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Saturday, 23 February 2013

Harlequin

Just got back from another mega twitch to Scotland - this time with Gordon Kemp, Ashley Howe and Kevin Hale. I managed three lifers and there was a good selection of other birds. While waiting on Skye for the ferry to Lochmaddy we enjoyed a superb aerial display by a White-tailed Eagle and two Golden Eagles competing for the same airspace. Other birds from the quay and from the ferry included two Black Guillemots, three Great Northern Divers, a Red-throated Diver, three Rock Pipits and several Eiders and Shags but the sea was generally very quiet. Hooded Crows and Ravens were kicking about - still novelties for me.


 
White-tailed Eagle (left) and Golden Eagle, Uig

White-tailed Eagle (middle bird vertically) and Golden Eagles, Uig

White-tailed Eagle (far right) and Golden Eagles, Uig

White-tailed Eagle, Uig

The ferry wasn't a bad ride and served a decent enough breakfast - upon docking up we drove straight towards Balrandald RSPB - the hundreds of geese feeding by the side of the road were tempting to scan through but had to wait until we'd seen our main quarry! After crossing several fields and variously negotiating a series of fences we reached the beach where the bird had been seen that morning. No more than five minutes passed before the beautiful first-winter drake HARLEQUIN was picked up, and it was a fine duck indeed! It wasn't far offshore and a rocky protusion allowed closer views but you had to mind your step as it would have been just so easy to break an ankle... or your neck. The tide was beginning to slowly come in so we retreated and had further views from back on the beach, at which point the bird had landed itself on a rocky island. It tried to preen and rest but needed to go higher up as the waves kept sweeping it off its feet. We made the most of this rare and spectacular sight and also had views of a fine first-winter Glaucous Gull, 23 Purple Sandpipers and a Bar-tailed Godwit before walking back to the car. We located a flock of 150-200-ish finches which were a mix of Twites and Linnets. This attracted the attraction of a female Merlin which zipped through the flock in an attempt to pick one off but failed and flew low away.

Harlequin, Balrandald RSPB

Purple Sandpipers, Balranald RSPB

Our next target was the Richardson's Canada Goose. Lee Evans and his carload had left the Harlequin before us and had already pinpointed the said goose in with the Barnacle Geese so we parked up to scan the flock to our left and Kevin and Ash who were on the left side of the car clocked it straight away but the flock suddenly launched into the air just before Gordon and I could lay eyes on it - bugger! Eventually the flock re-settled, though more distantly and the RICHARDSON'S CANADA GOOSE evaded me no longer. A tiny goose, with a noticable white crescent just below the black of its neck. Just on the other side of the road, a female Ring-necked Duck and two Whooper Swans made for a couple of bonus species. A bit of a surprise (to say the least) was a drake Mandarin - apparently and very believably a Western Isles MEGA! Surely the closest this beautiful duck has perhaps ever been to its nearest competitor in terms of good looking wildfowl in/around Europe (the Harlequin)?

Richardson's Canada Goose

female Ring-necked Duck

There was one more star bird left to go so we found our way to Loch Paible where the very flighty pair of Snow Geese were located by Ash - three out of three hoped-for lifers for me so I was truly satisfied. A carload of other young birders including Olly Metcalf and Andrew Kinghorn had found a specimen first-winter 'Kumlien's' Gull near the Harlequin site so in hope of seeing this and getting a final look at the main bird we returned to the original site. This went pear-shaped when my faulty eyepiece seemed to no longer be attached to my scope and we spent half an hour or so zig-zagging across a field, wondering where the hell it had gone, only for Gordon to spot it resting in the dangling eye-piece cover. Doh! A bit of a waste of time but never mind. Light was fading so we sought accomodation, the local youth hostel being what we plumped for. After a good night's sleep we were off for the early ferry back to Skye (where I trip-ticked Fulmar and Gannet) and we were skillfully driven back home by Gordon. Thanks very much Gordon, Kevin and Ash for a very worthwhile and enjoyable twitch.

Snow Geese, Loch Paible

Monday, 18 February 2013

Stonechat

I was anticipating a Stonechat in the next week or two so it was satisfying to find one this morning. My 59th bird of the year at the patch. Jamie needed it so he came over but it gave him the run around for a while. Also a small handful of Siskins over plus three Common Buzzards including the wintering two which were bickering over a dead rabbit, and the Red-legged Partridge in Infront George Field.

