A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 17 March 2017

Bonaparte's Gull at Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire!

Bonaparte’s Gull is a species that has been a long time coming for my British list, having never gone for the returning Anglesey bird from 2009 to 2011 and with no other tempting individuals turning up nearby in the years since. Therefore, when a 2nd winter bird appeared on Swithland Reservoir in Leicestershire on the Sunday morning it was all systems go in an attempt to finally connect with this dainty trans-Atlantic visitor. 
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Bonaparte's Gull at Swithland Reservoir!
Arriving on Kinchley Lane on the northern edge of the reservoir just after lunch, we were dismayed to learn it had flown off high no more than ten minutes earlier, leaving just a handful of Black-headed Gulls present on the water. Speaking to the assembled birders it came as something of a reassurance that the Bonaparte’s had done this at least three times already during the day - returning back to the reservoir after a period of absence each time - and we hoped it would follow the same pattern this afternoon.  
Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Sure enough, after just over an hour of scanning both the sky and the reservoir from our vantage point of the dam, the gulls slowly started to reappear, singles and pairs of Black-headed Gulls alighting on the water swiftly followed by a large flock consisting of around 50 birds – the Bonaparte’s had to be amongst them surely! Scanning through the newly arrived individuals it wasn’t long until Alex called out that he had it – success and Bonaparte’s in the bag!
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Floating next to the assorted Black-headed Gulls the differences were subtle yet apparent, although without careful scanning and a keen eye, it could easily have been overlooked. Once you’d got your eye in however it was easy to pick out, the slightly smaller and daintier size in comparison to the Black-headed Gulls the main standout feature, along with the thin all black bill and darker grey nape, mantle and chest which all helped to distinguish it.
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Comparison of the smaller Bonaparte's alongside the Black-headed Gulls
Offering distant but satisfactory views through the scope, we fired off a couple of phonescoped record shots and watched on as it paddled around for a good ten minutes or so before departing, flying off over the conifer trees to feed.
Bonaparte's Gull - Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
Swithland Reservoir, Leicestershire
With no sign the following day or indeed since, it seems we well and truly jammed in on this small American gull, a great little bird to catch up with and refreshing to get one relatively close to home! 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

PINEY! Male Pine Bunting at Dunnington, Yorkshire!

Male birds are 9 times out of 10 more striking than their duller female counterparts and Pine Buntings are no different, with the bright coloured heads of the males a far cry from the drab and often tricky females! Despite getting reasonable views of the Venus Pools female in Shropshire earlier in January, the discovery of a fine male bird frequenting the Dunnington hedgerows a few weeks ago saw us wanting to complete the Pine Bunting set, and with a free Sunday we made the short journey over to Yorkshire in the hopes of connecting.
Pine Bunting - Dunnington, Yorkshire
Notoriously tricky birds to successfully twitch as of late (the Kent bird has also been proving to be elusive) several people had left unfulfilled having dipped the Dunnington bird after hours of waiting, some even having missed out even when the bird had shown due to the sightings being all too brief.
Dunnington Pine Bunting crowd
The assembled Pine Bunting crowd
Joining the crowd expecting a lengthy wait and with hundreds of Yellowhammers constantly flitting in and out of the hedge to search through, we were surprised when after just over half an hour eagle eyed Alex expertly picked out our male Pine Bunting, having watched the tiny bird fly in from afar. Perched in the silver birch trees in the hedge before flying closer into the large oak tree on the right hand side of the hedge north of the paddock, the strikingly marked bunting remained on view for only a couple of minutes at max, just long enough to really study the distinctive facial features and fire off a few record phonescoped shots, before dropping down in to the hedge and out of sight.
Pine Bunting - Dunnington, Yorkshire
Pine Bunting - Dunnington, Yorkshire
True to its elusive nature, it didn’t make a reappearance while we stayed on site and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that it came on view again – lucky I got up early otherwise we would have had a very cold and unfruitful day!

With a bright white central moustacial cheek, grey central crown stripe and rusty brown tones there was certainly no mistaking this particular individual, and it was great to get a good look at it perched still and unobscured, especially as the flock was extremely flighty with birds coming and going on a constant basis. The flock itself consisted of a mix of hundreds of Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings, with a handful of Chaffinches, Bramblings and Tree Sparrows thrown in for good measure – and it was good to see these farmland species were doing well here having suffered large declines elsewhere.

After this autumn’s phenomenal influx of Pine Buntings, it was only a matter of time before further wintering birds were unearthed hiding amongst our British Yellowhammer flocks, and this is a species that anyone has a chance of finding while searching through their local wintering flocks. Indeed, with birds turning up on a weekly basis on the European continent, there is a high possibility that more of these charming little buntings will come to light in the next couple of months.

