Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shennanigans at the Terek Sandpiper twitch.

Yesterday I spent the morning getting wound up watching Chris Packham's video blog expose of the Maltese hunters. I was frustrated, saddened and angry after watching all seven episodes back-to-back so I was in need of some entertainment to lighten the load. It came in the form of a Terek Sandpiper at Covenham Reservoir just north of Louth in Lincolnshire. Up until the end of 2012 there had been 75 accepted records of this bird in the UK ( plus another five in Eire making around 80 in the British Isles) so this was around about the 76th depending on how many, if at all, were accepted in 2013. This bird is more than likely the same bird that turned up at Amble Marshes near Wadebridge in Cornwall on the 16th May. It looks like it is making its way out of Britain due east. Terek Sands breed along rivers - such as the Terek, hence its name - and lakes in the boreal taiga zone and winter in east Africa, Asia , Arabia and Australia. It looks like a Common Sandpiper with an up-curved bill. A great bird to see in Britain, this one turned up at a reservoir.
Covenham reservoir is a huge concrete basin with concrete banks and a concrete walkway around the edge. This meant that wherever the bird tried to feed along the water's edge it was exposed and in the open and all of the photographers and birders who wanted to could get really close to it. And loads of them did. So the bird would try to feed a little, get spooked by a battery of lenses and scopes peering at it from a few feet, fly off over the water and flutter back to the water's edge at some other point. There then followed the spectacle of birders and photographers rushing off for the nearest point to the bird and off it went again. And so on and so on. If you stayed put the bird would soon come to within range of a decent 300mm lens but the temptation to go and stick their lenses up its backside proved too irresistible to some and then the fun and games really began and I forgot all about the Maltese hunters...There were threats...there was a lot of swearing...there was some bleating... and one bloke in particular was in danger of being drowned by a very pissed off and irate local photographer who had been there for four hours and who had not got a shot of the bird 'cus the other bloke kept scaring it away. After an hour I couldn't make my mind up what I was enjoying the most: the Sandpiper or the belly-aching, shouting, moaning and argy-bargy. Ah heady days!
As I write this the day after visiting the reservoir the bird is still showing well so it probably was not that bothered by all of the attention. I might go back to see if there are any photographers face down in the water!

Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus Covenham Reservoir, Lincs

Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus Covenham Reservoir, Lincs

On the way home it was but a short detour to Frampton Marsh RSPB reserve. Here I caught up with an adult breeding plumaged Spoonbill. Although the bird was fairly distant all of the breeding plumage features could be seen quite well. An ochre breast patch and a yellow-ochre throat patch as well as the bright yellow tip to its weird bill gave this otherwise all white bird a bit more of a contrast. This bird could well be a male as it had quite a long bushy crest. It didn't do much during the hour that I watched it. It just stood in the water pulling shapes! We all have our favourite but unfortunately the picture quality is not much cop due to the extreme cropping.

Spoonbill pulling Shape # 1

Shape # 2 - Careful

Shape # 3

Shape # 4

Shape # 5

Extreme Shape #' 6

Shape # 7 - Elegant

Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia in Breeding Plumage pulling shape # 8

Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia in Breeding Plumage and having a laugh. Shape # 9

Friday, May 16, 2014

Two quick birds!

A really quick bit of blogging today by way of an update to yesterday's post. I was out this lunchtime determined to find at least one Yellow Wagtail and a Corn Bunting if possible as I had not caught up with either species so far this year. In the local vernacular I was 'well pleased' as both species were hanging around together in a nice quiet spot in the country due to local road closures. Some quick snapshot photos and an earful of that fantastic jangly key sound from the Corn Bunting and I was done.
So here are a couple of photos of these two birds from this lunchtime:
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava flavissima

Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava flavissima

Male Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra

Male Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra

Male Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra
These were taken near to Barton-in-Fabis in the south of Nottinghamshire. They were in the only bit of the area that has not been dug-up to make way for a twelve lane motorway or a new Tram-line link to Nottingham. They'll be gone soon no doubt due to habitat loss. The Corn Bunting seem to be on the way out already...but that's another story.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

