Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Soaking for a Secretive Savi's

This week for the third week on the trot I found myself available on the Tuesday and headed north into the fens. A couple of weeks back I played a blinder and got lucky at Wicken. Last week (sorry, no blog update but see pic below) I had a nice day out with my first turtle doves (a pair) and garganey (2 pairs) of the year, and best of all, a pair of black-necked grebes in potential breeding habitat. This week I thought I'd twitch the Lakenheath Savi's via the Ouse Washes where I was hoping the wet weather might have grounded some good waders.

On the approach road to the Ouse Washes a yellow wag with a very odd, rasping call caused me to stop the car. I had a brief distant view of the bird in my scope and I think it looked a 'normal' bird - certainly not one of the dark-headed forms, some of which (in the east) can emit rather similar calls to this. But apparently our yellow wags can come out with some odd calls, particularly when looking for a mate, and I think this is the most likely explanation.

On the washes themselves, the highlight was provided by a single sanderling with a 40-strong flock of tundra ringed plovers. Although tundrae birds make up the vast majority of passage ringed plovers in this part of the world I've only ever once before noticed one next to a local breeder. On this occasion at least one such local breeder had joined the flock and I was pleased to see that yes, there is a distinct difference, the Tundra birds being around 10-20% smaller and darker too, with perhaps a more olive (less buff) tone to the upperparts. Unfortunately they were too distant for photos which would have otherwise provided a nice comparison, so I've included here a rather poor shot taken a few years ago of the two forms side by side. I'll have to keep an eye on ringed plovers to see if I can illustrate the comparison better in future. Smaller still were the pair of little ringed plovers, which vigorously defended their territory against any stray passers by.

ringed plovers, The Mullet (Ireland). Presumed tundrae bird on the right is visibly smaller & darker

But time was running out so it was on to Lakenheath for that elusive Locustella, the Savi's warbler that had been present now several days. My track record with this species before now hasn't been good. My first attempt (as a 15 year old in 1990) was for a bird in Norfolk later re-identified as an unstreaked grasshopper warbler (though the apparent good song was never fully explained...), the second bird I went for was OK but a little distant, the third drew a complete blank and the fourth provided a valuable 'heard' Norfolk tick (completing my 5-strong Locustella set for that county) but didn't show itself. This year I realised I'd only ever seen just one good one, rather distantly, and it had been over 20 years ago. So when one turned up in May just 40 minutes from home, I was keen to see it.

When I visited late afternoon it was still very wet. The wind was light to moderate and few birds were singing. Not ideal! But the bird did start up literally as I arrived and within 35 minutes I'd nailed it in a small bush, giving forth its characteristic reeling song, gropper-like but distinctly lower-pitched. I got most of the dozen or so people present onto it before it flew. Over the next couple of hours it sang regularly and showed a few times, mainly in flight. Then at around 7.45pm it returned to the the same spot in that same bush – bingo! There were only 4 people left by then and it was difficult getting a view of the bird which was well concealed. Eventually I found an angle that gave me a view of roughly half the bird and was thankful for that! I left fairly satisfied, though pretty drenched having waited nearly 3 hours mostly in the rain, collecting a couple of groppers (one of which showed quite well) on my way back to the car. 

The star of he show - Savi's warbler

Sunday, 19 May 2013


The circumstances of this bird's discovery and subsequent twitch bear several characteristics of the modern day scene. It was confirmed online from photographs for a start, when a local birder forwarded them to the info services. And it kicked off controversy on the web in its wake as 'Trial by Birdforum' grappled with the nature of its true identity, specifically how genetically 'pure' it was.

The first twitchable dusky thrush since 1959 (and potentially the tenth for Britain) was always going to prove popular, more so since the BOU split it a few years back. I hadn't actually realised it had been split until after I'd seen the bird! I heard of its presence belatedly when a catalogue of events left me in the dark until about 9.30am on the morning of the 18th, when news had actually gone out the previous evening at around 11.10pm. I wasted no time in making arrangements to get down there, travelling with a guy called Geoff (from Notts), James Hunter and Richard Thomas.

I saw the bird on arrival and despite its reluctance to go anywhere near the ground eventually had excellent views. There was a rolling crowd of perhaps 200-400 birders with well in excess of a thousand likely to have seen it throughout the day. To the chagrin of those who hadn't made it, it was gone the next. I returned home happy with not just the thrush under the belt but a nice female Monty's and a cattle egret to boot. But the thrush's arrival marked an influx of rarities and scarcities right down the east coast and those in the north-east especially had plenty more less rare species to go and see.

