09 May 2018

That Green Heron!

I forget exactly what I was doing but I checked the Pembs Bird Blog and Twitter mid afternoon on the 27th April and found a message newly-posted by Dave Astins concerning a Green Heron on a private pond at Llanmill near Narberth. So I rang Dave and found that he had the message via Kevin Phelps from the landowner, The MP Simon Hart. Whatever it was we were doing it was 'tools down' and we were off. When we arrived Brian Southern and a couple of others were already present but it had flown! And it didn't show for half an hour until I got a flash of purple in the irises and Richard Dobbins then picked it out in that area. And then it performed brilliantly for a while. My only regret was that it was a dull and overcast afternoon, poor for photos, and people on subsequent days had much better light conditions to enjoythis shockingly good-looking bird. We had seen a number in Costa Rica, on the Nicaraguan border which sounds exotic but somehow it was much much better in Pembrokeshire. So we at the Pembs Blog did our bit to help smooth access and give information and it was enjoyed by all - or at least it seemed that everyone with a pair of binoculars came to visit. On a serious note, it's not possible to thank Simon and Abigail Hart enough for their forbearance and hospitality throughout.

Whistle-stop Norfolk trip - April 21st-25th

A brief trip back to North Norfolk, staying once more in Salthouse. We arrived at midday on the 21st, and had a mammal tick en route, Chinese Water Deer, which crossed the road in front of us, heading for marshland somewhere near Thornham. It was also good to see our first Brown Hares, though we saw them every morning along The Skirts at Salthouse on our regular before-breakfast walk.

We also picked up on a couple of Muntjac Deer, they're pretty common and pretty tame too it seems. Also a feature of all our walks around Salthouse were good numbers of Stock Doves, they made a really attractive addition to the trip; they were always present in the past but I don't remember them being this numerous. The first evening also turned up a 1st year male Ring Ouzel at Weybourne Camp.

Our first morning walk last year turned up a goodie in the form of a Red-footed Falcon. On our first before breakfast walk this year it was a Great Egret, flying south-east over Weybourne Camp and then back west, a little while later. The rarest find of the trip for us.

There were a few Sedge Warblers around and singing but we only came across one Reed Warbler, everything being late here - as in Wales. There was one invisible bird along the ditch at The Skirts.

We spent the rest of the first full day around the Reserve at Cley, something we rarely did when we lived here. So we caught up with Spoonbill and Black-necked Grebe, Little Ringed Plover etc. Though the Avocets, Ruffs and Black-tailed Godwits were great to see and the ever-present Marsh Harriers.


The next day, after our morning walk, was spent at Titchwell where the sheer numbers of birds were stunning, loads of Gulls and Terns including many Mediterranean Gulls. Only flight views of Bearded Tits unfortunately but it was nice to see 3 male Garganeys looking very smart - our first of the spring.

Tuesday, our final full day, we spent around Weybourne and Salthouse finding our own bits and bobs like Little Ringed Plover and picking up about 15 Yellow Wagtails though only a couple landed. The Ring Ouzel was still at Weybourne Camp and a few Swifts went through, though we had seen others earlier in the trip. Then as the weather closed in we spent some time exploring some unfamiliar areas around Overstrand and Sidestrand. Then it was out to dinner with friends.

And the last morning was our usual walk to Weybourne (we sometimes get to Weybourne Coastguard Cottages or even Spalla Gap) and with fewer migrants moving as the weather worsened, we headed home via Picnic Fayre in Cley for a selection of their excellent vegetarian pies. Another great trip, and one we'd like to make a tradition if we can.

07 April 2018


March 30th, the one day Kathy and I couldn't get out to St Davids Head, a Snowy Owl was reported by artist Alastair Proud. Nightmare! Then four days later, once more late afternoon, it turned up again. Apart from the 30th, I had been out there every day looking. And then it happened. At 8:45 on Thursday 5th April, I was walking along the track into Porthmelgan Valley. I stopped to scan the rocky outcrop to the east of me and there it was in all its splendour. A large piece of female avian magic.

