The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Big Banana-Bill and Beyond

First stop today was of course the Brunnich's Guillemot at the Harbour, more to try and see some of my old friends from Surrey, rather than to see the bird.  But first, I headed up to The Verne prison to get a crowd shot, though numbers were nowhere near at their peak.

Back at the quay, I managed to meet Dominic Pia and Bob Warden down from Staines, and Tim Cowley from Yorkshire.  Nice to see you chaps!  But, the bird showed even better than yesterday, popping up just a few metres away at one point!

The Black Guillemot was of course still around, as was a close-in Great Northern Diver, and it was great to see 2 Black-throated Diver flying about overhead in the sunshine.

Not content with Baikal Teal, Ivory Gull, Two-barred Crossbill, and Brunnich's Guillemot this December, I thought I'd better pop down to Brixham Harbour for another showy mega.

On arrival, the giant-nosed White-billed Diver was showing at middle distance in front of the rusty boats in the inner harbour.  My second, after a very distant view of the Selsey Bill bird in 2007.

It was great to see Black-throated and Great Northern in the same harbour as well as this ridiculously tame Shag.

As the rain began to fall, I made my retreat, and decided I may as well pop into Broadsands on the way back for Cirl Bunting.

No problem on that score, with at least 15 birds feeding on seed in the overflow car park.

And here, two Reed Bunting, a female Cirl Bunting, and Chaffinch.

The Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway provided a rather different background sight and sound.

On the way out of the overflow car park, I was fortunate to bump into some guys watching a Siberian Chiffchaff flitting about with a normal Chiffchaff in the Sallows.  I don't really 'do' subspecies, but this was a first for me believe it or not.

Some (ropey) video of all the quality birds from today here.

Another awesome day, and I wonder when this ridiculous December will end (almost certainly on the 31st ;-).

Friday, 27 December 2013

Defeated in Auk Top Trumps!


After a lovely Christmas at home in Aldershot, I used Boxing Day morning to take a quick look at Tice's Meadow.

The forecast didn't include the merest hint of fog, so I was disappointed to be greeted by this.

Initially, I wasn't planning on any birding whilst home for Christmas, so I hadn't brought my scope.  This coupled with the conditions meant I was never likely to find the possible Scaup (site tick) that had been reported the day before, but I tried my best!  I did count 8 Pochard and heard a couple of Water Rail in the reedbed. 
The best birds though were a fly-over Yellowhammer heard somewhere in the fog, plus a cold-coloured Chiffchaff in the reedbed, that I feel was at best, abietinus ('Eastern').
I was just thinking about what a great job the volunteers had done clearing the scrub, when I took a glance at Twitter on my phone.  I was greeted by a message from top Portland birder Debby Saunders, with a full-screen photo of a Brunnich's Guillemot (Thick-billed Murre) attached!  Great, there's an absolute mega on Portland, and I'm 100 miles away with a family get-together in the afternoon, and work the next morning! It was Murre-der!  I very briefly entertained the idea of twitching it, then getting back for the do, but there was nowhere near enough time.  I just had to sweat it out.
I should have predicted it really. I mean I shouldn't have expected my crown for best Auk find this year to go without challenge, and when the Saunder's are around, you have to expect mega finds!
I was able to get out of work for my break at a good time to rush down to Portland Castle, and decided that The Aqua Hotel was the place to start, as this is where it was seen last thing yesterday.
There were one or two birders there, so we started searching.  After an initial no sign, I walked round the corner to see if the water could be viewed further towards the Port.  I bumped into the 'people of the moment' there, and they told me it had been seen already, from The Aqua, so I returned.  I wasn't there very long, when someone spotted an Auk at middle distance.  I took one look at it, and bosh!  The Brunnich's Guillemot
I knew I was pushed for time, so rather than watch it, I thought I'd make myself useful, and go round to the massed twitchers at the Marina, to let them know. 
Just as most had left the Marina, and started watching from the Castle, I looked back to the end of the line of birders, and some were looking rather animated.  Behind them, I could see a dark Auk just off the rocks back in the Marina.  The bird was back there!  So, I had to rush to the castle and usher everyone back to where they'd just come! 
I had to get back to work, so I hope those early bird(er)s got it.
After work, and a spot of lunch, I was back down there with my scope in the hope of enjoying it properly.
I was initially worried to find hardly any birders around, but it soon became evident that the bird had returned to the Castle end, and I manage to spot it just coming round the corner in front of the Port.  It travelled an incredible distance underwater, and was very difficult to keep tabs on, but it eventually showed beautifully in bright sunlight by the Marina. 

