Friday, 28 June 2013

The needletail...

Well, I returned at 4.30am this morning from the most physically draining and emotionally turbulent twitches I've ever been on and I might ever go on. Fairly late in the day on Tuesday, when news came through of a White-throated Needletail on the Isle of Harris, there was immediately nowhere else in the world I more wanted to be than on that island, but I had to accept that I would have to hope that the bird stayed till Saturday for me to get it (leaving Surrey on Friday evening). Just when I was going into the cinema with a friend, the possibility of being able to leave that night began to open itself up, with the most important of my two commitments of the week changing and word from home that my dad didn't need the car for the following two days.

I'd earlier received a call from John Benham asking about my plans to see the bird and I'd told him that I could only go later in the week if the bird remained, so I called him back and I arranged to pick him up from Tadworth around midnight before going into the screen and trying to enjoy the film while figuring out the logistics of the trip. Once it was over, I called in at home to grab a few things then picked up John and we were on our way. Obviously at that time of night, the traffic was fine and we whizzed past town upon town as we climbed the country. We had two brief fuel stops, and another brief pause to pick up fresh drinks but otherwise drove non-stop, arriving at Uig, Skye, shortly before 1.00pm. Black Guillemots, a female Red-breasted Merganser and a Hooded Crow were the only birds that caught our eye as we prepared our tickets, gear and supplies for the crossing.

There were a few other birders on the boat and I spent a particular amount of time talking with Mark from Bedfordshire, James Hanlon, Kevin from Staffs and Jeff from Skye. The highlights of the crossing included a group of Manx Shearwaters and a handful of Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots. A Bonxie flew past. News from the island was not good - getting through to Liam Langley and Andrew Kinghorn was a struggle but at first the news that the bird had moved off firmly south after an RAF fly-by (before they managed to see it) was disconcerting to say the least. After some time, I called Liam again 'Yeah! It's still here!!! We're watching it now!!!' he shouted - I announced this to the birders on the boat and we sprang into action finding out exactly where to go and how to get there. I agreed to take Kevin and Jeff, in addition to John, in the car to the bird.

We parked up when we saw the guys by the road and piled out of the car (unfortunately resulting in the breakage of my SLR (for once not at my hands), which killed the buzz of connecting with the bird for me, but I'll leave it there...). So, we were straight away put onto the WHITE-THROATED NEEDLETAIL as it cruised, hardly flapping, over the hills, loch and moorland. By this point I was utterly spaced out and everything felt scarily dream-like so the initial distant views didn't do much to raise my spirits after my camera's casuality. After a while though, the bird gave a pretty good show flying right over our heads and allowing itself to be tracked with the scope as it flew in good light and against the slopes, really bringing out its quite remarkable plumage patterns and tones. A Golden Eagle flew over at close range, which was fantastic.

After perhaps a couple of hours of enjoying the bird, I felt happier but still zonked out and sat down to rest. The bird appeared again and I got the scope on it, seeing it rather well. It then flew past the wind turbine on the top of the hill by the loch, turned and... well, flopped to the ground! My senses not being with it, I didn't know what to make of what had just happened but it soon became apparent that I had just witnessed the bird collide with the turbine and hit the ground! We all ran over there and were heartbroken to find the poor bird lying beneath the machine, in perfect condition apart from blood and slight trauma on the head - but it was stone dead... cries of sorrow and anger from the assembled birders began to turn into discussion as to what would happen to the bird's corpse, as we took pictures of it lying there. Seeing it up close, as much as I'd rather it were still alive, was, if nothing else, a rare opportunity to examine the utterly amazing plumage and structure of the needletail. You could see the needle-like feathers on the tail, the white markings that were visible in the field and, most impressively, the scintillating metallic-purple sheen of the bird's wings. The large pale mark on the bird's back that appeared whitish most of the time in the field revealed itself to be a glowing mix of colour. We paid our final respects to the bird and made tracks for the town to get food and digs, still in shock over what we'd witnessed.

The following day, we got up at our digs and had breakfast before revisiting the site to take pictures of the wind turbine which I'd been asked to get. A Common Sandpiper and three Wheatears flew up from beside the road. It was soon time to board the ferry, and an Arctic Tern flew over as we were getting on. The crossing saw a small number of Storm-petrels and the same auks as on the way out, plus a couple of Fulmars and more Kittiwakes than we'd seen outward. We had a good chat with the other birders on the boat before heading home. We made brief stops to see if we could jam into Corncrake and Dipper but had no luck. I got home at 4.30am this morning - I certainly won't be forgetting the trip for a long while. What a sad twist.

