the birding hides and maximise your chances of seeing good birds you need to get a birding permit, which you can obtain at Woodford Lodge on the north-western side of the Lake for a cheapish sum of £2.50 for adults and £1.50 for children under the age of 16. Being just under 16 meant that my Dad had to pay a sum of £4.00 to visit the hides for the day, which seemed perfectly reasonable. When arriving at Woodford Lodge we found the trees to be alive with the calls of birds. Several Chiffchaffs were singing, and I was fortunate enough to locate a Willow Warbler which was singing very close by, my second spring migrant of the year. Having obtained our permit, we were in the process of heading southwards towards Heron's Green Bay when, as I looked out onto the water I spotted a large group of hirundines flying low over the lake. Getting my bins on them, I found out they were mostly Sand Martins, but with a good number of Swallows amongst them too. All of a sudden, I had seen 3 new species of spring migrant for the year within the space of a few minutes. The fact that this had happened so quickly instantly suggested to me that England was a couple of weeks ahead in its transition into spring, as I hadn't seen or heard any of those three species wheh in search of early spring migrants a week earlier at Girdleness. It really did seem comparatively spring like. So, having been nicely acquainted with 3 spring migrants in quick succession we headed to Heron's Green Bay as planned. I don't suspect you will know the route that I'm taking as a reader, so here is a link to a map of Chew Valley Lake ( I reccomend that you look at it so as not to be confused when I'm mentioning places on the lake that I'm visiting. The plan was to do a full circle of the lake, spending most of our time between Moreton Point and Stratford Bay as it was between these two places that both the Lesser Scaup and the Ferruginous Duck had been seen the most.

Within a few minutes of leaving Woodford Lodge we arrived at Heron's Green Bay, which had a fantastic view onto the lake. From here several species of duck could be seen with Goldeneye, Pochard, Shoveler, Teal and other commoner suspects present in good numbers, as well as good numbers of fine summer plumaged Great-crested Grebes and two Little Grebes. A Blackcap was heard calling from here but wasn't seen, as well as several Chiffchaffs and a couple of Willow Warblers. Also plenty of Sand Martins and Swallows continued to circle the Lake. Apart from this, however, it was relatively quiet at Heron's Green Bay so we headed down to our next stop at Moreton Point to visit a hide looking out from there. Here is a picture taken from Heron's Green Bay:

It was a small hop down to Moreton Point, but finding the hide here proved quite difficult. We presumed there would be a small turn off for it. There was, but first time round we somehow managed to miss it. In realisation, we turned back and due to more focus we soon found a small turn off down a track which said: to Moreton Hide. As we travelled down the track, my Dad noticed a large corvid sitting on top of a dead tree. Getting our bins onto it, we discovered that it was a Raven, being way to thick billed and bulky for a commoner crow and my first one of the year. Shortly after this unexpected encounter, we reached the small car park and found the hide with relative ease, which to our surprise was empty. Opening up the shutters, we quickly found a group of Tufted Ducks about 50ft away from us, and set out to scan them for one of the rarer ducks that we were pursuing. Almost every duck was a Tufted Duck except one small, grey backed and non-tufted individual. There it was, the Lesser Scaup! You couldn't mistake it. It was way too small for a Greater Scaup and was even smaller than the Tufted Ducks that it was beside. Checking birdguides we found that it hadn't been reported thus far, so I put it in at speed. As well as being told by its small sized, this cracking drake Lesser Scaup also had a small crest-like crown peaked at the rear of its head and darker which lacks on a Greater Scaup and a coarser, darker grey vermiculation than its commoner cousin. It showed absolutely superbly, feeding and drifting casually with the 20 Tufties that it was with and diving every few minutes. I noticed a lot of the time that it had a habit of hanging its head very low and close to the water, which a Greater Scaup rarely does. Even when it did straighten itself up, it was visibly smaller than the Tufties. The other thing that struck me about this bird was that it spent quite a lot of the time hanging around with a female Tufted Duck, and at one point tried to peck at her as if it were attracted to her. It seemed to me that it almost thought it was a Tufted Duck or that it was with a group of Lesser Scaups, as if it wasn't aware that it was a different species from the others. As the Tufted Duck group moved, it moved, and the closest the flock got was around 35ft from the hide. Even at a further distance I managed to get some ok photos of it. It was fantastic to see this Lesser Scaup, as the views were ideal and also it seemed that we were the first people to have come across it that day. Here are a few pictures that I got of this beauty of a bird and a view out from Moreton Hide (note that in every picture the Lesser Scaup is the smallest bird):