Also in the area was the Black Guillemot still, as well as at least 4 Black-throated Divers.

Nice to see and meet a few familiar faces there including Ken Tucker, Ads Bowley, Colin White, and Josie Hewitt

Whilst I was there, I noticed that 'you know who' had found a Glaucous Gull at Ferrybridge, and as that's every bit as valuable as a Portland tick as the Guillemot, I went for it!

On arrival, I was told the bird had just flown off over Chesil Beach.  I just popped up there to see if it was anywhere to be seen, only to be welcomed by the strongest wind I think I've ever stood in (or not as the case was!)

Martin had apparently gone down to Chesil Cove, to see if the bird was in view from there, and thought this was a very good idea, as there is some shelter there!
There were indeed a huge mass of Gulls present feeding in the surf (including on a large dead cetacean - Ivory Gull food!).

And, the guys eventually got me onto the bird way off in the distance, and although it appeared to be a similar size to the nearby Herring, which suggested Iceland, subsequently seeing Debby and Pete's photos of the bird on the deck, seems to confirm their initial ID of Glaucous Gull was correct.  Don't mind either way, as both are a Portland/Dorset/year tick!
What a day, and what a December the UK (and me) is having.  I've had 4 lifers!
Bring on the patch challenge in the new year.  Can I change my patch boundaries to include Osprey Quay in case the Brunnich's is still present come the first? Done!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Ebony and Ivory


Having already had a day off work and not used it for birding, I was determined to get out there today, despite the dreadful weather.  With the low tide being in the afternoon, I could at least have (another) lie in! 

The forecast was for the rain to leave by mid-afternoon, but in continuing precipitation I started at the reasonably sheltered Sandsfoot Castle.  Even so, the rain and wind still narrowed my horizons, and I no doubt missed a few things.  But, it was nice to catch up with the long-staying female Eider close-in, and glimpse a single distant Black-necked Grebe.  I moved down to the shelter-less beach, and was rewarded with two close Slavonian Grebe.  I'd like to come back to these in better weather, as It'd be nice to get some photos.

I moved round to Ferrybridge, but the conditions were still awful, with no end in sight to the rain.  However, it was clear that there was little to be seen at the site anyway.

I was going to give up, but then I remembered how I'd earlier discovered a new way to look into the Harbour, by The Aqua Hotel in Castletown, so I decided to give it a go.  Viewing from the car was a good option here, and I soon found a lot of the Harbour's residents were taking advantage of this little bit of shelter, including a Razorbill and a Great Northern Diver.  I then got a couple of glimpses of an Auk with a very pale head.  It looked all the world like a Black Guillemot (even though I've never before seen one in winter plumage), but it seemed to lack the extent of white in the wing I would expect, and I thought it unlikely.  It was very difficult to catch up with, as it dived remarkably frequently, and moved great distances underwater.  Eventually though it started to preen, and I then glimpsed a red foot as it scratched itself. Clinched! 

I put the news out, and headed round to Portland Castle as I suspected, correctly as it turned out, that any new observers would head there.  Martin then turned up, and after an anxious wait, I managed to get him on it, and relief was achieved!  So, my only good finds since moving to Portland have been Black Guillemots (and may even be the same bird)!

I like to think that I've got pretty good at phonescoping, especially without any sort of adapter, so I hope the best shot I achieved of this bird will convey accurately the quality of the light and conditions at the time!!!!!

