Archive for January 2012

29th January – Holton Lee and New Forest   Leave a comment

Today I tried ringing at Holton Lee, the private estate to the south of Lytchett Bay. I hoped that ringing at the well stocked feeders would show if there was much interchange between resident birds species on either side of the Sherford River.

It was a very busy few hours with nearly 50 birds trapped, mainly tits, but there was only one retrap from the Lytchett Bay ringing site. I also caught a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Nuthatch. We had to leave by 1030 or we coud have caught a lot more. Quite frustratingly, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was calling near to the trapping area but I was too busy extracting and my bins were at our ringing base, so I didn’t even have a chance to search for it.


Male Great Spotted Woodpecker

We had already arranged to meet Angela, Margaret’s friend and former colleague from her Southampton days, at Calshot. Angela does a bit of birding and Margaret suggested that she might like to see the Spanish Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco that I saw earlier in the month. The Sparrow often feeds in the same garden and we were invited in by a very nice couple and allowed to watch it from their kitchen. They have raised about £2000 in donations for charity from visiting birders.

Spanish Sparrow, quite localised in Spain the main populations occurs in North Africa, the Balkans and Turkey east to Central Asia. These eastern populations are migratory and one may well have landed on a ship on route to Southampton.

Closely related to the House Sparrow this long-stayer may have already bred with local sparrows. This will be the only Spanish Sparrow to have ever been recorded on the RSPB,s Garden Birdwatch survey which took place on Saturday.

After an excellent pub lunch we headed into the New Forest and soon connected with the Dark-eyed Junco at Hawkshill. Juncos winter mainly within North America, i.e. don’t undergo the huge migrations that some of the American warblers, vireos and thrushes do, which could result in a few individuals being swept across to Europe by powerful winds. I wonder if this bird, like the Spanish Sparrow arrived here on a ship. We ended the day at Blackwater Arboretum for more views of Hawfinches.

On arrival at Hawkshill, Crossbills showed well in the surrounding trees.

Chaffinches and Reed Buntings are feeding on grain put out for the Junco.

But the Junco remained more elusive, perching up in the more distant trees.

Posted January 30, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

27th January – Lyme Regis and the Exe   Leave a comment

Ewan’s shift pattern gives him three days off and six days on, so we have plenty of opportunities for mid-week birding For the third time this month I tried for the Spotted Sandpiper at Lyme Regis and after a short while we found it on a wall adjacent to the Cobb. After Sunday’s dip I was glad to see this bird and indeed, had I dipped again I intended to drive straight to Plymouth where another one of these American waders is wintering.



This picture shows, the yellower legs,, shorter tail, less marked coverts, unmarked tertials and stronger supercillium compared to the closely related Common Sandpiper.


Then we headed into Devon and the Exe estuary. At Exminster Marshes the Long-eared Owl was still in the same tree. Our quarry however was the Red-breasted Goose that I missed on my last visit. we walked along the Exeter Ship Canal as far as Turf Lock  and found a big flock of Brent Geese but the RBG wasn’t with them. We later tried the golf course at Starcross (three times!) searching through the many Brents, before heading to Dawlish Warren.


Although obscured by vegetation there was better light on this Long-eared Owl than on my last visit.



The picturesque Turf Lock and Turf Hotel on the Exeter Ship Canal, the estuary is just to the left of this photo.



There was about 600 Brent and 100 Canada Geese on the Starcross golf course but the Red-breasted that was there yesterday was AWOL.


Our first attempt at seawatching at Dawlish Warren was thwarted by a heavy hail storm that had us running to the car for cover. Later we found the Surf Scoter about half a mile out, but this was close compared to the Eider, Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver, Slavonian and Great Crested Grebes and that were so far out that we could only just identify them.

The hail storm



With the hail heading out to sea we resumed our seabird search.



We returned to Starcross and Powderham were we still couldn’t find the Red-breast so as the day drew to a close we tried Topsham and Bowling Green Marsh on the eastern side of the estuary. Again we failed, but later found out that our quarry was only about a mile away at Dart’s Farm! So ended a long day, it was great to catch up with the Spot Sand at last but this Red-breasted Goose is proving to be a very frustrating bird!


The Exe estuary from Topsham


Of course I have seen double rainbows before but I have never seen the vertical 'rainbow spike' that can just be seen above the left hand tree.








Posted January 28, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

26th January – south Midlands.   Leave a comment

Most of the rarities that I have chased this year have either been American species that would have arrived in the UK last autumn (Western and Spotted Sandpipers, Dark-eyed Junco etc) or Siberian species that have come far to the west of their usual range to winter in the UK (Lesser white-fronted Goose, Hume’s Leaf-warbler, Richard’s Pipit etc). Another category exists, birds that are regular as either spring or autumn migrants and normally winter well to the south of here but individuals have been found wintering in the UK.

