Monday, 31 October 2011

The 2011 Scilly Season. Part 4, two Olive-backed beauties.

Onto the 17th October, the morning after the night before! A couple of anadins needed, and probably just as well that it was a rather quiet day. Having said that I was buzzing with excitement from the previous day.

The main point of interest on St. Marys was a Portuguese Man of War. It was washed up in Old Town bay after being found at the same spot and put back to sea a couple of days ago. The jellyfish was placed into a bucket and due to be re-floated out at sea, but further out this time. A bit of a tiddler I thought:

Incidentally, it's little purple friend on the right isn't Prince. It's a By The Wind Sailor, a type of sea slug.

The 18th was also spent on St. Marys. Again a bit of a slow morning, left my scope back in the guest house. A ringtail Hen Harrier was seen off the Eastern Isles and a couple of Great Northern Divers were off Inisidgen, could've done with the scope then. When finished there the plan was to walk towards Pelistry Bay. However, the pager and radio kicked off again, of 2 Olive-backed Pipits along Watermill Lane, which was also on the way. Once again, cannot believe the luck I was having of being close by when these birds were discovered.

I really could've done with the scope at this point, thankfully I managed a view of them through the scope of Scillies regular and laser pen seller-extraordinaire, Ralph Parks:

Thinking that these Pipits wouldn't be going away from the field here I went back to Hugh Town, got the scope and back to Watermill Lane. Quite pleased with what I managed to get on them actually.

Other stuff seen on St. Marys that day were a Firecrest along Trenoweth Lane, Yellow-browed Warbler at Newford Duckpond and a few Redwings starting to trickle in.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The 2011 Scilly Season. Part 3, getting jammy with a couple of warblers.

I suppose when you arrive on the Scillies on a trip like this, the first thing you want to do is twitch the things you need to twitch. As the lifers were done and dusted (five in the first 48 hours, now that’s ridiculous!), I could relax a bit and do my own relaxed style of birding, just as was done on St. Agnes the day before.

It’s also a time when the two-way radios start to become really useful, for instant bird news. The 15th was spent on St. Marys. An interesting start to the day began with the discovery of a Deaths-head Hawkmoth from a moth trap in Hugh Town.

I've never really got into moths, but I have to admit this one was really impressive. The picture doesn’t really emphasise what a whopper it really is. And true to it’s name, it does look like it has a picture of a skull on it’s back!

Following a report of a Radde’s Warbler in the dead pine walk at the Garrison, the morning was spent here. No sign of the Radde’s unfortunately, but the Subalpine Warbler did eventually show in an ivy hedge by the football pitch. Also one or two Clouded Yellow butterflies here.

After a pasty for lunch, from Griffin’s bakery and butchers, I thought it would be rather nice to have another look at the Bluethroat at Porth Hellick and Carn Friars. As birders will now, showy Bluethroats don’t occur very often! Prior to that, a check of Old Town bay produced a Greenshank, a Kingfisher and two Turtle Doves in the vegetable field next to somewhere called Nowhere! The cemetery at Old Town was rather quiet, but Harold Wilson was eventually found. Perhaps the Wilson’s Snipe should pay homage?

I'm afraid to say that Harold Wilson is a bit before my time as Prime Minister. He retired on the year I was born! But that made way for Jim Callaghan, then Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and now of course the Cameron/Clegg coalition. But I've heard the that the Wilsons and their family spent as much time as they could on Scilly. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine the Blairs spending their spare time on Scilly. Barbados possibly.........

But continuing to Carn Friars, the Bluethroat continued to show well. Obviously age is creeping up on me, so I can’t remember if I had the scope or not in order to digiscope it. I have no pictures of it so I couldn’t have done. Thank goodness for a picture from Martyn Whalley, as autumn Bluethroats go this is a good one.

