Thursday 25 February 2016

More Local Birding - Warblers and Cirl Buntings

A 1st Winter glaucous gull was reported on the River Plym on February 21st (the day I was there birding!) and was also reported again on the 22nd and so on the 23rd I headed off to have a look for it - and as expected I didn't see it!

It was however a bright and sunny but cold day and it was nice to be out admiring the birds in the bright sunshine with that air of hope and/or expectation that I might get to see the bird I was looking for. No glaucous gull but I did see :- 2 pairs of red breasted mergansers diving for food in the river channel at low tide; 2 male goosanders floating downriver at Marsh Mills with 1 disappearing but the other roosting on the mud at low tide; a single greenshank; a very smart looking kingfisher flashing past over the water; 3 buzzards and a male sparrowhawk soaring over the woods at Marsh Mills; a great crested grebe and 2 little grebes; 2 common sandpipers together along the river edge near the railway bridge; and a pair of Canada geese.

Male Goosander, River Plym

Thursday 25th and another bright and sunny but cold day and I decided to head off to Wembury for a walk as I have neglected it a little so far this year. A lot of clearing work has occurred since I last visited back at the beginning of January with mechanical clearance of vegetation in the pony field and on the hillside above the cliff footpath at Wembury Point. Unfortunately the gorse bushes by the footpath where I found the green hairstreaks last year have gone, I only hope that any female green hairstreaks laid their eggs on the remaining gorse clumps and not those that have been removed.

I was also concerned about the Dartford warblers I watched last year as the area where I most often saw them had also been cleared but I need not have worried as I eventually found a very smart male associating with a pair of stonechats - unfortunately I found it just as the world and his dog (literally) walked by and the stonechats flew off and the Dartford warbler just disappeared. I watched and waited for a while before heading off only to find a nice pair of Dartford warblers together further along the path - this pair were stuck together like glue, the male followed wherever the female went and I am sure that there are 2 males and a female present again, the same as last year, as the first male I saw was very much alone.

And here are some more of my amazing Dartford warbler photos - not!

 Female Dartford Warbler

 Male Dartford Warbler

Female Dartford Warbler

Dartford Warbler

Dartford Warbler

I finally managed to see my first cirl buntings of the year too -  a male singing from the top of a hawthorn bush near the sewage farm with a second male heard singing nearby and a male calling in the hedgerow near the HMS Cambridge footpath.

Male Cirl Bunting

2 ravens flew along the clifftops calling and tumbling and were joined by a pair flying over from The Mewstone to chase them off. Along the shoreline were 37 oystercatcher , 2 curlew, a grey heron and 4 little egrets but the beach was fairly seaweed free and there was no sign of any water pipits, just a few rock pipits. 2 grey wagtails flew over calling and I heard 2 meadow pipits calling too but I couldn't locate them. A female blackcap showed very well while preening in bushes in a garden by the road to the beach along with a male bullfinch eating the buds of a sloe bush.

Female Kestrel

Despite the chilly weather I found a common lizard basking in the sunshine, the earliest I think that I have seen one, and a pair of bloody nosed beetles were found mating.

 Common Lizard

Bloody Nosed Beetles

Flowering Celandine sp.

The cafĂ© was closed so no pasty for lunch but a very pleasant walk anyway and a reminder of how much I love a walk at Wembury.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Moor & Plymouth Birding

February 15th and a trip up to Warren House Inn on Dartmoor for lunch and a walk wasn't too busy considering it was the half term school holidays. It was a surprise to see the Moor dusted with snow on the higher Tors and it was cold and sunny but breezey and after a nice lunch a walk down to Golden Dagger was wet and muddy and almost bird free! A few robins and carrion crows were the best of it but a brief view of a roe deer disappearing into the forest was soon followed by 3 red deer, my first in Devon - a good view of a male with small, velvet covered antlers and a brief view of 2 others before they all melted away into the trees.