Having missed an opportunity to go to Hull and back (excuse the pun) on Saturday, when I noticed that Garry Bagnell was advertising space in his car for Sunday I just had to take him up on it, particularly as I was really not up to driving for this one (the Baikal twitch was enjoyable, but the journey was a killer!).
After no sleep at all (too excited) I drove the 2 hours and met up with Garry on the M25, before we picked up William Bentley along the A1 on way up.  As we came within striking distance, the lack of news started to worry us, and then we got the dreaded 'no sign' message.  We thought about a contingency plan of going for the Buff-bellied Pipit in Cheshire, but that was not a lifer for any of us, and about a million times not as good looking as our main quarry!
Almost as we had reached the point of decision, the message came up that had us punching the air, the bird had just flown in!  A very anxious journey through Hull and along the awfully slow minor roads towards Patrington Haven followed.  As we arrived at Outstray Road around 11, we were concerned to see a lot of birders driving away!  Why was this?
We needn't have worried, as on arrival at a very cold and windy Patrington Channel, the Ivory Gull was immediately in view, preening on the shoreline rocks. Yes!
What we really wanted next was to see it closer, or at least in flight, but it gave us a very long and cold wait, presumably digesting it's mornings meal, safe in the knowledge that it's food source was reliable.
It was nice chatting to some of the New Generation Birders as I waited, including Espen Quinto-Ashman who I've now bumped into for two weekends in a row since I took him for the Baikal Teal!
Eventually though, after an initial short 'stretching it's wings'-type flight, it flew in towards the salthouse, and gave us wonderful views as it did fly-pasts, and stalled in the wind, virtually overhead, and then down to the unique birdtable, stocked with Mackerel and Carp. 

  It was great watching it as it fed so close, with the constant background claps of camera shutters only a minor distraction.  It had an odd feeding action, vibrating it's beak to break off the flesh, like a jack hammer.
After half an hour or so, after a quick drink and wash in the puddles, it all of a sudden took off, and headed back out onto the estuary.  Such a pleasure to see this bird, and without doubt my bird of the year.

The whole day was tiring, but ultimately rewarding, and I have to say, being in the middle of it all as the news of the Steller's Eider in Lothian broke (a bird Garry needs) on the way back was quite surreal!

Thanks to Garry and William for making the day so enjoyable.

Wishing everyone a happy Christmas and new year!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

At Eleven near the Severn was Seventh Heaven


With nothing particularly dynamic in mind, I thought it'd be worth a look at Ferrybridge and Portland Harbour this morning. 

On arrival, the mudflats were virtually empty, so I set up to look out into the harbour.  I managed to scan through all the Red-breasted Merganser, and count 80 birds.  A single female Common Scoter was spotted briefly amongst them, before diving.  Also at great distance, I was able to find the female Eider from a couple of days ago, and in the same area were the Black-necked Grebes.  In the swell, it was rather tricky to count them, though I think there were 16.

On about my 3rd scan, I came across a Razorbill fairly close-in in the middle of the harbour.  I was surprised to then discover that the black-and-white bird keeping close company with it was not another Auk, but the female Long-tailed Duck, a Portland tick!  Attempts at getting a photo were futile in the howling wind!

With still plenty of the morning left, I couldn't decide what to do next.  I then noticed that the Common Crane were being reported again near Cheselbourne, north-east of Dorchester.  I wasn't planning on seeing these birds, but as they weren't far away, I thought why not? 

On arrival, the two juvenile Crane were immediately in view, slowly pecking away at the fallen maize in the middle of a field. 

A Grey Heron was sitting on the edge of the same field, and made a great comparison.  It was made to look like a midget!  The Cranes looked rather nervous throughout, particularly when a Buzzard flew over, so it wasn't a great surprise when they flew off majestically, about 20 minutes into my vigil.