After about 15 minutes of watching the Lesser Scaup we were joined in the hide by a few of the local birders who were happy to know that it was still around. We watched it with them for another half an hour or so, enjoying very nice views of it. Whilst the locals were there we asked them to tells us how to get to the nearby Stratford Hide (which looks out over Stratford Bay), and after 3 quarters of an hour of watching the Lesser Scaup we decided that we were going to go there. At the same time we found out that no-one had seen the Ferruginous Duck there, but hope wasn't lost as it could still be anywhere on the Lake. After a nice walk in the sunny weather, we arrived at Stratford Hide. It was a perfectly placed hide, sticking some way out into water (hence why there was a boardwalk to it) and allowed for fantastic views of the wildfowl. Tufted Ducks, Great-crested Grebes, Coots and Pochards all came with no more than 12ft of the hide. It was great to see them all so close up without even having to use binoculars. As the birders at Moreton Hide had said, there was no Ferruginous Duck amongst the multitude of common duck species, but it was nice to just sit there for quarter of an hour having a late lunch looking out across the Lake and watching the wildfowl come very close to me. Once we had finished our lunch, we walked back to where we'd parked the car near Moreton Hide and headed to the next place along, Herriot's Pool. Here is a picture of Chew Valley Lake taken from Stratford Hide:

Herriott's Pool is a medium-sized pool situated just behind the Stratford Bay viewpoint, and is where the Ferruginous Duck is often seen. Yet again, there was massive variety of the common ducks, but no Ferruginous Duck to be seen. It seemed like the Ferruginous Duck was going to elude us now. However, Herriott's Pool had a bit more to offer than Stratford Bay and Heron's Green Bay. As my Dad and I were busy scanning the pool for any sign of the Ferruginous Duck, we heard a loud, warbler-like call from the reedbeds behind it. It was the unmistakable call of a Cetti's Warbler. The call had come from very close by, so in response to it calling my Dad and I tried to locate it. Most of the time these warblers are elusive little critters, but persistence managed to pay off after about a minute of staring fixatedly at the reedbeds when I saw the Cetti's Warbler fly across the reeds for a few seconds. It then proceeded to vanish from view and called again. I felt relieved and touched by luck to see the Cetti's Warbler as not only are they elusive but you don't get them in Scotland at all, so this was a valuable year tick. In fact, it was only the second bird ever that I had managed to see in Britain.

By the time we had checked Herriott's Pool it was getting towards late afternoon and we had agreed with my grandparents that we were going to be back early in the evening. This meant we only had time to check one more part of the Lake, namely the East Shore, where we took a walk to the Bernard King Hide. The East Shore was the most densley wooded part of the Lake, and we had to pass through quite a lot of woodland to get the Bernard King Hide. On the way to the hide I managed to see my first Blackcap of the year, a fine male that made its presence known by calling nearby and then was seen on the top of a tree. Also on the walk to the hide several Willow Warblers were seen and up to 5 Cetti's Warblers were heard calling in the reedbeds. Masses of other birds filled the woods with melodic song, which was lovely to hear and a certain sign of spring. The walk to Bernard King Hide was quite long, and in the end didn't provide too much unfortunately. The best birds were a pair of Goosanders, the first we had seen on the lake.

It was 5:00pm when we returned from our walk to the Bernard King Hide and back. It was time went back to Bristol. It had been a lovely days birding. Not only had I seen one of the rare ducks that I was hoping to see and had great views of it, but I really enjoyed visiting Chew Valley Lake, getting up close to the commoner species and feeling the signs of spring. With Willow Warbler, Sand Martin, Swallow, Lesser Scaup, Raven, Cetti's Warbler and Blackcap all new birds for the year, my year list was now on 138 species. I couldn't have hoped for a more ideal way to start my holiday. So, Chew Valley Lake had turned out to be pretty successful. What next? Where next? That is what I'll be accounting in my next blog post.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 28 March 2010

In Search of Early Spring Migrants and Bogey Birds

Ok, ok.... I know I said I wouldn't post again until after I get back from Portland. Afraid not! For a couple of reasons I found myself casually lured to get out birding. Firstly, a period of nasty, misty weather had brought in the first spring migrants at Girdleness. These included Chffichaff, Blackcap and Wheatear, and most notably a Black Redstart. Secondly, there had been a Bewick's Swan seen at the Ythan, which has always been my worst bogey bird and is a rare sight in Scotland. I mean, if you have your worst bogey bird present only 10 miles north of where you live and have some early spring migrants just outside town, what else are you going to do but go out and have a look? So on Friday afternoon after school, I headed down to Girdleness in search of spring migrants. We started our search by checking the Battery, where Mark Lewis had originally seen the Black Redstart which I mentioned. We gave the area a thorough check, but there was no sign of a Black Redstart nor any migrants.

