Sunday, 26 April 2015

My Old Patch

Nipped to Grafham Water, Cambs yesterday before the band reunion in Suffolk. Delighted to bump into my old mate Mark Hawkes at Mander CP and thrilled to see c30 Arctic Terns dipping and swerving over the Res. One of the highlights of Grafham springs was the occasional visit by these uber-migrants, so to pop in when some were present was pretty lucky.

As the Somerset Hudsonian Godwit had done a bunk, I had another visit to Grafham this morning. Conditions looked good, with murky overcastness and a light northwesterly blowing, plus a hint of drizzle around my ears. No sign of any Ring Ouzels by the old fave spot, but I spied three drake Common Scoters distantly off the lagoons - nice! Further on, a small flock of small waders proved to be two Sanderling and six Dunlins on closer inspection. A whistle or seven and a Whimbrel bombed overhead and off east. This was proving to be great! Lots of common migrants around, with Yellow Wagtails cavorting around the dam, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats singing heartily from the scrub. Down to Mander and at least ten Arctic Terns were with a similar number of Common Terns. The Arctics were joining the Commons on the boom allowing some great views. Grafham Water at its best - brilliant! Why did I ever leave?!

Goodbye little pup

On Friday Willow died. Our lovely, beautifully-natured lab who had been with us since 2007 finally lost her battle with cancer. We will all miss her.  (Below: Willow at Grafham Water in 2008).

Wednesday, 15 April 2015


Went down to Wheldrake Ings this evening and after a pleasant migrant filled stroll, found myself looking over the Refuge for a Garganey or maybe the returning Brent Goose.
Anyway, I soon picked up a pair of waders one of which was clearly a Redshank and the other, remarkably a Lesser Yellowlegs! What?! I had been watching both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs last Thursday in Florida which was handy I suppose and it was immediately obvious to me what the bird was much to my own disbelief. The small, slender long-winged shape, all dark fine bill, dark brown and white plumage meant despite my nerves and excitement the ID was fairly straightforward. After a few minutes, a second Redshank appeared and chased the Legs off, which flew low north towards Swantail, calling. In flight, the plain wings and a small white rump patch were noted, as well as projecting feet. I lost the bird behind willows but could hear it calling like a higher pitched Greenshank I suppose. I scooted down to Swantail but failed to refind it, so 20 minutes or so later i went back to the original spot and a few moments later I heard the bird calling from over the refuge and it came across low and landed out of sight on the near edge behind the grass. A few minutes before Andy Walker arrived and it took flight again, off towards Swantail calling as before. This time I failed to refind it as it didn't seem to come back on to the refuge which was a bit gutting. Within half an hour the light had gone and that was that. I hope somebody refinds this tomorrow as I won't be able to get there until Friday at the earliest.
During all the panic, a Yellow Wag flew over, a Sedge Warbler sang noisily from the reedbed and plenty of House and Sand Martins and a few Swallows were over the pool.
After birding Wheldrake since 1981 this is by far the best bird I have been lucky enough to find here. Hopefully it won't be as long until the next one!

One of the many Florida Lesser Legs seen a week or so ago.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Florida Family Birding #1

To celebrate our 21st birthdays at the end of last year (well, 40ths), we booked a fly drive to Florida to hunt down giant rodents for the kids and some long sought-after birds and other wildlife for me. Conveniently, a trip to Cuba a few years back meant that I didn't 'need' much of the rare and scarce that southern Florida turns up, so I could concentrate on some of the commoner Eastern US species I had not seen before, plus one or two of the state specialities and other critters, whilst having a bit of a relax and fun with the family. This was never going to be a hardcore birding trip, but shows what can be achieved with a rather lazy attitude to planning, plus a few early morning walks and convenient 'lunch stops' in suitable spots, whilst ensuring the family has a cracking time.

Swallow-tailed Kite - logo of the Birding Trail and one of the main highlights of the trip

Essential to the success of the trip was a very understanding wife, patient kids and the excellent Great Florida Birding Trail website (and subsequently leaflet I got given). I used the Sibley Guide to birds of Eastern North America and the reasonably old but still pretty useful 'A Birder's Guide to Florida' by Bill Pranty. Apart from the GFBT website, I found it difficult to find much of use on the web. The rare bird alert service is useful, particularly if you want to check out tropical overshoots on the keys such as Key West Quail Dove and LaSagra's Flycatcher.