Now I had a dilemma, since I had forgotten my phone, having left it charging overnight. Should I head back to the car park at Whitesands Bay immediately, maybe I could borrow a phone from the attendant, or should I try for a photo? I decided to go for a photo since I could then head on further back to Whitesands in the same direction. So I got to a comfy spot, it was the first warm, still morning of the Spring and settled to enjoy the bird. I remembered a time at Sheringham with Kevin Shepherd, having found a rarity (I forget which) when he said to take 20 minutes to enjoy it for ourselves before worrying about the world. And that is what I did. It was an amazing and never-to-be-forgotten moment in time.

Then it flew, I hadn't moved but it set off across the Valley, I took a few quick snaps but sitting down it was awkward and I rolled on my back into a spindly gorse bush, not very dignified. It settled down at the base of an outcrop across the Valley, near to the very first sighting back in March.

So that was an obvious cue to join the real world again and I set off back to the coast path and the car park. Luckily I met Jeremy Moore before getting too far back to Whitesands, my first words to him being 'Can I borrow your phone?' He didn't mind and I passed the word on to Kathy who relayed it to Richard Dobbins and the world. Jeremy and I set off to find it and were a bit concerned to find that it had gone from the spot where I had last seen it. Then a few heart-stopping minutes later it just reappeared in flight and dropped down into the Valley in a boggy area near The Withies and there it stayed till Kathy got there and then a few others and we were all able to enjoy it in the warming spring sunshine. It moved further up the Valley after a couple of hours but soon came back and settled for the day further up the slope of Carn Llidi so everyone got good views. It was there the next day and may be present at time of writing but isn't currently showing.

Interestingly, it was visited by a Raven and a Magpie on separate occasions but they didn't seem bothered by this strange immigrant and soon moved off. Then when it moved up the Valley, it was seriously mobbed by a Raven and that, fortunately, sent it back to the slope of Carn Llidi where it was seen by most people.

 Another interesting piece of information was provided by Alastair Proud; I had assumed it would be eating rabbits out there and it certainly seemed well fed and content but Alastair and Jill found and dissected a pellet and sure enough it comprised rabbit fur and bones. A nice little proof, citizen science in action. This record constitutes the first for Pembrokeshire and about the 10th for Wales.

21 February 2018

Grantown on Spey February 2018

A four day break for Kathy and I, giving three whole days birding, and staying at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown. This is an amazing establishment, a mecca for birders and birdguides - Iolo Williams was in with a group the day we left. We can't recommend this place highly enough.

We arrived mid afternoon and headed for Poorhouse Wood, part of the Anagach community Forest which borders the town. It is our favourite, we much prefer it to Abernethy even. When I visited one morning 34 years ago I was delighted to be able to watch a female Capercaillie on a branch, at close range. I remembered the sighting and the spot vividly but sad-to-say no luck this time. We visited a few times though  and really loved the place. We saw Roe Deer on every occasion, though they were a little difficult to photograph satisfactorily as they usually showed early morning, also Red Squirrels were nice.

Probably breeding Crossbills sp were present at one spot but difficult - and not nearly calling enough. We didn't note any particularly deep 'Parrot' calls but they weren't terribly vocal when we were there, so we had a go at structure, which is a bit problematic when distinguishing between Parrot and Scottish Crossbills - easier to rule out Common.

The bill is too heavy for Common and the culman too curved, so I think it's Scottish or Parrot. The lower mandible should perhaps be deeper and more curved for Parrot. The forehead was noticeably steep and it was quite 'bull-necked'. The overall impression was quite Parrot-like but I'd say it was more likely a Scottish, intermediate between Parrot and Common. Difficult to be certain without confirmation of vocalisations though.

On the second day we set off for the coast at Lossiemouth and Burghead. Unfortunately, it was sunny and half-term and a Sunday and so a bit too busy for comfort. A Jetski at Burghead was a real pain. We did have a good time though, the most enjoyable thing being lots of quite close Long-tailed Ducks, mostly males chasing each other around on a flat sea. There were plenty of Eider and there were Scoter sp further out. A couple of dozen Purple Sandpipers and Redshanks with a few Turnstones were very nice too.

There were large numbers of Red Grouse everywher it seemed, even up at the snow line on Cairngorm itself and I enjoyed taking some photos. We also saw Mountain Hare well but couldn't find some nice white Ptarmigans seen earlier by David Roche.

