A diary of my birding activity covering highlights and photos from my birding adventures. Mainly Norfolk (UK), occasionally beyond. I might mention the odd thing that isn't avian, but for moth and other insect news check out my mothing diary.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Goosing about and a Dusky Thrush

What seems to be one of the best winters ever for goose-watchers in Norfolk largely passed me by until the second half of December.  My last few weeks of work proved busy and left me with little time to bird and more working from home meant less opportunity to pop out to see the local flocks during my lunch breaks.  I did manage a Barnacle Goose near Bircham on 5th December but  little more until after I finished work on 16th.

There have been several reports of Rough-legged Buzzard in the Choseley area this winter but at least some, and possibly all, have related to one or two pale Buzzards that are residing in the area.  Here's one of them.

Buzzard, Choseley, 9th December

Tree Sparrows bred at work this year, though I never saw any sign of them myself.  Shortly before I finished, my team moved to the building where Paul and Rachel Eele had seen them in the summer.  Rachel (who works with me) saw what she thought were Tree Sparrows from our office soon after we moved in but I was in a meeting at the time.  A few days later on 12th December I heard some Tree Sparrow calls and looked out of the window.  I could see 4-5 birds in the top of a nearby tree that looked like they might have been sparrows but there was a bird chirping much closer.  It took a while to see it but eventually I found it sitting on the drainpipe very close, followed by two more a bit further round.

I finished work on Friday 16th December (hooray!) having worked there nearly 15 years and don't plan to race back to employment.  On Sunday I headed up to Titchwell where there have been large numbers of sea duck close inshore recently.  A Chiffchaff was feeding beside the path between the car park and the visitor centre - nice to see at this time of year.

At the sea an RNLI dingy had just been through pushing the birds further out.  2 Great Northern Divers were pointed out upon my arrival (and later we counted 3).  The dingy came back past along the shore causing lots of duck to fly around - I counted 15 Velvet Scoters and 31 Long-tailed Ducks in a single scan though I'm sure the true number present was much higher than this.  I didn't count the commoner species very carefully so 8 Goldeneye, 10 Red-breasted Mergansers was probably way under too.  I picked up a pair of Scaup after a while and then Eddie picked up a Black-throated Diver flying west.  I think it was Ben who called a Kittiwake, and single Fulmar and Gannet were also seen in the distance.  Many hundreds of Common Scoter and a few Eider among them too - the sea was a real spectacle with birds everywhere.  Fantastic, and such a welcome change after the last winter or two when the sea here seemed weirdly quiet.

Black-throated Diver (and Long-tailed Duks), Titchwell, 18th December

I stopped at Choseley to look at the geese, but there weren't all that many birds in the flock here - clearly a lot were elsewhere.  Indeed the only interesting birds I could find among them were variants of Pink-footed Goose, with no other species at all.  One bird was a pink-billed, white-faced, white-spectacled bird that Mark G had emailed me about earlier in the week.  Apart from it's unusual pigmentation (or lack of) around its head and bill it was in every other respect a normal Pink-footed Goose, so I presume the explanation for its unusuall appearance is leucism or some other pigment-deficiency condition, rather than hybridisation (despite it recalling Lesser White-fronted Goose to some observers).  I've seen one or two Pink-feet with white spectacles before, lots with white round the bill and a few with almost entirely pink bills.  I don't recall seeing one with a pale nail before though.

Pink-footed Goose, Choseley, 18th December

Also in the flock were two birds with bright orange legs, but these were no Bean Geese (although were probably identified as such by at least one birder who thought there were Bean Geese in the flock - or maybe I just missed the real ones).  They failed to show any other feature of Bean Goose and Pink-footed Geese with orange legs are not all that unusual.

Pink-footed Goose, Choseley, 18th December

The pale Buzzard was in the area again too - not fooling anyone today though (at least not while I was there).

From the road between Docking and Brancaster Staithe a large flock of geese were feeding.  They were keeping back though - I suspected another birder had flushed them earlier.  It was hard to see a lot of the birds - a flock of at least 6 Barnacle Geese were right at the back but completely disappeared after I first saw them.  A Tundra Bean Goose was slightly easier to see but then another birder arrived and flushed the entire flock.  After that it was hard to see them without flushing them, and with other birders in the area I knew they'd all be flushed again soon.  Weekends are not the best time to look for geese when there are others looking - too many people without any field craft  getting out of their cars, slamming doors, walking up to the flocks, etc.  I decided to come back during the week, now that I can.

