Monday, 30 December 2013

Dorset Dash - The Portland Brunnich's Guillemot

This "mega" year has been somewhat frustrating for me. The anticipation of the sound of a mega-alerting pager would change to despondency when the bird I needed was on a far-flung expensive or impossible to reach in a weekend island or in Ireland ( I don't go there), and the mainland megas were all birds I've seen, apart from the Semi-p Plover (bless its little soul). I had written off the rest of the year and was hoping 2014 would turn out to be better. When the pager mega-alerted on Boxing Day I picked it up with trepidation wondering what final disappointment 2013 had for me. The words Brunnich's and Portland caught my eye, a bird I needed on the mainland at last! I ran a quick calculation through my brain, 5 hour plus drive, just over 5 hours of daylight and 2 excited daughters expecting me to take them to see The Hobbit in Norwich at 7pm. The numbers didn't add up.  I  also had to work the next 2 days, my husbands relations were about to arrive from Canada for a late Christmas and with Brunnich's Guillemots not known for hanging around this looked like yet another one I would have to let go.
Arriving at work on Friday morning my pager informed me that the Brunnich's was still present. I began to wonder whether it would hang around as I was free(ish) on Sunday. Amazingly it was still there on Saturday and my phone was going mad with texts and Tweets from friends who had seen the bird whilst I was stuck being very busy at work. My late Christmas dinner that afternoon had to be a dry affair for me as I resolved to get up at 4.30am and head west myself the next morning.
I was on my way by 5am with my Christmas present Sat-nav guiding me on almost deserted frosty roads. From 7.45 as the daylight strengthened, I started to take anxious glances at my pager. The Brunnich's had been on by 8.30 on Friday and Saturday but there had been no messages as that time came and went. My heart sank when I caught the word "No" on the first Brunnich's message of the day, thinking this was a "no sign" message and was a little relieved when I realised it was the lesser but still ominous"no news" but it was still an anxious few minutes before the message came through that it was still there and showing well.
I arrived at my destination in bright sunshine and found birders walking back from the bird down a hill to my right just south of the castle. I was told to "walk up the hill, turn left and you'll see the birders". I followed the instructions and soon came across  a line of khaki clad birders leaning over a castellated wall like defenders at a siege. I joined their ranks and was just putting my scope down when the Brunnich's Guillemot popped up almost in front of me. I hardly had time to lift my bins before it had dived again but it was soon back up and I had my first proper view. It spent the next hour doing circuits in front of the Aqua Hotel almost constantly diving and spending little time on the surface. However at times it came very close in and once surfaced immediately below me giving me a spectacular view. When it dived I could see it swimming away in the clear water.
Eventually it moved off into the marina and started doing loops around the pontoon in front of an admiring crowd. It was a beautiful, almost windless day with a little bit of warmth in the winter sunshine, a huge contrast to the conditions on my previous twitch, and it was a delight to be able to watch this extreme rarity.

There were other birds of note too. The Black Guillemot was feeding in just one small area near a pink buoy close to the breakwater and a Great Northern Diver in the marina was one of at least 3 in the harbour. I also saw a Red-necked Grebe, 2 Black-throated Divers, good numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers, dapper drakes with their punky females, and a steady stream of other auks flying in and out of Portland Harbour.
It was time to move on and stopping at Radipole Lake I had a look at the Hooded Merganser which was ridiculously tame. I counted at least 23 Med Gulls amongst the roosting gulls in front of the visitor centre and Cetti's Warblers were in good voice.

After a reviving piece of cake and a cup of coffee at the RSPB visitor centre I went up the road to see the Glossy Ibis which was feeding in the rather unusual location of a wet playing field next to a children's play area and also giving excellent views. It was a superb day and 2013 went out with a bang after all!