Thinking methodically, my Dad and I decided that the best idea would be to have a walk across from the Battery towards the sycamore tree (nearer the Harbour for those that aren't Aberdeenshire birders). After all, the area is thick with bushes that would likely shelter migrants from the bitter wind and intermittent light rain. I have also seen Black Redstart at Girdleness before, and at the time I saw the bird in the past it was on the rocks which this walk goes past. The walk is of a fairly reasonable length and allows for a thorough check of half of Girdleness for any birds that may be present, so I constantly kept my eyes peeled on the bushes for any passerine that decided to show themselves. Satisfyingly, a passerine showed itself shortly after I started walking - my first Chiffchaff of the year and first spring migrant of the year, showing well. This was later followed by another Chiffchaff towards the sycamore. Besides these Chiffchaffs however, I didn't see any other notable spring migrants with the Black Redstart proving elusive and thus far no Wheatears. By the time I returned from the walk it was about quarter past five, which left me without an hour and a bit to check the rest of the Ness. From the Battery I headed to Walker Park in search of my first Wheatears of the year. There had been some seen here earlier in the day, but when I gave it a careful scan I could see nothing but a Meadow Pipit and an Oystercatcher on here. A look out at sea proved very little save a few Kittiwakes (my first of the year), and checking the rocks between the foghorn which I seawatch at and Nigg Bay there was no Wheatears either. They must have been passing through, presumably. At Nigg Bay there was little to report either, despite a Snow Bunting having been seen for the previous two days there. There was a Kestrel here and a singing Song Thrush though. Overall the early spring migrants that had been seen earlier in the day had proved annoyingly difficult to find. On the positive side though I had seen my first Chiffchaffs and Kittiwakes of the year, which was a sign of spring and meant my year list had increased to 129 species.

Now I only had yesterday (Saturday) morning to search for the Bewick's Swan at the Ythan. Ken Hall had reported it on Wednesday, saying that it was in a field between Waulkmill Hide and the Collieston crossroads with a juvenile Whooper Swan. Whether it was still there or not was for us to find out, so at quarter past 9 we headed to the Ythan. We arrived roughly at quarter to ten, and instead of checking the estuary first we went straight up to check if the Bewick's Swan and the juvenile Whooper which it had been with were in any of the fields viewable on the road down from the Collieston crossroads to Waulkmill. Half way towards Waulkmill there were no signs of any Swans whatsoever and I was starting to think that it had maybe moved off. But I was in luck. About 3/4 of the way there though I spotted two Swans at the back of theclosest field to the car at the time. The car came to an abrupt halt as I exclaimed that I had thought I had found it, and looking through the bins I could see a juvenile Whooper Swan and beside it an adult swan that was visibly smaller. I had found the Bewick's Swan. As I locked onto it I felt a real sense of relief. I had finally set my eyes on what had been the most embaressing species that I hadn't seen before. There was no mistaking this fantastic bird, as it seemed quite a bit smaller and wasn't standing as tall as its commoner cousin , even though the Whooper was a juvenile. It was so easy to compare too. I could visibly see that it had a much shorter and thicker neck than the Whooper, with the Whooper Swan's neck seeming positively thin and very long. As well as this, I also noted that the yellow on the bill was far less extensive and more contrasting than on the Whooper Swan, whilst the black was more extensive (just the opposite to Whooper which has more yellow on the bill). The views were ideal for the aforementioned comparisons, with the birds probably at most 50 yards away from us in absolutely excellent light conditions. The two Swans seemed perfectly happy hanging around together; it was as if they were oblivious to the fact that they were a different species. They spent a majority of their time meandering round the field, stopping frequently to feed or in reaction to any sounds they had heard. We watched them for about 20 minutes, then decided to move on. I felt very happy that I had seen the Bewick's Swan, as not only was it relieving to 'clean up' on what was my worst bogey bird but the views of it were top quality. Here are a couple of distant photos I got of the two birds plus a picture of the field it was in. I think the first one shows the comparison in size particularly well (it is the bird on the right in both pictures).

