Champions of the Flyway!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Flamborough Head - 24th - 30th December 2009

Back home for an extended festive break, and opportunities to get out onto the head on most days. Conditions were generally good, with plenty of bright spells, sharp frosts and lots of snow still lying from last week's heavy falls up here. Christmas morning was perfect for a clifftop walk between North Landing and the lighthouse, overlooking thousands of Guillemots on the ledges and sea and various winter species across the mixed farmland.

Cold-weather movements included thousands of Jackdaws and Woodpigeons, plenty of Lapwings and Golden Plovers, a trickle of winter thrushes and Starlings, and several hundred Skylarks in the fields - most of which were in the winter stubble between the marsh and Breil Nook.

Zig-zagging through the stubble, two Lapland Buntings rose with the larks, and at least five Twite were in with the Linnet flock (as well as several Reed and Corn Buntings). A little further along the clifftop and another much more accomodating group of (exclusively) Twite fed along the path, giving close views in the sunshine. A pair of Peregrines patrolled overhead, a Stonechat was in the bay and a few Red-throats moved south.

Boxing day morning began with a call from Rich, delivering news of a White Stork in the fields between Lighthouse Road and the Timoneer; sore-headedly stumbling out of bed and delivered to the spot a couple of minutes later, I watched the bird conveniently wander across a gap in the hedgerow with Phil. Initially assumed to be the same bird which was seen over preceding days in the north-east, photos showed our bird to be unringed, and therefore a different individual.

male Pheasant, and stork-shaped snowman

Ubiquitous but still awfully nice Tree Sparrows

A walk around South Landing, Beacon Hill and Hartendale on the morning of the 27th was pretty quiet, with the recent long-staying Water Pipit on the beach having apparently sodded off several days ago and not much time to check the woodland. However, a scan around the old fish ponds at the foot of Crofts Hill produced two pipits perched on the telegraph wires above the pools / marshy field....

Both commuted between the wires and the flooded field several times, and I fired off a series of shots of the nearer bird and noted various features before leaving in a rush and hoping the photos would solve the ID. (Comparisons with photos of the South Landing Water Pipit rule out the possibility of the same bird changing location.)

Habitat preference certainly favours Water Pipit (although Rock Pipits are occasionally seen away from the shores and clifftops here, and vice versa); as do various plumage features, including the overall ground colour of the underparts and upperparts, the supercilium, and most convincingly the extent and coloration of straw-yellow on the bill and the white outer-tail feathers (see photos). The consensus thus far is all in favour of Water Pipit, but it's an interesting bird showing features of both species.

The 28th saw a trip off the head and up the coast (see below); the 29th, and a morning walk in wintry conditions on the northern side of the head, from the village to Sixpenny Hill and along the cliff the Thornwick Bay - not a great deal unsurprisingly, but a close-up Woodcock at the reedbed, a Common Snipe on the clifftop and a distant, cardiac-arresting Tesco's carrier bag showing charcteristics of Snowy Owl perched on a rock in a ploughed field.

A full circuit of the head, from South Landing to North Landing, on the 30th was enormously enjoyable despite an almost total lack of birds - conditions had changed profoundly, and the Mrs and I enjoyed biting, storm-force easterlies, huge crashing waves, 'reverse snow' in the form of surf showers flying upwards from the coves and cliffs, and twenty or so unconcerned Eiders bobbing like lottery balls. Back to Hackney late eve, and out scouring local patches on New Year's Day - the highlight being our our long-staying Cetti's Warbler in nearby Clissold Park.

While it's breaking the habit and cross-pollenating between websites, it's also an excuse to upload a photo of this exceptionally accomodating and gorgeous little bird, which has taken up residence - on the edge of a duck pond, in a permanently over-disturbed urban park, in the middle of London - for almost ten weeks now. Plenty more photos on the Hackney site here.

The North Yorkshire Coast, 28th December 2009

A day out during the holiday to several sites along the coast (with the Mrs, Pearson Snr and Lenora) in search of ducks and divers. First stop Scarborough Mere - 99% ice covered and fringed with snow, the mere was an archetypal winter wonderland on a pleasant, cold day. Very little of note but for the squabble of wild and not-so-wildfowl, which included a newly (and independently) arrived drake Mandarin.

Next stop Scalby, from the seawall overlooking Scarborough's North Bay and castle. Impressive numbers of c200 Wigeon battling the waves across the bay, a single female Common Scoter and a single Red-throated Diver. A leisurely lunch in the seafront pub (steer clear of the veggie burger fellow herbivores, despite it being your only option) and then onto Filey.

Driving onto the clifftop carpark at the base of the Brigg, we were surrounded by the most tolerant waders on the planet; despite lots of cars, dogs and noise, the feeding flocks happily scuttled amongst wheels and probed the short grass with the tide covering the beach and rocks below. Dunlins, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Oystercatchers all performed beautifully, and would have made for crippling photos, but the light was fading and I left the old man with them to check the bay.

Which was well worth it. Very few birds out on the water but for the requisite gulls, Shags and Cormorants, in fact only four - which turned out to be two Great Northern Divers and two Velvet Scoters. Quality.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Isle of Dogs & East India Dock Basin, east London - 11th December 2009

A long overdue visit to a cluster of sites on and close to the Isle of Dogs in the East End (and the latest in this ongoing series of London patch familiarisation). Today's guide was the esteemed Mr. Nick Tanner, long-serving local birder and walking encyclopedia of London records (one of two limited volumes if we throw in a Mr. MacKenzie of Paddington green).

