Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Mortens' Murre and Chasing the Loon

On Sunday 29th December I joined Mark Chidwick on a twitch to Dorset for the Brunnich’s Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre) that had taken up residence at Portland Harbour. I picked Sue Morton up at 3.30am and met Chiddy along with Marc Heath at Tesco in Whitstable and we were soon on our way, arriving on site at 7.15am. The plan had been to tick the Guilly early and, maybe, get a picture then move on to Devon for a nice adult White-billed Diver making Brixham Harbour its home. Things, however, never work out as they should and we spent a couple hours with fears the target Guilly had departed. In the mean time we had the pleasure of watching at least 13 Red-breasted Mergansers, several Shags, 4 Little Grebes a Grey Heron and a Great-northern Diver. Looking out beyond the harbour walls it was evident there were many Common Guillemots on the water and we were worried the Brunnich’s was out there with them. At one point Mark and Marc decided to take photos of the Mergansers that were showing close in the Dorset sun but I thought the rare Guilly was more important but alas, soon gave in and snapped at a couple that were close but as close as the birds they had followed. 
Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Soon the news broke that the Brunnich’s Guillemot was still in the harbour but unfortunately was always in the most shaded part of the harbour throughout our stay.
Brunnich's Guillemot

Brunnich's Guillemot

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Brunnich's Guillemot
We had some fantastic views of this once in a life-time mega as it swam and fed at close quarters below the harbour wall. Also here were a couple of Black-throated Divers, at least 3 Razorbills and a fantastic winter plumage Black Guillemot and, in the words of Mr Heath, that was a stunner. Two Kingfishers whizzed by while we watched and on our exit towards Devon we saw our first Buzzard. Two hors later we pulled up in the car park at Brixham harbour and were soon watching the adult winter White-billed Diver (Yellow-billed Loon)as it swam up and down the centre channel of the harbour. Sadly never coming in close making photography impossible. Alongside were 2 Great-northern Divers and the White-billed appeared to dwarf these somewhat despite the written word saying they are similar in size. Also here were 2 more Black-throated Divers, 1 Common Guillemot and an overhead Buzzard.
My poor phonescoped White-billed Diver attempt!!!

After a good time watching this remarkable bird we moved a few miles up the coast to take in the opportunity to see Cirl Buntings at Broadsands. The last time I saw Cirl Buntings in Britain was on 21st June 1997 at nearby Exminster after a twitch to Dawlish Warren for a Semi-palmated Plover. An uneventful drive home added at least a dozen Buzzards along the A30 towards the M5. 
Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting

Cirl Bunting

A fantastic day in good company with two outstanding birds, good to see Mr Heath expanding his British list with out of county ticks. The last twitch I did with Marc was the Scops Owl at Thrupp in Oxon on 19th June 2007










Monday, 16 December 2013

Northern Hawk Owl in the Netherlands

Taking the opportunity to join Steve Ashton on his second visit to the Netherlands for the Northern Hawk Owl I quickly arranged time off work and at just after 1.00am on Friday 13th I was on my way to pick up Adam Faiers and Alan Ashdown before meeting Steve at his house where we all piled into his car for the long journey to come. It wasn’t long before the Eurotunnel train had deposited us in Calais and we were traveling through four countries to see a bird that, other than Steve, would be new to us all and this would be my first “Twitch” outside the UK. On the journey up it soon became clear that the land was covered in a thick fog and views of this, and any other bird may be hampered but at least we had the option of an overnight stay just in case the weather was bad or, that the Pygmy Owl that was a mere 25 minutes away from the Hawk Owl may still be around and we could then twitch that. We were traveling in a very slow part of the journey just into the Belgian side of the trip where a couple of motorways merge and looking out of the passenger window we spotted an immature White-tailed Eagle sitting on a metal gate looking all shabby and bedraggled in the damp foggy morning, a massive beast it was too. Nearing our destination we pulled in for some fuel and as we left the filling station 2 Ravens passed low over us and with news that there was meant be sun at Zwolle, Adam kindly spent 45 pence on an internet weather search, our hopes were raised although looking through the window it didn’t seem that way. On our final approach at about 7 kilometres it seemed as if the fog was lifting and looking up clouds could be seen with patches of blue and even shadows from the other vehicles cast on the road as we past. As we approached the electricity sub-station where the Owl had taken up residence the sun broke through and we could see the Owl on a pylon before we had even pulled up in the parking area nearby. At first the Owl spent some time on a distant(ish) girder before flying to an earthing cable nearer to us before alighting atop a closer girder upright.
Northern Hawk Owl when first encountered
Northern Hawk Owl when first encountered