Our trip involved a Virgin Atlantic flight from London Heathrow to Miami, with car rental through Alamo. I would recommend this package. We booked our accommodation in advance through the internet without any trouble, either directly or through Expedia.

Being the end of the dry season we saw no mosquitoes hardly.  Most sites visited had good infrastructure, with car parks, marked trails, whilst some had viewpoints, toilets and interpretation. All sites were marked with brown Trail signs - see above.

29-30 March 2015:
Key Largo
A stroll around the environs of the apartment near the sweetly named Lake Surprise got my eye and ear in with much of the common stuff we would see over the fortnight, including Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Mourning Dove, Common Ground Dove, Northern Flicker, Northern Mockingbird, Palm Warbler, Common Grackle and the naturalised Common Myna. Highlights were a single Magnificent Frigatebird and a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins.

Palm warbler. The commonest warbler, seen in all habitats, regularly dipping it's tail, like a Chiffchaff. Quite confiding and calling a standard 'chip'.

Dagny Johnson Botanical Park, Key Largo
Meant to be a great site for Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-whiskered Vireo, White-crowned Pigeon and migrant warblers, but proved to be a bit disappointing on both visits, though the middle of the day and dusk are probably not the best times to be birding! An easy site to bird, with toilets and marked trails, again, enjoyed adding new species here including the Florida subspecies of Prairie Warbler, Grey Catbird, Northern Cardinal, White-eyed Vireo and White Ibis. Migrants included three American Herring Gulls and a Cooper's Hawk overhead and a stunning male Cape May Warbler.

Prairie Warbler. This is presumably the resident Florida subspecies paludicola though this is far from certain.

Grey Catbird. Fairly skulking, but easier to see than I would have thought and once the obvious calls are sussed, noted as a pretty common species.

One of the lakes in Dagny Johnson which held little apart from Pied-billed Grebes.

John Pennekamp State Park
We didn't really explore this large touristy site as we mainly accessed it to go out to the coral reef offshore. Highlights from this site included Atlantic Green Turtle,  Great White Heron (white variant of Great Blue Heron), Bottlenose Dolphins, plus more new stuff such as Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons, Royal Tern, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-winged Blackbird. More unexpected were three Northern Gannets over the reef.

Great White Heron. Really a Great Blue Heron, this white variant is common in the Keys and we saw a few in the Everglades also.

Great Crested Fly - very common and conspicuous throughout the area.

In the evening of the 30th, there was a bit of migrant passage, with Purple Martin and Barn and Tree Swallows moving north, plus a Turnstone, Ring-billed Gull and Black-crowned Night Heron by the apartment new for the trip list.

31 March - Everglades National Park

We left Key Largo early on and headed north then west into the Everglades. The trip was quite productive, with Northern Harrier, Belted Kingfisher, Pileated Woodpecker and Loggerhead Shrike from the car as well as a tantalising glimpse of a Swallow-tailed Kite over the sawgrass. Sadly, we couldn't stop as we were on the highway.

Shark Valley
The strangely-named Shark Valley was our first introduction to Everglades birding and didn't disappoint. We did the 17 mile tram ride down to the observation tower, which was well worth it. You can't drive yourself and in the heat with no shade it would be a bit of a killer to cycle or walk.

Though very touristy, the guide was a solid naturalist and gave us a great introduction to the landscape of sawgrass plains interspersed with hammocks of trees and scrub growing on depressions or pinnacles of limestone, and the wildlife of the Everglades.

Plenty of Gators about, plus another distant glimpse of a Swallow-tailed Kite and also a distant Snail Kite, white tail band gleaming in the sun. Plenty of Black Vultures here which would become a common site throughout, plus Boat-tailed Grackles which seem common in the marshes, a cracking Limpkin, American Purple Gallinule, several Wood Storks, Anhinga and all the common herons (Green, Little Blue, Tricoloured, Great Blue, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret).

Wood Storks and Glossy and White Ibis. Wood Storks are really suffering from water abstraction by farmers, which is reducing the water levels drastically in the marshes and their numbers are plummeting. The abstraction also causes saline water to be sucked in to the Everglades from the sea damaging the ecosystem.


Drive to Everglades City
We did the Loop Road 94 off the SR41 just west of Shark Valley, but there were no views over the landscape, as trees grew either side of the road all the way. We passed by in the middle of the afternoon when it was hot so saw very little but this would be certainly worth a look early in the morning. A little further down the 41 west of Monroe Station we picked up a Swallow-tailed Kite over the road, so pulled into the aptly-named Birdon Road and stopped. For the next 20 minutes we were treated to the awesome sight of four of these spectacular raptors cruising overhead picking up dragonflies in flight and eating them on the wing like giant pied Hobbies.