Happy New Year to all my readers!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Grey Phalarope at Walberswick

Mid-December and there is just too little daylight to do everything I want to do. Work, of course, takes up most of the light during the week and I had to work yesterday too so I had to wait until today to travel the relatively short distance to Walberswick to look for the Grey Phalarope. I arrived at the harbour car-park in bright sunshine. A line of birders was stood on the bank by the car-park so I was hopeful the phalarope was showing, however the news was negative. Yesterday it had been showing opposite the Southwold Harbourside Inn so I was expecting to have to walk along the river wall but the Environment Agency were at work rebuilding the bank where it had collapsed during the floods and the footpath was closed.
I suggested that it was worth walking down the path from the Common that led to the bailey bridge across the river but with seemingly little enthusiasm from the other birders I headed off to Palmers Lane on my own. The pull off before the No Vehicle Access sign where I parked my car was empty but nearing the river wall a few other birders had obviously had the same idea and were converging on a man wearing a fluorescent jacket and Environment Agency logo who was guarding the fence closing the river wall footpath at its western end. Fortunately he was happy to allow us to walk along the undamaged part of the footpath up to the barrier marking the newly repaired but as yet unwalkable section with him escorting us. It turned out that early in the morning the Phalarope had been up by the common path but had flow eastwards towards one of the middle pools that now covered what had previously been grazing marshes. The weather had suddenly become very gloomy and for a while there was no sign whatsoever of the phalarope. Suddenly I spotted the bird through the reeds feeding in the channel near the river wall away to our left. It picked its way to and fro across the channel coming gradually closer but seeming to stop at a band of reed debris where it would turn and head away from us again. I've said it before but I'll say it again that phalaropes are my favourite group of waders. Although a little more robust than Red-necked this was still a dainty bird especially when it started preening itself delicately flicking its bill though its feathers.
It was too distant and too dull for me to take any photos but there are some excellent photos on the Suffolk BINS website.
Many thanks to the Environment Agency guy for being so helpful. Talking to him it seems the Environment Agency are working flat out from 6am right in the night to 1am every day to try and repair the broken sea-defences before the next big high tides on 18-19th February. The digger at Walberswick is one of the few floating diggers in the country, there being no room on the seawall for a conventional tracked digger, so its going to be kept busy.

Friday, 13 December 2013

First tagged Marsh Harrier sighting (in Belgium)!

There was huge excitement this morning when I received an e-mail telling me that one of the Marsh Harrier chicks (DX) that was tagged on the marshes here in June (see my blog on June 30th) had been photographed in Belgium on the 11th December.
Here she is on June 30th:

And click here to see how she looks now.
DX was one of 5 chicks from one nest in a reed-margin along a dyke. Her siblings DT, DV, D2 and D3 all fledged successfully. Another nest only 30 yards from DX's also held 5 chicks but only 2 of these, DR and DS, could be caught. DX is the first of the 7 harriers to be reported since the birds left the nest area.
If you see a green-winged tagged Marsh Harrier the easiest way to read the tag is to photograph the bird and then please report the sighting to the Hawk and Owl Trust here. I'd love to know where the rest of "my" harriers have got to!

15/12/13 Stop press: DX is officially the first British ringed Marsh Harrier to turn up in Belgium