Stonechat
Common Buzzards with rabbit carcass

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Bonaparte's Gull and Stodmarsh


Liam and I arranged to meet up for a day's birding today so I picked him up from Dorking at 11.00am and we set off for Stodmarsh, seeing as the apparently reliable Penduline Tit had come on the pager. As we were approaching the exit for Eastbourne the Bonaparte's Gull bleeped up so instead of this being our second destination we made a split second decision to secure this bird first. With it being a warm day for February and very sun-shiny I expected there to be tons of punters at this coastal spot gasping for an early taste of the warmer days to come but it wasn't too bad and parking was pretty straightforward. As was finding the BONAPARTE'S GULL. It showed down to thirty or forty feet in brilliant sunshine. I remarked that for a bird so close, so slow and in such strong light it was a right bugger to photograph. This was mainly because it seemed to have either severe OCD, a boredom complex or a nasty itch - it wouldn't stop bloody preening itself (especially its right wing) so getting the sharp, evenly lit profile shot that I wanted took a bit of time. This was a lifer for Liam. Only a plumage tick for me but by far my best views!







The Bonaparte's Gull could be picked out with the naked eye from its small size and endless preening!


We watched the bird for about half an hour then pointed east for Penduline Tit. Which one, though? Dungeness was nearer but the Stodmarsh bird had more of a history of showing reliably, so we plumped for this bird. As we approached the towering city walls of Canterbury, we suddenly ended up under a huge blanket of thick cloud which also loomed over Stodmarsh and this lowered the light and temperature levels considerably. When we arrived the Penduline Tit hadn't been seen in nearly an hour and despite a fair bit of searching we couldn't locate it. As dusk approached we trudged along Lampen Wall to watch the harriers come to roost. No Marsh Harriers surprisingly but we did get spectacular views of a wonderful male Hen Harrier and three ringtails. Water Rails and Cetti's Warblers excerised their voices across the marsh and on the main lake there were a number of Great Crested Grebes and Pochards.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Giving up the ghost



Local birders will be very familar with the events of September last year that changed birding in Surrey and at Beddington but hardly anything has been said about it on the internet, apart from here. I've felt little desire to say anything about it until now, partly because it has only recently become an event of the not-so-recent past and partly because my thoughts about the event have been building and developing over the months, but now I feel a need to transfer these thoughts into writing.

On Tuesday 25th September 2012 I was sitting in the college library when a tweet and text were delivered to my phone from Johnny Allan calmly noting that a 'Long-tailed Skua flew SW'. Little did I know, this was the end of an era. At first I assumed that he'd seen the bird and would be posting pictures and waxing lyrical about it on his blog later in the day but as the hours passed and I had a few conversations with other local birders and thought about the messages some more, I wondered whether he'd missed the bird. It was odd for him to tweet such a bird before texting it out and when he had previously struck gold the excitement in his grip-off text was undeniable. It soon resolved that he had missed the bird and he had gone home in a huff; this was perfectly predictable behaviour for 'Badgeman' - he did have a short temper. If a bus was in front of the car when I on a trip with him or if a gull that he was photographing walked out of view you'd soon hear the A-Z of curse words recited several times over. And he did not take dipping or missing birds well, that was for sure.

The next day, he wasn't back. Nor the next, nor the next. And nor was his website and blog that he took down the evening of that fateful day. 'Surely he'll be back in a week's time?' I thought, but still no sign of him and he wasn't replying to messages or answering people's calls. As more time passed I thought he'd be back in a month or two, maybe after his trip to Portland that he was telling me about. Perhaps in the New Year. He just needed a break and he'd return to normal activity? But he still hasn't returned. I learned that he had left his post on the Surrey Bird Club records committee and I thought this was very telling. His vanishing has been the subject of an interesting mix of amusement and concern in the birding community.

There have been no reported sightings of him apart from at Portland in late October, a month after the skua - a sighting which I predicted as he had told me of his plans for a short break over there. This was comforting in that it showed he was still birding, although he may have given up his Beddington and Surrey hardcore listing forever. This I sympathised with. He'd put many years of constant effort into Beddington and Surrey birding and the law of diminishing returns meant that, for someone primarily driven by ticks, he was well and truly burnt out. He was lucky to get one or two additions to these local lists each year and missing any tick, let alone a second-for-Surrey, was bound to hurt badly. As rewarding as local birding can be, I suspect Johnny might have, at some level, felt trapped by it; because of his dedication to birding at Beddington and listing in Surrey he felt insecure enjoying more varied trips further afield for fear of missing something important. Missing a second-for-Surrey shortly after a failed quest for the Magnolia Warbler and following a largely quiet and frankly average last year or two birding at Beddington (in which most of his birding colleagues apparently had at least a slightly easier time of adding new birds than he), it must have seemed a good moment to escape the psychological prison sentence that the hardened patch-watcher can perhaps be drawn into. I believe this final throw of his toys represented a frustration that had been building and congealing for some time. Maybe he needed to reflect on what he was getting out of his birding and perhaps consider thinking about it or approaching it in a different way, as touched on here.