Swallow-tailed Kites. These birds spend the winter in South America and will have only recently arrived back in Florida. The adults have long tail streamers so presumably the last photo is of a first summer bird.

A bird I had longed to see, to get these views was just great and I lost myself in watching them, so much so that I nearly trod on a large snake that had slithered out on to the trail. On closer inspection it proved to be a three foot long Cottonmouth, one of Florida's venomous species, so I am glad I didn't tread on it!

Cottonmouth. So named because it has a gleaming white mouth which it uses to ward off would-be attackers.

We arrived in Everglades City deep in the heart of the swamp by teatime. The usual birds were around including stacks of Ospreys. The sound of their piping was a constant background noise and some were nesting on platforms in people's yards! Other stuff of note were American White Pelican, three Pileated Woodpeckers on one telegraph pole, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Purple Martin and Kildeer.

1 April:
Wagonwheel Road Loop
This loop runs north of the 41 east of the turn to Everglades City and includes Birdon Road mentioned earlier. It was fairly quiet along the wooded sections, but the marshland at the north end was more interesting, where I added Marsh Wren, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark and Eastern Kingbird, as well as this rather smart Great White Heron.

Big Cypress Bend (part of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve)
This small reserve lies just west of the turn for Everglades City on the north side of the 41. It has a car park, toilets and a half mile boardwalk through superb large cypress hammock to a shady pool full of Alligators. Arriving at lunchtime was again not the best, but it was still pretty good with adult Bald Eagle overhead, several Northern Parulas singing, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Black and White Warbler and best of all, a showy Louisiana Waterthrush around the pool at the end of the boardwalk. This is an uncommon migrant in southern Florida and I am pretty sure of the ID based on a big broad super and sparse underpart streaking etc.

Louisiana Waterthrush, hanging out by the water in Florida.

More to follow...

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Monday, 23 March 2015

Peregrine - Wigeon- Buzzard epic

Peregrine v Wigeon v Buzzard

Check this out! Amazing view of a Peregrine that has caught a drake Wigeon just outside Swantail Hide at Wheldrake Ings yesterday afternoon. The Wigeon valiantly tried to escape, being saved by the arrival of a local Buzzard which seemed to really enrage the falcon, which left it's half drowned meal and started mobbing the larger raptor.

Otherwise, a couple of Red Kites and Barn Owls about and still plenty of Pintail and other ducks on the ings, despite falling water levels. A couple of singing Chiffchaffs were the only spring migrants noted.

The previous day I finally caught up with the Heslington Tilmire Great Grey Shrike which showed well, though distantly, huddled out of the wind in hawthorn bushes. No sign of any windblown Kittiwakes or scoters at Hes East earlier sadly.

A few recent shots from Askham Bog etc attached with new 50D.

 Blue, Coal and Marsh Tits at Askham Bog in early March.

 Sanderling at Fraisthorpe in early March

Great Grey dot at the York Tilmire SSSI

Sunday, 22 February 2015

More Hawking and almost Special K

Cold and clear at dawn with a light northwesterly. An adult Iceland Gull gracefully flapped over the road by Bustardthorpe Allotments and then off west over the Knavesmire. I swung the car on to the verge, jumped out with bins in hand but sadly the bird was heading directly away so I couldn't check it for grey in the primaries, although I suspected it could have been one of the adult Kumlien's Gulls that have been knocking about.
I picked up Tom and we did a slight detour via this lonely Waxwing, virtually outside my grandparents' old house on Becky Lane. I got a quick phonescoped shot of the bird in the top of a nearby Birch and left before it descended to the Cotoneaster bush and the waiting long-lens paparazzi.

Up to the forest and within a few minutes, we picked up a very distant pair off Goshawks, the female of which put on a rather spectacular display, doing a series of switchbacks complete with wing-folding stoops and vertical climbs. Shortly, a pair of Gos got up over the near ridge - both immatures; the birds I had seen on Tuesday. An adult male then appeared and powered across the valley, looking dazzling slate and white in the early morning sunshine. The male appeared again a few minutes later and chased the immature male out of the valley. Over the other side, we picked up the adult female who circled around and gave a few bouts of harrier-flight. She swooped into the top of a bare larch providing cracking - thought distant - views through the scope. Her huge yellow feet, shaggy trousers and undertail coverts and broad white supercilium were obvious even from this distance. Sadly, my pathetic attempt at a phonescoped shot don't do her justice.