I was keen to see the Tree Sparrow x House Sparrow hybrid that's been at Cley recently so decided to head over there.  I made the mistake of stopping off on my way to have another look at the Wigeon x Mallard hybrid at Stiffkey.

Wigeon x Mallard hybrid, Stiffkey, 18th December

Lovely to see this again, but it cost me the sparrow.  I arrived at Cley and was immediately informed that the hybrid sparrow was showing on the feeders outside Cley Spy.  I headed straight there but the bird had disappeared and didn't reappear before the sun started to go down.  A single Tree Sparrow was there, but that wasn't the one I wanted!

Tree Sparrow, Cley, 18th December

Monday 19th December was the first "working day" of my non-working life, and I decided to celebrate it with a Dusky Thrush.  I picked up Dave at 4.30 am and headed to Beeley in Derbyshire arriving at dawn.  We had a look in the orchard for a while, that being one of its favoured locations, but it soon became clear that having everyone looking in one place wasn't a great tactic.  I exchanged phone numbers with someone there just in case it returned while we were looking elsewhere and headed down to the playing field.  No sign there, so we checked the churchyard.  Nothing, so up Pig Lane.  Dave pointed out a couple of Redwings in a hedgerow in fields some way off up the hill.  I scoped these for a while - eventually it became clear that there were a few birds, but no sign of the Dusky Thrush.  I kept looking, and then from behind a hedge out popped the Dusky Thrush!  It soon disappeared again but fortuately for Dave it quickly reappeared.  Not for long though as it took flight with a group of about 8 Redwings.

Earlier we'd passed the end of a footpath that headed up towards the flock which looked like it had gone back down in the same area.  We notified the crowd at the orchard and headed to the footpath arriving just slightly ahead of them.  A few Redwings were visible in the top of an oak tree but we couldn't see the Dusky Thrush.  I noticed there was a single bird in the nearer tree, largely obscured.  I could just make out a long flared supercilum and a solid dark block at the rear of the ear-coverts.  I'd seen photos of the Dusky Thrush and noticed it had a similar pattern, but could Redwing show that too?  The rest of the crowd hadn't seen it yet so I was a bit cautious calling it at this point, but as more of us looked we became increasingly convinced it was the bird.  Eventually it moved enough for us to be sure, and then dropped down to feed in the field in the open.  It moved around a few times before flying off, on its own this time, towards the main road.

Dusky Thrush, Beeley, 19th December

Dave and I headed over the road to the park where it had gone towards and found a large flock of Redwings, but we couldn't locate the Dusky Thrush among them, and we called it a day and headed home.

Next day I was planning to spend looking for geese, and that plan got stronger after a Red-breasted Goose was found in the flock the day before.  I arrived at the flock between Docking and Brancaster fairly early and joined Andy Stoddart and Peter Doulton for what I think we all agreed proved to be a really exceptional goose-watching experience.  They'd already seen the Todd's and fairly quickly got on to the Red-breasted Goose.  A lovely bird indeed, and an interesting one too as ageing it proved less than straightforward.  Normally 2 bold wing bars on the greater and median coverts with no obvious barring on the lesser coverts makes it an adult, whereas first-winters have 4-5 rows of barring on the wing-coverts, with the greater and median covert bars being less distinct than in adults.  This bird showed a narrow third wing bar on the upper lesser coverts and although they were hard to see in the field, photos (Marcus's) prove it had a fourth and fifth wing bar on the smaller lesser coverts too.  The flanks were boldly marked and there was no obvious white on the tail tip, but although some people are calling it an adult I'm yet to be convinced.  Frankly I don't have enough experience to resolve this one, but I wonder if it can't be a more advanced first-winter bird?

Red-breasted Goose, between Docking and Brancaster, 20th December

In the end I think we must have notched up at least 19 Tundra Bean Geese.  There was a flock of 6 and at least one of 2.  A party of 7 birds appeared later on (the 6 were still on show) and a little later Andy saw a group of 4 fly in.  Making sense of all the Eurasian White-fronted Goose sightings was equally tricky but there must have been 8-10 birds involved.  One pair of adult White-fronts was very interesting - one bird was a typical Eurasian but the other was much larger, bigger headed, bigger billed and less delicate looking.  The Eurasian had a weak flank stripe but the larger bird was much stronger (and had much more dark on the belly).  It was tricky determining the bill colour but the big bird seemed to be a bit orangey, if not orange.  Surely it had to be a Greenland White-fronted Goose, although I would have liked to have determined the bill colour more clearly.  The other thing that bothered me slightly about it was my view of the tail - it wasn't a clear view so I may have been mistaken, but it seemed to have a little more white on it than I would have liked.  All in all we ended up concluding it had to be Greenland, my only reservation being whether the rather unlikely possibility of it being a Greenland x Eurasian hybrid (which so far as I know has never been recorded) had been fully ruled out.  Sadly both birds flew off at an angle that prevented a clear view of the tail.