I have to admit that the disappearance of Johnny Allan has had a personal effect on me. He was very much a part of my early proper birding experiences. From the age of seven I had a keen interest in birds but it was only really from the age of ten or eleven that I began actively birding to a degree and it was at the age of twelve that I first visited Beddington Sewage Farm. I'd purused Johnny's website for months before visiting and felt in awe of the birds he'd seen both nationally and locally and the prospect of seeing birds like the ones that decorated his retro-style webpages filled my pre-teen self with great excitement and enthusiasm for the wonderful hobby that I was starting to get more heavily involved in. I eagerly visited Beddington for the first time, thrilled at seeing the legendary lakes and lagoons and the humbly historical 'green monestry' of a tin hut hide. Meeting Johnny was exciting for me and I still remember it - he seemed the epitome of a cool, die-hard, experienced and well-travelled birder who'd laid eyes on all sorts of goodies and really knew what he was doing. His khaki jacket, thick cigars and numerous pin-badges from various corners of the country added to his unique persona. Dodge laid a similar impression on me and I was brimming with enthusiasm to come back and bird with these people. I came back regularly, though timidly, only coming in when invited despite a gaping hole in the fence (it took me a while to feel like I was one of the birders there). I saw a handful of interesting birds and had fun. These were formative and happy hours spent at the sewage farm.

The following year I was still coming back but, as an impressionable kid turning into a teenager I ended up in the middle of a social clash between Johnny and another birder at the farm. I looked up to and liked both in different ways - they were both very unique individuals and I felt I gained from being with both of them in different ways. And I did, I learnt a lot from both sides and from the conflict itself. These experiences taught me a hell of a lot about how birders' minds work, how birding works and how people in general work. I went on for another year and a bit, though it doesn't seem like it was that long, juggling trying to be friends with both sides and learning more about birders, birds, birding and life on the way but after a while it became too much for me. Beddington had given me a lot but because of the tense and unsettled environment, I fled to pastures new. My first choice was Canons Farm and I haven't looked back - it's a great site with some equally great birders, I'm proud to call it my birding home. Like Beddington, Canons has developed me as a birder and taught me much into my late teens, seeing me into birding as a young adult.

I still go to Beddington now and then, I still enjoy it; the social tension over there ended long ago, quite some time before Johnny jumped ship, as it were. It's not the same place without Johnny Allan, though. Johnny gave a comforting sense of consistency to the site's slowly evolving personality and layout. For nearly six years, from my pivotal first visit to Beddington until late September last year, I knew that most times I paid the sewage farm a visit the same familar face, jacket and packet of cigars - one of the symbols of my early days birding - would be there to offer anecdotes and information that I found engaging, exciting and sometimes inspiring. When I found something, at Beddington or Canons, I'd often call Johnny instead of text him because hearing him say 'Nice one devil-birder, I'm on my way' added to the excitement and buzz of it all. Twitches with him and Franko provided an occasional window into twitching's hardcore and back into birding's arguable heyday which I'd otherwise only read in books.

The fact that he vanished from my familar schema of birding so suddenly has caused me a degree of distress and it has certainly had an effect on birding in general at Beddington and in Surrey - the two places over which he ruled supreme and was the first person a birder covering either of these areas wanted to know. I've been by no means heartbroken over it, Johnny and I were never best friends: although we saw eye-to-eye on many levels and largely got on well, we perhaps never fully clicked and Johnny had his faults (as do I and everybody). At a time our relationship was very uneasy and even verging on hostile but apart from this brief difficult period we were friends and he symbolised a lot to me. In some ways he was a birding role-model. I'm the sort of person that really doesn't like change, so this element of my personality, combined with the fact that I know that when I'm fifty I'll look back at Beddington and Johnny as some of my earliest birding memories, has made this loss to the local birding community perhaps more significant to me. I'll miss Badgeman's omnipresence on the Surrey and Beddington scenes. His swift exit should be heeded as a warning sign to birders everywhere. Thanks, Johnny, for the guidance and information you gave me, and I hope you're well. That's got a certain amount off my chest.

