Monday, 31 October 2011

A first for Portland Bill

Trying to hide behind a 2nd winter Great Black-back (John Martin)
Standing out in the flock - a first winter Caspian Gull
Profile shot (John Martin)
A controlled Eurasian Sparrowhawk
Last weekend was billed as a weekend off - free from TUB commitments. I imagined sleeping in till late morning and digesting the morning's papers in the Observatory common room over a cup of peppermint tea free from the pangs of birding. Who was I kidding?

I arrived on Friday after dark and after a restful night in my bunk bed in the lighthouse, I arose pre-dawn to join the gang of birders that had already gathered by the french doors that overlooked the Observatory garden and ultimately the sea. It was a grey and breezy day. Nothing had been caught in the nets (although later in the afternoon the assistant warden pulled a male Lesser Redpoll from the nets). Overhead small numbers of Bramblings, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Pied Wagtails swept over. A couple of the guys recorded late Swallows. That was it for Saturday.

On Sunday, I got downstairs after dawn due to mixing up the correct time - I hate it when the clocks go back! The weather seemed even more grim than the day before. Despite that got great close views of a female Sparrowhawk in the hand. Magnificent. It was 9am and I had decided to take a stroll to the Bill some 15 minutes walk away. I was accompanied by Bristol birder, John Martin. To cut a long story short, we discovered around 12 gulls loafing on the common near the Bill and John first noticed the Caspian Gull. It was very distinctive with a very white head, long forehead and bill that seemed almost straight. It was my first on British soil seeing as I have seen a few in Serbia and Hungary. To be honest, identifying Caspian Gulls is not my forte and I was grateful to John pointing out the other more technical identification features. I called the Observatory and within five minutes it had empted with everybody getting a great chance to look at the bird before it was flushed by a boxer being walked by its owner. More pictures of this special bird are available from the Portland Bill website. site

Other hilights from my downtime weekend included my second ever Red-breasted Goose at nearby Ferrybridge, a female Merlin on both days, a late Turtle Dove, maybe 100 Mediterranean Gulls all told, a flyby Arctic Skua and 8 Kittiwakes.

All hail Portland Bill!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Back to Bristol

TUB beginning to fire up
After an industrious day writing my latest piece for Bird Watching Magazine I journeyed down to Bristol to deliver a talk at the invitation of the Avon Wildlife Trust.

I was a good and well attended night and I sold a few books to boot!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Lowestoft birding

Lowestoft birders Andrew Easton & Steve Jones
After bugger all sleep on Saturday night I made the journey at 4.30am under the cover of darkness to meet with Lowestoft birders Andrew Easton, Steve Jones and their mate Rob who had to nip off and lead a local bird tour for most of the day. I got to the appointed meeting point in Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast at 7.15am without a satnav and relying on The Force. I was pretty proud of myself.

I will be writing about this trip in a forthcoming Bird Watching Magazine issue but to cut a long story short, I had a great, if quiet, days birding. The highlights included a Firecrest, Brambling, Siberian Chiffchaff, Great Skuas and an obliging Purple Sandpiper.

I can totally recommend urban birding in Lowestoft!

Friday, 21 October 2011

A happy ending - so to speak!

Sparrowhawk (Tommy Holden)
Whilst half of the UK's birding community is either lusting after or going after the Siberian Rubythroat in Shetland back at base there has been heated debates rumbling on about the identity of the mystery small raptor seen at the beginning of the week by a relatively inexperienced Scrubber.

Many people cast comment and the range of possibilities varied from a Merlin (the bookies favourite) through to Peregrine, Hobby, Red-footed Falcon, Sooty Falcon and even Great Grey Shrike! It took a brave man, namely Scrubber Neville Smith, to stick his neck out and speak out to disagree with many commentators including the venerable Dick Forsman - a Jedi amongst raptor experts!

Neville called our mystery bird nothing more than just a male Eurasian Sparrowhawk. His rationale was quite simple; a Merlin would not sweep up into a willow and plus, on blowing up the flight images you could just about make out dark splayed primaries. Falcons don't have fingers!

It was fun to debate and the lessons learnt were that we all are learning and never discount the most likely bird.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Scrubs' first Merlin or is it something else?

Sitting in a tree
Marked out
In flight (All photos by Nick Gibson)
Newbie Scrubber Nick Gibson was strolling around The Scrubs when his path was crossed by a low flying small falcon flying in a rapid fashion towards the grassland. He had the presence of mind to take some shots of the strange raptor. Unfortunately, the pictures were not great so sussing the identity of the mystery falcon is going to be tough.

The small size and general bluey grey back and mantle perhaps suggests a Merlin - a long expected site tick. However, when perched on a bush the general colour seems bluey grey including its head and chest area. Clearly not right for a Merlin. Or is it just a trick of the light?

Anyone want to hazard a guess?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Fog gets in your eyes

The Scrubs - I'm lost!
Somewhere on the football pitches
A thousand apologies, for those who follow my blog for my recent lack of blogging activity. I have been all over the show promoting my book. Since my last entry I've given talks and signed books at Rohan Kensington (outdoor clothing store), Waterstones in Notting Hill (with my mum as the special guest), the London Wetland Centre, Bexley RSPB Group and the Wildlife Expo at Alexandra Park last Saturday.

And there's a shedload of events yet to come including attending the Photographer of the Year award at the Natural History Museum on Wednesday, the BTO Oscars, the RSPB's Society of Wildlife Artists opening, a talk for the Avon Wildlife Trust, a weekend at Portland Bill Bird Observatory, the launch of Ghosts of Birds Gone and being keynote speaker at an international conference on Long-eared Owls in Serbia. All that activity taking me to the first couple of days of November!

I had a rare moment yesterday morning at The Scrubs. My hopes for observing diurnal migration were dashed by a total peasouper of a fog. At one point I actually got disorientated on the patch that I have stalked for the past 18 years!

Needless to say, I didn't see that much apart from a dark thrush that landed on top of a Poplar a la Fieldfare style before quickly disappearing. I got my bins on it momentarily, but couldn't make out any plumage details due to the thick fog. Ring Ouzel?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The launch of the Cabot Tower Bird Study Group, Bristol

The view of slumbering Bristol from the Tower
Cabot Tower

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Out of the blue

On Friday I spent four hours basking in the heat of the glorious sun staring into blue cloudless skies from the summit of Tower 42 searching in vain for signs of migrations. There was a southwesterly breeze that at times became surprisingly brisk and was the probable reason for our lack of success in seeing anything flying over. Indeed, apart from a couple local Peregrines we saw absolutely zilch.

The whole episode was filmed by a crew from CBBC's Newsround, who were doing a piece for a future show on urban birding. Well, at least they had stunning views across London!
Tower 42 Bird Study Group members (Darren Crain)
Newsround crew and TUB (Darren Crain)