Whilst at Carn Friars, the pager and radio started kicking off, informing everyone of a Radde’s Warbler at Salakee Farm. What luck that it’s only a 5 minute walk away from Carn Friars. Eventually everyone was treated to a wonderful show of the Radde’s Warbler, as it flew out of the Pittosporum hedge, into the rough grass by the farm tack, caught a grub, flew underneath a trailer and munched away on the grub.

A brilliant bird. You learn things as well when you watch them, particularly the way that Radde’s Warbler will pump it’s tail upwards, unlike Chiffchaff which pumps it’s tail downwards. A useful thing to look out for. Also, the orange undertail coverts are a much more of a distinguishing feature than it’s supercilium.

The 16th involved a boat ride over to St. Martins for the day. This island was kind to me last year, as I managed to connect with Tawny Pipit, Melodious Warbler and Red-flanked Bluetail. So I always wanted to intend to do at least a day here this time. Just as a general birdwatch of course, and to explore the east of the island, which I didn’t manage to do last year.

Things started off with a Whinchat by the cricket pitch, plus Willow Warbler and Common Redstart at Little Arthur’s Farm. At the east end of St. Martins is the daymark. Allow me to illustrate what a daymark is:

The American Golden Plover had been in residence on the heath south of the daymark, along with 3 European Golden Plover. They took a bit of finding but we got onto them eventually.

The St. Martins flats on the south west corner of the island, where the Tawny Pipit was last year, is also the best place on the Scillies to look for flocks of waders. During the afternoon the tide had gone out and on the flats contained good numbers of Sanderling and Ringed Plover, a few Turnstone and only one each of Dunlin and Whimbrel.

Whilst doing the wader count, the pager went off and it said “probable Blyth’s Reed Warbler, St Martins, by the school”. “Ooh, that’s interesting” I thought. So once the wader counts were completed I eventually made my way east along St. Martins, as did Kent birder Martin Coath. We eventually found Andy Jordan and got to the spot where the warbler in question was last seen.

However, we got sidetracked for a while because my radio went into meltdown! This was due to a continual running commentary from St. Marys, of 3 Black Kites! At the time they were soaring over Porth Hellick, so a run to a clear view of St. Marys had to be done. An eventual scan with the binoculars eventually found 3 dots over the east side of St. Marys. Obviously they were 3 large raptors, but it was only the radios that could tell you that they were the 3 Black Kites from here.

Anyway, we had this warbler to get back to concentrate on. After a short wait, the bird in question flew out of the dunes and back into the hedge. Personally, I only saw it through bins. Thanks to good old Pittosporum (I’m starting to dislike this plant very much!), I couldn’t make out the wing shape and primary projection. What I did see looked like an obvious acrocephalus Warbler, but much paler overall on the upperparts, completely white underneath and no rufous shades, a very white throat and dark legs. It also called, chacking away just a Blackcap. Then it hopped away never to be seen again and we had to get the boat back.

I must admit, I don’t like it when I think I’m beaten. Left to only my notes I don’t think how on earth any rarities committee would be able to accept it as a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Thankfully though, Andy Jordan managed to get some excellent photos of the bird. Many thanks to Andy for allowing me to use a couple of them here.

Seeing them at the time, in the field and on Andy’s camera, we all thought this looked very interesting. Particularly from what you can see above, that very short primary projection and a prominent eye stripe between the eye and bill.

My own experience of Blyth’s Reed Warbler is pretty limited. I’ve seen them before at Bharatpur, but that’s not really the place where you concentrate on the little brown jobs. You’ve got all the Storks, Herons, Egrets, raptors, roosting Owls and Nightjars to concentrate on!

So with that all on my mind, despite the 3 Black Kites showing nicely over the centre of St. Marys from Hugh Town quay, the only place I wanted to be that evening was in the Scillonian Club just after a sniff of news on this bird. Thankfully for me a friendly face from Staffordshire was around to talk to that evening. That being Steve “The Snapper” Richards, making a long weekend of it to see the Waterthrush. So at least we provided a mutual birding-counselling service to each other!