Kittiwake

I had a very brief visit to Beddington around mid-day, mainly to have lunch and kill the hour spare I had - didn't see too much in my brief session other than two Shelducks and the usual Tree Sparrows, Lapwings and assorted ducks. I returned to college and on the bus back I got a text from Dodge about a first-winter Kittiwake on the main lake at Beddington. I'm proud to say I've found my own at Beddington, an adult last February, but that was a fly-by so the prospect of seeing a grounded local bird was appealing. Dad was done with the car for the day so I drove to Beddington as soon as I got home and found the bird sitting in the south-east corner of the main lake and being very approachable. However, this was mainly because it was clearly knackered as you can see just by looking at the pics. I hope it manages to rest overnight and get where it needs to be.


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Just a quick trip

The Pine Grosbeak on Shetland had obviously caught my eye but lately I'd begun to mellow in terms of twitching, at least I thought I had. I had come to realise that it's not worth getting uptight about every mega that turns up hundreds of miles away because a lot of the time it's just impractical getting there. That said, if I need it, it's rare enough and I can go for it then I will, so when I got a call from Michael and Dan saying that a lift was on the cards with Kevin McCoy I jumped at the chance.

In the early hours of the morning we set off from Reigate, it was great to catch up with Dan and Mike and to meet Kevin but I wasn't used to being awake at that time in the morning. We arrived in Aberdeen late morning (Red Kite seen by the road somewhere in Scotland before this), where we gobbled a top notch serving of Maccy D's in no time before heading to Blackdog for a quick bit of birding. On the sea there were about 25 Long-tailed Ducks, 5-10 Red-throated Divers, 80-odd Common Scoters, 7 or so Red-breasted Mergansers, 30 Eiders and a Guillemot, plus a couple of Harbour Porpoise and fourteen Pink-footed Geese were clocked flying over. Kevin was in contact with Lee Evans who was on Shetland with about 25 other birders - Lee was put on loudspeaker and the news was very frustrating: despite everybody's best efforts and favourable conditions, there was no sign of the bird. We'd already booked our tickets for the ferry and, with the bird having been present since November, it would surely be unrealistically unlucky for it to have departed just when we were making the pilgrimage?!? It was unnerving, nonetheless.

Long-tailed Ducks, Blackdog

With time ticking, the enjoyable seabird-watching session came to an end and we drove back to Aberdeen. As we parked the car, a Mallard started quacking in the car - oh no it was Kev's phone: Lee Evans. This could only be good news... 'KEV THE BIRD'S HERE, IT'S STILL HERE!!!!!!!!!!!' bellowed the infamous voice. What a relief! We knew it was probably still there somewhere but it was so reassuring to know that it had actually been seen the day before we were due to be on the island. With that, we collected our bags and raced to the boat (interrupted by trying to fathom the parking system for about fifteen minutes), secured a cosy-looking corner to kip for the long night ahead and settled down. The Northlink ferry was a vessel of luxury compared to the good old Scillonian, however that didn't help the fact that the boat leapt like a dolphin through the big oncoming waves, which wasn't conducive to sleep. Minutes passed like hours and the prospect of chasing the elusive bird around after two virtually sleepless nights did not feel good. Then our guardian angel came in the form of Kevin who had found a free cabin that slept four; this was at 11.00pm. We slept like babies till 6.30am when we got ready to disembark from the ferry and complete our journey. Arriving at Lerwick, we didn't have to wait too long for the hire car and then we were off. The weather wasn't the best, with overcast conditions and constant drizzle but it was still birdable.

45 minutes later and we parked up at North Collafirth, already having picked up Black Guillemot from the car park at Lerwick and Hooded Crows and Ravens while on the move. Kev and I decided it would be wise to don waterproof over-trousers while Dan and Mike approached the bird's favoured plantation and one of the other carloads that we met on the ferry arrived. We'd only just hitched our leggings up when Dan and Mike shouted that the other lads had got the bird. We ran the fifty yards between us and them, but not quickly enough. The bird had decended into the conifers and all I caught was a twig moving. One of the Cleveland birders picked it up again briefly again but again Kev and I couldn't get on it so we went to the sheltered side of the plantation and played the call from my iphone briefly. BINGO! There was the PINE GROSBEAK sat in the open in all it's glory, calling away!!! I was expecting to be impressed but didn't anticipate the intense high and satisfaction from laying eyes on this big chunky beauty of a visitor! It showed well for five minutes or so before it called again and flew towards Housesetter. Wow! I wasn't expecting it to be that easy. The trip was worth it there and then whatever happened next but we wanted further views so drove round to the other gardens it had been frequenting. It didn't take long here either, with the bird affording spectacular views and calling frequently for over an hour before it took a break from its performance.  Also at Housesetter: a Waxwing flew over, a Twite perched near the grosbeak and Hooded Crows and Ravens gave good performances while my first-ever Otter completed a tranquil scene on a still lake in the now clear weather, not forgetting a drake Goldeneye and a small handful of Wigeons and Redshanks.