Northern Hawk Owl when first encountered

We had some fantastic views of it before it flew into the trees behind us and then across the road to a football/rugby field where it spent a short time on the climbing pegs of a floodlight pole watching carefully as a Sparrowhawk passed over, sidling up close to the pole. 
Northern Hawk Owl in the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in the playing fields

Next it dropped of the pole and into some low trees where it gave absolutely stunning views just a few yards away and at just above head height, all the while totally ignoring the throng of long lenses pointed at it but stared intently at the ground for the movement of prey items.
Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

Northern Hawk Owl in low trees beside the playing fields

It then moved back across the road and spent a long time back in the sub-station which is where we left it a decided to take a casual drive back home.
Northern Hawk Owl back by the substation with prey

Northern Hawk Owl back on the substation where we left it

With the sun shining on us all the while we were with the Owl and as we drove home we were able to see other birds en route back to the tunnel. We never managed to see another Eagle that day but t least 15 Common Buzzards were encountered as well as 7 Great-white Egrets, 3 pairs of Egyptian Geese, 2 White Storks, several Barnacle Geese, Pink-footed Geese and White-fronted Geese as well as Wigeon, Lapwing a couple of Kestrels, a Grey Heron or two and many Crows and Jackdaws amongst a few other species. A big thanks to Steve for allowing me to join him and for arranging and driving the whole trip and a big thanks to Adam and Alan for the excellent company. Thanks alos have to go to the Dutch who released the news of the Hawk Owl and their very friendly nature whilst we were there and thanks to the Belgian for their great food as , we stopped at a “motorway cafĂ©” on the way back where we all had steak and chips, a sweet and a large glass off Red all for just 10 euros, bloody fantastic…..

Monday, 9 December 2013

Looking Back........................to 1994

This week its 1994… Having been interested in Birds from a very young age and joining the Y.O.C aged about 9 and being led by the aptly named John Wren, little did I know there were rare visitors to our shore that would involve long distant drives and heart in mouth moments when realising you may miss your target or the elation of seeing something so wonderful, “Twitching” is something I still was to learn about. The birding scene went out of the window a bit in my early teens when music, fishing and other activities grabbed my attention followed by motorcycles and girls in my later teens. 1990/1991 was when I started to get the birding bug again and I was in 1992 that my girlfriend of the time suggested I go out with her friend’s husband who was also a bird watcher. As it happened he was part of the Thanet Group RSPB and so my weekends became the time for birding and until late 1994 that my Twitching was to take off and I went for the Grey-tailed Tattler in Scotland with Craig Sammels, Dave Allan and Dave Gilbert. Sadly the Tattler was taken by a Sparrowhawk on the day we were driving up and hence my first big “Dip”. From then on I mostly birded with Dave and Craig and we twitched whenever possible until 1999/2000.
So to 1994 and the first rarity I was to see was a bird that had been supressed from the year before but, luckily, was still performing well into the new year and that was a Black-bellied Dipper at Kearnsey near Dover on January 1st.
Dipper in Kearnsey Dover    photo unknown

Dipper in Kearnsey Dover    photo unknown

Next up was a Serin in King George XIV Park in Ramsgate on 20th and ten days later a Ring-billed Gull at Greatstone Dungeness on 30th January and an Iceland Gull on the beach by the fishing boats at Dungeness.
Ring-billed Gull Greatstone Dungeness  photo by Mike McDonnell

Iceland Gull Dungeness   photo Mike McDonnell

 A trip away to Wales with Thanet RSPB was followed by a detour (with gentle persuasion from me) on the way home to Fen Drayton in Cambridge for a Spotted Sandpiper that was being seen regularly, we connected on April the 4th.
Spotted Sandpiper Fen Drayton Cambridge  photo by Rob Wilson

Spotted Sandpiper Fen Drayton Cambridge  photo by Mike McDonnell

On May 28th I went to see a Melodious Warbler at Margate Cemetery that had earlier been reported as an Icterine.
Melodious Warbler Margate Cemetery  photo by Mike McDonnell