At Loch Garten we saw some common woodland birds - Coal Tits were everywhere and three Treecreepers appeared along with a couple of Crested Tits which are always good to see.

We would definitely do it again, at this time of year, and wouldn't think of staying anywhere other than The Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown. A really good, short trip.

07 February 2018

St Agnes 23rd September - 28th October 2017

The Scillonian

It was a bit of a trial travelling straight down from Orkney to Scilly in two days but it was a bit of madness that saw us in the mediterranean temperatures of St Agnes just after midday on the 23rd. Things had been quiet - the best bird for a while having been only a Common Rosefinch. Almost immediately though things began to happen when a  a Bee-eater was found by Lee Amery, it struggled with the local Starlings which chased it up and down for a while but it did hang around for a day or two and meanwhile three turned up elsewhere on Scilly, eventually settling down around the Abbey Gardens on Tresco

Then things really kicked off with a Red-eyed Vireo, found by John Swallow, which proved very elusive over the next couple of days - only Lee of the St Agnes crew saw it, near the Bulb Dump. So some excitement but mixed with disappointment at least at first - though all was soon forgotten when this second bird turned up and showed a little better in the big Elm in the Parsonage drive.

photo Neil Wright

It was a start, however, and as it turned out the beginning of a classic Scilly season.  This Turtle Dove was hanging around for the first week, occasionally showing well, before heading to St Mary's.

It's impossible to visit St Agnes without being amazed by the incredibly tame and common Song Thrushes. We're also used to seeing Pied and Spotted Flycatchers when we arrive and we weren't disappointed.

Then Jamie Partridge turned up something a bit special, a lifer for me, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Initially on a rocky outcrop near Per Askin, This amazing, bulky bird moved inland to Barnaby Lane then the Post Office where we managed to get some good photos. Paul Wright managed to drive off a predatory cat that time but it seems it may have got it a day or two later.

Firecrests are always a feature of autumn on Scilly, along with Yellow-browed Warblers, and this autumn was superb for both. We saw double figures of Firecrests on a number of days, including six, together, in a small bush one morning. It all added to an amazing Scilly season - a classic.

Of course the 'shall we leave St Agnes and twitch something on another island?' arose a couple of times but we only gave in once when we went for the Cliff Swallow which had been found on Tresco. Of course it was the St Agnes crew that relocated it - the twins - and we were just 50 metres away at the church so we were onto it quickly, not a tick for me as I saw the 1983 bird but it was for Kathy and most of the others I think.

photo Neil Wright

It was great to catch up with the Swallow but then we heard that Will Wagstaff and his group (of non-birders would you believe) had turned up a Cedar Waxwing in the Island Fields, back on St Agnes. Nightmare. We really moved to get back on an earlier boat and were soon chasing reports that it had been seen with Starlings or chased by Starlings over Coastguards Cafe. It took a while but it was then found resting from time to time on Elms nearby and we all had good views (2nd lifer for me). We got a call next morning that it was at Rosevean so we hurriedly joined Lee, Graham, Jamie and Lawrence watching it close-up as it sat around in their garden - one of those magic St Agnes moments. It hung around the south coast of the Island  feeding on Coprosma bushes for about a week subsequently, attracting lots of interest, though you could easily bump into it on your own where you could practically touch it.

Cedar Waxwing twitch

The Gugh Bar

We had seen a Common Rosefinch, found by Neil, on Gugh and later found a couple ourselves, one on Browarth and then another on Gugh which soon moved to Aggie.

Gugh is a strange place, in birding terms, most people either love it or hate it. Kathy and I love and hate it in equal measure and we popped over when the bar was clear one morning. We were really excited to find a male Hawfinch in the garden there, a find tick for me, it caused a bit of a stir in general and I was made up. But little did we know! The next was found later the same day at Hellweathers by Lee and then next day in Barnaby Cottage garden, which was joined by another etc etc etc. The biggest single flock on St Agnes was 7 eventually but I believe it was 54 on St Mary's. And of course the story of the invasion of thousands of hawfinches into Britain from (southern?) Europe is now history. Still great birds, though messy eaters.

photo Neil Wright

Moths were scarce initially but things picked up and some excellent rarities were found, including this Crimson Speckled - they don't come much better really.

