Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baikal Teal at Fen Drayton

What a week for fabulous wildfowl! After seeing the Hooded Merganser at Radipole Lake in Dorset earlier in the week a stunning male Baikal Teal Anas formosa turned up at Fen Drayton in Cambridgshire. Having never seen one of these birds 'in the wild' it was an easy decision to go and have a look - a twitch if you will! An hour or so after setting off I was scoping this belting drake Asian Teal. Madge and Burn state in 'Wildfowl' that this is 'An exquisitely-patterned large teal... the male has a striking facial pattern that defies brief description' and you can't argue with that so I wont even try other than to say it's like an abstract of green, buff, black and white. The bird was close enough for good views through the scope but too far away to get any decent photographs. Had I visited the hide overlooking Moore lake and waited long enough no doubt I could have managed to get some decent record shots but I was happy enough just seeing this bird.

So here is an image of the 'exquisite head pattern that defies description!'

Head pattern of drake Baikal Teal Anas formosa

There have been five previous records of Baikal Teal in Britain, one in Ireland and four in England:

2010 Oct 2 Essex 1 1 day Chigborough Lakes, juvenile male, 2nd October, photo.
2010 Feb 19 to Feb 23 Co.Wexford 1 5 days Tacumshin, male, 19th to 23rd February, photo.
2002 Dec 22 to Dec 24 Oxon 1 3 days Dix Pit, Stanton Harcourt, male, 22nd to 24th December, photo.
2001 Nov 18 to Dec 29 Suffolk 1 42 days Minsmere, first-winter male, 18th November to 29th December, photo.
1906 Jan 1 to Jan 1Essex 1 1 day Tillingham, first-winter male, 1st January, collected.
A drake was also recorded at Flamborough on 15th April 2013 and I suspect that this record is still awaiting acceptance/rejection by the BBRC. There will, no doubt, be some debate over the provenance of the Fen Drayton bird. It is currently being posted as a 'Mega' on Birdline but  it is a duck and we know what that means!
 The timing of this bird's arrival is pretty consistent with northward movement of this species from its wintering areas, mainly in the Republic of  Korea. Most birds move north during mid-March and arrive at breeding grounds by early April so a bird arriving in Britain in late March would be considered a worthy candidate for true vagrancy.
Early 19th Century Chinese print of Baikal Teal Anas formosa
So this could be another of those 'Can I, can't I count it?' jobbies. Mmmm...does it go on my list or not?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Radipole Merganser

As I was on the south coast of Dorset for a few days earlier in the week it gave me the opportunity to visit Radipole Lake and have a look at the, now resident, drake Hooded Merganser. If you carry out a search for this bird on the internet you will come across masses of comment and dozens of photographs. The big question of course is, 'Is it a wild bird or a presumed escape?' This has a direct bearing on the next question, 'Can I tick it?'
Hooded Mergansers are native to Canada and north America where there are two populations: the western and the eastern, the latter breeds in southern Canada and northern USA south to the Great Plains. In winter these birds move south to Florida and northern Mexico and if the Radipole bird is a genuine vagrant it would be from this eastern population during its southward migration. Nothing unusual there as we know that Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks make it across most years. But not in June! It's just too early for autumn migration for most of these birds. And this bird was found in June 2008 in a storm drain on Portland. However, that does not mean it necessarily arrived then. It could have been present for a while. Like most other Hooded Mergansers in Britain this bird was/is considered to be an escape. The BOU did not admit Hooded Merganser onto category A of the British list until June of 2009 based on a record from North Uist in 2000:
Immature or female, Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist, Outer Hebrides
23 October – 1 November 2000
The British Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee (BOURC) has admitted Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus to Category A of the British List following a review of the occurrence of a female or immature at Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, from 23 October until 1 November 2000 (sight record, photographed).

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014
Since that record there have been four more birds:
2002 - Northumberland - 1st winter at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea - 7th to 25th March
2005 - Kent - adult female at Chilham - 4th to 10th December
2006 - Shetland - adult male at Haroldswick and Burrafirth, Unst - 15th April to 2nd May
2008 - Fife - female at Tayport - 26th October to 15th November 
Bob McGowan, Chairman of BOURC, commented:  “Hooded Merganser has had a particularly troubled route through various categories of the British List, but this only emphasises the complexities in assessing genuine vagrancy in waterfowl, particularly with species which exhibit moderate to high escape potential. For example, the National Waterfowl Census revealed that 206 Hooded Mergansers were hatched in Britain in 2001 so caution was justifiable. Since 2000, documented occurrences in the Azores, the Canaries and Iceland, as well as from Newbiggin in 2002 (British Birds 96: 606) and Shetland in 2006 (British Birds 100: 752), have demonstrated a tendency of increasing natural vagrancy, probably a consequence of the species’ better fortune in North America. Largely as a result of this evidence, BOURC voted unanimously to admit Hooded Merganser to Category A of the British List.”