The Todd's Canada Goose took a long time to show itself to me but did eventually do so.  Other Branta were represented by at least 9 Barnacle Geese (8 seen together in flight while one was still in the field).  Also 2 Greylag Geese in the flock - my impression was that these weren't as small as some of the wild Icelandic birds can be, so perhaps feral in this instance?

Todd's Canada Goose, between Docking and Brancaster, 20th December

As more birders started to turn up and flush the flock we headed up to Titchwell to look at the putative Ferruginous Duck.  This was showing very nicely on Patsy's Pool but whether or not it was a pure Ferruginous Duck is not easy to answer.  It was a male, a brightly-coloured bird with a bright eye so tempting to think an adult male.  If so there was a lot iffy about it.  The head shape was too rounded, the bill had extensive black around the nail divided by a pale subterminal band that looked quite conspicuous at times (especially head on), the belly patch wasn't as clean and clear-cut as we would have liked and the rear flanks lacked much of a dark bar dividing them from the white vent.  Not a first-generation hybrid, but if it was an adult bird then I think that's quite a lot of imperfection to assume it is 100% Ferruginous.  However, I noticed a few scattered darker brown feathers in the breast, which I don't recall seeing on adults before - could these have been retained juvenile feathers?  And aren't those tail feathers quite spiky?  Doesn't that make it a bird of the year?  Seemingly very advanced if so, but I'm leaning towards that being its likely age - and if I'm right then that makes the head shape acceptable and the indistinctness of the belly too.  I get the impression (and this isn't supported by a lot of data) that pale subterminal bill bands are more typical in younger birds too, so I'm not entirely convinced it isn't pure if it's a first-year bird.  At the very least, captive birds that are labelled as Ferruginous Ducks can look like the Titchwell bird... but of course who knows what those captive birds really are!?  I would be very interested to hear from anyone who can provide evidence that eastern European Ferruginous Ducks look like this...

Ferruginous Duck or backcrossed hybrid, Titchwell, 20th December

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Wigeon x Mallard hybrid, Brant hybrid and the leucistic intersex Wigeon

I headed up to Burnham Overy on 26th November.  The walk out was uneventful save for my second Barn Owl of the morning and a flock of 7 Bearded Tits.  From Gun Hill I spent a while scanning the sea.  There were quite a few Red-throated Divers on the sea but very distant and it was going to be tricky picking up anything more interesting at that range.  Then I noticed another diver that was a little bit closer - it was a Great Northern Diver.  As I watched it a much smaller bird appeared next to it - a Red-necked Grebe.  I later saw a Red-necked Grebe flying west - not entirely sure if it was the same bird or a different one.  Also a few Great Crested Grebes on the sea and half a dozen Red-breasted Mergansers just beyond the shoreline.

I had a look round the dunes with little to report.  There were 3 Stonechats (all in different places) and a Merlin, but nothing else of note - in particular I didn't see the Isabelline Wheatear that I thought was long gone but which reappeared here a few days later.

Stonechat, Burnham Overy, 26th November

From the east end looking into Holkham Bay the Scoter flock was too distant to identify individual birds until it took to flight.  Then it became apparent that there were somewhere in the region of 20 Velvet Scoters among them, the best count I've had in Norfolk for a while.

As I returned to my car a fabulous male Hen Harrier flew west through the freshmarsh and on towards Burnham Norton.  The Brent Goose flock contained a bird with white speckling on the head - a pattern of leucism I have observed many times though I still do not know why they are prone to this whereas birds with evidence of leucism on the wings/body are so rare.

Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Burnham Overy, 26th November

The Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose hybrid was also there.

Black Brant x Dark-bellied Brent Goose hybrid, Burnham Overy, 26th November

Next day I didn't have much time but enough to nip up to Stiffkey to see a hybrid duck that Mike Buckland had tweeted about the previous day.  It was still there, on the marsh opposite the Red Lion best viewed from the Muckledyke Way permissive path, with 345 Wigeon - a splendid Wigeon x Mallard hybrid, the first I've ever seen.  It was mainly grazing with the Wigeon but occasionally the whole flock was spooked and came forward to the pool closer to me.  The light was poor so my photos were taken with very high ISO...

