Friday, 6 June 2014

Sexy Beast!

Firstly, if you have found this on a Google search and were hoping for a pic of Ray Winstone in his underwear, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. This post is about birds folks, and starts with one of the finest Avian offerings from the Mediterranean region (from a UK twitcher's perspective), a great big raptor with a staring yellow eye, vaguely osprey-like colour scheme and a penchant for snakes.

The popular eagle in Dorest last weekend was first found by someone on a guided walk in Wareham Forest. They pointed to the large raptor sat in a pine tree and enquired as to its identity. The guide, a local birder from Upton, Poole, must have nearly fainted. He recognised it as a short-toed eagle, and within an hour or so a fantastic photo was circulating on Twitter with the news that it had been present just 10 minutes, before heading off east.

I missed some 20 or so potentially new birds during my backpacking adventures downunder in 1999-2000 and though I have got back most of them since, the biggest prize - short-toed eagle - has never been
within reach. There have been a few claims since the first British record on Scilly in 1999, resulting in an accepted bird in Devon in 2011, and the fascinating unravelling in a classic Birdforum thread of
a hoax attempted by teenage birder Joe Pell - some excellent detective work paving the way for the now regular scrutiny given to suspicious online photos which might relate to a hoax, and which has produced experts in botany, fence posts and barbed wire that can smell a rat at a hundred paces from their laptop. Sherlock Holmes himself would be proud of some of the efforts in the 'Birdforum Courtroom' and to those that have helped expose such dubious goings on, I salute you.

Thoughts of a hoax were quickly dispelled however, when it emerged that other observers had seen this latest bird and that there had even been a possible sighting several days earlier. And the guide who put out the news had a solid reputation too, this was looking like the real deal! The hours passed, then suddenly there was another sighting nearby - the bird was lingering, and before I knew it came the best news of all - it had been relocated sitting in a tree!

Suddenly Dorset seemed a long way away from Cambridge, but despite leaving late in the day at 5.30, by 8pm I was watching it with just 35-40 or so birders, and these were mainly locals. Where was everyone?
It was a beautiful location and we watched the bird at a range of about a quarter of a mile, until the mosquitos and the need to find accommodation forced me to leave, though not before a nice flypast by a male nightjar.

A quick stay at a local YHA and I was back for seconds. It was a gorgeous day and several hundred people - containing many familiar faces - were watching the eagle.

 Med gulls passed over, and the air rang out with the song of tree pipits and Dartford warblers. The camararderie was good and soon everyone started to move closer. We eventually enjoyed views to just 150m range. The bird wasn't bothered at all. Then, just after 10am after a marathon 17 hrs sat (mostly) in the same tree it did the decent thing and took off to the onslaught of an army of firing camera shutters. It circled for a while and slipped away to the south west. It was not seen again. I returned home via the New Forest where distant goshawks and a single honey buzzard kept up the raptor theme. I was smiling most of the way. A ghost had been laid to rest!

Just the day after seeing the eagle I was off to Norfolk for my second spectacled warbler. I'd missed the female black-headed bunting in Norfolk, which had departed overnight after a stay of several days,
but you can't have everything. Norfolk listers had been denied the last 'speccy' in the county - a one day suppressed bird in 2011 on Scolt Head Island, so this one - destined to become the 8th record for Britain -  was very much appreciated.

It showed mainly in rose bushes at about 30 - 40m range, and delighted a whole new generation of birders who had not previously seen the species in Britain. It seems embarrassing now that despite having seen
10 Sylvia species in Norfolk (including such gems as Desert, Sardinian & Ruppell's) I have yet to catch up with Dartford warbler in the county!

Compared to the eagle, everything else in May paled into insignificance...sightings were unremarkable with perhaps the highlight for me a local pair of stilts on territory for a while - what became of them I'm not sure, and if I did know I may not be allowed to post the details. But with well-publicised pairs nesting this year in Kent & Sussex it's quite possible there are other breeding attempts going on elsewhere in the country. I might even take a trip down for the Kent ones as fluffballs elevated on stilts sound rather endearing.

A few ecology field surveys kept me busy, with particular focus on bats and great crested newts. At one site near the M25 we caught more than 50 of these, including 9 in one bottle trap. For a rare species GCN seems bloody common - but apparently their protected status reflects more on their rarity across Europe as a whole, though perhaps it's partly down to new taxonomy with new species such as Italian crested newt now split and presumable rendering GCN rarer and more restricted on the continent. Anyway, not a subject I can pretend to know much about, though training for a newt license could be on the cards for next year - watch this space.

With the highlight of the bat surveys being a little owl (or two) it was left to a couple of trapping sessions with local bat groups to produce true Chiropteran inspiration - sessions at Finemere Wood, and Priory CP yielded a succession of the commoner species (both pips plus Daubenton's) in the hand along with 2 individuals of the rather rare Bechstein's bat - complete with attendant film crew from Countryfile. The latter made it (at times) difficult to get near the tiny stars of the show but good views of the delectable Ellie Harrison made up in part. On this occasion I chose to stand well behind the cameras - just in case someone thought I actually knew something about bats!

Bechstein's bat
Common pipistrelle
Soprano pipistrelle

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