In search of Wood Warblers

Having spent a couple of mornings in a fruitless search for Yellow Wagtails in my local birding areas I decided to change tack and go and look for birds I knew I had a pretty good chance of locating. Mixed woodland of predominantly oak and birch with a fairly open understory and sparse ground flora is a favoured habitat of Wood Warblers as well as Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Pipits and Redstarts. The neighbouring county of Derbyshire has some of this very habitat about an hour's drive from my house. Padley Gorge was my destination this morning as I have managed to see all of these species there every year for the past dozen or so. However, Wood Warbler is becoming more and more difficult to locate, last year I managed to find just the one so I thought it might prove to be difficult this time round. I was not wrong! Two hours in the gorge and no Wood Warblers. Likewise at another suitable location further north and nearer to Sheffield. A site that Sheffield birders swear by for Wood Warblers.
Spotted Flycatcher was waiting at the edge of the gorge as I arrived...good start. Pied Flycatchers were all over the shop...there were more Pied Flycatchers than you could shake a stick at, as a mate of mine would say. But absolutely no Wood Warblers.
Willow Warblers singing, Tree Pipits singing and calling from the trees along the edges of the wood and some belting male Whinchats out on the more open moorland.
Quite a lot of these:
Male Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca
 Just one of these:
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata
 A few of these:
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis
But none of these: (So no picture)
So what could be happening to Wood Warblers? Why are they becoming more and more difficult to find?
Wood Warblers winter south of the Sahara and breed across much of Europe making them long-distance migrants. There have been declines in numbers across nearly all of its breeding range. According to the 'Bird Atlas 2007 - 2011' BTO 'Between 1968-72 and 1988-91 there were marked losses...Subsequently there has been a 37% range contraction since the 1988-91 Breeding Atlas. There has been a 65% reduction in numbers recorded in the UK during 1995-2010 (BBS report 2011)'
The RSPB state that: The UK Wood Warbler population has declined by 69% since the mid 1990s and has been lost from 50% of its former UK range. However, the causes of this decline are unknown, and, like other migrant birds, may be driven by factors at their breeding grounds, wintering sites, on migration routes or a combination of these.'
To look for reasons for this decline the RSPB have been running a project since at least 2009 in which they have concentrated on looking at possible drivers of Wood Warbler decline occurring at UK breeding grounds. Key questions have been: Has nest predation increased; have nest failure rates increased; have food sources declined or changed, particularly caterpillars. Has climate change affected the phenology of main prey species so that the timing of peak prey activity and nesting activity no longer match. Or have changes in woodland structure contributed to the decline. It can't be habitat loss...the habitat is still there, I was in it today, it's the birds that are not there.
Results in so far suggest that there is no evidence to suggest changes in rates of nest predation have driven declines. Predation is heavy, particularly by Jays, but this was the case before the decline. 'Lower abundance of caterpillars and a mismatch in timing had no impact on Wood warbler productivity, mainly due to their ability to successfully switch diet to flying insects and spiders.' (Mallord et al)
The RSPB report continues: Habitat changes 'have not been sufficient to drive observed declines of Wood Warblers and the three other species for which this habitat is important: Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart and Tree Pipit. The report which can be found here
concludes: Overall, our work so far has found very little evidence to suggest that factors operating in the breeding grounds have driven the Wood Warbler's decline in the UK.
The causes of the decline then must be on the wintering grounds. The Atlas ends its section on the Wood Warbler by stating that Ockendon et al. (2012) included Wood Warbler among a range of species wintering in the humid zone of tropical West Africa that are in decline, and suggested that these trends could be driven by changes in climate or land use in the wintering area. Let's hope we can find out what is causing the decline before it's to late and we lose all of our Wood Warblers along with other long-distance migrants from tropical West Africa.
Tomorrow the Yellow Wagtail!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Birding Scotland - The End

I have had no internet connection for the past few days courtesy of the remoteness of the Cairngorms. Now in Northumberland so now connected and I have a chance to share some photographs of the Ptarmigan that we were seeking in the hilly bits. Birds are now in spring plumage which means that males are basically a pied white/grey mix with purer white wings, white on the head and most grey on the a dirty snowball as Pat said! Females are more a mix of gold, yellow, brown and black barring. They can be striking when the light catches them just so. We found eight birds, seven males and a female. The birds called often and it is a treat to hear them. The song is like running a finger along the teeth of a comb or running a stick along an iron we used to before we had toys.
Someone recently commented that Scottish birds are best and when I found these I felt like they were. These pictures are of two different males and a single female.

