Monday 30 March 2015

A Duo of Woodpeckers

Spring seems to be running a little late this year - only a few summer migrants around and my plum tree in the back yard still hasn't flowered yet.

A walk from Slapton Village to Beesands and back on March 26th was pleasant in the sunshine but quiet birdwise. There were more ducks on Slapton Ley this time compared to my visit in January - mostly tufted ducks and mallards with a few male pochards and a nice pair of goldeneye. A pair of cirl buntings in the bushes alongside Slapton Ley were my first sightings here and it was nice to hear a few singing chiffchaffs. Cettis warblers were also heard, my first of the year, but I couldn't catch a sight of one. David disturbed an adder basking in the sunshine in the grass by the footpath, he was surprisingly calm about it but I failed to get a view of it.

March 30th and with lesser spotted woodpeckers being reported regularly and reliably at Steps Bridge I decided I would go and have a look for them. The train and bus fare came to £23.40 (Ouch! Good job I have just been paid!) and despite the breeze it was warm in the sunshine when I arrived at Dunsford Woods.

3 grey wagtails were feeding along the river from the Bridge, busily dashing after flies and occasionally leaping up into the air to chase after one.

Grey Wagtail

I wandered around the Woods for 3 hours and saw a pair of great spotted woodpeckers and heard at least 2 green woodpeckers but there was no sight or sound of any lesser spotteds. I did hear some brief and distant drumming but I'm sure it was great spotted and not lesser.

Despite dipping out I did have a very nice walk around the Woods, seeing the usual range of woodland birds including stock dove, marsh tit, jay, mistle thrush, goldcrest, siskin and nuthatch. Some skittish redwings were feeding on ivy berrys along the woodland edge and a buzzard overhead was mobbed by a pair of carrion crows.

The highlight were lots of wild daffodils in flower across the woods - smaller and brighter than domesticated daffodils and looking beautiful in the sunshine. I have meant to go and visit the woods to see them for a few years now so it was nice to finally see them in all their glory.

 Wild Daffodils
 Wild Daffodils
Wild Daffodils

Heading home and I stopped off at Dawlish Warren for a quick look around. It is Easter school holiday hell time but it wasn't too busy. It was nice to see that the flood defence work has been completed and the woodland paths reopened. A pair of teal, a little grebe and a male reed bunting were the highlights around the Main Pool and a chiffchaff and a pair of bullfinch were the highlights in the woods.

Offshore I managed to find at least 8 summer plumaged great crested grebes along with a pair and a trio of common scoters, my first of the year - the trio were constantly being harassed by juvenile herring gulls every time they surfaced from a dive.

It began to rain as I headed home on the train, at least it had been dry for me, and I may have dipped on my target bird but the daffodils were beautiful to see and it had been a pleasant if expensive day out.

Friday 20 March 2015

Iceland Gulls Galore in Iceland - 12th - 16th March 2015

March 12th and we headed off to Terminal 1 at Heathrow for our flight to Reykjavik in Iceland. Terminal 1 is closing in June and it was very quiet and quite empty but it is still linked to the new Terminal 2 so we wandered over there to have a look around as our flight was delayed due to bad weather in Iceland.

I have always wanted to visit Iceland and had originally planned to visit a few years ago in the summertime but the Icelanders had recommenced whaling and so I decided to go elsewhere. I did e-mail the Icelandic Minister for the Enviroment to voice my objections and reasons why I would not visit Iceland but received a standardised response.

I had the same reservations last year before visiting Malta due to their continued spring hunting of birds against EU law. However the TV presenter Chris Packham headed an excellent campaign last year to raise awareness of this issue resulting in a referendum being held in Malta this year. He had advised against boycotting Malta, arguing that birders should visit to promote birding tourism to help convince the Maltese that not shooting birds would be more lucrative. And so it is with whaling in Iceland - if tourists go to see whales it provides alternative income to hunting whales. And so I decided I would go and see things for myself.

Hallgrimskirkja - the view from one of our hotel room skylights

Reykjavik - the view from the other hotel room skylight and where we saw the Northern Lights

Unfortunately the weather in Iceland was Shite and it was Shite with a capital S. I wasn't expecting it to be great but it was bad, even the locals were saying it was bad, and as a result all whale watching excursions were cancelled each day we were there which was a big shame.It was also very sad to see so many restaurants in Reykjavik quite openly advertising whale meat on their menus, all of which we avoided like the plague.

We did visit a new exhibition on the whales of Iceland in a warehouse on the quay in Reykjavik which had life sized models of whales and dolphins found in Icelandic waters and which was quite interesting if a little expensive.

 Blue Whale with Bowhead Whale and Sperm Whale in the background
 Sei Whale
Blue Whale

Despite all this Iceland was great - stunningly beautiful and eerie with a slight feeling of dangerousness and lots of snow and ice. The weather changed hourly and for 2 nights we had hurricane/gale force winds which were not condusive to sleep when your hotel room is in the eaves of the roof - very noisey, rattley and a little disconcerting with images of the roof blowing off in the back of my sleep deprived mind. Flights were cancelled, tours were cancelled and our 2 day car hire was changed to just 1 because of the wind. But it was still great!

