Thursday, 15 July 2021

Black Browed Albatross at Bempton

 Albatrosses have been regularly in the UK for most of my lifetime but have always been very tricky to connect with. The most reliable, a Black Browed appeared most years in a Gannetry until the early 90's and it or another was seen intermittently thereafter for many years. Since 2017, when one appeared on the cliffs at RSPB Bempton for a month or so and subsequently around Heligoland and Sylt it has been easier for European birders to see, though not always relaible in it's appearances.

There were reports earlier this year that the regular bird had been attacked and presumably killed by White Tailed Eagles so it looked like it was game over for the foreseeable future. So it was a bit of a surprise when one (presumably the same bird) had reappeared at Bempton at the end of June.

Like last time it seemed to linger among the Gannets but wasn't seen every day. It seemed to spend a few days away from the cliffs, presumably feeding and then return for a while, and as a result a lot of people had to make several trips to see it. The best advice was to wait until it had returned, and if it was still present at sunset, to get there for first light the next day (mind you that was also the case with the Lizard Brown Booby two years ago, and we dipped). My problem of course was that I am only free on Sundays making it extra tricky, but Colin called as he had a couple of days free. As it returned Tuesday evening we went for it.

Colin arrived Wednesday morning (barely) and we left shortly before 1am and arrived at Bempton around 0430. There were already a lot of cars in the car park, it was starting to get light and it was also cold, windy and misty. It was only a short walk to the viewpoint accompanied by the noise of the Gannets, Kittiwakes and auks, and the small group had the Albatross in view in their scopes so it wasn't hard to get views ourselves. Unfortunately it was some way off on the cliff edge, and with the poor light difficult to photograph well, but it was always on view for the three hours I was there (Colin spent some time in the car resting). Most of the time it was shuffling around in its favoured spot, occasionally bickering with nearby Gannets, but for a few amazing minutes it was in flight dwarfing everything around it.

It was wonderful to see the large numbers of Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Kittiwakes as well, and I did spend a lot of the three hours just scanning below and around me enjoying the experience. Shortly after 0730, I phoned work, told them I wouldn't be in and returned to the car for something to eat and drink.

We stopped off at Kilnsea near Spurn and spent some time at the wetlands, Beacon ponds and the village. There were a few decent year-ticks to be had-Spoonbill, Scaup and Little Terns being the most notable, but the Rose Coloured Starling was presumably hiding in one of the gardens out of view.

A final rest stop was around an hour at the south end of Rutland Water. Here it was warm and sunny, with plenty of butterflies and dragonflies flying. The female Osprey was sitting by the nest, the juveniles having fledged and I eventually located the male bird hunting over a more distant bay. Otherwise it was a bit quiet, I had hoped there would be a bit of mud around with some waders,though there were a few Curlew and Redshank-which the female Osprey took exception to, flying around. It would have been nice to have explored other parts of the reserve, but it had been a very long day and we were shattered.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

June and some Dragonflies.

 Writing this in mid July, and it feels like it is still May, with Summer yet to start. I have seen very few butterflies in the last month or so, and many f summer birds are in short supply still. A lot of the plants in the garden haven't got going yet-one or two have only recently emerged, the tomatoes have only just started flowering (last year we were harvesting them by now) and some of the tropical plants are not looking brilliant.

I haven't travelled far, many weekends have been damp and dull again so all I have really done is the usual walks around Aston End and Fairlands Lakes, with little of note. I did manage to get and evening walk in along the Beane with my bat detector but only got a couple of Pipistrelle hits. I also heard Tawny and Little Owls in the usual spots.

I did get over to see Sarah and Ed one day , and she took me out in the afternoon on one of her regular walks. Last year she had found a Pyramidal orchid by the cricket pitch, and we saw several this time, including one monster in someone's drive, but but then again, one has also appeared in her garden. This year, there were also many Bee orchids in the village, which was nice to see.

I also paid a visit to Amwell on a warm sunny day and managed to see most of the dragonflies that I could expect to see (and having only seen one or two Azure Damsels in my pond, they were the very nice to see). Probably the best news regarding these is the large numbers of Norfolk Hawkers that are now present on site, and for that matter elsewhere in the Lea Valley. They really do seem to be expanding rapidly throughout the south east now. Here are a few images from the morning.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

The rest of May and a bit of June thrown in.

 After our big trip up to see the Mockingbird, things kind of ground to a halt for a while. The weather went downhill for a bit and we both had family commitments and covid jabs to mess up the weekends, so I have mostly gone for the usual local walks when I could.

