Champions of the Flyway!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Scotland, Nov 2018 - Secret Squirrels

It's a cold, cold heart that doesn't melt in their esteemed presence, and we were always pleased to bump into them wherever we crossed paths in the Highlands; we even stumbled on a secret feeding spot in a quiet glen, where we had them to ourselves...

Well, secret apart from the clues by the road....

Monday, November 19, 2018

White-tailed Eagles - East Yorks & Speyside

Two White-tailed Eagles, just a couple of days but worlds apart - compare this immature (above and below) in Strathdearn, Speyside on our Scottish trip last week with the immature which sailed in off the sea and over Flamborough village just before we set off (just don't spend too long admiring the crap photos)....

Friday, November 16, 2018

Scotland, Nov 2018 - Crested Tits

A species confined to specific habitat in a small area of central Scotland, we stumbled upon them at various spots in Abernethy and Rothiemurcus forests, and the birds at RSPB Loch Garten were especially accommodating.... sneaking in with gangs of marauding Coal Tits, Cresties were just as tame, happily hopping around your feet and generally showing off beautifully.

Often the easiest way to locate them was by their unmistakable and characterful call - a whinnying trill, almost like a mini-Whimbrel. Photo opps were (as always) secondary to enjoying the experience, and with the light being poor (and my gear far from fancy) I was quite happy with the results, opportunistically grabbed between hand- (and head-) feeding Coal Tits and generally lapping up the scene.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

PS, I Love You

Occasionally - actually very, very occasionally - it all comes together. Today included one of those such ultra-rare moments and I'm suitably grateful, believe me. With the current late influx of swifts into the UK - (apparently) mostly Pallid, (at least) a few Common, some (many?) either/or - and having only just returned from a great week in Scotland late last night (see forthcoming posts), I took my time this morning, and after a late start, I headed out onto the Brigg here at Filey - but not before refreshing my memory re: Apus ID. Last June's British Birds article is especially helpful, and along with a few other sources, I (re)embedded as much of it in the front of my mind as I could before leaving the house.

Fast forward a couple of hours, and after a pleasant session on the Brigg (Red-necked Grebe, Black-throated Diver, over a thousand Pink-feet south, Snow Bunting etc), I was about to head up the slope when the unmistakable form of a swift appeared over the sea, in from the north and moving fast. Alright, keep calm.... and very fortunately I was blessed with good views in bright sunshine (luckily with the sun directly behind me), and as the bird swooshed back and forth a couple of times, I tried to nail the essential features:

Thankfully, the head pattern stood out a mile from the off, and actually lowered my heart rate as a result: a diffuse, pale, fairly uniform overall coloration, with no contrast on the lores or forehead, and a classic, stonking 'alien eye' - perfect. From there, the pieces fitted together nicely: warm greyish-brown plumage tones, which on the upperparts accentuated the darker flight feathers (with the 'blurred' covert-tipping also clearly visible when the bird whipped sideways); a classic underwing pattern incorporating dark coverts fading gradually towards the flight feathers, showing as a dark area confined to just the forewing before steadily fading; dark leading edges to the wings, above and below; and, while subjective, wings that looked noticeably broad and blunt (actually very strikingly), and even the tail fork appeared shallow.

After exhaling slowly I reached around for the camera, by which time the bird had picked up height considerably and looked like it may zip off at any second - which it did, but not before detouring back to hoover up a couple of insects (to whom I'm forever grateful - you did not die in vain, my heroic little friends).

Even sweeter is the fact that, after a lot of effort vismigging last autumn right up to leaving for Cape May at the end of October (and missing a Pallid as I left - you should've seen the number of notifications when I turned my phone on at Philadelphia airport....), this was an example of ridiculously perfect timing, holiday and all - it's great to be reminded that, sometimes, it really does all come together.

Friday, November 9, 2018

A Mealy Mealy

Redpolls are ace, and it was an ace few days for them on our stretch of the coast at the end of October. With back-to-back Coues's Arctics at Filey and Bempton the day before and intriguingly variable Mealies dropping into increasingly bare late autumnal canopies, it was a challenging pleasure getting onto as many as possible and running through diagnostic (or supposedly diagnostic) features.