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

No birding but lots of birds

Last weekend saw my now annual pilgrimage to Swanwick in north-east Derbyshire for the BTO Conference. Arriving somewhat late due to hideously slow traffic from east Norfolk I unfortunately missed the Friday evening talk on Honey Buzzards but headed straight for the bar to catch up with old friends. After a good nights sleep I made it to breakfast on time (yes, honest) and was ready for the days talks.
This year the theme was 'The life of birds - a struggle for survival' with the emphasis on the ringing side of the BTOs work but the talks, despite featuring numerous graphs and statistics, were still entertaining and fascinating.
We learnt that Buzzards are doing very well in Ireland despite the paucity of mammal species there. It was a surprise to learn that Ireland had no voles until some were discovered in the 1960s in County Kerry probably as a result of a release in the 1920s, and there is also only one species of shrew, the Pygmy. Going further afield to another island, this time Mauritius, we were told of the success of the fight to save the Pink Pigeon but also of the unexpected problems that the necessary artificial feeding of the birds produces. The birds are living much longer than usual and the old but infertile females hang on to the best territories making life difficult for the younger birds!
The Witherby Lecture entitled 'Through birds' eyes' was delivered by Professor Graham Martin, who explained why to him birds are 'bills guided by an eye'. Remarkably, Tawny Owl night vision isn't much better than ours and humans are actually better at localising sound too. I've yet to try out my mouse catching in the dark skills though. Cormorants can't see too well under water either and hunt by grabbing at anything that moves and then bringing their catch to the surface to have a look at it before deciding whether to swallow it. Shovelers, who are largely filter feeders and don't have to look at what they're eating have their eyes placed in a much better position to look for predators than ducks like Wigeon that do need to see what they're grazing. We also learnt why wind turbines and power lines are such a problem for birds such as vultures. The ridges over their eyes, which stop them being dazzled by the sun, prevent them from seeing forwards when they're looking down in search of carrion. This isn't a problem in the unobstructed environment in which they evolved but can be disastrous when humans erect something as big as a wind turbine in their flight path.
After lunch we had talks on Long-tailed Tit survival (surprisingly the weather in May is an important factor in adult survival), Sand Martins (demonstrating the link between their survival and the Sahel rains), an overview of the Icelandic ringing scheme (Snow Buntings top the list for passerines rung) and a hilarious account of Reed Warbler ringing at a Norfolk gravel workings by Dave Leech (an inflatable baby bath makes the ideal container to hold all your ringing gear if you're wearing a wet suit!).
The Annual Dinner followed the afternoon sessions and the AGM (which I didn't attend) and then it was back to the bar. The bar at Swanwick closes at 10.30 but BTO members know how to party! As I stood on the stairs phoning home there was a steady procession of delegates heading for their rooms returning a few minutes later clutching bottles of whisky, wine and crates of beer. I have to admit to missing breakfast the following morning but only to get more sleep after a very late night.
Sunday morning sessions started with an introduction to social media for the less enlightened members of the audience, followed by a talk on tracking seabirds using GPS locators (more modern technology). Auks were discovered to travel from their breeding colonies to feeding grounds much further afield than previously thought with birds from Fair Isle travelling over 340km. The morning and essentially the weekend, bar the raffle draw, ended with a panel discussion on the future of the BTO. I'll refer you to Mark Avery's excellent blog, one of the panellists, for his eloquent (as always) view on this. So another excellent weekend and hopefully I'll be back next year.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Haddiscoe Floods 2013

Living in a house built on the edge of what was once an estuary 1500 years ago has always left us feeling just a little vulnerable to flooding. Reassuringly the house didn't flood in 1953 during the great East coast floods so we've always thought it unlikely although the waters came right up to the bottom of the garden, flooding the marshes. However yesterdays severe flood warnings right along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast had me following the unfurling events nervously.
The day began with a stunning "shepherds warning" sunrise whilst I was out feeding the sheep.

Stuck indoors at work all day I missed the worst of the stormy winds but it was still blowing hard as I arrived home at dusk. Our land was under a Flood Warning so I thought it prudent to move the sheep on the marsh closer up to the house and nearer to (slightly) higher ground in case the worse should happen. Moving sheep in the dark in a howling wind isn't easy and one group headed off in the opposite direction towards our wettest marsh with a daughter in hot pursuit, stumbling in watery pools. Fortunately the sheep were quickly retrieved and driven to relative safety.
The tide in the river at St Olaves is two and half hours behind the coast and so with news coming through of over-topping of sea walls in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, it wasn't until 11.30pm that I drove across the A143 Haddiscoe Dam to check the river at the New Cut. It was a very dark night with the newest of moons just a sliver on the horizon so it was difficult to see much but a loud rushing noise could be heard and my torch beam fell upon a mass of water gushing over the river wall just beyond the bridge, luckily on to the opposite side to the wide expanse of marsh where my marshes lie. I noticed a trickle of water at my feet and decided it would be prudent to leave. Fortunately over night we suffered no flooding.
This morning my route to work was flooded Pic here. However it was passable with care especially by lorries, buses and 4x4s (myself included) but I saw at least 2 cars grind to a halt in the water to the embarrassment of their drivers who had ignored the road closed signs. By lunchtime the tide had risen again and in the daylight it was possible to see the mass of water pouring once more over the Cut and the extent of the flooding.