Later that evening, it was confirmed that the bird was indeed a Blyth’s Reed Warbler! An early boat to St. Martins was arranged for the next morning. I didn’t go on that boat because I went into celebration mode, the pints of ale didn‘t half flow!

It's a good job the Scillonian club doesn't have a jukebox, because as it was party time there's only one song you can play at a time like this!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The 2011 Scilly Season. Part 2, Least Sand and Red-throated Pipit, and the fog.

The other established rarity that I wanted to catch up with was the Least Sandpiper on Tresco, so that was the island of choice for the 11th. Depending on the state of the tide, the Least Sand could either be found on the south beach or the south-east corner of the Great Pool.

This morning the Least Sand was found feeding on the Great Pool. Shame it was a too distant for me to digiscope it. Thankfully I have another photo of the bird I can use, courtesy of Martyn Whalley.

Other birds around Tresco were a rather elusive juvenile Red-backed Shrike, a few Stonechats and Wheatears, 2 Shelduck on Skirt Island and a Marsh Harrier flying around Samson. Other waders on the Great Pool included another Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Black-tailed Godwits, 26 Greenshank and a Common Sand. Also 2 Common Snipe, showing a much more vivid plumage colour than the Wilson’s Snipe from the previous day.

On the first two nights of my stay, members of a film crew were staying in my guest house. They were filming with Iolo Williams. You know, that wildlife bloke on the telly from Wales? Next morning, Iolo was at their breakfast table, and eventually I had a pleasant chat with him. It turned out they were filming for S4C and the BBC, for a series of wildlife on Atlantic islands, from the Azores to the Faroes. Iolo asked me what I’d seen so far and seemed genuinely interested. He came across as a genuine and down-to-earth bloke, not a pretentious “showbiz” type at all.

When Iolo asked on my plan for today (the 12th), a Red-throated Pipit had been seen and heard calling over the centre of St. Marys, heading west. My thought was if it continues west it’ll end up on the golf course. So that’s where I headed to straight after breakfast. After a while walking along the eastern edge of the golf course, there about 8 Wheatears around. Then a pager message appeared saying the Red-throated Pipit had been found, thankfully on the other end of the fairway I was at, so that was really lucky!

I managed to find a likely candidate and called some birders over. It looked pretty good to me as there were mantle stripes on it, but never having seen one before I’d like to hear it call. After a few minutes it took a fly around and did it’s sneeze-like call above our heads, before moving further south down the golf course.

It turns out that this bird was not your usual-marked bird. Later on, listening to Dick Filby, it was the most interesting Red-throated Pipit he’d ever seen, as it was a rather drab bird. They’re usually more striking than this one, Steve Young’s picture here is the bird in question.

Other highlights around St. Marys on the 12th included a Whimbrel on Porthloo beach, Great Spotted Woodpecker in the pines just above Bar Point, a distant Spoonbill in front of Samson, calling Yellow-Browed Warbler at Newford Duckpond, a Wryneck at Porth Hellick beach and Short-toed Lark on the airfield.

The 13th was a day on Scilly that I’ve never experienced before, thick fog all day! This was the scene from Porth Hellick. As planes were grounded all day, the Scillonian ferry was laid on for the day.

A good excuse to not haul the tripod around. Starting off on the dead pine walk at the Garrison, a sylvia warbler appeared which I think was a Whitethroat, rather than the Subalpine Warbler, not grey enough above. Also the juvenile Rose-coloured Starling feeding in an apple tree opposite the Upper Benham Battery.

When reaching Porth Hellick in the afternoon, a rather showy Bluethroat was hopping round the paddocks at Carn Friars, and the Wilson’s Snipe was on show from the Stephen Sussex hide. Albeit asleep, was in the company of three Common Snipe for a useful comparison.