Today Ewan and I chased two such species in Oxfordshire, Temmink’s Stint a diminutive wader that breeds on the Siberian tundra and winters to the south of the Sahara and Grey (or Red) Phalarope, another wader that breeds in the high arctic (Spitsbergen, Novoya Zemla, northern Canada etc) and winters at sea in the Benguela current off Namibia. Both showed well although the stint was out of photo range. The phalarope was on the bitterly cold and windswept Farmoor reservoir where the wind was whipping up bigger waves than we have recently seen on the coast.

Temmink's Stint - photo from the internet

Grey Phalarope at Farmoor reservoir. The old joke 'Farmoor birds elsewhere' doesn't hold true as this inland reservoir has a great track record of rarities.

Grey Phalarope is similar to Red-necked Phalarope in non-breeding plumage but the thicker, laterally compressed bill is a good feature to separate them.

The phalarope was bobbing about and spinning around in the rough water until a particularly large wave convinced it to feed elsewhere.

I often see the introduced Red Kites from the A34 dual carriageway but can’t stop to appreciate or photograph them. Ewan and I decided to go to the core range of this population in the Chilterns and headed for Stokenchurch just off the M40. Unfortunately I took the wrong road and ended up in the centre of Oxford, driving past the lovely colleges and ancient buildings. we eventually reached the M40 and Stokenchurch where up to 50 Red Kites were seen.

This Red Kite population has the highest productivity in the world and is really thriving.....

...which is more than can be said for some parts of the UK where Victorian attitudes to predators leads to them being still getting poisoned.

On our way back we stopped off at the Lower Test Marshes near Southampton to look for a ‘small’ Canada Goose. The status and taxonomy of ‘white-cheeked’ geese is controversial. In the broad sense Canada Geese have the largest size range of any bird, not quite Shetland Pony to Clydesdale but not far off. Recently the group has been split into two species small Cackling and large Canada Goose, but some believe there are many more, an American named Hanson published a book in which he recognised over 70 species!!! Unfortunately the largest race of the smaller species hutchinsii is the same size as the smallest of the large species parvipes. All so-called ‘genuine’ Cackling Geese occur in occur with Pink-feet or Barnacles in the Hebrides (and even so the species has yet to added to the British List) but is it any less likely to reach southern England than the Pale-bellied Brent Geese that breed in the same area and are seen here annually?

Either way, any discussion about its authenticity (either as a wild bird or as to which species it belonged) were academic as we failed to see it, but did find the Greenland race (or perhaps species) of White-fronted Goose, another migrant from the American arctic.

Lower Test Marshes, the White-front is in with all the Canadas but the 'small' Canada must be hiding in the reeds.

Wimborne by-pass at dusk, and no, I didn't take this pic whilst driving, Ewan did!

Posted January 28, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

25th January – Eight and three quarters   Leave a comment

Kara has started attending Tae Kwondo classes and is doing very well, she can aim kicks over the top of my head! Last week she had her first assessment and went up not one, but three grades. On Wednesday Janis had to attend a parent-teachers evening at Amber’s school to discuss her GCSE choices, so Margaret took Kara to the Tae Kwondo class.

We later had a phone call to say she had hurt her leg in a collision with classmate so I set out to collect her. On arrival it was clear the situation was quite serious and as we couldn’t move her without her suffering extreme pain she would need to go to A&E in an ambulance.

The ambulance soon arrived and strapped up the leg, she was asked how much does it hurt out of a scale of one to ten where one is no pain and ten is the worst imaginable’. She answered ‘eight and three quarters’!

Fortunately nothing was broken and she has to go back to hospital on Tuesday to assess the extent of the damage. she’s getting around OK on crutches and has spent the last couple of days watching TV at our house.

Kara taken from Ladycat in Spain in 2009

Posted January 28, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

23rd to 25th January – Dorset birding   Leave a comment

Getting a big year list isn’t just about chasing rarities, you must also make sure that you see the regular but scarce species as well. I knew that I would bump into all three of this afternoons targets sometime in the year, but there was no harm in getting them out-of-the-way in January just in case.

I had heard that the Snow Bunting that is wintering on the shingle bank at Hengistbury Head could be seen from Mudeford Quay on the other side of the entrance to Christchurch Harbour. This would save the long hike out from Wick and more importantly save me time, however an hour spent scanning the shingle around the ‘Black House’ drew a blank.