We went down into the valley and tried a few vantage points, but didn't really get better views. Goshawks always seem to appear in the place you were standing previously! We moved down to where I had had good views of a displaying female on Tuesday and sure enough within a few minutes we picked her and a more distant bird circling over the forest. A third bird, an immature came in over the forest and landed distantly in a tree. After a bit, Tom mentioned the original female was being mobbed by two tiny birds: Merlins! These feisty little birds, with wingspans literally half hers, harried her mercilessly for about ten minutes, taking it in turns to dash in, pulling up vertically at the last minute. The Gos just ignored them, occasionally ducking slightly out of the way of their attacks, but not really bothering. The falcons got bored and then the Gos decided to put on a bit of a show and dropped in front of us and came across the forest in slow harrier flight, with tail coverts spread, looking very impressive indeed. A little later we decided to head home, satisfied with our good fortune.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015


Back in the forest, full of nervous anticipation with the sunny conditions following yesterday's rain, surely a good forecast for some hawk action. Sure enough, just after nine, two Goshawks got up across the valley and began lazily circling, occasionally coming together, talons outstretched in light-hearted sparring. As they came nearer, I realised the birds were both immatures, with darkly streaked buffy breasts. They were joined by a male, another immature, but he soon cruised off west. One of the females landed in a larch but was very distant and a bit concealed. A little later, I came across the two females and the male again, the latter recognisable as he was missing an inner secondary on his left wing. They showed brilliantly for ten minutes, chasing each other around, mock stooping and talon grappling. Eventually, they tired of their games and split up, one female heading north past me on one side, and the male tracking a similar path but on the other side of me.

I headed off to look for other birds, and after a fruitless hour or so, spied an adult female displaying over the pines. This was a real treat as the bird was pretty close and flew lazily along over her territory, with stiff, harrier-like wings, and huge white puffball undertail enhanced by her tightly closed dark tail. She flew up and down a couple of times, before heading off west. Cracking!

A bit later, I retraced my steps and soon saw one of the immature females together with the gap-winged young male over the ridge. A Peregrine appeared and clashed with the female Gos, at one point chasing her rapidly down the slope - pretty brave as she dwarfed the falcon! She landed out of sight in the trees and the falcon headed off high. The male Gos in the meantime headed straight across the valley towards me and past by within 100 metres or so, providing stunning views through the scope.

Back to my starting point and I had brief views of an adult Gos which I took to be a male due to his size. He glided along the top of the pines before landing out of sight. Nearby, an adult female Gos suddenly appeared chasing one of the immature females. Due to the whiteness of her underparts looked almost like a different species from the immature she was chasing. She chased the young bird persistently all the way along the ridge and into the distance. Presumably these adults are trying to clear last year's young out of their territories.

Also seen today were about six Buzzards, some Golden Plover and plenty of singing Skylarks and Siskins.

The Dark Forest

Spent the day exploring the Yorkshire forests, with Rich, Dan and Gaynor. Lots of Crossbills around, mainly in pairs and small parties, with several heard singing. Some gave really great, close views, a real privilege. This beautiful photo was taken by Rich as it hopped about on the verge. As we drove round the tracks, a Goshawk cruised along the edge of a spruce stand but the poor light meant it remained a menacing silhouette. Later, nine Mandarin flushed from a pool, with four Teal and nearby another Goshawk showed briefly.

No sign of The Smiths

Did Hes East early morning on the rumour of a Red-necked Grebe, but sadly it wasn't present. Consolation was provided by two very showy and noisy Grey Partridges, two Water Rails and 42 Pochards.

Tim, Chris and Jack had seen a great candidate for an American Herring Gull at Rufforth the other day, so come Saturday, quite a few birders from outside York were mooching around looking for the gulls. I met up with Rich and Dan and had a look round the area, which revealed a second winter Iceland Gull on the sheep fields, plus a Green Sandpiper. A Peregrine was buzzing about and put an end to the day's play as the gulls got a bit spooked and wouldn't settle again. This big pale immature Argentatus Herring Gull was on the field by the roundabout, showing how variable they can be:

 East to Wheldrake Ings, where at least four Barn Owls were flying around and the second winter Iceland Gull paused on the refuge for a bit to have a bath and a drink. Stacks of other birds around including 30 Ruff, 6 Pochards and a Peregrine.