Remaining quite elusive, there are certain areas where the Pine Bunting seems to show fairly reliably after a wait. As of late, it has favoured the right hand hedgerow and oak tree as viewed from the paddock, as well as the ground around the obvious fallen dead tree and surrounding hedgerows a few fields to the right as viewed from the public footpath to the east of the field.
Dunnington Pine Bunting hedge
The Dunnington hedgerow north of the paddock that the Pine Bunting is making its current home

Thursday, 9 February 2017

BANANABILL - White-billed Diver makes landfall in Lincolnshire!

When reports surfaced of a juvenile White-billed Diver photographed on the River Witham 20 miles inland in rural Lincolnshire, it was certainly an early contender for one of the strangest records in 2017. Relocated further up river late on the Saturday evening, my car breaking down couldn’t have come at a worse time, and I subsequently had to see through a rather agonising week in work bombarded by the hundreds of breath-taking photos of this stunning Arctic diver at point blank range.
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
White-billed Diver on the River Witham - an incredible record!
By some miracle however the following Saturday saw the diver remarkably still present on the same stretch of river, and with my car now (hopefully fixed) I dragged Alex out of bed early and made the 3 hour journey down to Lincolnshire.

Arriving at Kirkhall Bridge near Woodhall Spa just after lunch, we made the long treck north along the river bank, the fog from earlier in the week thankfully abating (I didn’t much fancy trying to pick out the diver in thick mist!) and the sun shining down. Luckily the diver hadn’t ranged as far north as on previous days (it was often up near Stixwould several miles away) and after around 20 minutes we caught sight of a group of birders on the edge of the water which could only mean one thing – the White-billed Diver must be close by.
River Witham, Lincolnshire
Sure enough, upon approaching the river a large shape surfaced among the ripples and the ghostly figure of this majestic Arctic species came in to view. 
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
Sporting a mammoth dagger-like bill in beautiful pearly white hues of pale ivory, the sheer size of the bird was striking, living up to its reputation as the largest species of diver and sailing imposingly down the river. With the slightly upturned bill and delicate pale lemon colouration it was clear to see how it got its “Bananabill” nickname – it was truly an impressive sight and sure to strike fear in the hearts of fish as it stalked them in the murky depths of the river.
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
The big beefy neck was instantly apparent, as was the diver's size, being slightly larger than a Great Northern
Regularly diving down under the surface and only staying afloat for minutes at a time, we were surprised to see just how much ground the diver could cover while under the water, often re-surfacing much further away than expected and covering a huge stretch of water during the time we were present. 
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
The White-billed Diver was constantly diving, often staying under for over a minute
Often coming to within several metres, its lack of shyness towards people was also apparent, and such close up and incredible views of this species are a once in a blue moon experience!
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
The strong northerly winds the UK experienced a couple of weeks ago have more than likely brought the White-billed Diver to Lincolnshire from its usual Arctic home.
In a rather remarkable coincidence, another White-billed Diver (and the only other inland river bird) frequented the exact same stretch of the River Witham back in March 1996, unfortunately meeting a sad end after tragically ingesting a fishing hook and line discarded in the water.

Having not made it down for the Devon bird at Brixham Harbour a few years ago and not having travelled for the far out to sea distant dots off Portsoy where White-billed Divers can be found miles offshore in the summer months, it was great to unexpectedly catch up with what was a much sought after species for me and certainly a bird that I had been left wondering exactly when I’d get the opportunity to see in British waters.
River Witham, Lincolnshire
At one point a canal boat flushed the diver, causing it to swim rapidly down river at speed
Sadly however and mirroring the bird found 20 years ago, the diver seems to have got the remnants of a discarded fishing line caught in its bill, often seen to be gathering algae after dives and sometimes trailing from the birds mouth. 
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
With fishing lines undoubtedly come hooks however, and it would be an extreme shame if this beautiful bird met a sad end after ingesting unwanted fishing tackle discarded by humans – a stark reminder to keep our riverside locations free from fishing debris.
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire
With the diver still going strong however after at least a two week’s stay on the river -  it was last seen flying off 7km south of Kirkhall Bridge on the 1st - fingers crossed it will survive and somehow dislodge the fishing line – a truly incredible bird that I was exceptionally glad I made the trip down to see!
White-billed Diver - Lincolnshire

Thursday, 2 February 2017

A wild (Red-breasted Goose) chase!! To Norfolk, Lancashire and back!

