Saturday, 31 March 2012

Search for The Northern Lights - Luosto, Finland, 23rd - 28th March 2012

Friday 23rd March and we headed off in the car to Heathrow Airport for an overnight stay before flying off to Finland on the 24th. The journey was uneventful with 3 red-legged partridges, a mistle thrush and stock doves being the bird highlights. I have never seen so many stock doves as I have done in the last 3 months, they seem to be everywhere but maybe I am just being more observant. Sadly there were may badger corpses by the roadside again, as there were on the same journey last March when we went to Germany.

A delay at Heathrow Airport meant a tight transfer at Helsinki Airport but we arrived at Rovaniemi for our 80 minute coach transfer to Luosto. It was grey and overcast as dusk fell but everywhere and everything was covered in loads of snow. I kept a look out for birds on the journey although I didn't expect to see much but I was in for a surprise with brief sightings of two new birds. The first was a great grey owl sat on a telegraph pole by the roadside as we sped by, a brief view and unfortunately it had its back to the road but its large size and large head were obvious. Ten minutes later and I saw another owl, this time a hawk owl and again perched on a telegraph pole by the roadside facing towards me but further back from the road. Its smaller and slimmer build with barred pale underparts were obvious again as we sped by.

Luosto in the snow

The view from our balcony

The next day while wandering through the snowy forest around the hotel I saw a songflighting greenfinch along with great tits and willow tits, the willow tits being of the Scandinavian race borealis with white cheeks and grey backs compared to the British kleinschmidti race. I have only ever seen willow tit once in the UK, many years ago in Norfolk, so it was nice to see them showing well feeding in the trees.

The following day a male snow bunting was seen briefly as it flew off when disturbed from outside the main entrance to the hotel. Another walk around the hotel area provided 2 new birds, the first being a black woodpecker flying through the trees giving a distinctive "kruck" call as it landed on a tree branch before flying off again and out of sight. Its all black plumage, large size and flappy, direct flight were obvious despite the poor view as it flew amongst the trees. The 2nd new bird were good views of 4 Siberian Jays showing well and appearing quite fearless as they preened in a pine tree close to the footpath. Great spotted woodpeckers were also seen and heard drumming and "chipping" in the trees.

Siberian Jay
Great Spotted Woodpecker

The only other birds seen were a single hooded crow regularly around the hotel and some magpies and more hooded crows on the coach trip back to the airport at Rovaniemi on the 28th March. And so a total of 11 bird species were seen, more than I had expected and with 4 lifers, not bad going.

Other signs of wildlife were found in the snow - Arctic hare footprints were seen everywhere and a flight print of a presumed willow grouse. Fungi were seen growing on the birch trees.

Arctic Hare footprints (right) and Grouse footprints (left0

Willow Grouse snowprint

Fungus sp. on Birch Tree

A selection of game birds were also seen but not in the way I had hoped for - being stuffed and for sale in a cafe near the hotel!

Black Grouse


Willow Grouse

And so to the Aurora Borealis..... We were given mobile phones which would be sent a text if an Aurora was showing during the night but the weather was not ideal during our stay - it was sunny at times during the day but the nights were snowy and overcast. Some of our group reported seeing the Lights on the first night but by our fourth and final night we had not had so much as a glimpse. On our last night we went to a talk about the Northern Lights and we saw lots of photos and videos of the Lights but the lady giving the talk stated that we had a 99.9% chance of not seeing the Lights that night due to the snow blizzard going on outside! And so we went to bed  - I did wake up at 01:30 and looked out of the window to see that it had stopped snowing but it was still totally overcast and so I went back to bed. However at 02:00 this happened .......

Oh My God !!!!!!!!!!!!
We ran to the balcony in a half asleep, slighty drunk from vodka stagger to be greeted with a green auroral display right in front of us! David looked over to the left and there was an even bigger green display going on and so somehow we managed to get dressed up in our thermal overalls and boots and run out of the hotel and down to the frozen lake in just a few minutes for an amazing view as the Lights showed across the sky in a beautiful and surreal display. The clouds reappeared after a few minutes to block the view but the display continued unseen as every now and then a small gap in the clouds glowed green but after an hour of waiting unsuccessfully for the clouds to clear we went back to bed. We had even saw an aurora corona, a rare sight according to the lady who gave the talk earlier, and while the lights were purely green and didn't "dance" it was still an amazing experience and one I want to repeat!

I had imagined the Aurora alert was some highly technical and sophisticated system but on asking the receptionist about it when I returned the phone on checking out of the hotel she told me the alert is triggered by the hotel night porter who checks out of the window regularly during the night as she goes about her duties and sends the text if the Aurora shows !

And so an amazing holiday - snow, toboggans, snowmobiles, husky sled rides and reindeer sled rides, some nice birds and the Aurora Borealis - brilliant!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Wembury 18th March 2012

Mothers Day, sunny and warm and a day off work so we headed out to Wembury for a walk. It was a Sunday and the cafe was open but we passed on having a pasty. It wasn't too busy but by the time we left it was starting to get busier.

