Late autumn to early ‘spring’: Birding and ringing from October 2017 to March 2018.   Leave a comment

This post shows a number of photos, mainly of birds, taken between October 2017 and March 2018. The majority were taken in Dorset.

 

The shorter days increased the chance that I was still out birding at dusk allowing me to photograph some great sunsets.

 

The ‘far fields’ at Lytchett Bay (now renamed Sherford Pools and French’s Pools) proved to be quite productive in the autumn with many species of wildfowl and waders present.

 

One bird that the ‘regulars’ had all caught up with at Lytchett Bay but I hadn’t was Great White Egret, as they seldom seem to stay for long. A phone call from Shaun in early December had me shooting down there immediately. Unfortunately I didn’t take my main camera but as I came round a corner of a hedge and it was there straight in front of me. This was taken with my pocket camera on maximum zoom (about 10x).

 

Not a bird but probably one of the most stunning moths to be seen in the UK, the rare and quite enormous Death’s Head Hawk Moth photographed at Portland Bill.

 

I showed a picture of Great White Egret earlier and one of the best places to see this scarce but slowly increasing species is Longham Lakes, about a 20 minute drive north of here. But it wasn’t a Great White Egret or this Green Woodpecker that had me twitching the site in early October …

 

….but a group of four Common Scoter. To be fair I see this species fairly regularly both as a migrant when seawatching from Portland Bill and as a wintering bird in the Poole Harbour area, but Margaret had never seen one well and this was a chance for her to see this group of two males and two females without losing them in between the waves.

 

There are many other waterbirds at this excellent site including several Great Crested Grebes, this one is still in partial summer plumage …

 

… but this individual is in the process of losing it’s ‘sum plum’. Eventually all vestiges of the ear tufts will be lost,the whole cheek will be white and the will just be a hint of a crest.

 

On a visit to Longham  couple of weeks later I saw some birders I knew on the far shore, as I moved towards them I noticed a ‘scaup’ with the Tufted Ducks. Initially thinking it to be the far commoner Greater Scaup, I moved closer and realised it was a Lesser Scaup from North America. Delighted to think I had found this rarity I hurried towards the other birders just as they were phoning the news out to the information services. I wasn’t quite the first to see it!    Unknown in the UK before the mid-eighties, Lesser Scaup (on the left) is now found annually. Again I didn’t have my camera with me so I’ve included this photo I took in South Wales in 2012.

 

During the winter months we visited the feeders at Holton Lee from time to time, both to look at the birds and for ringing. Most of the birds at the feeders were tits and finches but occasionally the larger Jackdaws dominate. Although I have seen this happen often at Holton Lee I actually took this photo at Carsington Water in Derbyshire after Christmas.

 

I pop in to Carsington Water almost every time I visit my brother. It is an excellent reserve situated on the edge of the Peak District, but for me the main attractions are two species that are shown rather poorly in this photo. Tree Sparrow and Willow Tit. Both have been extirpated from Dorset. Willow Tits were regular in Wareham Forest when I first came here, but Tree Sparrows have always been always localised (at least in recent decades) and now seem to have gone. Whilst the ID of Tree Sparrow is straight forwards, Willow Tits are very similar to Marsh Tits but are easily identified by voice. Even in this poor photo the matt cap (as opposed to glossy in Marsh), thicker neck and pale panel in the wing can be seen.

 

One of THE bird events of the winter has been the invasion of Hawfinches, presumably from eastern Europe. A scarce breeder with probably less than thousand breeding pairs, this winter has seen ten to twenty times that number in the UK. Of particular note was a flock of up to 120 birds near Blandford. I visited the area twice, once in late 17 and again in early 2018. It was difficult to get good views as in spite of the numbers the birds were flighty and flew as soon as they saw you. A single Hawfinch has been seen on several occasions at Lytchett Bay but in spite of multiple visits to the area I haven’t got it on my local patch list.