I called in at Argyll Road on the way back to look for a Spotted Redshank, but the tide had dropped and all the waders had moved out of sight. This species is normally a regular winter visitor in small numbers to Holes and Lytchett Bay but this year all the birds seem to remaining on Brownsea lagoon which is closed for the winter (I failed to pick any up on the lagoon from the New Year bird boat due to the atrocious weather).

I then headed up to a site near Hurn airport in the hope for a Merlin. I found the road which led to an industrial estate just before 1600, but hadn’t realised that you have to cross a narrow causeway with room for a single line of traffic. All the factories were coming out and the road was hugely congested. Eventually I found a place to park and watched the area until dusk. I was just about to declare the day a triple dip when a shadowy shape shot across the end of the runway, typical Merlin behaviour. Not the best of views but I fully expect to come across more in the autumn.

The Black House on Hengistbury Head seen from Mudeford Quay

The view from Mudeford Quay towards the Isle of Wight

Bad weather kept me at home on Tuesday but in the afternoon I did a bit of local birding around Holes Bay where eventually I caught up with Spotted Redshank and later went to Holton Lee, the private estate on the south side of Lytchett Bay in the hope that a Woodcock would emerge at dusk or I would see Marsh Harriers coming in to roost but had no luck with either.

As Margaret was at choir on Tuesday evening I visited my friend, part-time birder and ex colleauge Tim Kellaway and chatted to him about the lab, music and birds.

Tim and his son Simon.

On Wednesday the 25th I decided to have another go for the Snow Bunting. I had expected to see many in Norfolk, but they were yet another species that we missed due to car troubles. I hope to see a few on their Cairngorm breeding grounds this summer, but bad weather could easily thwart the attempt.

I walked out to the far end of the shingle spit at Hengistbury but there was no sign of the bunting, others had seen it and I concluded that it must be elsewhere on the peninsula when some guy told me of a bird with a lot of white in the wing that he had been unable to identify. I headed for that spot only to find that it had flown back to where I was in the first place! I eventually got good if fairly brief views. I later headed back to Poole and had lunch with Margaret.

I didn’t get any photos of the bunting so I have included a shot of a very tame bird that I saw in Weymouth last autumn. Photos of the Hengistbury bird can be found on the CHOG website at under the 17th or 22nd of January.


Snow Bunting photgraphed in Weymouth last autumn.

Posted January 28, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

23rd January – The Chiffchaff conundrum   Leave a comment

Chiifchaff is an abundant summer breeder and a scarce winter visitor to southern England. A sheltered drainage ditch in Poole has been a regular wintering area for this species. We have had three ringing attempts there this month and have trapped nine Chiffchaffs. One Chiffchaff was ringed (as a first year) at the same site in January 2009, making it close to four years old and also shows winter site fidelity.

A small number of wintering Chiffchaffs appear to be of ‘eastern’ origin, either of race albitenus or even of the Siberian race tristis. These races seem to have different origins, as tristis may have evolved from a Himalayan ‘proto-Chiffchaff’ rather than from western birds and have different calls and song. Unfortunately the boundaries between ‘our’ collybita and Scandinavian and Russian albetinus and between albetinus and tristis seem to be blurred. The different origin and vocalisations of tristis have led to some to consider it a different species, Siberian Chiffchaff, but to be sure you have one you must hear it give the ‘lost chick’ call!

A calling ‘Siberian’ Chiffchaff was present on our first ringing attempt, a good candidate was trapped but on release it was heard to give the typical ‘hoeet’ call of collybita. However later, what was presumed to be the same ringed bird was seen to respond strongly to tristis vocalisations. Can a single bird give vocalisations of both collybita and tristis or is it a hybrid or intergrade between the two?

Today we caught a typical collybita and an intermediate pale bird that may have been a Scandinavian albetinus – neither was heard to call!

We hope to continue monitoring these Chiffchaffs and hope to see if any remain to breed. One bird at least is giving the typical ‘chiffchaff – chiffchaff’ song.


A typical collybita Chiffchaff with olive-green plumage and dirty underparts



This pale Chiffchaff has very pale underparts and in the field might have been considered a candidate for 'Siberian' Chiffchaff but in the hand had some olive green in the upperparts



This bird trapped on 11 01 12 is our best candidate for a tristis but was heard to give a 'hoeet' call on release. Later it responded to tristis vocalisations


Posted January 26, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

18th – 22nd January – Dorset birding   Leave a comment

The birding over the last few days hasn’t been as succesful as earlier in the week.  On the 18th the Crane that was seen over Corfe Mullen recently was seen again flying over the Wareham by-pass. I spent the morning trying to relocate it but to no avail. On the 19th I spent the afternoon in the Sixpenny Handley / Wyke Down area in hope of a Merlin or Short-eared Owl. Again I had no luck but did see a Barn Owl on the drive back at dusk.


