Friday 21 February 2014

Spoonbills - A big dip and a surprise hit

February 14th and another storm hit the UK with severe gales and I was expecting my annual Tamar Wildlife Cruise along the River Tamar to be cancelled but the 15th was sunny but breezey and the trip was full steam ahead.

Arriving at Saltash I checked out the small wood by the Tamar Bridge to find that the muddy paths had all been gravelled over and more undergrowth had been cleared away with benches and childrens playthings dotted around amongst the trees. There were still plenty of small birds flitting about the trees but no redwings or blackcaps this year. Scanning the mudflats of the Tamar from amongst the trees and there was no sign of any spoonbills so I headed down to the Quay where I met Mavis before getting on the boat. There had been no spoonbill sightings from the boat as it headed along the river to Saltash so we headed off upriver straight away, seeing a storm blown guillemot under the Tamar Bridge.

The usual birds were seen along the estuary with the highlights being a greenshank, a common sandpiper and a lone dunlin with a limp along with avocets, redshanks, lapwings, curlews and oystercatchers. 2 ravens were feeding in a field by the river and in the strong sunlight had a beautiful glossy purple sheen. There was no sign of any spotted redshanks in the usual place at Cargreen and no sign of any spoonbills.

The best birds were 2, possible 3, little gulls - a 1st Winter and 1, possible 2, adults. A flock of small gulls were flying over the river and resting on the mudflats on the Devon side of the Tamar north of Weirquay and as I had a quick scan through them I picked out a 1st winter bird followed by a very nice adult. Unfortunately the boat had to turn around at this point due to the low water level and the noise disturbed the birds and they all flew off to the nearby fields (on the Devon side) and out of sight and I thought I picked out a second adult bird in the swirling flock but couldn't be sure as I quickly lost sight of it. Interestingly 4 adult little gulls were seen on the River Plym that afternoon.

Heading back to Saltash and then along the River Lynher and a peregrine was seen soaring high over the Tamar Bridge and later a pair of peregrines were hunting over the mudflats and spooking all the birds, a large female and a noticeably smaller male. Also seen along the Lynher were avocet, black tailed godwit, teal and wigeon. There was still no sign of the 3 wintering spoonbills and so I had resigned myself to not seeing them this part of the winter, planning instead to do the boat trip again later in the year in November for another try.

Arriving back in Plymouth by bus and I had a quick walk around Plymouth Hoe, seeing a few razorbill and guillemots and a lone great northern diver before heading home.

Monday 17th February and another storm battered the coast although much, much less intense than of late. I decided to have a walk around Plymouth Hoe and things started off well with a very nice adult glaucous gull (definitely a glaucous gull!) on the roof of The Barbican fish market. 4 guillemots were sheltering near the Sutton Harbour lock gates and I then bumped in to a local birder I see out and about around Plymouth who had been watching spoonbills on Drakes Island and so I quickly headed to Rusty Anchor to have a look, seeing a very nice adult little gull feeding close to shore near Tinside Pool along the way.

 Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull

From Rusty Anchor at West Hoe the 3 spoonbills were roosting on the small island to the right of the main island, surprisingly standing along the top of the rock rather than sheltering out of the wind. They were doing what spoonbills often do - sleeping with their bills tucked under their wings - but an adult great black backed gull landed close by and spooked one bird which briefly showed its spoonbill before going back to sleep. I have never seen them on Drakes Island before although they are occasionally seen here, I guess the bad weather makes their usual roost sites unusable.

The light was being to fade and so I headed home, seeing a few razorbills and guillemots along the waterfront along with a great northern diver close to shore near the totally trashed Wet Wok restaurant. Fortunately the adult little gull was still feeding in the same place and I went down to the waters edge where I had some lovely views. It had a distinct pink flush to its chest and belly and was beginning to develop its black head as it fed petrel-like over the water with occasional harassment from the nearby black headed gulls before it flew off strongly out to sea.

The glaucous gull was still on the fish market roof on my return walk and I headed off home, a bit wet and wind blown but very pleased to have caught up with spoonbills for my year list.

Saturday 15 February 2014

More Gulls

After my "Not a Glaucous Gull but an Iceland Gull" ID boob in front of the Devon Birding Community I thought a walk at Burrator reservoir would be gull free but I was wrong. It was a sunny day and with it being a Friday it was relatively people, car and cycle free and much more of a pleasure than a weekend visit. There was no sign of the ring-necked duck or goosanders but I did find 3 little grebe and a pair of teal. At the Northern car park a marsh tit was amongst blue, great and coal tits coming to seed put out by a photographer and siskins were heard flying over calling.