On the fifth day of June it was a trip to Dungeness for a very rare but also very dull looking Thrush Nightingale and this bird remains my only record of the species.
Thrush Nightingale Dungeness  photo by Mike McDonnell

A trip to Norfolk the following week is where I caught up with Stone Curlew for the first time at Wheeting Heath on the 10yh and of course, a visit to Titcwell on the 11th for Sammy the resident Black-winged Stilt couldn’t be ignored. Also on June 11th we had excellent views of a Great Reed Warbler at Cley Marshes.
Stone Curlew Wheeting Heath Norfolk   photo by Tony Collinson

Black-winged Stilt Titchwell Norfolk  photo by Mike McDonnell

Great Reed Warbler Cley Marshes Norfolk  photo by Rob Wilson

Great Reed Warbler Cley Marshes Norfolk  photo by Rob Wilson

Back in Kent and my second Marsh Sandpiper was seen in the same spot as last year’s bird, on the Radar Pool at Cliffe.
Marsh Sandpiper Cliffe Pools Mike McDonnell

The next “Mega” was a short trip on the Yamaha XJ650 to Sandwich bay and a Lesser Grey Shrike on3rd August, a bird that showed very well behind the Observatory along Worth track, it ended up staying 28 days.
Lesser Grey Shrike Sandwich Bay  Mike McDonnell

Lesser Grey Shrike Sandwich Bay  Mike McDonnell

Lesser Grey Shrike Sandwich Bay  Mike McDonnell

Back to Cliffe on the 28th for a Buff-breasted Sandpiper and in September along with Steve Darling and Steve Blasket we twitched a juvenile Woodchat Shrike at Stanford-le-hope in Essex on the 17th.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper Cliffe Pools   Alan Clarke

Buff-breasted Sandpiper Cliffe Pools   Mike McDonnell

Buff-breasted Sandpiper Cliffe Pools   Mike McDonnell

Woodchat Shrike Stanford-le-hope Essex  Alan Clarke

A holiday I Norfolk with the girlfriend was booked in October and as we were staying near Titchwell the planned route was the M11, however the day before leaving news broke of a Red-flanked Bluetail at Great Yarmouth Cemetery so on the 19th we took the A12/A14 route through Essex and Suffolk and I connected with my second and still a Mega rare Red-flank.
Red-flanked Bluetail Great Yarmouth Norfolk   Alan Tate

Red-flanked Bluetail Great Yarmouth Norfolk   Alan Tate

November saw me once again at Cliffe in north Kent where I was able to connect with another first, a smart Short-toed Lark and I even went to see the Greater Flamingo that had now joined the resident Chilean Flamingo.
Short-toed Lark Cliffe Pools   Mike McDonnell

Short-toed Lark Cliffe Pools   Mike McDonnell

Short-toed Lark Cliffe Pools   Alan Clarke

Greater Flamingo Cliffe Pools   Mike McDonnell

Another Mega was to come in Kent in November when a bird at Seasalter that been identified as a Tawny Pipit for a week was re-identified as the much rarer Blyth’s Pipit, I saw this bird on 26th November.
Blyth's Pipit South Swale Seasalter  Mike McDonnell

Blyth's Pipit South Swale Seasalter  Mike McDonnell

A morning off work and another trip out for the Yamaha came on the 13th December when a Blackpoll Warbler showed up at Bewel water in East Sussex just slightly outside the Kent border, despite the fact the reservoir straddles the two counties.
Blackpoll Warbler Bewel Water East Sussex  Alan Clarke

Blackpoll Warbler Bewel Water East Sussex  Mike McDonnell

Blackpoll Warbler Bewel Water East Sussex  Mike McDonnell


The year ended with Dave, Dave and Craig, with the long journey to Burghead in Scotland where we crashed and burned with the unfortunate “dipping” of the Grey-tailed Tattler. We also failed to see any Golden Eagles but we did stay at a fantastic B&B near inverness. The next morning, the 3th we travelled down to Musselburgh where we again missed out on the Surf Scoter that had been there but we did see the star bird of that day, a fantastic Forster’s Tern.
Forster's Tern by Steve Young taken in Bangor Wales in 1995

Forster's Tern by Steve Young taken in Bangor Wales in 1995