Wigeon x Mallard hybrid, Stiffkey, 27th November

Also on the pool were 203 Teal and 123 Black-tailed Godwits.

Yesterday (Saturday 3rd December) I headed up to Cley first thing.  As I got out of my car I heard Bewick's Swans calling and looked up to see a family party of 5 flying east over my head.  Good start!

As I started to walk out a Cetti's Warbler was calling away and, unusually, showing quite nicely.  As I crossed the bridge a Water Rail flew from under it and was then seen swimming in the dyke for a bit.  I entered Dauke's Hide, opened the flaps and there in front of me was a Water Pipit.  The day had started well!  It didn't contine so well.

Water Pipit, Cley, 3rd December

I searched the Teal flocks hard looking for the Green-winged Teal x Eurasian Teal hybrid that Mark had found earlier in the week.  No luck, although I was interested to see one Teal that seemed to show a very faint hint of a pale vertical bar between the flanks and the breast.  On closer inspection I think it was just the light - at any rate it didn't seem to be an actual plumage mark.  I don't think it was a hybrid - in all other respects it was 100% Teal and when it eventually moved the line seemed to disappear and didn't seem to be present on the other side.

Teal, Cley, 3rd December

As I returned to the car there were 2 Stonechats and then I popped along to Salthouse to see the odd Wigeon that's been wintering there for several years now.  It's a fascinating bird, apparently an intersex female, a female that's developed male characteristics, and has a white patch on the head.  Noel E and John M both contacted me recently to say that they had watched it on the duckpond apparently paired to a drake Wigeon and they heard it calling, giving a call that is typical of female Wigeon.  It was still there today, still paired with the drake Wigeon, but I didn't manage to hear it call.

leucistic intersex female Wigeon, Salthouse, 3rd December

It was still early and I had a little bit of time before needing to meet friends in town so I went on to Blakeney Freshes.  The walk out was uneventful save for a lovely Kingfisher in the channel, 4 Goldeneye and 4+ Red-breasted Mergansers.  A Stonechat was seen but not much else at first.  Eventually a small finch flew up and off - I was pretty sure from the call that it was a Twite but I hadn't seen it well enough.  Fortnately a minute or two later it returned and landed on the fence - it was indeed a Twite.

Twite, Blakeney, 3rd December

I had hoped to pop along to Stiffkey to see if the Wigeon x Mallard hybrid was still there but I'd now run out of time and had to race off to Norwich (where I saw a Grey Wagtail).  Fantastic lunch at Baby Buddha - it helps so much having a Chinese person in your group who knows what to order!  After lunch I had just enough time to look for a Ruddy Shelduck x Egyptian Goose hybrid that Dave had seen recently (possibly the same bird I saw at Burnham Market although a long way from there).  He hadn't seen it again during the last few visits and I didn't either - just 71 Egyptian Geese.  Not far away I saw at least 12 Red Kites at a known roost site. 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Cliff Swallow on the way to Titchwell, and Waxwings

On Saturday 5th November I was due to meet the group I regularly help with at Titchwell in the morning.  The only problem was that on Friday afternoon a Cliff Swallow appeared at Minsmere, with news emerging too late to get there that afternoon.  Now I've seen a few Cliff Swallows in North America, but the opportunity to see one in the UK - especially one in East Anglia that doesn't require a long drive and probably a ferry or helicopter ride to reach it - was too big a chance to ignore.  The Cliff Swallow was thought to have gone to roost at Minsmere so the odds were that it would be seen early in the morning.  Also a reasonable chance that it wouldn't hang around for long after it was up - these are diurnal migrants.  I would have to be there early.

Well most people wouldn't consider Minsmere to be on the way from North Elmham to Titchwell but this time it had to be.  I set off very early arriving at Minsmere in the dark - I wanted to be in position at first light.  I was surprised to find just 2 cars in the car park although more started arriving pretty soon after.  I clocked on that the two people who arrived just after me had more gen about its actions yesterday than I did and were likely to be in speedy communication with others who might be the first to see it this morning (both of which proved to be accurate), and decided they'd be good people to hook up with (with their permission!).  I headed down to the footpath just past West Hide with them, a good viewpoint where we stood a good chance of seeing any birds emerging from roost.