I found some frog spawn in a small puddle by a stream in front of the Inn, I don't know whether it will survive in the cold conditions, and while getting into the car for the drive home a buzzard flew over along with 2 fieldfares and a pair of raven carrying nesting material.

Frog Spawn, Warren House Inn

February 20th and I decided to stay local and with 7+ring necked parakeets being reported regularly in Central Park and Ford Park Cemetery I decided I would go and have a look for them. It was grey and windy with occasional drizzle but during a wander around the Cemetery and nearby Park there was no sight nor sound of any parakeets. I did see the usual birds - goldcrest, greenfinch, chaffinch, goldfinch and blue, great, coal and long tailed tits - along with a song thrush, a nuthatch and a buzzard.

I decided to cut my losses and have a quick look at the River Plym from Laira Bridge where a great crested grebe showed very well and a male red breasted merganser flew over the Bridge downriver towards The Cattewater.

Great Crested Grebe from Laira Bridge

Shelduck, River Plym

The following day and I decided to tackle the River Plym again, heading off to Marsh Mills on the bus to walk upriver again towards Plymbridge. It was still very muddy but the tide was low and the water less murky looking and fast flowing than last week. In the trees were a jay and around 20 siskins while on the water a female and 2 male goosanders showed very well before flying off upriver and a grey wagtail was busily feeding along the waters edge. I also found my target bird very quickly, a dipper feeding in the quieter stretches of water and showing very well, I could see its white eyelids when it blinked.

Female Goosander, River Plym

Male Goosander, River Plym

Dipper, River Plym


Heading downriver from Marsh Mills towards Laira Bridge and there were 5 little grebes on the river near Blaxton Meadow. On the mudflats there were a few common gulls and lesser black backed gulls amongst the usual gull species and a female wigeon was amongst a group of mallards.

Cormorant, River Plym

Female Wigeon, River Plym

A look for the firecrest in the area where I saw it last week drew a blank but 2 skylarks singing over Chelson Meadow was nice to hear. A pair of red breasted merganser flew upriver as the tide came in and from Laira Bridge a common sandpiper showed very well amongst the seaweed with its surprisingly yellow looking legs.

Common Sandpiper, Laira Bridge

Common Sandpiper

I decided to have another look for the parakeets in Central Park, hoping that they might show coming in to roost, but by 5pm I still hadn't seen or heard them and so I headed off home, but I did see 2 ravens, 4 buzzards, a mistle thrush and a sparrowhawk along with the usual species - no parakeets but not a bad list of birds during a spot of doorstep birding.

Magpie, Ford Park Cemetery

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Sawbills on the River Plym

A few days off after our trip to North America to get over the jet lag before going back to work were much appreciated (jet lag is an absolute bitch!) and so a walk around Saltram Park on Monday 8th February in dry but very, very windy conditions helped to blow a few cobwebs away. As it was so windy there were very few people around and we had the cafe to ourselves for lunch which was most bizarre but at least we didn't have to get out of the way of the yummy mummies who usually power walk around the park with their massive baby buggies.

A male goosander with a little grebe gave some great views floating on the water - the little grebe was very skittish and frequently dived but the goosander was very unconcerned by our prescence on the nearby footpath - shame I had left my camera at home!

Further downriver off The Folly were 2 male and three female red breasted mergansers diving in the main river channel in very choppy conditions, more distant views than those of the goosander and possibly the same 5 birds I saw on the river on January 27th before my trip to New York.

A treecreeper feeding on the trees around the pond as we ate our lunch was a nice find and there were lots of mandarin ducks on the pond with the mallards and moorhens although most were tucked away in the pondside vegetation. It was interesting to see a male mandarin with a female giving short shrift to any male mallards that came too close despite being smaller and slighter than the mallards.

Tuesday 9th and a walk around Plymouth Hoe in much calmer conditions gave me some great views of a juvenile great northern diver eating crabs just off the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. It had the most amazing red coloured eyes in the bright sunlight but again I had left my camera at home! Another missed photographic opportunity was a large grey seal by the Sutton Harbour lock gates which was attracting the attentions of black headed gulls - the lock gates were being opened slowly to let a yacht out and maybe the fast flow of water contained fish for it to catch.