A few people had started to see Woodcock about the place, so I thought come the evening, it would be worth a little stroll round the Suckthumb Quarry area.  No luck on that score, but I enjoyed watching the socialising antics of around 50 Magpie as they came into roost at The Hump.  I visited on a subsequent night to try and make a more accurate count, but managed a similar number.
Venus was shining bright, as the last glimpse of the suns rays lit the western horizon.
With a pair of quality targets in sight, a journey back up to Gloucestershire would surely be worthwhile.
With no travel issues, I got to Brierley in the Forest of Dean at 8:30 with the sun shining and not a breath of wind, and set out for Serridge Ridge. 
On the ridge itself, there was a distinct lack of Crossbills, though I did make the interesting observation of 4 Common Crossbill feeding on Beech-mast, by nibbling at the seedpods in the tree-tops, in a similar fashion to feeding from cones.  This seems a little odd, seeing as they had a load of Larch trees right next door!
After my last trip here, I'd got to know the area pretty well, so I was able to whiz round all the likely spots in the area, to no avail.  Back near the village, I suddenly noticed a flock of large finches with white in the wings feeding in the tree tops. Surely now!  No, they were Hawfinch!  I've never been so disappointed to see those!
Up to this point, I had had no internet signal, so I couldn't check on the news of the nearby Desert Wheatear.  With the rain now falling, and the wind increasing, I took the decision to get back to shelter in the car for lunch, and try and find some signal.  It's odd, cause I got plenty the last time I was here.
Well, a round trip through Cinderford and Coleford later, and nothing!  I stopped at the Speech House car park to have lunch, and miraculously, some signal appeared.  'No sign of the Desert Wheatear', damn!  Was I to dip both my targets, as well as score a seventh dip for 2-bars?
I thought I may as well spend the rest of the day searching the woods, seeing as I had no reason to get away.  I realised that it was okay to drive up to the ridge itself, and on arrival I got full internet signal, and news that the Two-barred Crossbills had been seen again!  I rushed down the track, and on arrival I could hear the distinctive trumpeting of the birds, but where were they?  A bit of enquiring, and it appeared they had just flown off.  Not again!
I was told which direction they had flown in, so took a quick look at some Larches nearby.  Nothing.  On getting back to the small group of birders, there were whispers that not all the birds had gone, and in fact at least one was still up in the trees, apparently hiding in some Ivy.  That didn't sound all that likely, I mean, that's not normal Crossbill behaviour, and yes it was pretty dull, but surely they weren't thinking of roosting yet!? 
A few minutes of standing in the rain later, getting more and more miserable, when suddenly the 'meep meep' trumpet call echoed round the woods.  A Two-barred Crossbill was in that Ivy!  Not long after, the bird took flight, and thankfully landed not too far away atop a Larch, still calling.  Despite my rather clouded optics, I could still clearly see the features of the gorgeous male!  Yes!  Finally!  It wasn't there for long, as it was clearly trying to locate it's mates that had abandoned it!  No time for photos sadly, but mustn't complain!
It was a shame the Wheatear was not seen again, but I really don't care too much, as I saw the main target! Will I be able to beat the total of six dips for a species in the future? I hope not!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Teal or No Teal?

If you're short on time, I'd urge you to scroll down to the Baikal Teal twitch.  I've only got another couple of days to catch up on, but I wouldn't think any less of you of you wished to bypass these, in comparison, very uneventful days!


I spent a morning mooching around the Ferrybridge and Portland Harbour area, but found little to show for it.  Nonetheless, it was still enjoyable in perfect sunny conditions.

I started round at Sandsfoot Castle, as it's often the best point to view the harbour.  Unfortunately, on this occasion it was rather quiet there, with just two flocks, of 6 and 2, Black-necked Grebe out of the ordinary.  It goes without saying that despite doing everything in my power to scrutinise ever bit of the harbour, someone later counted 15!

I then had a nice watch from the visitor centre at Ferrybridge, as the tide receded.  The light enabled me to fully appreciate all the plumage features of the gathered Gulls and Brent Geese, such as these immature Great Black-backed Gull.

And I also found a striking Common Gull that could be a serious trap for the unwary, sporting as it did a perfect ring round it's bill.

As I was photographing it, the view got interrupted... the long-staying Black Brant got in the way!

Finally, I suddenly noticed a small flock of Skylark feeding close-by, on the seaweed on the edge of the mudflats.


All the birding I got in today was a brief look at Bincleaves Corner, which is the northernmost extreme of Portland Harbour, before I started work in Weymouth.

Yet again, despite the calm conditions, nothing of note in the harbour, but on the wrong side of the breakwater from my point of view was a single female Eider (which presumably later entered the harbour, when it was seen by Joe).