However the best bird was a 1st winter little gull, flying over the reservoir with 2 black headed gulls with its smaller size and tern like flight being instantly noticeable. It was harried by the 2 black headed gulls and when it settled briefly on the water it was dive bombed by one of them, flying off to the north of the reservoir and out of sight. It soon returned and while trying to feed it was again harassed by the black heads before it gained height and flew off high north, never to be seen again. It was a total surprise to find a little gull inland on Dartmoor, no doubt blown in by the recent gales and rain, but a very lovely bird to find indeed.

The following day and with another storm hitting the UK a quick walk along Plymouth Hoe was very invigorating despite us getting soaking wet in heavy and squally showers. We kept away from the waters edge but it was amazing to see the waves and spray crashing against the foreshore. I kept an eye out for little gulls which have been reported regularly from Plymouth Hoe in bad weather but without any luck but I did find a bonus gull, a smart adult kittiwake, my first Plymouth record.

Monday 10th and I decided to finally head off to Penzance for the day. With the train line being destroyed at Dawlish due to the recent storms the train timetables have been altered and the website only had 2 trains returning back to Plymouth in the afternoon, at 14:25 and 19:15. I didn't want to stay in Penzance until 7pm as I am sure when it is dark in Penzance no one can here you scream and so it meant I would have to return at 2:30pm, earlier than I would have hoped. I checked the times again at Plymouth station before leaving and checked again on arriving at Penzance station but the same times were being quoted and so I quickly headed off to the coast footpath by the bus station to start my walk to Marazion and back.

I scanned from the bus station sea wall and found a very smart male eider resting on the beach below the wall before swimming off across the bay. A female type black redstart gave a brief flight view amongst the boulders and across the bay one of my target birds, a recently found 1st winter male surf scoter, was showing distantly, spending very little time on the waters surface between dives. I headed off along the coast path to try and get closer views of the surf scoter but with the sun shining brightly  offshore I missed the bird as it had passed by me, reappearing right by the bus station! I thought about walking back to get a better view but decided to carry on to Marazion and try to get better views later on the return walk.

Male Eider in Mounts Bay with Marazion in the back ground

Arriving at Marazion there was a large feeding frenzy of gulls along the surf line but I decided to have a quick look at Marazion Marsh first. As I waited to cross over the busy road I had a distant view of target bird number 2, a bittern perched in the reeds, but by the time I had gotten across the road it had flown and I had a brief flight view as it disappeared over the railway line hedge. I scanned across the Marsh for a while before heading back to the gulls on the beach and despite the occasional scan of the Marsh in between watching the gull flock I never caught another view again which was a shame.

Watching the gulls along the beach I caught up with another one of my target birds, a superb adult glaucous gull looking resplendent in the sunshine and surprisingly easy to pick out amongst the swirling mass of herring, great black backed and black headed gulls. At one point it swooped down to the surf to grab something but got totally wiped out by a wave, disappearing under the water. As it surfaced it looked a little dishevelled and slightly miffed but seemed none the worse for its ordeal. Amongst the gulls I found a few adult lesser black backs, adult and juvenile common gulls and a lone adult kittiwake, but there was no sign of the reported adult Kumleins gull. A female long tailed duck just offshore was a nice bonus though.

 Definitely an Adult Glaucous Gull
Adult Glaucous Gull

Heading back to Penzance and I finally managed to get some nice telescope views of the surf scoter with its distinctive profile and bill pattern and colouring and pale belly when it flapped its wings and raised itself up. Also seen across the bay were at least 10 great northern divers, diving frequently and moving quite large distances underwater during their dives. While watching the scoter and divers I also had some nice views of 2, possibly 3, female type black redstarts amongst the boulders.

Female type Black Redstart

I headed back to the railway station only to find that there was now a train at 15:45, a little annoying as I could have spent more time at Marazion looking for the Kumleins gull and bitterns but never mind. I headed off to the Jubilee Pool where 19 purple sandpipers were roosting with turnstones and offshore a guillemot and 4 great northern divers were seen. I then returned to the bus station and watched the surf scoter for a while before heading back to the railway station to catch the train home.

 Purple Sandpiper
 Purple Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper close-up

Heading home on the train I had the mad notion that I might see a barn owl as dusk descended so I kept an eye out and sure enough between Trerulefoot Roundabout and St.Germans railway station I had a brief flight view of a barn owl flying across a hillside before disappearing over the brow of the hill. I saw a dead barn owl by the roadside at Trerulefoot Roundabout last summer so they are obviously in the area and it was a cracking end to what had been a great days birding.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Plymouth Birding

The weather continues to be awful with gales and rain and flooding and transport disruption although it is quite mild. As a result my plans to visit the Penzance area keep getting postponed and so I decided to do some local birding instead.