Best bird was a smart male wheatear feeding in the old HMS Cambridge field, showing well in the bright sunshine and the first real summer migrant of the year. Other birds seen were 3 male and a female mallard, all that is left of the this years large wintering flock, but the 2 farmyard mallards were no where to be seen. A cirl bunting was heard singing but not seen and later a male was seen perched on a bush in HMS Cambridge. A chiffchaff was briefly heard singing and 2 Canada geese and a shelduck were feeding on the ploughed and harrowed wheatfield.

4 oil beetles were seen along the footpath, unfortunately 1 was very dead having been squashed by walkers and 1 was seen digging in the loose soil.

Oil Beetle

Friday, 16 March 2012

Plymbridge Woods - 15th March 2012

It remained cold and grey and misty today so a walk along the coast path at Stoke Point was abandoned and we headed in to Plymouth city centre for some lunch from the Continental market that has set up in Plymouth for a few days.

After a burger and a doughnut and a mocha we headed off to Plymbridge Woods for a walk. Despite the grey skies birds were singing and flowers were blooming - I heard a green and a great spotted woodpecker calling along with the usual tits and finches and thrushes and flower wise violets, wood anenome and celandines were blooming with wild garlic leaves appearing too.

Wood Anenome


The bird feeders were busy with blue, great, coal and long tailed tits along with a nuthatch, chaffinch and dunnock. Best bird was a marsh tit which eventually arrived at the feeder after a bit of a wait but it didn't stay long at the feeder as it was so busy with other birds and instead fed quietly in the nearby tree tops.

A kestrel flew overhead calling and a peregrine was heard calling too but it wasn't seen, also an unseen raven honked noisely. A redwing was seen perched in a treetop before flying off and siskins were songflighting over the treetops. A male mallard was seen on the river along with good views of 2 dippers with 1 heard singing.

A bunch of mushrooms were seen sprouting out of a fallen tree , they look like oyster mushrooms but I am not sure

Oyster Mushrooms?

And so we headed home via Sainsburys, having had a pleasent walk despite the leaden skies and unfortunately back to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Another wild duck (?) hunt - Exminster Marshes 14th March 2012

Cold, dull, misty, grey and windy but a day off and with David working a late I caught the train to Starcross and then the bus to Exminster Marshes to have a hunt for the long staying American wigeon that was first seen back in October at Dawlish Warren.

Numbers of wigeon on the Marsh have dropped recently so it has been easier to find the American wigeon in the last few days, also helped by its preference for an area near to the access road, and after scanning the flock of wigeon feeding on the grass bank by a drainage ditch in the above mentioned area I eventually found it. It was hard to keep track of it as it fed amongst the wigeon, it would occasionally raise its head giving its position away but then it would disappear and then reappear in a different position within the flock. Eventually the flock was spooked and flew onto the water in the drainage ditch where it showed much better but it was still easy to loose amongst the other birds. Its green glossed head and cream rather than ginger forehead were quite noticeable despite the poor light and I managed some very poor record shots. But again, is it a wild bird? I am never keen on vagrant ducks due to their questionable provenance but this bird does appear to be the real thing, having been found along with a heap of other North American vagrants following the gales we had last September.

Male American wigeon briefly showing its head 

American wigeon - upper left quarter

American wigeon - centre

The usual birds were also on show - shoveler, teal, mallard, gadwall, coot, moorhen, Canada goose, grey heron, little egret and cormorant. Other birds seen on the Marsh included 3 golden plover amongst a large flock of roosting curlew, 2 black-tailed godwit, 7 male and 2 female pintail and 2 kestrel. Cettis warblers were heard singing, at least 2 birds and a very sad looking Brent goose was feeding alone in the fields between Exminster and Powderham Marshes.

The resident Slavonian grebe was preening itself at the Turf Lock giving excellent views but looking quite tatty as it moults in to summer plumage, its red eye was very noticeable with whispey gingery ear tufts developing. A male red breasted merganser was diving close to the river embankment nearby and a further 4 males with 5 females were seen from the railway station at Starcross.

Tatty Slavonian grebe

Male Red breasted Merganser

Walking back to Starcross I had a look for treecreeper in the small wood at Powderham without any luck (again) but I did see a coal tit and I heard a green woodpecker. A bar-headed goose was feeding with the Canada geese in Powderham Park and the fallow deer were showing well. A greenshank was feeding along the river edge with redshanks as the tide receded.

I caught the train back to Dawlish Warren for an hours sea watching but the sea was choppy and it was still cold and windy and dull. I managed to find a winter plumaged razorbill and 7 great crested grebes, all but 1 in summer plumage and 2 seen displaying to each other. A Slavonian grebe in winter plumage showed briefly between dives and a moulting Slavonian/black necked grebe was seen further out but too distantly in the poor light to confirm identity. At least 9 common scoters were also busily diving in a loose group, there may have been up to 11 altogether but they were too active and mobile and distant to confirm the exact number, counting them not helped by the attentions of a juvenile herring gull that kept harassing them as they surfaced from their dives.  All of these birds would have been much easier to see and more enjoyable if I had a telescope - the binocular booster is just not good enough especially in the low light levels - I must get myself a telescope and soon!