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Male Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Female Ptarmigan Lagopus muta busy feeding

Female Ptarmigan Lagopus muta...up Cairn Gorm...ish

Female Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Female Ptarmigan Lagopus muta

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Birding Scotland still: Seeking the Ptarmigan Pt 1

Up to the top of Cairn Gorm today hunting the Put Arm Igan. The walk up the hill (!) began well with a singing Male Ring Ouzel on the chair lift paraphernalia next to the car park. The sun was shining, it was hot and Red Grouse were calling and displaying around the lower slopes. Meadow Pipits were really common from the lower slopes all the way up to over 3000 feet. There was snow and there were skiers...but was there to be Ptarmigan?

Award winning study of a male Ring Ouzel!

Ring Ouzel on Cairn Gorm
Ptarmigan prefer higher slopes than the Red Grouse and we found that there was little chance of finding any down near the car park although they have been reported there plenty of times. I presume that they move down to lower altitudes during the more wintry weather and then move back to higher ground as the weather becomes more mild. Today being really hot and sunny it looked like being a trek to the top.

Ptarmigan Country

Searching for the Ptarmigan

Still Looking for the elusive Ptarmigan.

It took us two hours to reach the summit as we were stopping to grill every Red Grouse...even though we knew that they were going to be Red Grouse all along 'cus we were not high enough.

Here Ptarmy Ptarmigan!
Was it worth it? Did we actually see 'owt?

Friday, May 2, 2014

How to shoot Red Grouse

So over to the Cairngorms. When birding in this area one of my targets is to see seven species of grouse/Pheasant. Viz: Common Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge, Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Capercaillie and Ptarmigan. Pheasant is easy...they seem to be  everywhere below 1000ft as they are released in their hundreds to supply the shoot! Most seem to get killed on the roads if my experience of driving around the area is anything to go by. Likewise Red-legged Partridges, they walk across most roads with gay abandon and this is also added to the road-kill and trip list. Grey partridge can be tricky and we only saw a couple down in the Findhorn Valley. Probably all been shot!
The RSPB reserve at Loch Garton came up trumps for us on the first morning with an impressive male Capercaillie strutting and feeding out in front of the Osprey hide. Initially picked up on one of the cameras we were struggling to overcome a dodgy conscience and convince ourselves that we could tick it 'cus we could see it on the screen. Fortunately a birder in the hide managed to locate the bird through his telescope and we all formed an orderly queue to get real views. Capercaillie, perhaps the most difficult of the grouse to find, in the bag! (Deliberate use of shooting term there!)
Next stop Tulloch Moor for Black Grouse. This is a well known lecking site and good numbers of grouse have been recorded here in the past. Today there was just a single, forlorn looking male sat out on a tussock of tussocky stuff. So not the spectacle that we were hoping for but that's Black Grouse ticked and only twenty minutes after the Caper. Only Red Grouse and Ptarmigan to get now!
Red Grouse must be the third most common of the species listed above. They can be heard and seen in just about all suitable habitat. Again I suspect that the moors are kept just right for these birds so that they can later be blasted to bits of bone and feathers by the shooting brigade...lots and lots of pound coins to be made in so doing. But the correct way to shoot Red Grouse is with a camera and a telephoto lens!!

Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica...Just having a little look to see if it's safe!

Male Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica. Canon 1DS MK III and 400mm lens. Less fatal than a twelve bore.

Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica - Shot with a camera and therefore still alive!
Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica - Also shot with a camera and therefore also still alive!
Only Ptarmigan to find to bag (continuing use of relevant shooting terminology) all seven species. These tend to dwell in nasty high places over 3 000 ft or about five miles high so I'm leaving these until tomorrow when I've had a hearty Scots breakfast and bought some Kendal Mint Cake.