Some birds seem to be much trickier to catch up with than others and rather surprisingly, this winter’s Red-breasted Goose decided it was going to be one of the awkward ones. Having already travelled down to Norfolk at the end of December in an attempt to twitch it over the New Year period, thick fog rather hampered our success, and despite Alex getting brief views through the mist upon our arrival, the Red-breasted Goose rather disastrously wasn’t seen again! A gruelling following two days endlessly searching the surrounding fields and trawling through tens of thousands of geese in the biting cold drew a blank (hours and hours of searching and staring at geese resulted in me even seeing them in my sleep!), and with no further sightings of the Red-breasted Goose at all in Norfolk, it seemed we’d mis-timed our visit with it moving on to pastures new.
Red-breasted Goose - Cockerham, Lancashire
Goose! A total menace! 
Fast forward a few days and rather remarkably (or frustratingly depending on how you look at it!) what is presumed to be the same goose was refound on the marsh at RSPB Marshside in Lancashire on the 4th January (an hour away from home), before once more moving on to Cockerham Moss four days later. Despite going mysteriously missing for a week a couple of days later, it now seems to have struck up a pattern and can reliably be found grazing in the surrounding fields in the area amongst the thousands of Pinkfeet.

Alex's Red-breasted Goose video!

Heading up ourselves on the Sunday morning, we rather foolishly expected to rack up and enjoy great views of this colourful species feeding in one of the regular fields. How wrong we were….. 6 hours later and there was no trace of our goose, and with now freezing cold feet and a form of goose depression setting in, we were left pondering just why this one goose seemingly hated us…
Cockerham, Lancashire
The goose field - minus any Red-breasted ones!
Luckily though we persevered, and with several large flocks flying in from further north presumably to roost, we drove over to the main feeding field to trawl through yet more Pinkfeet in the hope that our Red-breasted had landed with them.

Joining the assembled birders and having not even got my scope set up yet, it was a case of “right place, right time” as in what was one of the most casual announcements of spotting a bird ever (second only to a French birders deadpan “I have eet” proclamation of finding our much sought after Dupont’s Lark in Spain) a lady exclaimed that she thought she had found “the red one”.
Red-breasted Goose - Cockerham, Lancashire
The "Red One"
With panic ensuing and almost in disbelief that after 4 whole days of searching our target had finally been found, there were a tense few frantic moments when there were no available scopes to look through – if it had flown off at this point I would have cried!

Luckily Alex soon found it amongst the flock and getting my own scope set up and on it we were finally able to enjoy prolonged views of this beautiful, petite goose. With no fog to obscure our vision and remaining out of the way of any bustling Pinkfeet, it was great to finally savour the sweet taste of success – Red-breasted Goose in the bag.
Red-breasted Goose - Cockerham, Lancashire
Red-breasted Goose - Cockerham, Lancashire
After around 10 minutes of it feeding in the field, our goose eventually took flight, presumably heading off in to the next field with a large group of Pinkfeet and unfortunately timing it’s departure at the same moment the other birders in the area arrived to try and connect…. it seems the goose certainly hadn’t lost its frustratingly mischievous trait where doing a vanishing act was concerned!

So, the big question… is it gen?

With Red-breasted Geese breeding in far north Russia – in the same area as Bean, White-fronted and Brent Geese, despite being amongst a large Pink-footed Goose flock we can presume that this particular bird arrived with the several White-fronted Geese that have been mixed in with the Pinkfeet.
Pink-footed Geese
Migrating Pinkfeet
Migrating south for the winter, once the Beans or White-fronts hit northern Europe they can mingle with the hundreds of thousands of Pink-footed Geese migrating in the same direction, often getting carried over to Britain with their host flocks. Indeed, several White-fronted and Bean Geese were present at both Cockerham and down in Norfolk, with the Red-breasted Goose regularly choosing to associate itself with the White-fronted Geese in particular when feeding.
White-fronted Geese
Photo by Alex Jones
Bean Goose
Both White-fronted and Bean Geese were present with the Red-breasted Goose
With several large Brent Goose flocks also overwintering down in Norfolk, an alternative theory is that the Red-breasted Goose may have travelled across to Britain with the Brent Geese before getting mixed in with the Pink-footed Goose flocks, preferring the food source of the grassy fields as opposed to the saltwater marshes favoured by Brent Geese. We did in fact actually see several Brent Geese mixed in with the Pink-footed Goose flocks down in Norfolk, showing that the two species do mingle.
Brent Geese - Norfolk
The Norfolk Brent Geese
It was also interesting to discover that the Pink-footed Goose flocks in Norfolk regularly make the journey up to Lancashire each year, and with the Todd’s Canada Goose in Norfolk also being spotted up at Cockerham, there is no doubt that these birds are all part of the same flock that have made the journey north – the Red-breasted Goose included.