When deciding on another check of Lower Moors, the two-way radio suddenly kicked into life saying “Northern Waterthrush from the ISBG hide”. That was incredibly lucky to get another view of the Waterthrush in the middle of the afternoon. Also a Lesser Yellowlegs straight in front of the hide, oblivious to anyone inside you would think.

But after that, the fog just got thicker and not a lot else was seen for the rest of the day, apart from biting insects at the dump clump. Shouldn’t complain about the mozzies too much, they’re feeding on us and the Waterthrush is feeding on them. We’re keeping that bird alive!

Onto the next day, the 14th. The fog had cleared and the winds had swung round to the east. I could’ve stayed on St. Marys but tried my luck on St. Agnes instead. It was clear that the easterly winds but brought an increase of migrants on all the islands. On Aggie the Pec Sand was still on the Big Pool. Also 3 Firecrests, 2 Black Redstarts, 1 Yellow-browed Warbler, 9 Wheatears, Pied, Spotted and one of as many as three Red-Breasted Flycatchers. This one was at Troy Town farm:

Also a Lapland Bunting by the rather disappointing Troy Town maze. Lapland Buntings are always good value:

But is this really the maze?

If it is, it's not much of a maze. Almost as disappointing as the glacial boulder on Cannock Chase. I was expecting one of those big hedge mazes, made from hedges of Pittosporum.

Whilst at that end of Aggie, the Troy Town ice cream just had to be sampled. Two scoops of chocolate ice cream with a scoop of clotted cream. A tough assignment but someone had to do it! Prior to that of course, lunch was had at the Turks Head. Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

Monday, 24 October 2011

The 2011 Scilly Season. Part I, The John Higginson Project.

So I broke up from work on Friday 7th October, and the Waterthrush was still round the Lower Moors and Higgo’s pool on St. Marys. If that wasn’t enough, an Upland Sandpiper was found the next day. Not forgetting the now-confirmed Wilson’s Snipe, the Saturday really was, as Sir Alex Ferguson would say, squeaky bum time!

But before all that, there was the little matter of driving down to Penzance on the 9th, combined with a little bit of birding on the way. Plan A was to try for the Pallid Harrier at Black Down in Somerset. Plan B was some birding in Cornwall, including such goodies as Long-billed Dowitcher, Glossy Ibis and Black Kites.

Plan A was completely scuppered, when passing Bristol on the M5 the drizzle and mist appeared and got worse when leaving junction 20. No Pallid Harrier would have any sense flying around in that weather, so returned to the M5 and continued into Cornwall. The first stop was Davidstow Airfield in the north of Cornwall, pretty much on the edge of Bodmin Moor.

Trouble is, the mist scuppered here too! Although there was no sign of the Long-billed Dowitcher anyway. But what I saw of Davidstow Airfield through the mist I really liked the look of. A completely disused airfield and you can drive along the old runways, with grazing sheep keeping the grass nice and short.

Thankfully the mist and drizzle just about cleared when reaching Redruth, so Stithians Reservoir was more successful. The Glossy Ibis showed well, as can be seen here.

Other birds seen at Stithers included a Pectoral Sandpiper and an adult Med Gull. Just before checking into my guest house in Penzance, a search for Black Kites just to the west of Drift, along the A30 produced one of them perched in a tree. Not really the best of weather for soaring raptors. After that, check into the guest house, put the car away and pray that the Waterthrush, Upland and Wilson’s are still there tomorrow!

The next morning on the Scillonian ferry. The crossing was much calmer than I thought it would be, and seabirds along the way included a Manx Shearwater and 3 Bonxies. Once off the ferry, the serious business started of yomping to Borough Farm, through the Carreg Dhu garden and Holy Vale. There was probably no reason to walk quite so quickly, because the Upland Sand wasn’t going anywhere.

It's one of those birds that I've always wanted to see, a weird looking wader. It's as if someone has taken parts from other waders, put them together and hey presto, an Upland Sandpiper. Head and body of a Whimbrel, runs around like a Dotterel, legs from a Lesser (or Greater) Yellowlegs, and a matchstick for a bill!