Sympathetic management of the Wyke Down area has made this area rich in wildlife, but no owls were visible today.


Saturday 20th saw the Poole Harbour Bird Count. This was an attempt to systematically count the birds of Poole Harbour and drew about 60 volunteers. Each area was allocated a team with a team leader to co-ordinate activities. My area was Holes Bay and the Creekmoor Ponds. I birder the latter in the morning, seeing a Firecrest and few other woodland birds plus a few common water birds on the ponds. Later I checked the wood at Upton, the waste ground near the railway line (which has been seriously damaged by off-road motor bikes) and saw a Black Redstart near to Poole Hospital.


Creekmoor Ponds: these two small ponds in the middle of a housing estate in Poole can be surprisingly good for birds.waterbird


I returned home as Margaret’s friend Helen was coming to lunch (and picking up our old TV) but was back at Holes Bay in the afternoon for the low tide waterbird count. It was very windy at it was difficult to hold the scope steady in such an exposed location, best birds were a group of 65 or so Avocets and a Common Sandpiper, which although a regular migrant is a scarce winter visitor and was new to my year list.

I ended the day counting Pied Wagtails coming to roost at Tescos by Ferrybridge. Later about 35 of the counters met at Mark and Mo Constantine’s house for an excellent social get together.


Mark and Mo Constantine photographed in 2009.


Margaret and I spent much of Sunday 22nd at Lyme Regis in the far west of Dorset searching for the elusive Spotted Sandpiper, the American equivalent of the Common Sandpiper I saw yesterday. In spite of looking along the Cobb and all along the shore in the company of John and Mo Down, we had no luck, but enjoyed being out on a spring-like day and having a fish and chips lunch in the traditional manner.


The view from Lyme Regis towards Charminster.


We waited for the tide to rise in the hope that the Spotted Sandpiper would return to the mouth of the River Lym, where it has been seen recently.



We may have missed the Spotted Sandpiper but this Rock Pipit posed nicely for photos.

Posted January 22, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

17th January – The Exe Estuary, Devon   3 comments

Another excellent day, this time along the Exe Estuary.

I arrived at the Exmimster Marshes just after 9, as I entered the car park I saw a young birder staring at a tree, I was amazed to find that he was watching a roosting Long-eared Owl, a widespread species but because of its secretive habits, one i haven’t seen in the UK for 12 years.


Long-eared Owl



I was at the Exminster Marshes for two reasons, Glossy Ibis and Red-breasted Goose, but in spite of there being quite a few birders around neither had been seen recently. The morning was very cold and much of the marsh was frozen which certainly would explain why the ibis, which normally feeds in soft soil, was absent.


The frozen marshes



Many waterfowl such as this drake Shoveler were present




I spent a lot of time on the bank overlooking the Exe estuary searching through the big flocks of Brent Geese on the far shore, they were all very distant and in spite of spending some time there I failed to find the Red-breasted Goose. This vagrant, which should be wintering on the Black Sea, is probably the same individual that I saw near Christchurch in Dorset last year.

By late morning I given up on the goose quest but I had seen a Water Pipit on the marsh. I set off for Dawlish Warren at the mouth of the Exe in search of two North American ducks.

The first, a female Surf Scoter wasn’t on show when I arrived so I headed south of Langstone Rock to look for it. I then realised that this was exactly the same area as I visited on 12/11/06 to see Britain’s first Long-billed Murrelet which breeds no closer than the north-west Pacific. At the time this produced a real dilemma as I had arranged one of my first dates with Margaret and she was already on her way to meet me when news broke, did I blow off the date or risk dipping? I delayed the twitch until the following day and well the other part is history…..

On the way back I found the Surf Scoter had moved back to its usual spot and I enjoyed good if distant views and also saw a first winter Little Gull


Langstone Rock formed from red Triassic sandstone



The same area in November 2005 as hundred of birders gather to see the Long-billed Murrelett. There were only two birders present today!


I then continued along the sand spit to a rather crowded hide where there was a high tide wader roost but no sign of the American Wigeon. Later on my way back I found an area in the corner of the salt marsh that could be viewed across the golf course and I enjoyed a reasonable if brief view of our Wigeon’s American cousin.


Exmouth on the far side of the Exe estuary



Roosting waders and Brent geese. Large numbers of Knot, Dunlin, Oystercatchers and Grey Plover were present.