 

Last autumn whilst I was in Australia a North American Stilt Sandpiper turned up near Weymouth. It later moved to Poole Harbour and then to Lytchett Bay, the latter move was particularly frustrating! Luckily when I returned I caught up with it first at Middlebere in Poole Harbour and then later when it returned to Lytchett Bay. Towards the end of the year it was on Brownsea Lagoon but rising water levels meant it left for Christchurch just after Christmas, first in the Avon Valley and later at Stanpit (above).

 

I was keen to see it in 2018 and in spite of its being around Poole in 2017 and our several visits to the USA Margaret had never seen one, so we made a concerted effort to connect with it in the Christchurch area. It took four attempts but eventually we saw it at Stanpit on 9th February. Here it seen with two Redshanks.

 

Stilt Sandpiper is one of the rarer North American vagrants to the UK. This is the fourth I have seen in the UK over the years, There have been about 36 records in all but this is only the fourth juvenile. Larger than a Dunlin (similar in size or a little bigger than a Curlew Sandpiper), it can be identified by the comparatively yellowish long legs (hence the name), slightly decurved bill and prominent supercilium.

 

There is a substantial gull roost at Ibsley Water at Blashford, just over the border in Hampshire, more than 5,000 birds may be involved. The commonest are Lesser Black-backs and Black-headed with smaller numbers of Herring and Common. There are often very small numbers of Great Black-backed, Caspian, Yellow-legged and Mediterranean and recently there has been single Ring-billed and Thayer’s Gulls making ten species viewable on a single visit! Birds come in very late in the day and at a considerable distance and identifying, let alone photographing, them is a considerable challenge. My friend Chris’ father, Tony Minvalla did well to get this shot of the juvenile Thayer’s Gull (just left of the wooden post).

 

Thayer’s Gulls breed in Arctic Canada and winter on the Pacific coast south to California. Formerly considered a race of Herring Gull, then a full species they have. as of late 2017. been lumped with Iceland Gull. Although this robs me of a ‘lifer’ it is a decision I agree with as there seems to be continuum from the pale primaried Iceland Gulls in the east through variable ‘Kumlien’s Gull’ to the darker primaried Thayer’s in the west. There has always been controversy surround this taxon and there are those who consider some aspects of the research that led to it being given species status to be fraudulent. The finely patterned feathers, ‘clouded’ plumage and dark eye mask gives the juvenile a distinctive look (note the Iceland group & Glaucous Gulls do not moult in their first year so technically it is a juvenile not a first winter). This excellent photo of a juvenile was taken by Clay Kempf off California see: http://gull-research.org/thayers/thayers2cy/2cyjan54.html

 

It was another gull that drew me to Lodmoor in Weymouth last week. Initially it wasn’t on show but there was plenty to watch as we waited, a Dutch colour-ringed Spoonbill, Lapwing and Teal plus several other waders and waterfowl …

 

… and good numbers of Mediterranean Gulls both on the mud …

 

… and on the water.

 

Birds would suddenly rise ….

 

…. whenever the local Marsh Harriers appeared.

 

The return of Marsh Harriers as a breeding species to Weymouth and elsewhere in Dorset is one of the great conservation success of recent years.

 

The wait proved worthwhile as suddenly it was there – a beautiful adult Ross’ Gull (in flight top centre). As soon as it landed it was off again …

 

… but it soon returned joining Common, Black-headed and Med Gulls for this family portrait.

 

Over the next couple of days the Ross’ movements became more erratic but it seemed to be coming into Radipole RSPB in the later afternoon rather than Lodmoor. Margaret wanted to see it, so we returned three days later. Whilst we were waiting Luke, one of the RSPB wardens, picked out this 2nd winter Caspian Gull (left) – another Dorset tick for me. Slightly larger, longer legged, with a more attenuated body and a longer bill than Herring Gull and with a more advanced state of moult, the identification of this species from eastern Europe and central Asia remains one of the biggest challenges in bird ID. I have to say that if I was on my own I’d have probably overlooked it.