Despite many Red-breasted Geese in Britain being of dubious origin having escaped from captivity, this individual’s wild tendencies, migratory patterns and association with carrier species (both Bean and White-fronted Geese were present with it in Norfolk and at Cockerham) are enough to earn it the benefit of the doubt for me.
Red-breasted Goose - Cockerham, Lancashire
Having given us the run-around for almost a month and sending us on a wild goose chase half way across the country and back, it was a weight off the shoulders to finally nail this (elusive for us!) individual! Great work on Alex’s part driving to both Norfolk and Lancashire for me to track down my goose – this almost makes up for him doing a runner to see a White Stork without me in August… almost!

Finding the Goose:

The Red-breasted Goose seems to favour a particular set of fields adjacent to Cockerham Marsh, running alongside the A588 from Cockerham to Stake Pool. The main flocks congregate between Braides and Sand Villa Farm (postcode LA2 0EW) but we also found substantial flocks along Horse Park Lane and Backsands Lane. Several birders have also been successful further north at Upper Thurnham off the A588 layby just south of Moss Lane, while we found a large flock at the end of Slack Lane on the other side of the Marsh. The most recent sighting came from Eagland Hill and Nateby, slightly further south. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Pacific Diver at Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland - MEGA!!

When a Pacific Diver remarkably turned up on an inland pool in Northumberland last week, it was extremely tempting to make the long journey up north in an attempt to catch up with this American visitor. Despite having previously seen the returning Penzance bird in Cornwall on two separate occasions, this was a great chance to watch this mega diver species up close and an opportunity we simply couldn’t pass up! I’ve always maintained I would twitch an inland Pacific Diver should one ever occur again, and sure enough Saturday morning saw us travelling north up the M1 to Northumberland!
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Arriving on site just after lunch and with the diver having relocated to Druridge Bay CP (after apparently attempting to fly back out to sea before doing a u-turn and crash landing on the ice), straight away we were afforded outstanding views as it made several circuits right in front of us around the north west corner of Ladyburn Lake. 
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
With the Penzance Pacific Diver remaining mostly distant, this was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to really see the distinguishing features up close for ourselves and to try and get some photographs. Being present for 3 days before the ID was nailed as Pacific instead of the previously thought Black-throated Diver, the lack of a pale white flank patch was the giveaway to its true identity, while the black, albeit faint chinstrap visible at closer range sealed the deal. 
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Enjoying amazing views of the diver for a good hour and a half as it swam and dived right in front of us, it seemed totally unfazed by its squad of paparazzi admirers, at several points surfacing mere metres away from the crowd! It’s not every day you get to see a diver show so well, let alone a 6th for Britain Pacific Diver!
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
With several other features distinguishing Pacific Divers from the similar Black-throated (it was only very recently split) the black vent strap was visible on several photographs, while the slightly smaller structure and size as well as the short, fine bill on the Pacific Diver were some of the more subtle features we noted that separate the two species.
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
We also noticed that the Pacific Diver also tended to leap out of the water quite considerably when diving compared to other species of diver, again, another subtle difference from the Black-throated.
Pacific Diver - Druridge Bay CP, Northumberland
Ladyburn Lake - the Pacific Diver often came to within feet! 
Far more used to an ocean-going existence, fingers crossed the diver will be ok and eventually make it back out to sea – whilst it was diving constantly during our visit, we only saw it feed successfully twice, and even then on exceptionally small fish.

Alex's great video of the Pacific Diver in action!

Never the less, this was an incredible experience to get so close to a remarkable bird, and even my car breaking down mid-route northbound up the A1 wasn’t going to stop us seeing it!  

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Pine Bunting at Venus Pools in Shropshire - MEGA!!

When news of a female Pine Bunting at Venus Pools in Shropshire broke on New Year’s Day, we were keen to catch up with this mega bunting first hand, and at only 1 hour 20 from Cheshire, the short distance to travel came as a welcome change!
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire (Jim Almond)
The female Pine Bunting by Jim Almond
Arriving on site the next day for just after 10 and with news put out earlier that the Pine Bunting had been seen and showing well in the kale mid-morning, it seemed to be a no brainer that we would connect soon.