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014
The BBRC rejected this bird as being a true vagrant in the 51st annual report on rare birds in Britain and then on Thursday 23rd June 2009 the following message appeared on the UK400 club website:  'After much deliberation, the drake HOODED MERGANSER at Radipole Lake (Dorset) has now been formally accepted on to Category D1 of the UK400 Club British & Irish List. Rather than departing this spring, the bird has chosen to stay at the reserve and has now moulted into eclipse plumage. Although the circumstances in which it first appeared in a storm drain near Ferrybridge were quite favourable for natural vagrancy, the fact that it has remained for so long and has chosen to accompany the local Mallard population in search of food perhaps indicate that it was of suspect origin.' The bird therefore becomes UNCOUNTABLE on any UK400 Club day, life, county or year lists.' That's pretty clear then!

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014

However Nigel Hudson and the Rarities Committee had this to say:
'The simple fact is that the majority of Hooded Mergansers seen in an apparently wild state in Britain and Europe will have escaped from captivity. However, some may be completely innocent of this charge, but deciding which individuals deserve recognition as being the genuine article and which should be damned will never please everyone. Being a relatively short-stayer on a loch in Scotland, the Fife female escaped severe condemnation, but a long-staying drake at Weymouth, Dorset, did itself no favours by outstaying its welcome and appears only in Appendix 3 of this report. That said, birders are free to make up their own minds as to whether the Dorset bird deserved the benefit of the doubt. It certainly would not have been the first wild bird, finding itself lost and alone, to adapt to an opportunistic lifestyle, and it could certainly be argued that arriving as an immature, finding itself a suitable haven, and then simply staying put is far from a hanging offence...'
Apart from the discovery date two other factors condemn this bird to the escapee basement. Firstly it has not been displaying truly wild behaviour. But it has! In spring it has been showing natural migratory tendencies and has moved away from Radipole. It has been seen as far away as Chichester and Poole Harbour - missing for four months - I was told by the warden at the reserve. Secondly it is considered to be too tame. If that's the case then there are an awful lot of escaped Tufted Ducks at Radipole.

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014
 The bottom line is that this is a cracking bird to see and if you are in the area it's well worth a visit before it disappears. You decide for yourself if you want to count it as a tick on a list. I know what I'll do...!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Lack of Migrants

On Monday I spent nearly all morning searching for a reported Surf Scoter in Brands Bay, Poole Harbour, Dorset but to no avail. Having no specific information as to where exactly this bird was and there being no other birders around during the morning I still don't know if I was searching in the correct location. Still there were plenty of Red-breasted Mergansers, Black-necked Grebes and Great Crested Grebes. There were three or four Dartford Warblers down towards Studland and we had our first summer migrant tern with a non-breeding adult Sandwich Tern. But no Scoter so we headed off to Portland Bill to search for migrants. It was blowing a hooley and it made for really difficult bird-watching. The only migrants we found were three Northern Wheatears and as we were getting blown and buffeted all over the shop I resorted to taking photos of Jackdaws and Pied Wagtails taking shelter near the cars in the car park.

Pied Wagtail M alba yarrellii - Holding the line

Pied Wagtail M alba yarrellii - Still holding the line

The Jackdaws were hanging about in the car park in hope of bits of food and whenever a car arrived and people got out these birds would strut nearer.

These photos are all in colour!


A couple of Sand Martins at Radipole Lake towards the end of the day were the only other summer migrants that we managed to see.

Reed Bunting Art

Whilst watching the Garganey that I mentioned in the last blog my attention was taken by a pair of Reed Buntings collecting seed material from the Bullrushes, presumably for nesting material as they were not eating the stuff. The female in particular was trying to cram as much stuff as possible into her beak before flying off. Most of the time it all blew away as she opened her beak to  pull more stuff from the Bullrushes. The birds were beautifuly backlit and the whole experience inspired me to take a few 'arty' shots of Reed Bunts on Bullrushes.

 Spot the Blue Tit.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Garganey at Eakring

O.K so it's been a long time! What with one thing and another I haven't had the time to update this blog but it's been nagging at the back of my mind for about nine months. Now I'm back and I'm full of good intentions...I just need the self-discipline. And some interesting stuff to post!
Anyway...yesterday I went to Eakring Flash in north Notts. to look for a reported Garganey.  Garganey is always a good bird to see, especially if it is to be a year tick as this one was. As it turned out this was a kind of a lifer as it was the first Gargeney that I have ever heard. It was a drake and as it approached a couple of unconcerned Mallard it uttered a weird crackling rattle. It was a bit like a metallic cog and ratchet or crackling ice. Not at all what you would expect from a duck!

Drake Garganey Anas querquedula Eakring Flash, Notts
Drake Garganey Anas querquedula Eakring Flash, Notts
 It was being a bit elusive, swimming into the reeds and staying out of sight for a while but you knew when it was about to re-emerge as it gave this distinctive rattle before swimming out into the open.

Drake Garganey Anas querquedula Eakring Flash, Notts
 From available records and sightings on the Notts Birdwatchers web site:                       
 this is probably the first confirmed Garganey in the county this year. Arrival dates in early to mid March being quite normal.