When I got my new car, I told myself that I really should get back into twitching again.  This was largely inspired by the remarkable year the UK has had for twitchable rare birds, with the likes of the Great Snipe, Pacific Swift, Hermit Thrush, and Orphean Warbler all being at the forefront of my mind.  So, to that end, I have decided to try and go for as many of the twitchable good birds that turn up in the UK from now on, though with the restriction of mainland only. 

The first long-distance possibility occurred yesterday, with the appearance, and subsequent stamp of approval, of the Baikal Teal in Lancashire.  As it will be for all these long-distance trips, I ideally needed to find others to share travel costs with.  It came to my attention that a few guys in the New Generation Birders Facebook group were keen to go, including some that were conveniently positioned along my route.

So, we were all set, and the first challenge was getting up at 3am!  That done, I first headed the 150 miles to Hereford to pick up Espen Quinto-Ashman, then another 35 miles onto Kidderminster for Craig Reed, as the day dawned.  Assembled, we did the final 120 mile stint up to Southport, and got there at 9:30, in overcast conditions.

I initially wasn't sure where to park, and my best guess turned out to be a bit wide of the mark, as we had to walk a fair way along the coast road before we got to the area the bird had been yesterday.  Nevertheless, we thought it wise to scrutinise all the Wigeon and Teal flocks on the way, and boy was that a task!  There were hundreds of them! 

A view out onto part of Crossens Outer Marsh, as the sun attempts to break through.

I say part, as the area was massive, with the vast Ribble Estuary saltmarsh on the other side of the road in addition.  I don't envy the job of the WeBS counters for the area!

As we were about to arrive at the line of scanning birders, we received the dreaded 'no sign' message, and our hearts dropped.  We carried on regardless, as with so many duck about, we felt confident it had to be here somewhere! 

Once at the beginning of the seawall, I thought it best to let the others carry on, while I rushed back to get the car.  There was a hellish biting wind blowing, and I don't think any of us could have coped with having to fight our way back to where I'd parked it, particularly if we dipped!

I was almost at the car, when I got a phone call from Craig.  I could barely hear a word he said, as the wind was obviously howling at the exposed seawall where he was!  But, did he really mention something about the bird being found? I wasn't sure!

Anyway, once I'd driven round to the seawall, I was met with a stampede of twitchers, as they frogmarched in a long line towards the road.  A mass exodus like that can only mean one thing!  I overheard a few words from some of them, and all I could gather was that the bird had been found at Marshside, which I took to mean the main reserve.  Hence, why I waited for Espen and Craig to appear, so we could drive round, rather than head off on my own.  I had barely noticed that all the birders had been disappearing down a nearby path, rather than jumping in their cars! 

Once the guys had returned, I learnt that the bird was actually not far away at all, adjacent to Crossens Outer Marsh. 

On arrival at the long line of birders, there was a little confusion, as the bird was sleeping in the middle of a large group of Wigeon, with very few markers nearby!  It was a bit of a struggle, but eventually I found the stunning Baikal Teal, and it stuck out much more than I expected, like a foreigner in fact!

The sun was now out and behind us at this point, and we all got really good views, although the bird was rather distant, and largely inactive. 

A couple of phonescoped shots, the latter using full zoom on the telescope eyepiece.

And this was the view with the naked eye (you can just see the flock in the distance).  Thank goodness for optics!

I would have liked to have watched it for longer, particularly to see it more active.  Reluctantly though, we really had to leave if we wanted to have a go for the Two-barred Crossbills in the Wyre Forest on the way back.

I couldn't resist getting a crowd shot on the way out.

We knew things would be tight what with such a short amount of light at this time of year, but I hadn't really factored in traffic.  It wasn't that bad really, but by the time we'd got to Kidderminster, the sun was almost at the horizon, so I don't think there would have been any chance of catching the birds before they roosted.  A real shame, as we could have spent more time at the Teal!  Hey ho.

In reality though, I think we were all grateful for getting home a bit earlier, cause it had been a very long and tiring day!  I dropped off Craig, then Espen, before getting home to Portland myself just past 8. 