The Aston End area has had a few visits at various times of the day. Compared to last year it certainly seems to be a bit quieter for many breeding species. Whitethroat numbers are down by about half, and I have only managed to locate one Lesser Whitethroat so far-last year there were at least half a dozen. Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs are ok, but Swallows are scarce, I only saw my first local Swifts at the end of May and I have yet to see any House Martins. On the other hand there seem to be a few small flocks of Linnets, maybe because there are more weedy uncultivated fields, and this has probably benefited the Yellowhammers as well. The rather wet spell has kept the Beane flowing and last week I found a singing male Reed Bunting near the ford for the first time in many years. The only other notable sightings were the female Wheatear on the 15th, and a pair of Bullfinch.


I have only been over to Langley and the Norton area once. A pair of feeding Yellow Wagtails in one of the muddy areas are presumably breeding somewhere locally.

The singing Corn Bunting is still around as well.

As usually happens, Quail have turned up between Baldock and Royston with one or two showy birds at Wallington over the bank holiday weekend, and two or three very invisible birds at Deadman's Hill last weekend which I went up to listen to on the 5th. While there, I had a flyover Yellow Wagtail and two Lapwing-local breeders? plus a few singing Corn Buntings and a couple of Partridge as well.

Sunday was going to be a butterfly trip in Wiltshire but I was a bit sceptical about the forecast and with lots of cloud and the occasional bit of drizzle driving down the A3 it wasn't' surprising that we had to rethink things a bit.
Bentley Wood is usually pretty good even when conditions aren't all that good, but not this time. The log book only had a few recent entries with a couple of Small Pearl Bordered and a Duke of Burgundy earlier in the week. We never saw a single butterfly so I concentrated on some of the plants while searching for birds which also seemed to be in short supply. One singing Tree Pipit was notable.
We scrapped the plan to go to Martin Down and headed for Noar Hill instead and I realised that there would be a good stopover at Chappetts Copse.
Here the Narrow (Sword) Leaved helleborines were out in abundance and a fantastic sight. We were also given pointers to a couple of Birds nest Orchids as well.

When we finally reached Noar Hill, the sun came out, it got rather hot and we started to see butterflies. Almost all were Small Blues for some reason, with one or two Dingy Skippers, Small Heaths and Holly Blues. Apart from a number of pretty well gone over Early Purples, Twayblades were the most abundant orchids. There were a few Common Spotted but they were small and weedy this year. The small wood in the north east corner had a few White Helleborines as expected and we found a number in a very open area that seemed have  been a cleared recently.
A search for Frog and Musk orchid was fruitless, which is not unusual for us as they aren't easy to find even when you know where they are supposed to be, and me feeling rather tired  under the weather didn't help either. Birds were again quiet, with only a few seen and or heard, but a hot June afternoon is not the best time. A pair of Bullfinch showed briefly and there was a rather odd sounding singing Song Thrush and a few Yellowhammers.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Northern Mockingbird

 After a long stay in Exmouth during the last lockdown, and a very brief appearance in Sussex, we had assumed that the Mockingbird had gone, and those of us that didn't want to, or couldn't travel at the time had missed a biggie. Of the four previous records, only two were accepted and they were a long time ago.

News came out at the end of last week that it had appeared again, this time in a back garden in Newbiggin Northumberland. A bit further to travel than Devon, but at least there was another opportunity, so we set of early yesterday and arrived on site just after 10am. Interestingly, parking was rather straightforward and it was only a few yards to the observing spot where we joined the small crowd. The Mockingbird was initially seen in a tangle of clematis on a fence top, largely hidden, and seemed to be feeding but after a short while it popped up onto a tree branch and gave stunning views, and seemed unperturbed ny the continuous machine gun of the DSLR shutters. It eventually dropped down again for a bit and then flew up to a TV arial. Having had our fill we returned to the car and then moved to the church point car park.

Offshore there was a constant stream of Arctic and Sandwich terns, some Kittiwakes and Eider ducks. One or two nice Greenland Wheatears were perched up on the rocks and chalets, and there were also some flocks of Sanderling and Oystercatchers on the rocks. Unfortunately I couldn't confidently pick out any Roseate Terns in the heat haze and the local Iceland Gull eluded us as well.

looking at what to do on the way back, we rejected a few sites in the north Pennines and thought about calling it at Bempton Cliffs but decided it was a bit of a detour, but there had been a report of a red Necked Phalarope on some old gravel pits in the Idle valley near Doncaster just off the A1. This proved to be an interesting area and seemed good for waders with lots of breeding Lapwing and Redshank, some Dunlins, three Greenshank and a Whimbrel. The one missing one was the Phalarope. Otherwise it was standard gravel pit fare of a mix of ducks, including some lingering Wigeon, a Black Headed Gull colony, Common Terns, plus two Arctic Terns on the deck and a variety of reed-bed species. 

Monday, 3 May 2021

Little Paxton and fen Drayton

 I met up with Colin again yesterday. Being a Bank Holiday we had no intention of travelling all that far so confined ourselves to some of the sites around Cambridge.