The ironic demise of the world's greatest flying machine captured the attention of the local and national media, with the story bringing up the issue of the impact of wind farms on wildlife. Yesterday I took several calls from journalists. I gave three or four radio interviews and featured on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland. I was even invited to appear on Newsnight Scotland, but the logistics involved in getting to a studio did not work and the more suited James Hanlon took the role instead, but I was pleased to see they used one of my images and a part of one of my radio interviews on the show.

Here's some links:

BBC Radio Four's PM (skip to 48 minutes & 10 seconds into the programme)
Newsnight Scotland (skip to 14 minutes & 45 seconds into the programme)
BBC Radio Scotland's Newsdrive (skip to 1 hour 21 minutes & 30 seconds into the programme)

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Wilson's Phalarope

Yesterday I teamed up with Liam Langley and Dan and Michael Booker for a trip to the Isle of Wight. I didn't need the target bird, Wilson's Phalarope, just being keen to see one as smart as the IoW bird. The lack of pressure was refreshing! The first decent bird was a Little Tern picked up by Liam from the ferry on the way over. We didn't take the car as the bird was close to the port and we didn't have time to look for the famous Glanville Fritillaries, as much as I'd have liked to have given them a go. From the port it was a short walk to the bird (although it was longer for me as I was delayed speaking to an old woman, lost the others and ended up walking the wrong way - why's it always me?). The WILSON'S PHALAROPE was no problem at all, offering good scope views on a small reed-fringed pool - a pleasure to watch and surely a contender for the smartest wader I've ever seen. Other than Black-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets and a calling Med Gull there was little else around and, once satisfied, we boarded the return vessel and headed to the New Forest, via a Maccy D's. The New Forest was disappointingly quiet, despite the fact that we were visiting late in the day and not for particularly long. I didn't see a single raptor and two Crossbills, two Woodlarks, a female Common Redstart and two juvenile Stonechats were the only noteworthy birds.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Recent lifers

The star bird lately was obviously the Pacific Swift at Trimley Marshes. I saw this on Saturday, with the news coming out shortly after 10am. I had just got up and planned a day of revision but there was no way I couldn't go for this. Despite my best efforts and Franko phoning around for me I couldn't team up with anyone but I was fairly confident that being able to drive there at 1.30pm, when my dad was due to finish with the car for the day, would be good enough. I arranged to pick up Dan and Michael Booker and Harry Ramm from Dartford and collected Ian from Wallington, completely filling the car. Once we got to Dartford, the rest of the journey was fairly efficient, but storms and a brief spell of negative news on the bird dampened spirits on the way. The bird reappeared on the pager, though, prompting a cheers and a slightly heavier foot on the gas.

On arrival it was evident that getting to the precise viewing location was going to be a miserable affair and we got soaked immediately. I think the walk was a little under three miles each way and we were treated to a complementary hailstorm for much of the trek. I hadn't eaten in hours, was soaked to the skin and feeling utterly miserable. Knowing such weather can see swifts off, I didn't want to ask returning birders for the latest news as I approached, although I felt so crappy that I didn't think seeing the bird would be the buzz that it should. Eventually we got to the river wall overlooking the marsh and the PACIFIC SWIFT was picked up as the weather began to soften - I was very wrong about the buzz being killed, this was one absolute cracker and I no longer cared how long it would take for my socks to dry, or that I would have to drive home with a wet arse. The bird cruised back and forth across the marsh at its leisure, allowing intimate scrutiny of its features through the scope and opportunities for photographs. Happy happy happy! A summer-plumaged Spotted Redshank and a Yellow Wagtail were good back-up birds alongside the Avocets, Oystercatchers etc. I just about managed to get Dan, Mike and Harry back to Dartford in time for the train and Ian and I got home some time around 10.15pm. Ta for the company!