Unfortunately however, it seemed the Pine Bunting had other ideas, and a frustrating few hours ensued in bitterly cold weather where despite the abundance of Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and Corn Buntings on site, the Pine Bunting failed to put in an appearance.
Venus Pools Pine Bunting twitch
Venus Pools, Shropshire
The Pine Bunting hedge!
All good things come to those who wait however, and despite my feet having now turned into literal blocks of ice having been nestled in the frost covered grass all morning, eventually Alex picked up a very pale looking bunting moving through the hedge before dropping down in to the grassy verge below.

Getting the 20 or so birders immediately around us on it, simultaneous cries of joy went up: “That’s it – Pine Bunting!” Success! Watching this greyscale bunting hop around for a good few minutes we were able to note a number of features, the two white wing bars and white edged primaries the most notable differentiating feature, along with the pale white chest lined with delicate, fine rusty brown speckles forming a necklace of sorts. The head pattern was also notably different from the associating Reed and Corn Buntings, none of the clearly defined facial patches or rustic brown and cream tones we had been used to seeing on the Reed Buntings all morning, instead sporting a plain grey nape, overall plain grey face and we were just able to make out the fine dark lines near the eye and small white spot on the cheek.
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire (Jim Almond)
The female Pine Bunting by Jim Almond. It reminded more of an American sparrow looks wise.
Hopping back up on to the hedge for a period of time, the greyish buff tones and stripes on the back looked clearer in comparison to the nearby Reeds, while other birders watching made note of the rusty coloured rump.
The pure white wing diagnostic of Pine Buntings and eliminating any Yellowhammer doubts. Photo by Jim Almond.
Books and images of female Pine Buntings can only get you so far however, and having no field experience we were a little unsure as to what would be noticeable in the field and what wouldn’t. However, once spotted, the Pine Bunting, despite the differences being relatively subtle, did stand out, giving the overall impression of “frosty bunting that looked as if it had been frosted with frost”.

This video of a female Pine Bunting clearly shows the identification features of this tricky species, and is exactly how our bird looked in the field.

This great document explores the identification of Pine Buntings in all plumage stages in extreme detail, and is a fantastic tool when trying to clinch the ID of what can be a tricky species. The excellent Birding Frontiers article also illustrates what to look for when separating female Pine Buntings from other similar species. 

It was, nevertheless, great to have other birders on site who had direct experience with often tricky female Pine Buntings, having seen multiple different individuals before and all offering their confirmation that this was indeed the bird we had travelled to see. Certainly, throughout the afternoon there were a lot of false alarms and confusion in the crowds, with several faintly marked Reed Buntings trapping the unwary while later in the week a Corn Bunting with extensive white on the primaries tricked more than one observer on separate occasions. With Corn Buntings having a much larger, chunkier bill, overall “yellow ochre” colouring and extensive black markings on the chest however, careful observation should be enough to eliminate these as a potential pitfall.
Corn Bunting
Corn Bunting - note the thicker bill and darker spotted chest
Unfortunately, the very few record shots that we did manage to take did very little to do the Pine Bunting justice, my poor ability at taking photos with my phone through a scope attributing to this! 
Pine Bunting - Venus Pools, Shropshire
Dreadful photo!
Rather disappointingly, some individuals who weren’t actually on site tried to ID the bird from this one poor record shot, ignoring ours and everyone else’s field observations in the process and maintaining that it wasn’t the Pine Bunting. It is always worth remembering that field observations on site are always a better way to judge the ID of a bird as opposed to one single photograph depicting the bird in poor quality and at a bad angle, as the recent Orphean Warbler/Lesser Whitethroat mix up in Suffolk just goes to prove. It’s much better to take detailed field notes in correlation with other observers who have past experience of the species in question in the field, than to try and judge from a single shot. 
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
Pine Bunting, Venus Pools, Shropshire
It's hard to make out the details on this set of photos of the Pine Bunting too, illustrating how certain features can be affected by picture quality.
Indeed, if a record shot showing the bird clearly IDable to others is required for all new species seen by a person, then the Dorset Short-toed Eagle, Blyth’s Pipit, Pied-billed Grebe and Wilson’s Phalarope would all have to be taken off my list for a start!
Short-toed Eagle - Dorset
Blyth's Pipit - Yorkshire
Pied-billed Grebe - Gloucestershire
Wilson's Phalarope - Essex
All of which showed well through the scope, despite the poor record shots!
With no confirmed sightings of the Shropshire Pine Bunting since the 2nd, and with the vast majority of photos over the following days depicting the aberrant Corn Bunting, our eastern visitor seems to have moved on. After such strong easterlies during the autumn however and with a bit of a mini influx of Pine Buntings occurring this year, there may well be more hiding out there in Yellowhammer flocks across the country!
Venus Pools, Shropshire
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