 Icelandic Wilderness
Gullfoss Waterfall

Bird wise I saw 24 species, not bad considering the weather and the time of year. Whooper swans on the lake in the centre of Reykjavik were very tame like mute swans are in the UK and with a lone pink footed goose, greylag geese, wigeon, mallard, tufted duck and red breasted merganser on show too I returned on a number of occasions to have a look at them. Just outside the harbour in Reykjavik a large congregation of birds would hang around close to shore where an upwelling of water appeared at regular intervals instigating a feeding frenzy and allowing great views of Iceland gulls along with glaucous gulls, common gulls, herring gulls, kittiwake, lesser- and greater black backed gulls, black headed gulls, fulmars, eiders, black guillemots, shag and cormorant. I'm not sure what the upwelling was, maybe natural thermal upwellings or probably sewage!

 Tjornin Lake, Reykjavik
Whooper swans (one with a crinkly neck)

Whooper Swans

 Whooper Swans
Whooper Swan

Pink Footed Goose , Tjornin Lake, Reykjavik
Iceland Gull

 Male Eider
 Black Guillemot
 Juvenile Glaucous Gull with Iceland Gulls
Glaucous and Iceland Gulls
 Iceland Gull
Congregation of birds along Reykjavik Waterfront
 Gulls and Fulmars
Juvenile Iceland Gull

Ravens were seen everywhere, even in the icy wilderness far from human habitations, and I saw 2 small flocks of snow buntings flying overhead as we drove around the snowy wilderness. In Reykjavik I saw a few starlings and a male blackbird, the starlings had unusual sounding calls and song, presumably an Icelandic accent and not a Janner one!

Colourful graffiti, Reykjavik

And so to the Northern Lights - we saw them! Pretty jammy considering the weather but see them we did. Our booked night time boat trips out of Reykjavik to look for the Lights were cancelled every night due to the bad weather and it was pretty cloudy most of the time but our hotel reception guy (nicknamed Mr Chuckles due his slightly offish and grumpy demeanour) told us that the sky would be clear at 2am on the 15th and we should look out of our North facing window to see the Northern Lights. I set my alarm for 3am but was awake at 2:30 and on looking out of the window it was mostly clear and we saw what we assumed were the Lights, a thin and wavery line across the sky like a band of green tinged fog that we could see the stars through. We got dressed and walked down to the waterfront where a couple of guys were taking photos, we had a look at what they had taken and it was quite clearly the Northern Lights, the photos being much better than what our eyes could discern in the huge amount of light pollution being made by the city lights. The lights came and went as did the clouds and on heading back to the hotel due to coldness and tiredness we saw the Lights right over the hotel, again a thin, green tinged, wavery line difficult to see due to the light pollution. However on getting back in our room the Lights really kicked off and gave a great display, twisting and turning and merging across the sky before the cloud rolled in again - amazing to see despite the light pollution, if we had been out of the city it would have been a fantastic sight. We had been very lucky but it has just made me want to see them properly even more!

 Northern Lights from our hotel room  - the smudgey, greenish streak in the middle (crap photo)
Northern Lights - more smudgey green streaks - another crap photo

And so Iceland was amazing - cold, wet, windy, icy, snowy and tiring but with some great views of some birdlife and the Northern Lights - feeling totally flat now I am back in the UK and back to work but I have had a wonderful experience. Hopefully whaling will come to an end soon in Iceland too.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Spring Surprise at Wembury and a Trip to Heathrow Airport

A sunny morning on March 10th saw me heading off to Wembury for a walk. It was a beautiful day, calm and still and becoming quite warm in the sunshine.

The warm weather meant I saw my first 2 oil beetles of the year but there was no sign of any common lizards. A small tortoiseshell was on the wing but there were no moths in the toilet block.

Oil Beetle

I was pleased to finally see my first cirl buntings of the year, a brief view of a female and excellent views of a singing male throwing his head back and belting it out perched in the top of a tree. A second male was heard but not seen.

Male Cirl Bunting

The water pipit with a tail showed very well feeding on the seaweed mass on the beach with a meadow pipit and rock pipits.

Water Pipit

The usual birds were also seen but the biggest surprise were a pair of Dartford warblers at Wembury Point, the first I have seen at Wembury for a few years now but to be honest I don't particularly spend much time looking for them here. They were very active and mobile amongst the gorse bushes with the male very much in attendance of the female and occassionally bursting into songflight.

Dartford Warbler

The next day and it was cold and grey again on the drive up to Heathrow Airport. I saw 3 red kites, 2 along the M3 and 1 along the A303 in Somerset, my first sighting in Somerset and potentially a wild bird. Buzzards were everywhere and I also saw a few kestrels and sparrowhawks. I also saw what I think was a juvenile goshawk flying away over fields in Somerset - at first I thought it was a buzzard due to its size and colouring but as we drove nearer its flight manner and build was very goshawk like and then it was gone. 2 roe deer and 3 red legged partridges were also seen in the fields and along the roadside were the usual dead badgers, foxes and pheasents squashed on the road.