Thoroughly enjoyable!  Maybe an Ivory Gull or two next?  Perhaps more realistically, a Pacific Diver!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Loxia hexadippa


I wanted to do a twitch today, but didn't want to go too far.  I decided on the New Forest, as it's always worth a visit and a Two-barred Crossbill had been newly discovered there.

I arrived at the site north of Lyndhurst a little later than I'd hoped, which was purely down to laziness.  Well, little did I know this would be costly, as I bumped into three guys just leaving, who had seen the bird as it left it's roost. 

I had a good walk round the area, but just came across a small group of 5 Crossbill feeding in a Pine.  It didn't take long for me to realise that the bird was very unlikely to appear any time soon, as it had probably gone off to feed elsewhere for the day.  A couple of Marsh Tit were around.

So, I was eager to at least twitch something successfully, so I thought I may as well go and see the Lesser Yellowlegs down the road at Lepe country park.  Not a lifer, but it was no trouble at all finding on the main pool at Stansore Point, and I enjoyed watching it feeding alongside two Spotted Redshank as well as Redshank for comparison.

A bit of video of it preening, then feeding close-in.

This was another site I had not been to before, and it looked so promising for migrants, what with the pools and scrub.  I have heard though that it's unfortunately under-watched.  The pool at Stansore Point that held the Yellowlegs.

A view offshore to the Isle of Wight.

Looking for birds on the flat-calm sea was hampered by the presence of the Coastguard doing a training exercise.

As the day drew to a close, I thought I'd try something different, and so headed for Slufter's Inclosure, west of the A31.  There had been a possible Parrot Crossbill reported here earlier in the week, so I thought it was worth a go. 
Unfortunately, the place was deadly quiet, though I did eventually find a nice flock of 20 or so Crossbill to scrutinise, to no avail.  Although, I was interested to hear the noise two birds made when they got into a squabble.  It was lower-pitched than their normal call, and not something I've heard before.
Anyway, it was still an enjoyable outing.

I got up early and headed out, cause I had a long drive ahead of me. 

I had finally succumbed to the Two-barred Crossbills in the Forest of Dean, as they appeared to be fairly reliable. 

The trip wasn't brilliant, particularly due to my sat-nav choosing to take me through the centre of Bristol at rush hour, which was not a good move!  Anyway, I got to the car park between Lydney and Cinderford at about 9. 

It was a long trek to the site where they'd been seen the day before, but the place was jam-packed with birds.  I'd never been to the Forest of Dean before, and I can now see why it's so renowned.  There were Siskin, Redpoll, Nuthatch, Brambling, and Jay everywhere, and it was great to see some species I've really missed being on Portland!

I went through the clearing at Crabtree Hill, that until recently held a Great Grey Shrike, though not today.

Without a map, I was largely relying on memory of looking at the area on the internet to get me to the correct area, and this was remarkably successful.  That's more than can be said for the matter at hand though, as in the first hour, I barely saw a Crossbill at all.  Sightings were more prevalent as the day progressed, as I wandered about checking the vast areas of Larch woodland, but still no 2-bars. 
I was delighted to hear two, and see one Willow Tit though, which I was not expecting at all.  Raven were frequent, and a calling Bullfinch in a Larch got my hopes up (the 2-bar call is said to be Bullfinch-like).
I also came across a lot of signs of Wild Boar activity, including footprints and plenty of scuffed-up soil.
After lunch, I checked out some of their former haunts, back at Crabtree Hill, but stumbled only on a ringing operation, which seemed to be targeting Redpoll and Siskin.
I finally gave up as dusk approached, and so concluded my SIXTH dip for Two-barred Crossbill this autumn.  Something tells me I should give up now, but I just don't think I will have a better opportunity to see this species, than this year with so many about!
I did still enjoy the day.  But, imagine my frustration when I found out today that the birds had been seen on the morning I was there.  I'm certain I walked on the exact track as well, only finding a small flock of Commons.

I've got an unexpected day off tomorrow, and I'd like to try for the American Golden Plover in Cornwall, but as it stands, I really don't feel like the long journey!  Maybe I'll do something novel, and try a little Portland birding! ;-)