Sunday 14th and a day off to myself and so with dry and sunny but cold conditions I decided to have a proper birding walk along the River Plym after 4 busy but pleasent days back at work.

I caught the bus to Marsh Mills and began walking to Plym Bridge. It was very muddy underfoot from all the continuing heavy rain we keep receiving this winter and there were lots of people around emptying their dogs but I managed some good sightings.

Siskins were feeding unobtrusively in the alder tree tops with a few males also seen songflighting while amongst the coal, blue, great and long tailed tits I found at least 2 marsh tits. A kingfisher flew downstream calling but I didn't find any dippers although the river was swollen and murky from all the recent rain. A mistle thrush singing from a tree, a circling and mewing buzzard and drumming and calling great spotted woodpeckers were signs of spring along with a pair of ravens flying over busily cronking and tumbling with 1 bird flipping over onto its back at times.

Best birds were 2 male goosanders fishing together, 1 bird snorkelling behind the other as they paddled upstream near the Plympton road bridge. Again some good views, they seemed very unconcerned by my close prescence and it was interesting to watch all hell break loose between them when 1 bird caught a fish before it was eventually swallowed!

 Male Goosander - number1

Male Goosander - number 2

Heading downstream from Marsh Mills to Laira Bridge and the little grebe at Marsh Mills was still as skittish as it was on the 8th. A chiffchaff and a goldcrest gave some nice views feeding in the undergrowth near the sewage treatment works and a lone female wigeon feeding on Blaxton Meadow was a surprise. A greenshank and 4 little grebes were near the outlet by Sainsburys, the greenshank eventually flying over to the shoreline by Blaxton Meadow. A common sandpiper was a nice find feeding along the waterline as the tide receded.

 Greenshank and Black Headed Gull


 Common Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper

Walking up the steps through the woods near The Folly and I found a very nice firecrest in the same spot I have seen one for the past 2 years - this one was especially active though and the views were difficult as it hovered under leaves and ducked and dived around before disappearing from sight.


From The Ride I found 2 great crested grebes fishing together in the river channel on the outgoing tide - at first I thought there was just one bird as they were diving seperately but eventually I saw both birds together at the surface. There were also 4 pairs of red breasted mergansers, 3 pairs together and a pair further downriver - the 3 males together were busily displaying to the females who seemed intrigued if not that really interested. From Laira Bridge I saw 4 little grebes giving a days total of 9 altogether but unfortunately there was no sign of the recent  black necked grebe - however it had been a great days birding and even better it had been right on my doorstep.

Distant shot of Red Breasted Mergansers with Carrion Crow

Monday 8 February 2016

Gulls and Ducks on a Trip to North America

A quick visit to Laira Bridge over the River Plym on January 28th and I quickly found the black necked grebe busily diving for fish at low tide with 4 little grebes - I had some lovely views of it in the bright sunlight even though it spent most of its time underwater. Scanning upriver and I found 2 male and 3 female red breasted mergansers, my first sightings this winter on the Plym, along with a great crested grebe, but I only had a free hour for birding before heading off home as I had lots to do to get ready for my trip to North America the next day.

Black Necked Grebe, River Plym

January 29th and it was off to Heathrow Airport with friends Julie and Matt for a trip to New York, Niagara Falls and Toronto to celebrate Matts 50th birthday. On the drive to the airport I saw a roe deer and 2 muntjac deer on the grass verges of the M4 along with plenty of red kites overhead despite the grey and windy conditions.

The previous week had seen a massive snow storm hitting North America and bringing New York to a standstill but the weather had improved and our trip was actually milder than expected although there was still ice and snow hanging around on the ground. With a storm system rattling across the Atlantic to the UK as we flew to New York we took a more northerly route and flew over Greenland and the gelid Arctic tundra which looked amazing in the sunshine.