 

In due course the Ross’ appeared. Initially quite distant, it flew and landed on the island just in front of the Visitor Centre. In better light the pale pink flush to the breast can just be seen. There is a previous record of this species in what is now Dorset, in Christchurch in 1974, however at that time Christchurch was in Hampshire, so strictly speaking it’s a first for Dorset.

 

This is what the bird looks like taken by a proper photographer using a proper camera. Many thanks to my friend Chris Minvalla for permission to use his photo. Much to the relief of the gathered crowd of birders the Ross’ put on a great show. it had been seen briefly by one observer at nearby Ferrybridge the morning two days previously but had flown off, we assumed never to be seen again. It was later seen at Lodmoor that afternoon but again only seen by a few before it flew out to sea. Fortunately it repeated that pattern the following day and many birders (including me) connected with it. The species is named after Arctic and Antarctic explorer captain Sir James Clark Ross whose many exploits (including his voyage to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Sir John Franklin of Franklin’s Gull fame,) are too numerous to mention see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Clark_Ross. Ross’s Gull breeds regularly only in coastal north-east arctic Siberia where I saw several hundred in 1996. Breeding birds have a black collar and a beautiful pink flush to the breast but these features were only just visible on this winter plumaged adult. I have seen three Ross’ previously in the UK, all in the 80s but of course this was a new to my Dorset List.

 

And now to a series of photos on our ringing activities during the period. I continued to ring at Durlston until mid November. Late in the season we caught a few Lesser Redpolls.

 

The balmy days of summer and early autumn were behind us and Ginny and Fenja look a bit chilly whilst waiting to ring some birds.

 

The bird Ginny most wanted to ring was a Sparrowhawk so she was delighted to catch up with one on a brief pre-work visit in late October.

 

Firecrests have gone from being a scarcity to, well if not common, to being at least regular with 27 ringed at Durlston in autumn 2017.

 

At our ringing site at Lytchett Bay we caught three on one net round. This and the next six photos were all taken at the same remarkable ringing session on 3rd November.

 

2017 was a good breeding season for Bearded Tits. Not tits at all, some rename them Bearded Reedlings but they don’t have beards, they have moustaches! Such are the vagaries of English nomenclature. What is important is that they have been shown to be so unique that they are placed in their own family the Panuridae, the only breeding species in the UK to fall into that category. We trapped a number of ‘Beardies’ ringed elsewhere and had several of ours retrapped by others, mainly at ringing stations along the south coast.

 

In the 80s Rock Pipit (sl) was split into three species, Rock Pipit (ss) of the coastal regions of NW Europe, Water Pipit of the mountain alpine zones from the Pyrenees to south China and Buff-bellied Pipit in Siberia and North America. That meant in winter we have to distinguish between our mainly resident Rock Pipits and the Water Pipits that arrive from their breeding sites in the Alps and Pyrenees. This isn’t too hard as Water Pipits prefer fresh water habitats and Rock Pipits rocky shores. Things became more complicated when it was realised that both species also wintered on saltmarshes. We long had our suspicions that the saltmarsh Rock Pipits weren’t our local breeding birds but migrants of the race littoralis from coastal Norway. The capture of a Rock Pipit at Lytchett Bay a few winters ago ringed weeks earlier in Belgium fitted in with this scenario but this capture of a Norwegian colour-ringed Rock Pipit in early November proved that this was the case.

 

The bird had been ringed on the coast of central Norway in September 2017. Race littoralis is very like the local nominate race but may have whiter outer tail feathers. In breeding plumage, littoralis can show a pink flush to the breast and a grey head just like breeding plumage Water Pipits.

 

On the same net round we caught a Water Pipit allowing for direct comparison. See the paler fringed median coverts, longer and paler supercillium and that the white extends all the way up the outer tail feathers.

 

Then later we trapped a third bird which was somewhat intermediate between the two. The supercilium and median covert fringes weren’t quite so marked and the white didn’t extend so far up the inner web of the outer tail feather. We decided it was a Water Pipit, this was probably a 1st year bird and the earlier one was an adult.

 

And then if this was not excitement enough for one ringing trip we trapped a Norwegian ringed Reed Bunting as well! This bird was ringed in September 2016 a bit further south than the Rock Pipit. Wait ages for a Norwegian control and then two come along on the same day (a bit like buses).

 

We used to do quite a lot of wader ringing but most of our attempts recently have been thwarted by bad weather, so when we did manage to arrange a session there was a huge turn out of ringers but unfortunately not of birds. In fact all we caught was two Jack Snipe. However this was far from disappointing as Jack Snipes, due to their skulking nature, are rarely seen let alone trapped and was well worthwhile from a scientific point of view as one of the birds had been ringed at the same site in 2013. Being an arctic breeder only visiting the UK to winter this is an excellent example of winter site fidelity.

 

As autumn turned to winter our focus moved from Durlston and Lytchett Bay to a site near Canford Heath in Poole. This has proved to be very productive for ringing Redwing (at least in November and early December) and several species of finch. Redwings can be aged on the shape of the white fringe to the tertials. The white fringe to the outer web terminating in a distinct ‘step’ indicates a 1st year bird, however 1st years can moult all their tertials and show an adult like pattern so it is important to check the shape of the tail tips as well.

 

Even so, the shape of the tail can be misleading when it comes to ageing birds and caution is advised. Trainee ringers are taught that pointed and abraded tail feathers are indicative of first years (abraded, because in most species adults moult in the summer after the young have fledged so their tail feathers are newer and less abraded than young birds that grew the feathers in the nest). However if a young bird was to lose all its tail feathers (through moult or accident) then the feathers would be regrown in the adult shape. This can be seen in this Reed Bunting tail where the outer two feathers on the right have been lost and are regrowing and are clearly newer and more rounded then the retained first year feathers.

 

The site at Canford has proved excellent for finches with many Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Bullfinches ringed and quite a few Siskin and Redpoll. The unabraded and relatively rounded tail feathers plus the lack of contrast in the median coverts (between moulted and unmoulted feathers) clearly show that this male Siskin is an adult (ie hatched before 2017). Photo by Terry Elborn

 

One real oddity trapped at Canford was this bird, an apparent Chaffinch x Brambling hybrid, a so-called ‘Chaffling’. The orange inner greater coverts, slight orange flush to the breast  are indicative …

 

… but the clinching feature was the partial white rump. Unfortunately these are the only two photos that were usable and we were not able to collect any accidently shed feathers for DNA analysis. The nearest breeding area of Brambling is southern Norway so it must at least have come from Scandinavia, possibly northern Russia. Both these photos by Terry Elborn.

 

And if you were wondering what a real Brambling looks like, we trapped a cracking adult male in February. Brambling numbers are very variable here in the south but a few can be found in most autumn and winters. One of the best times to find them is early spring when birds that have wintered to the south of us return towards their taiga breeding territories. Photo by Terry Elborn.

 

A fairly common woodland species but one that we ring infrequently is (Eurasian) Treecreeper. Here is one ringed at Holton Lee. The reason I put the full English name in parenthesis is because there is another species in the same genus, Short-toed Treecreeper.

 

Although common on the continent in deciduous woodland, Short-toed is incredibly rare in the UK. As ringers we have a duty to check that all our trapped treecreepers are not Short-toed. Apart from in the in-the-field characteristic of brownish flanks there are a number of features in the hand that can tell the two specie apart. The obvious downward step in the pale band on the primaries is an easy and quick way to confirm that you just have a Eurasian Treecreeper. There are many other, subtle features as well. Of course if you thought you actually had a Short-toed then you would need measurements of hind-claw and bill, a detailed feather by feather description and photos of the wing to get the record accepted.

 

Those readers of this blog living in the UK can’t have escaped noticing that we have had a ‘bit of snow’ recently. Poole must be one of the most snow free locations in the entire UK, due no doubt to the many inlets and bays of Poole Harbour such as Holes Bay (above). Even when snow settles all around us Poole usually remains unaffected, or if it does settle it is gone by lunchtime. In 40 years of living here I have only seen enough snow to cause real disruption on a couple of occasions (I missed the severe weather of February 1978 by a few weeks). The infamous ‘beast from the east’ brough dreadful weather to much of eastern UK earlier in the week but it stayed sunny, if cold here but with storm ‘Emma’ approaching from the south it looked like we might get some of the white stuff after all. On Thursday morning, 1st March a few cm had fallen and I thought this was going to be another overreaction by the Met Office (at least as far as Poole was concerned) …

 

… and I found this sign beside a perfectly clear road to be rather amusing. However in the afternoon the snow really set in. Even so I don’t think that much fell, not by the standards of other countries that lie at 50 degrees north, but there again we just aren’t geared up to cope with it. I remember waking up to metre deep snow drifts in Hokkaido, Japan and thinking we would be trapped indoors for the day. The owner of the hostel said ‘of course not – the children have to be a t school by 9 o’clock and sure enough the road was cleared by then. Former work colleagues reported homeward journeys of five hours to drive as many miles that evening and to the east and west of us people were forced to spend the night in their car as the road to Dorchester and through the New Forest became totally blocked.

 

On that morning I checked Holes Bay in the hope of seeing a Smew, a duck that sometimes occurs in our area after bad weather. I scanned the many wildfowl and was amazed to pick up a drake Garganey in flight.

 

Garganey are the only duck that are exclusively spring/summer visitors to Europe and used to be called Summer Teal. Given the current weather conditions this was the last thing I expected. This bird must have left Africa  heading north to breed and run into arctic conditions on arrival. These last two photos were taken near Christchurch under more normal condition for watching Garganey in spring 2012.

 

This photo of the actual bird was taken by Ian Ballam who located it just a few minutes before and a few hundred metres away from where I was standing.

 

Overnight the snow turned to freezing rain. The car, the roads and pavements were covered in snow capped with a sheet of ice. Driving, especially on side roads was out of the question …

 

… so I walked down to Holes Bay. See how the snow on this hedge is topped with a hard layer of ice.

 

It was tricky walking, but with virtually no traffic it was easiest to walk on the road. Upton Park was a winter wonderland …

 

… even if it was the first day of spring.

 

Robins proved quite tame in the harsh conditions and posed for ‘Christmas Card’ photos.

 

Even the seawater around the edge of Holes Bay had frozen. Good numbers of Wigeon and Avocet were sheltering from the wind.

 

Over 120 Avocets were resting on the ice. Avocets usually roost at high tide on Brownsea Island lagoon but as the water there is only brackish it is the first to freeze. Poole water treatment works brings warmer water to Holes Bay so at least part of the Bay remains open in adverse conditions.

 

Other Avocets swam in shallow water or fed at the water’s edge.

 

Black-tailed Godwits waited for the tide to fall so they could start feeding again.

 

Although Godwits are long-legged they can’t feed whilst swimming like Avocets do. These birds are all from Iceland, a few ‘Blackwits’ of the European race breed in the East Anglia but none are seen in the UK during the winter.

 

There were perhaps 500 wigeon in Holes Bay but I didn’t do an accurate count.

 

Gadwall is much rarer than Wigeon on these salt water habitats but as a species is doing well and in some places is commoner than Mallards.

 

Unlike Blashford lakes or Weymouth, Holes Bay doesn’t host a gull extravaganza but these Lesser Black-backs sat dejectedly on the railway embankment. By the 4th the snow and ice was melting and temperatures were up to 10c by the 4th. For us at least the cold snap was over.

 

Of course I understand that much of the UK endured (and in some case are still enduring) far, far worse conditions than we did during these few days but the 48 hours of 1st and 2nd of March were unusual times for all of us. I’ll leave with another ‘Christmas Card’ photo of a Robin.

 

 

 

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