And so I caught the train home after an hours watching and I was glad to get out of the wind and in to the warm carriage. On the way home I saw a black rabbit feeding in a field with normal coloured rabbits and what I think were 2 stag Sika deer feeding in a field near Plymouth - I think there is a population of Sika deer at Plymbridge Woods near Plymouth and it was not far from this area that I saw the 2 stags with their large antlers and dark fur. So all in all not a bad day.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Wembury 11th March 2012

A bright and sunny day with no wind and temperatures of 16 degrees plus (!) so we headed out to Wembury for a walk along the coast path. Unfortunately it was a Sunday and with the nice weather the place was packed out but at least with it being a Sunday the cafe was open and we enjoyed a coffee and pasty amongst the crowds.

The toilet block lights were not on today so the only moth I found was a very dead one, not sure what it is. I hope the lights get sorted out soon otherwise my moth sightings at Wembury are going to plummet.

Dead moth sp.

Bird wise it was quiet with the best birds being 3 winter plumaged Slavonian grebes offshore at Wembury Point. It was a very low tide and 2 birds were seen resting on the water surface with a third bird a little further away but the views were distant and heat hazy. I thought there were 3 birds back a few weeks ago but I never saw more than 2 at the surface together at any time so it was nice to see the 3 together today.

Other birds of note were a singing chiffchaff, presumably an arriving migrant which was heard but not seen, a female kestrel and 3 male stonechats with one seen song-flighting.

Sloes were starting to flower and a peacock butterfly was seen briefly flying past. 4 common lizards were sunning themselves on the wooden fences by the footpath. Spring has certainly arrived now.

Flowering sloe

2 common lizards

Four shanks in a day - 10th March 2012

Spring is springing - flowers in bloom, birds singing and birds on the move. The red-breasted goose was not reported again after the 19th February ( I went looking for it on the 20th!), the Bewicks swans are heading East and the juvenile at Aveton Gifford has been wandering over to Slapton Ley, the bufflehead at Helston has moved on and the spotted sandpiper on the River Plym disappeared around the middle of February. I was hoping the spotted sandpiper would stay longer and become spotty but I hope it wasn't taken by a sparrowhawk as one poor bird was a few years ago on the Plym.

Flowering Vetch sp. at The China Fleet Club

Anyway, Saturday 10th March and I headed off on the bus to The China Fleet Club in Saltash, somewhere I haven't visited before. It is a health and leisure centre with a golf course, set up by the Armed Forces from the sale of land in Hong Kong (hence the name) but is open to the public too. It is right by the River Tamar and has a nature trail and 2 bird hides which are free to use and a lesser yellowlegs has been spending the last few months wintering in one of the creeks. It was first seen in November but was not identified until a few weeks ago due to it being distant and showing for brief periods only.

I wandered down to the 2nd bird hide, seeing a coot and 2 summer plumaged little grebes on an ornamental lake and plenty of long tailed tits in the woodland. Reaching the hide 2 bird watchers were already there with their telescopes but they were not very chatty - my heart sank a bit as I am not a fan of twitches or twitchers but at least I was there early and I had a seat in the hide.

Scanning around I saw a winter plumaged grey plover, 3 male shovelers chasing a female around, 9 little egrets roosting on the salt marsh, a fly over grey heron, a juvenile and 2 adult mute swans and around 5 very noisey and flighty greenshanks. Redshanks were busily feeding around the creek as the tide receded but I couldn't find the lesser yellowlegs amongst them. I did find a nice spotted redshank which flew across the saltmarsh showing its white oval rump before it roosted with some shelduck, always a nice bird to see and shank of the day number 3. A few wigeon and some teal were feeding amongst the creek inlets and when the tide was out the teal numbers increased dramatically as they headed down to the waters edge to feed out in the open in a large group. Dunlin, curlew and around 10 black tailed godwits were also seen.

Another birder arrived and was quite chatty, he was a local birder and the area was his local patch and he soon found the target bird feeding at the back of an inlet on the opposite side of the creek, it showed distantly and briefly as it feed on the mud before disappearing from view again. One of the non-chatty birders then left and after the lesser yellowlegs showed again briefly the other non-chatty birder left too.  It then showed very well out on the mud, feeding at times near a redshank allowing comparisons, being smaller, paler and slimmer built and with yellow and not red legs but it was always distant. At times it seemed to disappear against the mud but when the sun came out for brief periods and at certain angles its white belly gave its position away. Another local and chatty birder then arrived and he very kindly let me have a look through his telescope as my binocular booster was not really powerful enough to get a good view of the bird. I really must sort out getting a telescope especially as my binocular booster is making a rattling noise after I dropped it a while ago and now there is a lose bit inside which at times moves and obscures part of the lens, I will have to see if it can be repaired.

More friendly birders arrived but it was time to head off to meet David for a trip to the garden centre where a lovely male peacock was displaying his tail, and then on to Waitrose for some shopping with our mortgage secured to pay the bill.

The non-pretty side of a peacock

And the pretty side !
Peacock closeup

And so I had seen 4 shanks in a day and had my third British lifer of the year, not a bad couple of hours bird watching.