With the Upland Sand safely under the belt, the afternoon could be spent with a relaxing walk back to Hugh Town, check into the guest house and wait until early evening for the Waterthrush to (hopefully) appear on Higgo’s pool.

Well it nearly went to plan, except that the Waterthrush appeared on Higgo’s pool early, just before 4:30pm! Aarrghh, and with that I legged it to the dump clump, following the trail of polythene! I’ve never seen the film “The Blair Witch Project” but I gather a lot of it involves filming people walking through woods. Perhaps it was filmed round the dump clump? And that’s why Higgo’s pool is actually named “Project Pool”? In any case, there indeed was the Northern Waterthrush feeding away, hooray!

Not the best picture you’ll ever see of the Waterthrush, mainly because I was shaking so much! Also wary that others want to see the bird, and with limited viewing space I made way. The pager then mentioned that the Wilson’s Snipe was showing at Porth Hellick. Shall I go for it now? There’s enough daylight left. So I legged it from the dump clump to Porth Hellick in about 25 minutes!

It was actually easier to see the bird through the camera because my bins were steaming up! Once you get your eye in on this bird, you’ll notice that the bird’s back is much darker than on a Common Snipe. This appears to make the mantle stripes to appear more boldly, reminiscent of Jack Snipe. The ear coverts look different compared with Common Snipe too. However, the main ID feature is supposed to be the number of tail feathers. Well, unless you're waiting for that with a super-duper camera, you've got no chance of getting that feature.

Once finished here and three ticks in the first few hours, it definitely took longer to walk back to Hugh Town this time!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Weekend before the Scilly Season

What's going on with the weather? Comedy writer David Croft passed away in the week, and to quote him "it aint half hot mum!". Actually, here at Powell Towers it's just started raining, so that'll be the end of that!

As for David Croft, I was never a big fan of "Are You Being Served". Forced to watch it as a little lad, with only four channels at the time, and even now I always think the best bit was the theme tune. Even now I can remember the words, like a recurring bad dream:

"Ground floor: perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food. Going up.

First floor: telephones, gents ready-made suits, shirts, socks, ties, hats, underwear and shoes. Going up.

Second floor: carpets, travel goods and bedding, material, soft furnishings, restaurant and teas. Going down."

And if you don't believe me!

Anyway, enough Captain Peacock! What with the hot weather, plus the fact that I'm going away next week, I've been in a bit of a winding-down mode. Just a check of Uttoxeter Quarry yesterday, where I got myself a personal site tick. Which was, (cue the big fanfare!), er, a Nuthatch!

Only patching can bring that kind of excitement can't it? Also around were 3 Wigeon, 2 Gadwall, 2 Shoveler, 1 Shelduck, 2 Snipe, 1 Curlew. A few migrants over, 1 Siskin, 8 Skylark, 23 Meadow Pipit. Also a noticeable lack of hirundines now, so they haven't been fooled by the hot weather.

As for today. The Weaver Hills yielded a Wheatear and 27 Siskins over. Checking Uttoxeter Quarry again, the main difference from yesterday was the presence of 3 Pintail. It's deja vu all over again!

I'm getting a run on Pintail recently, and I don't think these are the same birds that were at Croxden Quarry last week. They were a drake and two females. These two look like drakes, with other one being a female.

I think that's it for blogging for a few weeks. A week of work to get through, then this time next week I'll be supping pints of Tribute in Penzance. Then on the Monday morning, aboard the Scillonian ferry for 11 nights on the Scillies, woohoo! No doubt a few sea shanties will be sang whilst bobbing on the waves, or perhaps a bit of "Trelawney", the Cornish anthem! Is it only me that thinks it sounds like "The Grand Old Duke of York"?

The Scillies have had some excellent rarities these last few weeks, I just hope things haven't peaked too early. And if the weather's going to be like the last few days, I don't know what it'll be like for birds but I'll get a nice tan!