Water Rail and Kingfisher called, a couple of Brambling flew over and a flock of 20 Siskins went by, but no sign of any hirundines as it got light.  Quite a crowd had now amassed and others were looking from other locations.  Then one of the guys I'd gone down with received a phone call advising him that the hirundine flock was on view from the north wall, rapidly followed by confirmation that the Cliff Swallow was among them.  We started running up the track towards North Wall before I (and I noticed quite a lot of the others) realised we were far too old and unfit to run and slowed to a fast walk.  As we approached the dipping pond area the hirundine flock appeared over our head - about 8 Swallows and among them the Cliff Swallow, easy to pick out with its highly distinctive structure.  It showed nicely for a short while before the whole flock drifted south becoming distant and eventually disappearing - just as the bunch of hopefuls that had been waiting in Bittern Hide were catching us up.  They must have got the news slightly after us as they weren't that much further away, but things were looking pretty gloomy for the ones that didn't make it in time.  There was every chance that the birds would not return.  I felt a bit sorry for them but was personally elated that I'd got there in time.

After using the facilities I emerged some time later to find the mood a bit merrier - while I was inside the bird had reappeared and was now showing from the Stone Curlew watchpoint.  I headed up there to find probably hundreds of people watching the bird which was, initially, perched in one of the bushes.  It kept on leaving the bushes and going for a little fly around before returning to a different bush.  Initially it showed quite well but with people getting too close it seemed to be retreating further back before heading off south again.

Cliff Swallow, Minsmere, 5th November

I was now going to be late to Titchwell so decided to leave Minsmere and head up there quick.  Apparently the Swallow did return and continued to show all day but the following morning it flew off shortly after leaving roost never to be seen again.

Lots of birds on show at Titchwell, if not all that many notable ones among them.

Titchwell, 5th November

An area of cut reeds just next to the hide proved popular with 2 Stonechats which were enjoyed by the group.

Stonechats, Titchwell, 5th November

A pipit visited the same area briefly.  In life it showed a blazing pale supercilium, streaking on the underparts largely restricted to the breast, grey brown upperparts lacking any olive tones, very white wing bars and tertial edges and indeed looked like a fairly straightforward Water Pipit.  It called too, and I thought it sounded like a Water Pipit.  When I looked at my photos I was a bit surprised and confused to see a bird that at first glance looked much more like a Scandinavian Rock Pipit.  The supercilium looks much less distinct in the photos than it did in life but the breast streaking is also thicker and less distinct than I had remembered.  I started wondering if I had stuffed up - maybe I hadn't looked at it carefully enough in my attempt to get others on to it.  In the end I don't think so - yes the streaking on the breast isn't quite as I had remembered it but its pretty minimal on the flanks, the wing bars and tertials look ok. 

Water Pipit, Titchwell, 5th November

Among the waders were 6 Avocets and an impressive 95 Ruffs, the highest count I've made in a decade.

Black-tailed Godwit, Titchwell, 5th November

Shoveler, Titchwell, 5th November

Teal, Titchwell, 5th November

With the strong northerly wind and profusion of rain I had wondered if the group would cancel, but they're made of hardy stuff.  Not hardy enough to spend very long looking at the sea mind, although they did brave the elements to take a quick look.  I managed to see one Great Skua fly past but it wasn't easy conditions for showing birds to people and we soon returned to the comfort of the hides (or did we go straight for the cafe, I can't remember).

On 13th November I was in Norwich when I heard some Waxwings calling.  I didn't have my optics with me and I was in a hurry, but a flock of around about 10-12 birds landed in the top of a tall tree between Mill Hill Road and Park Lane - I was pretty sure they were the Waxwings I had heard.  A couple of hours later I returned to this area and was about to start having a more relaxed look for them when I received a message from Jos (leader of the group I'd been at Titchwell with) to say she had seen a Waxwing at Jenny Lind playground, near where she lives.  Perhaps the birds I'd seen had moved on to there - it wasn't far away.  I had a quick skirt round the block first anyway, just in case there were still some there, and then headed up to Jenny Lind.  I met Jos and by now more birds had appeared.  They were hard to count but in the end we saw at least 9 Waxwings here - very probably the same flock I'd seen earlier that morning.

Over the next few days varying numbers of Waxwings continued to entertain visitors before running out of Rowan berries.  I popped in again on Sunday 20th (again with no camera gear) and saw 30 Waxwings but there were hardly any berries left so I don't think they were seen much more after this.  Plenty elsewhere in the Norwich area by now though, very likely including some crossover with the same birds - mainly being seen in Bowthorpe and Costessey.