A Siberian chiffchaff has been showing at the University of Plymouth, having been found by The Weekend Biologist no less, it is frequenting an area of grass and shrubs along North Hill, right by the bus stops and main road. And so on the 30th January I had a quick look for it while heading in to the city centre to do some shopping and after a few minutes wait I found 3 chiffchaffs flitting about in the mahonia bushes and trees with a possible 4th bird also present. They were very active and mobile and frustratingly silent with one being a brown-grey and buffy coloured bird with green tinges to the wings only, presumably the Siberian type. I have to be honest, if I had found the birds I would have put them down as just chiffchaffs although there have been some recordings of the Siberian chiffchaff singing and it has quite a distinctive song.

February 2nd and the sun was shining so I decided to have another look at the chiffchaffs and as soon as I arrived at the site I found them busily feeding amongst the mahonia bushes again, this time there were definitely only 3 birds present, all frustratingly silent again. One had noticeably all over greener tones compared to the brown-buffness of the presumed Siberian type but the third bird was intermediate with black legs and yellow feet but again I would have passed them all off as just chiffchaffs. A magpie duly arrived and spooked the birds and they flew away, never to be seen again.

I then headed off to Ernesettle Creek, having not visited there since the lesser yellowlegs disappeared back in March last year. The tide was heading out and I found 2 greenshanks with redshanks feeding on the mud as soon as I arrived. Walking towards the railway bridge I found a third greenshank feeding with a redshank before being joined by a very confiding spotted redshank. The 3 birds fed together in small pools as the tide receded allowing good comparisons and with some of the best views of a spotted redshank I have ever had.

Spotted Redshank, Ernesettle Creek

A kingfisher was perched on the girders over the water underneath the railway bridge and out on the Tamar estuary 14 avocets and 16 black-tailed godwits were feeding on the Devon side with a great crested grebe seen flying upriver. I had hoped to maybe find the 3 overwintering spoonbills feeding somewhere on the estuary but there was no sign of them, they seem to be preferring the Lynher estuary this year.

February 4th and with bright sunshine but a poor weather forecast for later in the day I decided to head up the River Plym to look for goosanders which had been reported a few days previously. I got off the bus at Marsh Mills and walked to Plymbridge via Riverside caravan park, a route on the opposite side of the River to the cycle path and one I have not taken before. It was very muddy and wet and I kept a look out for treecreepers in the woodlands without any luck. I did however find goosanders, a very smart male with a female and further upriver a lone female, the male looking very resplendent in the sunshine and giving some very close and confiding views. Also seen were a grey wagtail and a kingfisher along with 7 male and 5 female Manadarin ducks, the males of which were calling and displaying. One of the males had a silver ring on its right leg, maybe the bird I saw on the River Plym last year.

 Goosanders, River Plym
 Redhead Goosander
Male Goosander

Mandarin Ducks, River Plym

Walking from Plymbridge to Cann Quarry viaduct I kept an eye out for treecreepers but again drew a blank. Arriving at the viaduct the bird feeders were empty but somebody had put out some seed on the nearby stone table and I managed to finally get some good views of a marsh tit, possibly 2, as they swooped down to the seed with coal, blue and great tits and surprisingly a flock of 11 long tailed tits. A kingfisher was seen flying across the small pond at the base of the quarry and later a bird was seen flying upriver low over the water before banking up over the trees towards the quarry pond, presumably the same bird. It has certainly been a kingfisher fest of late with various sightings in various places, always a nice bird to see though. A noisy peregrine was heard calling on the quarry face but I failed to see it.

Heading back to Plymouth via Saltram Park and 4 male and a female wigeon were feeding on a flooded Blaxton Meadow with shelducks. A greenshank was feeding along the River with redshanks, curlews and 7 oystercatchers, and 2 female red breasted mergansers were feeding in the river channel. I had a scan through the bathing gull flock but could only find 5 adult lesser black backed gulls and a few common gulls including a badly oiled bird amongst the herring, black backed and great black backed gulls.

Again I had a hunt for treecreeper in Saltram Woods as the wind began to pick up and the skies began to darken and was just about to give up and head home when I finally found a bird with a flock of great, coal and blue tits. Treecreepers always seem hard to find if I try to look for them, I have much more luck just stumbling across them instead, but I was very pleased to finally see one for the year list. It was nice to see (and smell) the first flowering violets of the year too and also some jelly ear fungus growing on a rotten tree branch on the woodland floor.