Staying the night at a hotel at Heathrow Airport and as dusk fell I watched the world go by from the bedroom window and managed to see at least 25 ring necked parakeets flying in to roost in the trees, heading in in small groups, and while watching them 2 Egyptian geese flew by too.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Geese, Gulls and Ducks

Friday 27th February and a sunny walk along the coast path from Hope Cove to Thurlestone and back was very pleasant except for the muddy footpath, especially the new piece of path that zig-zags around the fields. I have never visited South Huish Marsh at this time of year before and it was interesting to see it as 5 pools/scrapes without all the waterside vegetation obscuring the views (and birds!). I found my target birds, 2 Eurasian white fronted geese, feeding at the back of the Marsh with Canada geese - a little distant and I didn't have my telescope with me but I could make out the white bill blaze and black belly barring as the birds moved around feeding on the grass.

 Eurasian White Fronted Geese, South Huish Marsh
White Fronted Geese

Another interesting sight were 6 ravens high overhead, calling and tumbling together. 3 then flew off inland and 2 off along the coast towards Plymouth with 1 bird swooping down to mob an adult great black backed gull before being mobbed itself by an adult herring gull as it disappeared from view.

Friday 6th March and the plan had been to travel down to Penzance on the train to look for the Pacific diver and a little bunting being reported there but a leak found under the kitchen sink meant by the time it was fixed and sorted out we had missed the train. Instead we drove down to the Duchy of Cornwall nursery near Lostwithiel where I saw my first red admiral of the year feeding on the blooming plants along with a peregrine overhead which scared the poop out of 6 displaying buzzards before flying off out of sight. We then had a walk along the river at nearby Lerryn where I saw a common sandpiper, 2 greenshank, 3 little egrets, 3 redshank, a grey wagtail and a flyover raven.

Saturday 7th March and with a day free to myself to go birding I had a dilemma to decide on - Penzance or Falmouth? I had originally planned to go to Falmouth and so I decided to stick with it and headed off on the train to Truro and then the branch line to Falmouth, a new trip for me. Arriving in Falmouth and my usual poor map reading skills and awful sense of direction meant a rather circuitous walk to nearby Swanpool - despite having been a boy scout I am useless with maps but once I have been somewhere I can always find my way back.

Arriving at the small lake and I soon found my first target bird, a long staying long tailed duck. It was preening at the back of the pool and surprisingly easily to overlook, seeming to merge with the choppy water, and spending most of its time busily diving for food.

 Long Tailed Duck, Swanpool
Long Tailed Duck

My attention was soon diverted by sighting my second target bird, a first winter ring billed gull. It gave some great close views as it fed on bread being chucked to the swans and ducks by countless people passing by. I haven't seen a first winter bird before so it was nice to get such good views of an unfamiliar plumage stage - I used to see adult ring billed gulls at Copperhouse Creek in Hayle where they were again very tame and coming to bread but it has been a few years now since I last saw one.

 1st Winter Ring Billed Gull, Swanpool
 Ring Billed Gull
 Ring Billed Gull
 Ring Billed Gull
Ring Billed Gull

It was also nice to see quite a few very smart looking adult lesser black backed gulls bathing on the pool amongst the herring gulls, maybe birds returning from wintering in Africa. A confiding water rail feeding on bread and grain along the pool edge with 2 brown rats was a  surprise, it has certainly been a water rail year so far with 6 individual birds having been seen in the last 7 weeks.

 Water Rail
Brown Rat

I then headed off towards Maenporth, walking along the coastal path and enjoying some lovely views in the increasingly warm sunshine. A flyby small tortoiseshell was my first of the year and offshore shags and fulmars were seen. Plenty of violets were flowering along the path and a strange sight was a mute swan on the sea amongst the rocks.

Mute Swan on the sea at Maenporth

Arriving at Maenporth and after a bit of a search I found target bird number three, an immature male king eider. It was distant even with my telescope but I could make out its yellow bill in the bright sunshine. It dived a few times, bringing up what looked like crabs and also a starfish, but spent most of its time preening, wing flapping and sipping water. Maybe it will return next winter when it might be in more resplendent adult plumage?

Immature Male King Eider - honest!

King Eider - you can just about make out its yellow bill!

Heading back to Swanpool and I had better views of the long tailed duck, with the ring billed gull and water rail still showing well too. 2 green woodpeckers were heard yaffling in the nearby cemetery and a wander around the tombstones and grassy areas eventually yielded 1 of the birds which looked very handsome in the sunshine.

Arriving back in Truro and I found out that the train times had been changed due to engineering works and so I had over an hours wait for the next train back to Plymouth - most annoying as I could have spent longer in Falmouth or caught an earlier train to Truro. I arrived home later than expected and feeling a little bit sun kissed and knackered but I had had a great days birding.