Despite typically occupying poorly-lit treetops, most were straightforward; others, like this bird, were less so, and from certain angles briefly flirted with the prospect of being somewhat rarer. At a push, the seemingly unmarked under-tail coverts, pale rump, frosty overall appearance, buffy breast sides and combination of (briefly-observed) other features could easily lead down an Arctic path (slope?), but as other photos (below) illustrate, well, things aren't always as they seem, particularly where redpolls are concerned.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Noisy Northerners - Flamborough, 30th & 31st Oct 2018

More promising conditions, and yes, more precious time to enjoy them. After a really enjoyable and productive few days spent (mainly) down the road at Flamborough, I kept the faith - not a difficult decision, with its (significantly) increased likelhood of providing decent passerines, much reduced disturbance in key hotspots, and friendly, supportive birding environment - adding no less than 13 minutes to my journey time door-to-bird in the process.

30th was a battle against strong northerly winds and regular deluges, but was still a pleasure; corners of South Landing were relatively sheltered and harboured plenty of migrants, including no fewer than three Siberian Chiffchaffs (with three collybita types for comparison), 30+ Goldcrests, two Yellow-browed Warblers (looking unfortunately bright, even in dull conditions....), five Mealy Redpolls (including a very pale bird - see next post), lots of Bramblings and Siskins and plenty of thrushes. Three hours from first light there passed quickly, espcecially with the very real hope of the next bird to hop into view being a heart-stopper.

Sadly it wasn't to be, and a check of the outer head - around the Lighthouse and Selwicks Bay - was more of a free car- and waterproofs-wash than a birding session, although one bird in particular was more than worth to hanging around for. A big, chunky, pale, unfortunately silent male Bullfinch put in two brief fly-bys, instantly disappearing into scrub both times, but even on limited flight views, it looked really good for P. p. pyrrhula. With no further sign and the rain getting heavier, I put it out as a probable Northern Bullfinch, and headed back to South Landing, trying to suppress annoyance at the likely prospect of it ending up as the one that got away.

Back for a final circuit, and birds continued to entertain, with a Little Auk, a Little Gull, a Great Northern Diver and two fly-by Hooded Crows from the clifftop, and there was plenty of passerines still to grill in the ravine (as well as Water Rail and Woodcock). A brief scan of the sea was soon curtailed, however, with a message from Ana, in the office at the top of the slope, about a Great Grey Shrike sat next to the feeders, a metre from the window...

Flighty but thankfully still around, the shrike landed in the trees by the car park just as Ana was describing her lucky glance out of the window, which we followed with celebratory tea and cake in the office; a challenging but productive and enjoyable day. Come the 31st, and conditions couldn't be more contrasting - deep frost on the windscreen, sunshine, brisk south westerlies - and it was a half day to roll the die and try and uncover a gem deposited in the maelstrom of yesteday's swirling downpours from the north-east.

One of the first birds I saw upon arriving on the outer head, flying west from the bay (scene of yesterday's frustration) with a couple of Chaffinches, was a beast of a male Bullfinch.... it had to be the same bird, and off it seemingly buggered. But before I'd had time to swear with any conviction, Phil appeared, with the news that it'd (diagnostically) trumpeted loud and clear as it did so - instantly turning frustration into vindication. Better still, the bird returned to its favoured spot, trumpeting sweetly on several further occasions, and even allowing a few hastily-snatched record shots (which won't win any awards, but give a good impression of the bird's distinctive appearance).

Looking at the annual trends, Northern Bullfinch is actually a genuinely rare bird, with on average only a handful of reports (not all confirmed) each year; most of those, as might be expected, come from the Northern Isles or (to a significantly lesser extent) the east coast, with late October and early November a peak period. So, while not quite a Rubythroat, somewhat more of a reward than one might initially give credit for.

With Waxwings arriving at the lighthouse and plenty of migration overhead (especially Skylarks and Fieldfares), the morning ebbed away pleasantly and responsibilities beckoned, but not after reflecting on several days characterised by a wonderful variety of migrants from the North and East. On terra firma, plenty of specialist treats including the aforementioned Bullfinch, Great Grey Shrike, Hawfinch, multiple Siberian Chiffchaffs and Hooded Crows, Coues's Arctic Redpolls and Waxwings, and commoner (but no less valued) incomers such as big numbers of Bramblings, Siskins, thrushes, and multiple Mealy Redpolls; at sea, numerous Little Auks and Pom Skuas and were augmented by rewards such as Black Guillemot, multiple Scaup, Long-tailed Ducks, Black-throated Divers, Red-necked Grebes and lots of other action over the waves. All within twenty minutes of the house... not such a bad place to be after all.