Pine Grosbeak, Housesetter. What a bird!
Happy twitchers at Housesetter - our car-load being the right-hand four at the back - pic by Hugh Harrop (Nature in Shetland/Hugh Harrop Wildlife Photography)
Michael, Dan and Kevin after a scopeful of grosbeak
Housesetter views
Twite, Housesetter
Hooded Crow, Housesetter

We were star-struck; the grosser certainly made it into my top five all-time rarities. We took this as the perfect moment to grab from fish and chips from Scotland's third best chippy where we hatched plans as to what to do next. The next rarest bird on the island was at Burra so we hit the road for there where a few pringles and buns soon drew in the first-winter Ring-billed Gull which put on a good show. This was a plumage tick for me and quite an education as I'd been waiting for an opportunity to get experience with this age of R-b Gull in the field; the extra faded half effect to the tailband when the bird was seen in flight was one of its most striking features. A few Turnstones and a Redshank showed here.

Ring-billed Gull, Burra

We were after Iceland Gull mainly after this so drove a short distance to Scalloway to grill the gulls. It turned out there were very few to scan through but I enjoyed my best ever views of Black Guillemots (including a bird almost in summer plumage) while two distant Slavonian Grebes skillfully picked out by Dan were another highlight along with a single Long-tailed Duck, 30+ Eiders and a close encounter with a first-winter Kittiwake and my sole Ringed Plover of the trip and an Oystercatcher.

Black Guillemot, Scalloway
Black Guillemot, Scalloway
Eiders, Scalloway
Slavonian Grebes, Scalloway
Raven, Scalloway

Continuing the quest for Iceland Gull, we returned to Lerwick where we searched from near the Shetland Catch fish factory. I was very pleased to pick out a second-winter Glaucous Gull distantly on Bressay and Dan spotted another of the same age further along the beach of that island. It turned out there were three birds on show: two second-winters and a first-winter. I'd only ever seen single Glaucs before so this was quite exciting despite the range. There were more Black Guillemots and Eiders here and a nice pair of Long-tailed Ducks but flushing four Common Snipes from the shore was more of a surprise and seven Red-breasted Mergansers were also visible towards Bressay plus a Redshank was present. After enjoying the birds here and meeting a couple of friendly Notts birders we decided it was time to make final preparations before boarding the ferry - restoring the hire car to a full tank and stocking up on junk food. It was then goodbye Shetland and the long journey home began. We learned from the outward crossing and secured a sleeping cabin straight away, Kevin regaled us with tales of twitches and foreign holidays plus a recital from his portfolio of jokes before a relatively undisturbed night's sleep (i.e. Kev's gaseous emissions caused slight sleep infringement). We were as lucky on the drive back as were we on the way up and the M40 was graced by several Red Kites, mainly picked out by Mike's sharp eye.

Glaucous Gulls viewed from Lerwick: first-winter (second bird from left) and second-winter (rightmost)
Shag, Lerwick

Thanks to Kevin for being such an excellent driver and story/joke-teller and for letting me come along on this fantastic trip. Equally, thanks to Dan and Mike for highlighting the opportunity and for providing great company. It was a real ball and almost everything went right to plan, I'm so glad I went and look forward to more such trips in the future!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Yes, Mallard

It was nice to have a long walk around most of the patch today, some of which was made all the merrier by the company of Steve. P-Go, Ian J, Ian M and Cliff also did the rounds. I did a six mile circuit today, taking in a good sample of the patch. For a February day it was worthwhile. A pair of Mallards (scarce outside of March-early June) on Piddly Pond were a surprise year tick, a Peregrine (always scarce here) circled the south east end of Banstead Woods and a Siskin flew over the Banstead Woods orchard. I also caught sight of George the Red-legged Partridge as I was leaving. He's been quite reliable lately, being seen almost exclusively in Infront George Field.

Piddly Pond gold!