From here we headed to Meikle Loch, where frankly I didn't expect to see much. I was wrong in my prejudgement. Shortly after we arrived a flurry of wildfowl took to the air. Amongst them I spotted ia big, sandy coloured bird with hugely prominent white wing bars. My initial reaction was 'What the hell?!', but I soon regained my senses and discovered what species I was seeing. It was an Egyptian Goose. It was sort of extraordinary when I latched onto this bird, as I have never seen one in Aberdeenshire before, let alone on the Ythan Estuary or Meikle Loch. There was no mistaking it, and was too big/sandy coloured for it to be the other wildfowl species that has prominent white wing bars - Ruddy Shelduck. It's head was also too pale for Ruddy Shelduck and I could see a shade of green towards the wing. Annoyingly, it flew some way from its originally location on the Loch and landed in the fields behind. Here it annoyingly went of view. However, a few minutes later it flew back onto the Loch, sticking at the very back. This meant views weren't all that satisfactory, but through the scope you could easily see that it was an Egyptian Goose. It stayed near the back of the Loch for another few minutes and then flew off completely, heading south-east. What a strange bird to see! When it had disappeared, my mind puzzled as to why this bird was in North-east Scotland and of its origins. Was it a bird that was part of the established stronghold of Egyptian Geese in southern England and had migrated up to Scotland? Was it an escape? I doubted the latter, as it was incredibly flighty and only stayed on the Loch for about 10 minutes. Later that day I reported the bird on Birdguides and Birdforum and my Dad on ABZ Rare Birds. Just today, I got a response from an aberdeenshire birder on Birdforum who told me that the only other record of Egyptian Goose in North-east Scotland ever was a bird at New Deer in 2009. He told me that this possible made the sighting very significant, which makes me feel quite excited. On the other hand, he did mention that it is hard to know whether the credentials of such a bird would be suitable for one of the birds from the established strongholds in Norfolk and southern England. Having checked Birdguides I have noticed that an Egyptian Goose was seen last week in Shetland, so I'm half inclined to think that it may be the same bird that was seen in Shetland. However, it could also be one of the birds from a small stronghold in the Gosford Estate, Lothian. These are just possibilities. Its actual origins still remain clouded in ambiguity... My Dad and I aren't the only people to have seen it, as one person reported that it was seen on the Estuary itself an hour and a half after we'd seen it fly off. It hasn't been seen since, as far as I'm aware. An interesting one... I did year tick it, which now means that my year list is on 131 species.

From Meikle Loch we headed to Collieston where we stopped briefly for a look out at sea. There wasn't too much going past at all apart from a few Fulmars, some Guillemots, a couple of Gannets and a Kittiwake. The rocks by the sea there regularly provide Wheatears, but there were none there when I looked. From here, we went on a walk from the car park at the north end of the Ythan Estuary and into the Forvie National Nature Reserve, an area of coastal moorland which can provide migrants and the like. Unfortunately there were no migrants present here, but the area wasn't completely devoid of birds. Dozens of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were singing and taking to the thermals of the area. It was a lovely to see them enjoying the early spring sun. Because the weather was so nice, I thought it would be a good idea to take a few pictures at Collieston and the Ythan. The first two are from Collieston, whilst the latter is a view looking west from Forvie.

Now that really is all I'm going to post in here until I get back from Portland! I hope I have a lot to report to you, as I'll be going to several places in Dorset, Hampshire and on the first part of my holiday, Somerset. Before I go to Portland I'm going to be spending a week in Somerset with family. On one day (maybe next Saturday) I hope to go to Chew Valley Lake, where Ferruginous Duck and Lesser Scaup have been seen recently, and on the other day I hope to go to Ham Wall/Shapwick Heath where a Great White Egret has been seen recently. When staying in Portland it is likely that I'll spend quite a bit of time in the areas round the observatory, but I will almost certainly visit places like Ferrybridge, Portland and Poole Harbour, Arne RSPB, Radipole Lake and Lodmoor RSPB. I may also visit places in Hampshire if Portland is quite quiet (for example Blashford Lakes). I have got my target birds for the trip, but I won't mention these to you until I get back. Anyhow, I'm leaving for England on Tuesday. I'm immensely looking forward to staying in Portland, and hopefully will enjoy reporting back my trip in here.

Thanks for reading and happy birding,