We started at Little Paxton and spent around 90 minutes doing the usual circuit around Heron Lake. A couple of nice Garden Warblers near the car park was a good start, with one or two more seen elsewhere. My first Lesser Whitethroat and Cuckoo were heard shortly after but then it got a bit disappointing as it appears most of the Nightingales are no longer  present. The lake was rather quiet, apart from the Common tern and Black Headed Gull colony-the cold northerlies keeping hirundines away, and apart from Blackcaps, other warblers were only around in ones or twos. 

The norther section-Diddington Pits was much more interesting. There were no passage Black terns or Little Gulls unfortunately but one of the Grasshopper Warblers was very showy, as were the Nightingales-at least five were seen. The habitat here is much more suitable at the moment. 

The early afternoon was spent at Fen Drayton. It was very busy with plenty of dog walkers and picnickers, and only a handful of birders. Still rather cold and windy, it was hard going to find the smaller birds, especially when the heavy showers arrived but it did brighten up a bit by the time we got to Moore Lake which was the only one with any muddy islands. The hoards of Common Terns and Black Headed Gulls covered much of them but I did locate a single Common Sandpiper and Redshank. The resident Cattle Egret was a bit elusive and it was a good job we had a scope with us. Eventually by the time we got back to the car park the sun was out and a few Swifts were seen feeding over the adjacent lake.

On the way home we called in at the Ashwell dung heaps for a few minutes where there were three Yellow Wagtails (more were seen later in the evening by Tom Spellar). One was rather photogenic, farmed nicely by the fragrant piles.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

An Impromptu Holiday-With Pictures!

 I had some time off last week, which was totally unplanned, but turned out quite well.

It actually started on Friday 16th, when I spent the morning at Amwell, only my third visit of the year. I quickly added a few year ticks, with several singing Reed and Sedge Warblers, the usual Oystercatcher pair and three Little Ringed Plovers. There was also a large Sand Martin flock feeding over the south end which gradually dispersed along with small parties of Swallows among them. One female Goldeneye remains, but otherwise only the normal summer wildfowl were present. Snipe were rather more conspicuous than usual with several birds flitting around, one Raven was seen briefly and at the end of my visit a Common Tern appeared.

The Saturday afternoon walk around Aston End wasn't really productive, though my first Whitethroat of the year was seen, but otherwise summer visitors were scarce-having weeks of cold northerlies has really had an impact this year.

Sunday 18th was split into two parts. I did a quick circuit of Norton Green in the hope of picking up Ring Ouzel and Wheatear but it was largely empty. I then went round Dyes and Kitching Lane which again was a bit on the quiet side, there were a a few Chiffchaff and Blackcap around, and the usual Marsh Tits. All of the winter thrushes appear to have finally departed. I was hoping the. ponds and stream would remain through the summer but they are getting rather dry now. A few Hares are in the area-these were snapped last month.

An early walk around Fairlands Valley on Monday was a bit bracing with the northerly winds, but maybe have been beneficial as several Willow warblers were singing, along with a few Chiffchaff and Blackcaps. Willows have been declining locally and the south over the last few decades and last year despite daily walks only recorded a handful of singing birds yet they are certainly more common this year. Two Pairs of Tufted Ducks were noteworthy as well.

Another early walk on the 20th around Aston End was another cool one though it did warm up a bit eventually. Three Willow Warblers was good news, and there were now a lot of Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs singing, but there were no other summer warblers. Last year I had already located a number of Common and Lesser Whitethroat territories.As for cuckoos and hirundines well they were non existent. I did get to see a pair of Yellow Wagtails presumably on passage and there seem to be a few Linnets, Chaffinch and Greenfinches nesting this year.

Wednesday 21st was a red letter day-a trip to Norfolk and meeting up with Colin for the first time in six months. I just wish I had taken my winter jacket.

A quick stop at Chosely and then onto a nice quiet and almost empty Titchwell. Naturally year ticks in abundance with Avocets, Godwits and so on, Brent Geese, Bearded Tits, Marsh Harriers plus a few rather smart Med Gulls in the Black Headed colony. The sea, despite the northerly was a bit disappointing with a few Gannets and Sandwich Terns passing and a rather pitiful flock of three Common Scoter.

After warming up a bit we went to Morston Quay and having walked along the sea wall to the eastern paddock realised that the long staying Ring Ouzel was back where we started near the car park. A couple of Wheatear and a Greenshank in the harbour was useful.

The final part of the trip was an early afternoon walk around Lakenheath Fen. Lots of hirundines over the mere-though without House Martins which I have yet to see. After a bit of a search, a pair of Garganey were found, and a Stonechat then it was a bit of a quiet walk along the river to the Joist fen viewpoint where a rather loud booming Bittern kept us entertained while we failed to see any Cranes though a pair of displaying Hobby in the distance was nice.