Frozen Arctic from the Plane

Arriving at JFK in New York on the afternoon of Saturday 30th and the first bird I saw was a male house sparrow flying around the arrivals hall quickly followed by starlings outside perched on wires and feral pigeons feeding on the ground amongst mounds of snow - not an overly exciting start! On the drive to Manhatten in the fading light I had brief and distant views of gulls, geese and ducks but over the next few days I managed much better views of all of these species and got some good photos too.

A boat trip out to the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island on January 31st was beautiful in the calm and sunny conditions with the stunning backdrop of the Manhatten skyline - my third visit to the Statue and each time it has been the same gorgeous weather. The birding was as good as ever and while everybody was admiring the Statue I was scanning around for birds. Easily noticed were Canada geese and brent geese of the pale bellied type while ring billed gulls, American herring gulls and buffleheads were also easily seen. Further away on the water were goldeneye, scaup, red breasted merganser, great black backed gull and Slavonian grebe while 2 double crested cormorants flew past and a seal briefly surfaced before disappearing, never to be refound.

A "Grey" Grey Squirrel at Battery Park, New York

View of Manhattan Skyline from Statue Of Liberty Ferry

Statue of Liberty

Male Bufflehead

Female Bufflehead

Pale Bellied Brent Goose

Adult Ring Billed Gull

2nd Winter Ring Billed Gull

2nd Winter Ring Billed Gull

1st Winter American Herring Gull

1st Winter American Herring Gull with pale eye

The following day and a birdwatching session in a snowy Central Park was as good as ever too. The bird feeding station in The Rambles had been moved to a nearby area but was very busy with birds feeding despite a lady busily restocking all the feeders. Downy woodpeckers were feeding on what looked like cooked pumpkin smeared into pine cones while a brown creeper fed on the same orange pulp smeared in the bark of a tree. The seed feeders had American goldfinch, tufted titmouse, house finch and white breasted nuthatch on them with white throated sparrow and house sparrow feeding on the ground beneath them.

American Goldfinch, Central Park

Female Downy Woodpecker eating pumpkin smeared in pine cone

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper eating pumpkin rubbed in tree bark

White Throated Sparrow

The ponds in the park were frozen over but the reservoir was mostly ice free with ruddy duck, shoveler, 2 male and a female gadwall, hooded merganser, a female goosander, an American coot, Canada goose, mallard and a double crested cormorant seen along with ring billed, great black backed and American herring gulls preening and roosting

Male Hooded Merganser, Central Park

Male Hooded Merganser

American Coot

Elsewhere in the Park I saw red tailed hawk, American robin, blue jay, a Northern cardinal, a red bellied woodpecker and best of all, a yellow bellied sapsucker - some excellent views as it fed on sap in small wells it had made in a pine trees bark.

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk, Central Park

Red Tailed Hawk

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Northern Cardinal

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker feeding from sap pits in bark

Temple Of Dendur rescued from flooding caused by Aswan Dam construction in Egypt - Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, New York

View from The Brooklyn Bridge

February 2nd and it was off to Niagara Falls in Canada by train, a 9 hour journey but comfortable and relaxing after 2 busy days of sight seeing (and birding). The first couple of hours followed the course of the Hudson river which was covered in large areas of ice and looked stunning in the sunshine. The highlight were bald eagles resting in trees or on the ice floes and flying past, both adults with white heads and tails or all brown juveniles being seen. Also seen were Canada geese, goosanders and mallards but more interesting were 9 tundra swans on a lake near Syracuse, 8 adults and a juvenile of what is considered the American race of our Bewicks swan.

Niagara Falls was stunning but snow and ice free unlike my previous visit. The town of Niagara Falls was much less exciting, being a tacky and kitschy slice of Americana but much cleaner, tidier and smarter looking than a scruffy and mucky looking New York was.