The uncertainty over the bird's genetic purity – due mainly to the overall lack of contrast, the warmth of the spotting on the shoulder and rear flanks and the rather paleness of the warmer colours found on the inner wing, mainly the secondaries – maks it not a not quite straightforward record and not disimilar to the situation regarding the Rainham slaty-backed gull. But my thoughts – as with that bird - are that it's likely to be within the variation of the claimed species, though it would be hard to completely rule out the possibility of introgression of naumanni genes down the line. Luckily most people seem reasonably happy with it now (including experts such as Lars Svennson) , just hope it passes the BBRC test!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

 MEGA day to mark 25 years in Birding! (And why leaving a camera out in the rain can be good for you)

The 14th May 2013 marked 25 years to the day that I took up serious birding and twitching, yet this is not what I’ll remember it for, as it turned out in itself to be one of my best birding days ever.

It kicked off late morning at Lakenheath where an adult male red-foot showed like a dream, hawking over the reedbed with hobbies and sometimes approaching within 30 metres or so. The unsettled weather had kept the insects low and as the wind shifted so too did the insects (presumably) to the opposite corner of New Fen, taking with them the falcons. I snapped away at it for perhaps an hour and a half taking literally hundreds of photos most of which were hopeless. Cranes showed on occasion in the distance and I had a couple of sightings of bittern; even a male bearded tit performed well, allowing me to snap him close up.



Sometimes when you're a fly it just isn't your day!

It was a good start but the best was yet to come. I returned home via Wicken Fen where a male Monty’s had been seen a few times. A couple of hobbies were hawking the droves and as at Lakenheath, cuckoos were much in evidence. I headed out to Baker’s Fen and scanned a smallish pool on the west side. Two whimbrel in the grass at the back were particularly pleasing. There were 3 small waders that looked like pecs but surely must be dunlin – there were three of them after all. I made a mental note to check them more thoroughly when I got a bit nearer.

Moving down the side of the fen I drew level with the pool and stopped to talk to Andrew Taylor. It was about 3.15pm now and whilst speaking with him I checked the three waders – they were pectoral sandpipers! I noted the clear cut-off streaked pectoral breast band and the slightly shorter bill than dunlin. The legs were largely submerged in water but yes, there were some rather long tibias just coming into view when one of the birds scratched and they were distinctly yellowish in colour

The weather was by now deteriorating with showers rolling in from the south-east. Andrew and I went our separate ways, me taking shelter from the rain in a nearby hide. After a while I checked my person and realised I was without my camera accessories pouch with its contents of spare camera batteries. More worryingly, I was without the camera itself! I checked and double-checked my pockets and the hide shelf before braving the rain to return to where I’d been watching the pecs. With relief I found my stuff, though the camera was soaked as it had been left out without protection from the rain. The sandpipers were still there.
At around 4.40pm, I noticed a couple of waders lift off out across the fen. I couldn’t believe it – one was large, slim and black and white with ridiculously long trailing legs – a black-winged stilt!

My 1st views of the stilt and that panicky record shot you just have to get!

This was surreal, it felt almost like a dream. My first BBRC bird of the year and it was self-found, I was soaked through and my head was still reeling from having found something decent in the form of the 3 sandpipers. But this??!!! I grabbed a couple of record shots as the stilt headed off across the fen, landing out of sight on the far side. I moved further down and soon relocated it distantly on the other pool. But again I was beaten back by an oncoming shower and took refuge in a nearby hide (after making a few phone calls!)

I emerged about 20 minutes later to see if anyone had arrived. Andrew was back and he pointed out the stilt – it had returned to the small pool and was just 30 metres or so from the path! I grabbed some shots and soon afterwards noticed another birder arriving. Seconds before she reached us the pec sands – now with a single dunlin – took off over our heads calling (that screechy dry trill that proved useful in self-finding another trio of pecs last autumn in Ireland), but not before I’d managed to grab a picture of them sharing the pool with the stilt. The dunlin was then heard calling and returned to the pool alone some 10 minutes later. The pecs were not seen again and the stilt (a male) later disappeared, only to be refound by Ben Green later that evening on the adjacent Adventurer’s Fen. It was still present the following day but proved rather elusive.

I finished out on the main reedbed with snipe drumming overhead and a male marsh harrier quartering nearby. I reflected on a day I won’t forget in a hurry!

3 pecs and a stilt!

drumming snipe over main reedbed