Gluttons for punishment we were out again the next day this time to Pembrokeshire. Star of the show was the long staying young Walrus which had taken a liking to the Tenby lifeboat station ramp. It was an exhausting long journey but worth it as it isn't a species I was expecting to see in the UK. While there have been couple of  records the last couple of decades in the northern isles they have tended to be short stayers and mobile,  and I have known people spend days trying to track one down. This one was in Ireland last month and then made it's way to Tenby where there appears to be a plentiful supply of clams for it to feed on.

This is what it was doing while we were there-would have been nice to see it hauled up on the ramp, but watching it bobbing around offshore was an amazing sight. Naturally, despite it's presence for several weeks there was still a bit of a crowd, though I don't think many took an interest in the Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers feeding on the rocks.

In the afternoon we had a walk around St Annes Head overlooking Skomer and Skockholm islands. I had hoped to pick a headland with a plentiful supply of auks and sea birds but there was a distinct lack of them. Maybe the wind direction was keeping them well offshore and perhaps one of the other places I had found would have been better. However we should see some eventually this year and having a pair of Chough low overhead is always worthwhile particularly when there are Greenland Wheatears flitting around and three Whimbrel feeding in the cattle field.

Naturally the next two days were a bit of an anticlimax. A short walk around Fairlands on the Friday produced a Garden Warbler-apparently the first there for several years and the bluebells are staring to look quite nice now. The Tufted Duck appear to have finally departed. One Willow Warbler still remains, and the first Moorhen brood has appeared. The afternoon around Aston End on Saturday was primarily for butterflies and while numbers are still low, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone, and Green Veined Whites were frequently seen, along with a couple of Speckled Woods and Orange Tips. The Muntjac wasn't expected and seemed to be very curious staying for some time despite the noise from the nearby pub.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Easter and Recent Weeks

 I have still been sticking to the Stevenage area over the last month or so, but since we were allowed officially to get out and about a bit more from early April I have travelled a bit more.

Fairlands has not been visited as much as in the past year. On a couple of occasions I went down in on Saturday afternoons but found it to be far too busy with large crowds, dogs everywhere and quite a bit of disturbance. I did pop down very early on Good Friday and it was nice and quiet. My first singing Blackcaps were heard-five males and a silent female, and there were three singing Chiffchaffs. My first Swallows were also in, mainly sitting on wires by the climbing frame with a few feeding over the lakes. There had been a House Martin earlier as well. Unfortunately a week before a Redshank and an Oystercatcher were around early one morning as I drove past on the way to work, but news arrived too late, and the same week a few Sand martins had gone through.

I've only been around Aston End once since I last wrote, on March 20th. The river level has dropped considerably and the ground was rather dry. About the only things of note were what was presumed to be a build up of pre migration flocks. Starlings numbered around 200, Redwing 125 and Fieldfare 260, largely between Lords Farm and the south end of Walkern. In all likelihood these numbers were rather conservative.

I have missed a large number of spring migrants. Two visits to the Ashwell dungheaps hasn't produced much, most of the good stuff has been seen while at work. The weather wasn't good for me either, cold and windy so no Wheatear, or Yellow and White Wagtails. A nice flock of around 175 Golden Plover in breeding plumage was nice to see though. Never mind as I had a long weekend prior to Easter with a view to finding migrants-it was during the late March warm spell with good southerly winds bringing in lots of stuff. Unfortunately a swollen ankle and tendon put paid to that-shame as that morning was supposed to be spent at Norton and Langley where 6 Wheatear were showing well. Places like Coopers Green pits were also pulling in lots of waders hirundines and Wagtails as well. 

Easter Sunday morning was spent at Tyttenhanger, my first visit in nearly a year. It was bitterly cold with occasional sleety snow so not very pleasant and I only lasted an hour. There has been a lot of work on improving the Tree Sparrow population with several new feeding stations erected. Very popular with the tits and Robins, but I did get to see a pair of Sparrows. The main pit was rather empty, water levels high and only a mixed gull flock and a few Tufted Duck,Teal and Shoveller. Some rather frozen hirundines were trying to feed over the water, I counted two Swallows and eight House Martins.

Earlier this week Ring Ouzels have started to appear. One has been present at Damask Green just outside of Weston for a while, first reported on the 7th along with a male Redstart, and still there today 10th April. I paid a visit after work on the 8th, but it was rather windy and there was some uncertainty of where it was. In the end I covered several fields and hedges around the various grid references with another hopeful birder but without success. A visit this morning was also unsuccessful. Mike Illett had reported it earlier along with a Wheatear and I covered the same area as before. This time it was cold windy with heavy drizzle. Fortunately Bill Last appeared with better information-basically we had been searching the right hedge all along, but the Ouzel spends a lot of time in the bushes and I think the weather has been against us. Luckily Bill refound the male Redstart and while flighty showed fairly well at times in the now pouring rain.