The storms which punctuated our trip were pretty spectacular; maybe a little bit disappointing in terms of the hoped-for american vagrants but they brought a few seabirds including a Leach's Petrel which tried (surprisingly successfully) to hide in the grass near the Cricket Pitch. It was expertly cared for by Paul Heaton and succesfully released that evening. And everyone still made it to the Pub.

Horse Point
Kathy looking towards the south of Gugh

After the storms, the weather returned to normal but thousands of Crimson Stingers and tens of Portuguese Men-of-War from southern waters were left washed up on the beaches.

Portuguese Man-o War

Covean Bay

One special bird turned up as a result of the wild winds. On Martin Finch's last day, on the way to the boat, he looked over into the garden at Grinlinton and there was a Yellow-billed cuckoo. Thank goodness he's six feet plus. Unfortunately the bird was exhausted and was eventually taken into care by Paul Dukes but died overnight. My third lifer! A sad kind of thrill.

Then, unbelievably, came a first for Britain. Neil Wright has already done an excellent job of telling the story of the finding of the Eastern Orphean Warbler in Birdwatch magazine and on the Web. It's strange reading it after the event when you're so closely involved in all the excitement on the day. From Kathy's and my perspective a few things stand out. I remember the twins, Neil and his brother Paul going off to sort out our milk bills at Troytown Farm and then wondering why they hadn't caught up with us as we expected. Little did we know they had found a first for Britain in the meantime. I can't remember if Neil said they and Martin Finch were playing with a dung beetle on a post when the bird first appeared - I think I've got that right. Then Neil's persistence in hunting for it for a couple of hours really paid dividends and eventually some of us saw it, badly, in the dense pittosporum at Troytown. I suppose the rest is history and the hordes took over somewhat although it was due to the 'Mary's' crowd that a feeding site along New Lane was located and better views and all important (for specific confirmation) decent photos were obtained. A third lifer for me and an amazing find by the Twins and Martin.

photographer unknown

There was only one Short-eared Owl recorded  this year  and it was nice to get a photo of it roosting out on Wingletang. This is one of the best of times on St Agnes when you can stand around and observe and chat when visitors have gone and it's just a bunch of friends watching the bird, This happened on this occasion as well as with the Grosbeak, the Waxwing, Hawfinches etc. Special times, usually marked by Richard Thewlis drawing or painting.

The Short-eared Owl was nice but somewhat eclipsed by this Long-eared Owl which Kathy and I found roosting in the Fruit Cage. Mind you it was hard to miss! St Agnes resident and top birder, Doug Page, said it was his favourite bird of the autumn which is difficult to get your head around if you don't live on one of the best bird islands in Britain.

'Fire on Gugh!' was the call one day and sure enough the gorse and heather was on fire, the locals who are the part-time firemen did a great job over the next several days damping it down and protecting the two houses on the Island. The north-east quarter was pretty much burned entirely but still it will be interesting to see what effect it has on the seabirds and others over coming years. I suspect it may well be largely positive though we'll have to see.

As the autumn moved on, the usual Black Redstarts arrived, replacing the Common variety and a Pallas's Warbler was seen briefly in the Parsonage (but not by us unfortunately).

A Little Bunting had taken up residence around Porth killier and Browarth (one usually turns up here) and became a fixture. It was incredibly tame, you had to watch out not to step on it at times. It was brilliant to see at will, though there were times you had to remind yourself how unusual this was.

Marrick did well to find another late autumn speciality, a Dusky Warbler, and we all had an enjoyable, if frantic, time hunting it down at the Tennis Court and Chapel Fields, following its distinctive ticking calls; it did eventually show well. It was later caught and photographed on release. It was an odd situation though, - to be honest I'd have preferred it not to have been trapped, it seemed like cheating somehow and, for me, diminished the original experience.

And then a wonderful autumn came to a close. A brilliant Scilly Season but next year's accommodation is already booked. Can't wait to see everyone again and spend another autumn working hard at what really matters - being on the best island in Britain looking for birds.