The sign marks the road out to Haddiscoe Island, the water to the right is usually grazing marsh. We were lucky, this is fortunately the extent of the flooding here. The North Norfolk coast looks devastated and the reserves along the Yare valley sound like they may have suffered too with salt water incursion in to the fen habitats.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Lynford Arboretum

December dawned bright and windless today, perfect winter birding weather. However my daughters had an event to attend in Norwich which required a drop off at Easton at 9.45am and a pick up at 1pm. That 3 1/2 hour window put the coast out of the question but Lynford Arboretum seemed to fit the bill. I had seen 3 Two-barred Crossbills here some weeks ago so it was Hawfinch that I was most interested in, not the much debated winged-barred Crossbill that is exercising minds and blogs on the internet. The excellent new BTO Bird Atlas shows a dramatic decline in Hawfinches especially in East Anglia so recent reports of up to 12 at Lynford would be a spectacular sight. Checking my birding records going back to the 80's the biggest flock I've ever seen was 7 at Epping Forest, followed by a 5 at East Wretham and the rest just ones and twos.
I arrived at Lynford to the calls of a few Common Crossbills that were coming down to drink at the muddy pools in the walled garden. The wing-barred Crossbill had been seen half an hour earlier but not since so I walked straight along the path across the bridge to the horse-paddocks, the favoured haunt of the Lynford Hawfinches. There was a small group of birders here waiting patiently for there had been no sign of any Hawfinch so far that morning. A Kestrel holding vigil on the electricity wires that stretched across the field was being blamed for their absence. A pager message alerted us to a report of 9 Hawfinch by the bridge barely 150 yards away from us, although there was no visible birder presence, and neither had there been any verbal communication from any one who might have been standing there. Myself, and John and Judy Geeson , ambled towards the bridge to get a better view of the trees that lined the stream but of birds or birders there was no sign. Some Common Crossbills flew in to the top of a poplar and posed briefly before heading back to their more usual coniferous habitat. Suddenly I picked up a chunky finch in bounding flight with broad white wing bars heading towards the large trees in the middle of the paddock, a Hawfinch! The bird, a pristine male, perched in the very top of one of the trees, almost shining in the winter sunshine. Returning to the group of birders, there were 2 more birds in the second tree although a little more obscured. A male Bullfinch glowed brilliant red in the same tree, easily visible to the naked eye so intense was the colour of his breast. The Hawfinches moved on and it was time for me to leave too.
 I was outside much of yesterday sorting out soggy sheep in persistent drizzle but the home patch was quiet. After 5 weeks it was time to take the rams out from the ewes. For two rams this involved some deft footwork avoiding their charge, grabbing them around the chin as they came to a halt and quickly applying a halter to lead them home. The third ram is a much more docile beast but was ironically harder to catch as he stuck with his ewes that constantly moved away from us as we approached. Amazingly no ewe had acquired a blue rump from the change in raddle colour of 17 days ago which indicates they all fell pregnant on the first pass and means a lambing period of just 3 weeks of disturbed nights for us next March/April instead of the usual 5. It was also the fateful time to sort out which lambs we're keeping on and which are ready for the freezer.
After doing the sheep I put out our two trail cameras that have been languishing in the house for the last few months. One went out on a post by the scrape, another set to video out by a mink raft on a dyke where we've previously captured photos of otter and water vole. Most of the time I get photos of a Mallard swimming one way and then swimming back but you never know what could be out there.