On Sunday 9th May, I picked Ian up and we headed Kent-bound for the Bee-eater that was present for its second day at Pegwell Bay Country Park. I had only been to the place once before, where I saw the Zitting Cisticola (all of its congeners are called cisticolas, so I don't see why we should call this one 'Fan-tailed Warbler' so that it can fade into the pages with the acros, phylloscs etc ... even though it's a slightly naff name). We joined the end of the crowd when we found the right place, the bird apparently being close and in the open in a small bush, but it turned out that we couldn't see it from where we were standing. By the time we reangled and just about got on it, the Bee-eater took flight, right over our heads. It proved mobile but a couple of hours on site were rewarded with prolonged flight views and some distant looks at it perched prominently atop tall hawthorns and the like. It was nice to catch up with Neil Randon there.

Even though Ian didn't need Black Kite, I did, so on the way back we stopped near Selling and got onto the Black Kite cruising slowly over the valley with surprisingly little trouble. We left it in the same bit of sky that we first saw it in, after the passing of at least half an hour! I'd seen these abroad but not for ages and Britain is what matters for me so this was like a totally new bird and it was great to have a long look at what made it a Black Kite, in a British setting.

My exams are all over now so I can thankfully return to birding without such pains that normal life brings, for a few months at least.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

May highlights at CFBW

This May was not a spectacular month at the patch but it wasn't particularly dire either, with a handful of good local birds to be had. This is the first in what might become a monthly summation of the CFBW Bird Group's collective recording efforts in terms of the local birds.

The month started with a Whinchat on the 1st and further singles were recorded on the 3rd, 4th, 8th and 12th with a pair on the 6th - this continues a strong spring passage for this species. Wheatear on the other hand was less strongly represented in comparison to previous Mays, being recorded on 14 dates, the last being the 16th. 3 was the highest number recorded, this being logged on both the 4th and 6th. Yellow Wagtail was recorded on only one date, the 5th, but at least this single bird showed to a number of participants of the Banstead Arts Festival Migration Tour. A female Common Redstart on the 12th was interesting for its lateness. All of these passerine migrants were at the farm.

Red Kites were seen on 8 dates, including 4 on the 25th, while single Hobbies were seen on the 3rd and 19th. The raptor that stole the show, however, was Hen Harrier, and not just one, but two! A high-flying ringtail was photographed over the Canons Farm/Banstead Woods border on the 6th but better was a lower male that passed west then south over the farm on the 28th. A Peregrine, a rather scarce species this year, flew high over the farm on the 6th.

A Curlew that flew over the farm on the 4th was notable, this species averaging only one sighting annually at CFBW. Perhaps worryingly, no other waders were reported, not even Lapwing. The star bird of the month was an adult Kittiwake that flew very high south-west on the 31st, representing a first for CFBW.

A Garden Warbler was found at The Scrub on the 10th and was last seen on the 17th. Thus far the only bird this year at the patch, this unobtrustive species has proved very difficult to catch up with. Almost as scarce has been Lesser Whitethroat; singing males were at Slangs from the 4th to the 7th and at Valley Meadows from the 19th to 26th. 2 Willow Warblers continued to hold territory at The Scrub while Common Whitethroat, Chiffchaff and Blackcap were present at reasonable density.

Single Cormorants flew over on 6 dates while Mallards still occasionally flew over the recording area and visited Piddly Pond from time to time, with a pair mating there on the 13th. Grey Herons often flew over. A pair of Red-legged Partridges, one of which was presumably the long-staying bird named "George", frequented Broadfield. Canada Geese flew over on 4 dates, including 6 on the 26th.

Still no Swallows appeared to have taken up territory while small numbers trickled through. House Martins remained scarce fly-throughs while Common Swifts arrived late (the first being on the 5th) and never reached impressive numbers at all.

A flock of about 10 Crossbills over the farm on the 27th was a good record, following a long spell of no records after over a year of regular appearances by this noisy finch. Woodland birds became harder to detect, with Treecreepers becoming less noticeable and Nuthatches changing habits so much as to render themselves near undetectable. Goldcrests and Bullfinches continued to be scarcer than usual while Coal Tit numbers were still down. Small numbers of Rooks, which had been breeding just outside of the recording area, were sometimes seen feeding in Hither Field.

Yellowhammer territories were seemingly down on previous years, with only 3 singing males noted (recent years have seen around 8). 3 pairs of Skylarks seemed to be nesting while 2-4 Linnet pairs was about average.