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

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