A day of sight seeing on February 3rd and there were plenty of gulls swirling over the water and roosting on rocks both above and below the Falls and mostly ring billed and American herring but with a few great black backed as well. Best of all was a first winter Iceland gull I found amongst them, beautifully pale looking in the sunlight but a little distant and presumably a Kumleins gull, the American race of Iceland gull. Hooded merganser, goldeneye, gadwall, Canada goose and an American coot were also seen on quieter areas of water away from the rapids.

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, Ontario, Canada 

1st Winter Iceland (Kumleins) Gull, Niagara

1st Winter Iceland (Kumleins) Gull

That evening and it was back on the train for the 2 hour journey to Toronto, unfortunately in the dark but after a very enjoyable day of sight seeing and a fabulous meal in the revolving restaurant of the Skylon Tower with amazing views of The Falls.

Horseshoe Falls from the Skylon Tower, Niagara, ON

American Falls from the Skylon Tower, Niagara, ON

Toronto was much more relaxed than New York despite the skyscrapers and traffic, Canadians seem much more chilled and less neurotic than Americans, and we had a good time seeing the sights. We visited the ROM (Royal Ontario Musueum) on February 4th  which has the most amazing collection of dinosaur skeletons - on our last visit it was closed for renovation and it has been something we have always wanted to revisit. Also of interest (to me) was the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, only 7 Canadian dollars more on top of the entrance fee (about 4 English pounds) and well worth it with some stunning and thought provoking images that kept me occupied for a good hour - the exhibition had a video of images of Dartmoor which was a lovely surprise and did induce feelings of homesickness in me, I sometimes forget how beautiful it is where I live.

T-Rex at the ROM, Toronto

A "Black" Grey Squirrel, Toronto

On our last day in Toronto (February 5th) we visited the CN Tower in the morning and in the afternoon I has a walk along the waterfront by the shores of Lake Ontario for a final bit of birding before the night flight home. There was still a little bit of ice around on the water and it was noticeably getting colder but the sun was shining and I had some excellent views of the ducks and gulls present.

The highlight was a very smart looking adult Kumleins gull roosting with the ring billed gulls, a large looking bird with pale grey primaries. It eventually flew off when an American herring gull flew overhead, chasing after it and calling before settling on top of a lamp post, and I then regularly saw it patrolling back and forth along the shoreline.

Adult Iceland (Kumleins) Gull with Ring Billed Gulls, Toronto

Adult Iceland (Kumleins) Gull with Ring Billed Gulls, Toronto

Ring Billed Gulls, Toronto

A close runner up though for bird of the day were long tailed ducks, they were all along the quaysides and gave very close views despite continually diving for food. Another close contender was a black duck feeding amongst a group of mallards, some excellent views but possibly a hybrid bird as mallard and black duck frequently cross breed to the detriment of the black duck genes. 

Male Long Tailed Duck - Winter Plumage

Male Long Tailed Duck

Female Long Tailed Duck - Winter Plumage

Male Long Tailed Duck

Male Long Tailed Ducks

Male Long Tailed Duck

Male Long Tailed Duck

Male Black Duck

Male Black Duck

Also seen were red breasted mergansers, mute swan and scaup all spread out across the bay but it was getting dark and it was time to head off to the airport for the flight home.

Male Red Breasted Merganser with Male Mallard

Male Red Breasted Merganser

Male Scaup

Male Scaup

At the airport we were very lucky and were upgraded from world traveller (steerage class) to world traveller plus (steerage plus class) - Julie and Matt were upgraded at the check in but we were upgraded at the gate as we boarded the plane, and very nice it was too with more leg room, a glass of champagne before take off and proper cutlery and crockery with the meal. But best of all was a view of the Northern Lights from the window! - looking North as we crossed the Atlantic in the dark we could see a grey-green glow on the distant horizon that came and went and occassionally rippled like a wave, a shame we were much further south this time than we were on our flight over as we would have had some great views of the lights but it was a great end to a great week away.