We covered Bow Creek Ecology Park and the riverbank (Chiffys, Redshanks, Common Sand and plentiful Reed Buntings), East India Dock Basin (almost 200 Teal, other ducks, more Reed Buntings), Mudchute Farm (21 Monk Parakeets, unarguably charming, in these circumstances at least), and the river (at the traditional Ring-billed Gull site - no sign unfortunately, but a pair of adult Peregrines kicking back on an industrial building).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Walthamstow Reservoirs, east London - 9th December 2009

argentatus Herring Gull, Kingfisher, diner and dinner

Another opportunity to combine work and local birding, with another jaunt just beyond the Hackney border. This time a full, snaking circuit of all the southern group of reservoirs (a good three hours or so to cover the site fully) in mercifully still, fairly mild conditions; in truth very little around, it still being fairly early in the winter and conditions being relatively settled and mild. Still, the crawl along the almost submerged tunnel over to West Warwick is always an It's-A-Knockout style challenge, and the Water Rails at the other end were well worth it.

Dagenham Chase, east London - 4th Dec 2009

Grey Heron, Long-tailed Tits

Another work-related excuse to explore a well-known, yet - here it comes again - criminally-underwatched urban patch. Like various, previously mentioned others, it's a magnet for migrants, especially those that find themselves with limited choices within the endless sprawl of Greater London; and of course, it's barely covered - except on the occasions when a rarity turns up, when it's predictably inundated.

Quite how such places aren't covered with the dedication and commitment they deserve is mystifying, with such a vast and concentrated part of the UK populace within spitting distance here in Babylon; surely there are more birders within striking range in the heart of the East End?

And The Chase has more to offer than the ornithologically attractive but aesthically bleak environs of an oceanic reservoir, manicured parkland, or indeed Rainham Marshes - the latter of course being a honey-pot for the countless processions just a few km south, which tells its own story.

It's a great place, with an enviable, almost ideal mix of habitats, swathes of undisturbed open space, and a fantastic, muddy-margined, magnetic pool and wetland (the Slack) smack bang in the middle - not to mention the extensive grassland, woodland, marsh, meadows and scrub.

On this beautiful sunny winter day I went walkabout with LWT colleague and top chap Mr. Dominic Allen (and unfortunately minus sole local birder Vince, who was otherwise engaged but provided a very useful bespoke site guide).

We spent a good three hours wandering through the mix of habitats, and it could easily have been more. And it's only about an hour from my door in Hackney - come spring, it may well be hard to resist.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Regent's Park, central London - 1st December 2009

Another work-related opportunity to swan around another London site, and a chance to hook up with one of the capital's longest serving patch-watchers, resident Wildlife Officer Tony Duckett. A bespoke guided tour of the park courtesy of Tony, a true gent and the proud owner of thirty-odd year's worth of local records. The BBC forecast was very grim, which naturally resulted in a beautifully sunny, still few hours in these well-known Loyalist ex-hunting grounds.

No migrants to speak of as was to be expected, but a chance to familiarise with the site and also it's extensive wildfowl collection. Too many exotics to mention, but good practice to compare e.g. Lesser and Greater Scaup within a few metres; a drake of the latter species is as tame as the rest, and yet apparently arrived 14 years ago, fully-winged and obviously intent on the easy life.

Tony also showed me around the migrant honey-pots, of which there are several particularly mouth-watering areas which scream e.g flycatchers, warblers and chats; little wonder he enjoys his extended walkabouts in spring and autumn so much....

Also managed to get close to a ringed Black-headed Gull, and by circling it with the camera I got photos from all angles and hence the full ring number. It's life story to follow, hopefully.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Walthamstow Reservoirs, east London - 27th November 2009

In the bleak mid-winter, hope for storms or big freeze-ups; at least in London town. We've had an endless procession of the former over the last few weeks, of variable severity, with anti-cyclones crashing in from the Atlantic and up the channel; with displaced seabirds scattered liberally across the south and west, local water bodies are always worth a shot.

Maintaining a vigil at our two relative duck-ponds known as Stoke Newington Reservoirs has yet to produce such a scarcity (one day... one day), and so with a Leach's reported further up the valley on the oceanic William Girling Reservoir, an opportunity to cover the north side of Walthamstow Res was taken. Checking the increasingly inaccurate BBC weather at midnight, sunshine and stillness were promised all day, after the preceding storm-force south-westerlies and rain. Unsurprisingly in retrospect, the wind remained bitingly strong and cold, almost blowing away 'scope and tripod on the banks of Lockwood, and bringing in sharp, cutting showers.

Europe's Tien Shan

The BNP invade from their nearby Essex stronghold

Which wouldn't have been an issue should the conditions have provided a glittering reward, in the shape of a petrel, phalarope or even skua maybe; if not, more realistically, a quality duck amongst the wintering throng would have done just fine (as would a wader or an errant passerine along the banks). Dutifully checking and double checking everything that moved (and most things that didn't), the meagre highlight was a total of five Goldeneye - quality in a sense, but entirely predictable here at this time of year.

Waders were confined to two Green Sands on the flood relief channel, and this is probably the first time ever even a local Little Egret couldn't be bothered to put in an appearance. Fortune favours the brave, but sadly not the stupid. Maybe that running around after other people's birds ('twatching' or something?) is worth a .... only kidding.