I then returned to Exminster and tried for Cirl Bunting, a bird virtually confined in the UK to south Devon. My usual site drew a blank, I was worried that the area had been deserted but there again I have never visited in January, so they may well winter elsewhere. A final return to Exminster Marshes gave me views of the Glossy Ibis in the gathering gloom ending another excellent day.


Glossy Ibis


Exminster Marshes at dusk.






Posted January 18, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

Monday 16th January – Hampshire   Leave a comment

I had an excellent day in Hampshire today chasing new birds for my year list.

I started at Beaulieu Road Station in the New Forest where after a bit of searching I found the Great Grey Shrike, a scarce but regular winter visitor to the UK. I continued onto Eling on Southampton Water, the site of one of the last tidal mills, where a Black-throated Diver was seen.

I was pleased to hear that a Shore Lark had been seen yesterday on Hayling Island, I very much wanted to see this bird, as with our car break down in Norfolk we failed to see the species there. On arrival I met a local birder who had just located the bird on a shingle island, it was too distant for photos but I got great views through the scope.

Next, I continued on to nearby Warblington where a Cattle Egret showed well with a group of Littles before I braved the traffic of Portsmouth where a second winter Iceland Gull was feeding with Herring and Great Black-backs in the region known as Old Portsmouth.

I concluded the trip with a quick visit to Blashford Lakes, where a beautiful sunset ended a rewarding day.


The Beaulieu Road area of the New Forest is a wonderful mixture of bogs, heath and forest


A distant Great Grey Shrike


The Eling tidal mill


The Black-throated Diver was in the shadow of Southampton docks.


Little Egret (left) and Cattle egret (right) at Warblington


The Spinnaker Tower was adjacent to my next quarry. There has been an influx of Iceland Gulls to the northern and western isles this winter but few have made it as far south as the south coast.


Second winter Iceland Gull. Iceland Gulls are daintier with more rounded heads and finer bills than the similar Glaucous Gull.


Great Black-backed Gull


A Blashford sunset

Posted January 16, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

Saturday 14th January – the Bird Race   Leave a comment

The idea of a bird race is for a team of birders to try to see or hear as many species of bird as possible in one day. A January bird race followed by a social gathering used to be a popular event amongst Dorset birders but recently interest has waned and this year only three teams took place. The highest number of species I have recorded in January is 127, the record score being 130. However today was not to be a high scoring day. Recent mild weather has not encouraged some species to migrate to Dorset for the winter, whilst the cold and windy conditions on the 14th didn’t encourage some species to show.

I joined Nick Urch and Trevor Warwick for an ‘all Dorset’ team, Michael Gould and Tom Carley also did ‘all Dorset’ but Roger Howell, James Phillips, Terry Elborne and Ewan Brodie decided to confine their ‘big day’ to the Poole Harbour area. Interestingly both our team and Roger’s team got the same score – 112.

We set out at 0445 for a ‘owling’ session in north Dorset, it was bitterly cold, -6 at times but it was still and the moon was bright. It should have been good for seeing owls, but all we managed was a few call notes from a Tawny Owl. Trevor informed us that one was calling outside his house before he set off. We could have had a couple more hours in bed and then gone to Trevor’s house!

A cold and frosty dawn at Longham

We arrived at Longham lakes at dawn and soon collected some goodies, the Blue-winged Teal and a Smew, then it was on to Hatch Pond (no Bitterns), Creekmoor for Firecrest and Holes Bay was many ducks and waders. We then proceeded around the harbour in an anticlockwise direction, picking up Spoonbill on Brownsea distantly from Evening Hill, Purple Sandpiper whilst waiting for the ferry and the usual parakeets at Studland. A quick visits to Middlebere followed, then it was off to Thornecombe woods near Dorchester, the Monkey’s Jump area for very distant Golden Plovers and a few farmland birds. We then headed to Radipole but we added nothing to our lists nor at Newton’s Cove where the ‘reliable’ Black Redstart wasn’t or at Castle Cove where little was seen on the water in Portland Harbour. It was clear by now that we weren’t going to do well, but we were determined to

Portland, on the other hand didn’t disappoint. It now was late afternoon, the wind had increased, it was cloudy and at this exposed location it felt bitterly cold, but we added seven species (mainly seabirds) to our list in about 30 minutes.

Pulpit Rock, Portland on a cold and grey afternoon.

We ended the day at Lodmoor in the gathering gloom where Water Rails and Cetti’s Warblers called and a Marsh Harrier flew in just before dark. We made a further abortive attempt for owls before returning to our house for in good time for the 1830 deadline. Margaret had cooked some delightful South African food for all the participants and we had an enjoyable evening discussing our day

Posted January 15, 2012 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized