Archive for the ‘Siberian Accentor’ Tag

2016 – that was another year that was.   2 comments

2016 earned the reputation as the year when everything went wrong – the awful Brexit result which will have adverse consequences for the rest of my life, the shock American presidential election which may have ramifications far beyond the borders of the USA, the ongoing slaughter in Syria and the threat of terrorism and the death of many much-loved celebrities; but on a personal level 2016 has been both a great success and very enjoyable with much travel at home and abroad and lots of quality birding and bird ringing.

This post summarises what we have been up to this year, most of the photos have been uploaded before and more details can be found by reading the original posts.


IMG_2326 Golden Temple Amritsa

In January I spent three weeks in western India, mainly visiting the states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The tour started with a visit to the wonderful Golden Temple at Amritsar.

IMG_3818 Forest Owlet

The final few days of the trip were spent in the state of Maharashtra where we searched for the recently rediscovered Forest Owlet. The bizarre story of the discovery, loss, presumed extinction and rediscovery of this enigmatic species is explained in an entry posted on the 18th March. The tour was well covered on this blog with seven separate posts uploaded in February and March.

IMG_3910 Millenium bridge

A post in March tells of our trip to Essex and from there to London. As well as sorting out my Russian visa for a subsequent trip we also visited St Paul’s cathedral from where I took this shot of the Millennium Bridge.

IMG_4019 Jennie & Margaret

From Essex we moved on to Cambridge to stay with my old University friend Jenny.

7F1A7748 rough seas

The longest and most remarkable trip of the year was the Atlantic Odyssey which ran from late March to early May. Starting at Ushuaia in southernmost Argentina we sailed on the Plancius to South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena, Ascension and Cabo Verde.

IMG_5203 KPs

South Georgia was a delight with stunning views of King Penguins ….

IMG_5227 Fur Seal

….cute Fur Seal pups plus several species of albatross and many other seabirds.

7F1A1180 Ascension cliffs

In complete contrast we encountered desert like conditions on the island of Ascension and a range of tropical seabirds ….

7F1A1389 Clymene Dolphin

…. and tropical cetaceans like this Clymene Dolphin.

7F1A1086 Ascension Frigatebird imm

But the star of the show was the breeding endemic Ascension Frigatebird that only breeds on a single half hectare offshore rock stack. Although the trip was over five weeks long and we sailed from the subantarctic to borders of the Western Palearctic I only had 13 life birds – but most of them were very sought after indeed.


After landing at Cabo Verde we flew to Mallorca to join Birdquest’s 35th anniversary reunion. We had a very enjoyable time meeting up with old friends and making new ones amongst great scenery and great birds.

7F1A2048 Scopoli's Shearwater

Birding highlights were my first views of Moltoni’s Warbler, and first proper views of the endemic Balearic Warbler and the newly split Mediterranean Flycatcher. On a boat crossing to the island of Cabrera we had the best ever views of Scopoli’s and Balearic Shearwaters. Unfortunately these two wonderful trips have not been covered well on the blog with just a single extended post uploaded on 18th May covering the entire six weeks. It has always been my intention to give a more detailed coverage but other things have got in the way!


I was only home for a couple of weeks before it time to join another cruise, the so-called ‘Russian Ring of Fire’ to the Russian Far East. Cancelled at short notice in 2015 due to the Russia authorities intransigence, the cruise from Kamchatka to the Commander and Kuril Islands and on to Sakhalin was absolutely outstanding, even if we did get snow at sea level in early June.


I saw something like 17 life birds on the trip, perhaps the most beautiful and most desired was the wonderful Whiskered Auklet. As with the previous cruise, other commitments prevented me from doing it justice on this blog, but a summary was posted on 25th June.

IMG_5975 Caernarfon Castle

In late June and early July Margaret and I had a two week trip around Wales, parts of northern England and ended with a visit to Essex. As well as visiting friends and family we enjoyed many sights from castles in north Wales ….

IMG_6234 Blackpool Tower

…. to a wet and dreary Blackpool. I uploaded two posts on this trip in late July/early August.


From mid July to early November my time was taken up with ringing. Covering the entire autumn migration I paid 60 visits to Durlston Country Park as well as ringing at several other sites. We ringed over 4700 birds adding greatly to our knowledge of bird migration at Durlston. Autumn 2016 will be long remembered for the remarkable influx of birds from Siberia, caused by a strong easterly airflow that persisted for weeks. Although we didn’t catch any real rarities, there was much larger than usual number of Ring Ouzels passing though ….


…. and as a group we ringed at least 16 Yellow-browed Warblers, a species that breeds no nearer than the Urals. The only ringing I did away from Dorset was when my friend Chris and I spent several days at Spurn Bird Observatory in early September. I have uploaded a number of posts on my ringing and UK birding activities throughout the year.


In November I went on an excellent three-week trip to central Peru. The scenery on almost every day was outstanding ….


…. as was the birding, with much wanted gems such as the flightless Junin Grebe (my last grebe) ….


…. and the enigmatic Diademed Sandpiper-plover, a rare inhabitant of high altitude bogs, which took a lot of stomping around at a breath-taking 4500m to find. This was by far the most productive trip of the year for both species and lifers and I accumulated some 57 new birds and bringing my life list (with the help of a few armchair ticks) to 8122. I am still editing the many photos from this tour but hope to upload some to the blog in a week or so.

DCINY presents UK composer Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light: A Requiem led by Maestro Jonathan Griffith. Solo singers: Sarah Joy Miller - soprano, Scott Joiner - tenor, Steven Fddy - Baritone

Whilst I was in Peru Margaret had the opportunity to travel to New York with members of her choir to join a massed choir of over 200 singing Howard Goodall’s composition ‘Eternal Light’. There is more on her adventure in a blog post uploaded on 4th December.


2016 has become infamous as the year when many much loved celebrities passed away. Whilst not unexpected, he was 82 and in poor health, the death of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen saddened me the most. A fan since I first heard ‘The Sisters of Mercy’ back in 1968 I have all of his CDs and love his deep, poignant and moving lyrics. I am pleased to have had the privilege of seeing him in concert three times, once when I was a student and twice in recent years. I bought his 14th and final studio album ‘You Want It Darker’ just days before his death on 7th November.


We have only been to a few music events this year, a fantastic gig by the Afro Celt Sound System and a visit to the opera to see Don Giovanni. I even missed both of Margaret’s UK choral concerts, one by being in Russia, the other through ill health. However, although not a musical event, a trip to the BIC to see the funniest man in the world, Billy Connolly in late November, was a hilarious night out.

IMG_4946 Caspian Stonechat

Although UK birding has taken a bit of a back seat with a large amount of time being devoted to ringing and the subsequent paper work, but I have mamaged to see a number of great species this year. In the spring my friend Roger and I twitched a ‘Caspian’ Stonechat in Hampshire. Although currently considered a race of Siberian Stonechat this white-rumped form from the southern borders of the Caspian Sea could well warrant specific status.

Great Spotted Cuckoo1 Chris Minvalla

Although I have seen two in the UK before, this beautiful Great Spotted Cuckoo at Portland was a much appreciated addition to my Dorset List. Other local goodies in May included Red-footed Falcon, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt and Honey Buzzard. Photo by my friend Chris Minvalla.


In recent years I have shied away from long distance twitches due to the effort and cost involved and because I am often familiar with the species concerned from birding abroad. However in mid October, as the remarkable influx of Siberian and Central Asian goodies continued I was tempted back to Spurn once more. This Isabelline Wheatear in a muddy field by the coast (here with a head stained from the dark soil) was reason enough for the long journey ….


…. but the real prize was this superb Siberian Accentor just a few hundred yards away in the grounds of the gas terminal. This species had never been seen in the UK before 2016 but this autumn there were 12, with close to 300 found in western Europe. As far as my UK birding is concerned this was ‘bird of the year’. Photo by Chris Minvalla.


There was another Siberian mega to twitch before the year was out. Just north of where my brother lives in Derbyshire a Dusky Thrush was found in early December. With only a dozen UK records (and most of those from antiquity) this was a much wanted UK tick. I was prevented from going for a Dusky Thrush in Kent a few years ago by earlier commitment, so a trip to the Derbyshire Peak District became essential. I needn’t have fretted as it was still these when I visited my brother over the Christmas period and we went to see it again. Photo by my friend Roger Howell.

Another mega-rare thrush, a Blue Rock Thrush was seen towards the end of the year on my way home from Derbyshire (giving me 4 new birds for my British List in 2016 and bringing it to 493 by the BOU list). I will upload photos of this plus an account of our activities over Christmas and New Year will be in the next post.

Happy New Year to all readers of this blog.

August – October 2016: Two trips to Spurn – we went through Hull and back (twice)   Leave a comment

At the end of August my friend and trainee ringer Chris and I went to the Bird Observatory at Spurn in East Yorkshire. I had hoped that Chris would get to ring a lot of new species and learn some new ringing techniques and I hoped I would have a chance to do some wader and tern trapping and see how ringing is performed at one of Britain’s best migration hot spots.

In the event, for a number of reasons, it wasn’t as good as I expected but it was still well worthwhile.


In East Yorkshire the north shore of the enormous Humber estuary turns southwards at its mouth and forms the Spurn Peninsular. Recent erosion has cut the road to the lighthouse and it is now a three-mile walk or cycle to the point. In this photo the lighthouse is at the tip of the peninsula whilst the shoreline to the right of the lighthouse is the south side of the estuary and is in Lincolnshire.


Setting off at 0600 and with an hour-long stop at my brother’s in Derbyshire, we arrived at Spurn Bird Observatory about 1300. As ringing was over for the day we immediately went to the nearby ‘canal’, an area of reeds growing near an overgrown ditch in search of a Barred Warbler that had been there for several days.


The Barred Warbler was distant and only showed intermittently. My photos weren’t worth reproducing so I have taken this one from Wikipedia. Virtually all British records of the central European species are of first years which lack the barred plumage and pale eye of an adult and look rather like a large Garden Warbler (with the addition of pale fringes to the wing coverts, flight feathers and tail tips). A regular, if scarce migrant mainly to the east coat of the UK, this was one of the species I had hoped to see in the hand at Spurn. I have seen the species 19 times in the UK but this was a first for Chris.


The North Sea off Spurn used to be a migration stopover for thousands of migrating Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns and I had hoped we might be able to ring a few of these at night on the beach. Local birders told me that the number of terns has reduced drastically since the building of this massive offshore wind-farm.


Gravel pits between the Humber estuary and the North Sea provided a high tide roost for thousands of waders, mainly Dunlin, Knot and Ringed Plover but also included flocks of Grey Plover (above) and a few Turnstone, Sanderling, Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers.


Most Grey Plovers we see in Dorset are in their drab grey winter plumage but here we saw flocks fresh in from Arctic Siberia still in their beautiful silver and black breeding plumage. Americans call this species Black-bellied Plover based on the summer plumage, but I like the French Pluvier argenté which translates as Silver Plover, a perfect counterpart to its cousin the Golden Plover.


During our time at Spurn we worked at two different locations ringing a small number of migrant and resident birds. It was clear we hadn’t coincided with a large migratory movement and with a freshening wind on the second day we trapped relatively few birds. One thing we tried on the first afternoon of the course was the spring trapping of small waders such as this Little Stint, but although the stints walked up to and around the trap they refused to trigger the spring mechanism. We did catch a Yellow Wagtail by the same method though.


Returning from the unsuccessful wader ringing trip we were told that a surprise awaited us at the Observatory. It proved to be an immature Gannet that a villager had found trapped in some netting in his garden. One of the wardens is keeping hold of its dagger like bill, which could course some damage if it was not restrained.


Having not ringed a single bird at this stage I quickly volunteered to ring this monster of a bird. However the ring didn’t fit well and it appeared that one leg was swollen. In case the bird was unwell (which indeed could be why it crash landed in someone’s garden) the ring was removed and the bird taken to the shore and released. Photo by Chris Minvalla.


It was whilst attempting and failing to catch stints that we heard that on the other side of the Humber, at Alkborough Flats in Lincolnshire, there was a Western Swamphen (not ‘Purple Gallinule’ as some people call it, that is an unrelated American species) about an hour and a half’s drive away. This species has been seen once before in the UK, earlier this year in Minsmere, Suffolk. Earlier records refer to the closely related Grey-headed and African Swamphens which are undoubted escapes from captivity but the two records in 2016 appear to be part of an influx from the western Med into northern Europe. Chris and I were very interested in twitching it, but the following day it wasn’t seen at all, so we assumed it had gone. I photographed this individual in Mallorca this May.



There was a lovely sunset over the Humber that evening. Very early in the morning (0230) we got up to do some wader ringing on the gravel pits, the early start was needed to coincide with the high tide. We ringed a few Redshanks, Knot and a Curlew and Oystercatcher, eight in total one for each on the course. Photography wasn’t allowed as it would take the birds eyes some time to recover so I have no shots of this activity.


On the second day of the ringing course Chris and I took our turn at the ringing station at the ‘breach’, the neck of the peninsular where the road has been washed away. Using mist nets and spring traps we trapped a few birds but the strong wind prevented us from catching much. An afternoon attempt to spring trap Wheatears also ended in failure. We were able to get a few hours much needed rest in the afternoon.

Back at the Obs we prepared some dinner and got ready to go out in an attempt to trap terns after dark, but then Chris heard the bad news that his father was seriously ill and had been taken to hospital. There was no alternative but to pack up and return immediately to Dorset, arriving about midnight. Fortunately Chris’s father made a total recovery after about a week in hospital, but it could easily have been so much worse.

So the ringing course concluded with me ringing just two birds, a Redshank and that Gannet, and the latter had to have the ring removed. Further frustration ensued when we found the Swamphen was seen again once we were back in Poole and remains there to this day.



Fast forwards about six weeks and Chris and I were back at Spurn, this time with our friend Roger. This time our destination was the unglamorous setting of the nearby Easington Gas Terminal, where the North Sea gas is pumped ashore.


During early October there was a strong easterly airflow arriving all the way from Siberia. This brought with it a whole run of Siberian goodies including thousands of Yellow-browed Warblers. I have published some photos of Yellow-broweds in the hand in my last post. Far rarer was the occurrence of Britain’s first Siberian Accentor (a high latitude cousin of our Dunnock) in Shetland. This was followed by a second one at Easington a few days later and then another five scattered between Shetland and Cleveland. There was a huge twitch at Easington especially over the weekend where the crowd was measured in the thousands and a queuing system was in operation. This is a still from a video that appeared on ‘Penny Clark’s blog


I had seen a pair of Siberian Accentors twenty years ago in Arctic Siberia (otherwise I would have left immediately) and I dithered for several days about making the 600 mile round trip again. It was my friend Roger returning from Scilly on the 18th that made all the difference, he was very keen to go. I’m so pleased we went the following day as the bird wasn’t seen on the 20th. we arrived mid morning to find a modest crowd watching. The bird had moved between two lines of security fencing feeding contentedly on weed seeds. The only problem was that because of the close weave of the fence you could only see when looking at 90 degrees to the fence. It must have been a nightmare at the weekend.


Even so, Chris with his 500mm mega lens was able to get some really nice photos. Breeding in a narrow zone from the northern Urals to Chukotka and wintering in eastern China (a time of year when few birders visit China), this was a once in a lifetime chance for most birders to experience this charming species.


An added bonus was that only a few hundred yards away was an Isabelline Wheatear, a species I have seen on 19 foreign trips to its breeding grounds in Central Asia and wintering grounds in East Africa, but never in the UK. Whilst I wouldn’t have gone all the way to Spurn for this alone, it was a most welcome addition to my British List. Heavy rain and a habit of feeding in a muddy field has stained its face black, but the upright stance, long legs, short tail, the black alula contrasting sharply with the rather plain ear coverts ….


…. and in this photo, the extensive black in the tail with only a short projection of black towards the rump on the central tail feathers all indicate an Isabelline Wheatear. According to Wikipedia the word ‘isabelline’ may derive from Isabella I of Castile and the eight-month siege of Granada by Ferdinand II of Aragon starting in April 1491. She vowed not to change her chemise until the siege was over, which took rather longer than she anticipated (other versions of this legend are available). The name Wheatear of course derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘white-arse’. Both the photos of the wheatear and the Siberian Accentor were taken by Chris Minvalla and are used with permission.

There had been no news about the Western Swamphen and the three of us headed home in the afternoon well pleased with what we had seen. The next day, of course, we heard that the Swamphen was being seen again in Lincolnshire. Never mind as Meat Loaf once sang ‘two out of three ain’t bad’. Indeed on this occasion it was bloody marvellous!