Jelly Ear Fungus

I decided to call it a day as the rain clouds rolled in with the gusty wind and headed off along the River towards Laira Bridge and the bus home. A small flock of large gulls were bathing in the river just downriver from the Rowing Club and I stopped to have a quick scan through them despite the worsening weather. I was very glad I did as I found a very nice 1st winter white winger gull amongst them, a distant view in poor light, a shame I had left my telescope at home this time. It flew a little nearer before being spooked by a fisherman in a canoe when it flew off downriver over Laira Bridge and out of sight. I originally called it as a glaucous gull, mainly because of its size and it being obviously larger than nearby herring gulls. I reported it on the Devon Bird Blog as a glaucous which prompted some debate and the consensus was it was an Iceland - what a boob! Looking back it didn't have the mean look of a glaucous, having a rounder head shape, the bill colouring and pattern was off and it had the attenuated rear end of an Iceland although it was certainly a large bird. With the gales there have been quite a few sightings of both glaucous and Iceland gulls across Devon and Cornwall, including Wembury, so it was nice to finally catch up with one. Interestingly a 1st winter glaucous gull was seen in the morning on Drakes Island in Plymouth Sound so I guess I put 2 and 2 together and made 5!

 1st Winter Iceland Gull, River Plym
1st Winter Iceland Gull

Monday 3 February 2014

A Trip to Slimbridge and a Surprise Yellow Browed Warbler

January 25th and it was time to head off to Slimbridge on my annual coach trip with the Plymouth RSPB Group and my mate Mavis. At least it wasn't cancelled this year and the weather wasn't too bad, with sunshine before wind and rain moved in later in the day.

We headed straight to The Tack Piece and the Martin Smith Hide (the infamous hide where due to the sloping and worn smooth window shelf my camera was damaged beyond repair and my binocular doubler lens was broken costing me £100). No damages this time but Mavis spilt hot coffee everywhere as her coffee cup slid off the window shelf, luckily she was OK.

The view from the hide was amazing, there were birds everywhere on the flooded fields sounding and looking resplendent in the strong sunshine. 5 common cranes were seen, part of the Great Crane re-introduction scheme, and they were noisy and mobile around the reserve all day with birds doing their courtship dance and 1 bird checking out the reeds in front of the hide where they attempted nesting last year.

Nest Prospecting Common Crane in front of The Martin Smith Hide

Wildfowl and waders were everywhere - Bewicks swans, white fronted geese, 5 ruff, black tailed godwit, wheeling flocks of very skittish golden plover and lapwing being the highlights with redshank, dunlin, wigeon, teal, shoveler and pintail also seen, an amazing sight and it was difficult keeping track of everything going on.

 Pair of Pintail
 Sleeping Male Pochard

Other birds seen around the reserve were 2 stock doves, 4 fieldfare, 4 avocets, a lone Brent goose with the feral flock of barnacle geese, a peregrine, a sparrowhawk, a great crested grebe and a large flock of jackdaws coming in to roost in the trees at dusk. Not a bad days birding despite being cold as usual, I swear Slimbridge is one of the coldest places on Earth!

 Bewicks Swan at the Rushy Pen
 Bewicks Swans at The Rushy Pen at Dusk
Bewicks Swan

Wednesday 29th and we headed off to Topsham for a walk. I headed off to the recreation ground to look for the water pipit and black redstart that are still around since my visit back in December. The tide was out and the sun was shining but there was no sign of either birds. I did see a grey wagtail, 2 male and a female reed bunting and an adult lesser black backed gull amongst the roosting and bathing gulls along the river. I was just about to leave for Bowling Green Marsh when I found the water pipit on the pebbly island in the river channel where I saw it before Christmas. It showed very well as it bathed and preened and was quite aggressive towards a grey wagtail bathing nearby while ignoring a bathing pied wagtail.

The female type black redstart then gave a brief flight view near a white upturned boat on the slipway, its usual haunt, but when I saw it in December it was in the trees near the community centre. It flew in to the nearby garden and so I discretely watched over the hedge where I got another brief flight view and eventually it gave itself up and showed very well.

While looking for the black redstart in the garden I caught sight of a small bird flitting about in the vegetation and was expecting it to be a goldcrest. I got my binoculars on it for a second before it flew off and was shocked to find it was a yellow browed warbler! I scanned around again, doubting what I had seen in my one second view and eventually it showed amazingly well, down to a few metres at times, as it moved around the garden. I managed to get 2 passing birders on to it as well as I could not believe what I was seeing and it was a life tick for the pair of them. A beautiful bird with quite orangey looking legs, a yellow brow and 2 yellow wing bars and my third but best sighting ever. Also seen in the garden was a female blackcap and a redpoll with some goldfinches - I was very glad I hadn't left for Bowling Green Marsh after all!

Deciding to miss out Bowling Green Marsh and after some lunch we headed off to Darts Farm where a large flock of Brent geese were feeding in fields right by the side of the road. From the bird hide there were a few teal and wigeon with Canada geese while on the feeders I managed to find my target bird, a very smart looking female brambling amongst the chaffinch and greenfinch. It swooped down to the ground under the feeders, flying off with a seed to nearby trees before flying off and out of sight, a lucky sighting indeed and a great end to a great day out.