Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Lockdown #2

From 05/11, we were once again into another bloody national lockdown until 02/12. At least this time measures weren't quite so restricting and I could at least get out to all my local haunts within a few miles of home, including good old Grimsbury.

One of my highlights of the month was finding a very smart pair of Red-Crested Pochard amidst the Grimsbury gloom of the 08/11! They were the first there for 5 years - and I missed that one! They were therefore a great patch tick for me and what's more, amazingly I came across another shortly afterwards, with a surprise Red-Legged Partridge calling from the adjacent cattle field. A very good visit indeed - happy days!

More excitement followed at 'the res' on 13/11, as an Otter was reported, just as I was parking up for a look round. I was lucky enough to see it too, getting some fantastic views, as it caused plenty of anguish for the local fishermen. While they cursed it's presence, I was ecstatic to experience such a rare, close encounter!

At the moment, there's some fantastic numbers of gulls around the cattle fields just NE of Banbury. I need very little encouragement to scour through gulls and so it's been fun seeing what can I can unearth. Best so far has been a really striking 1st-winter Caspian Gull which Gareth and I discovered on the Borrow Pit on 21/11. There's also been a further two Caspos (adult & 3rd-winter) on 29/11.

Impressive numbers of Yellow-Legged Gulls of all ages about too, with at least 12 on Sunday 29/11. Fingers crossed for an Iceland or Glauc next over the coming weeks as the weather turns a little colder.

All the recent talk of the Parrot Crossbill in north Northants, had me keen to get out and at least attempt to find my own. Crossbills certainly seem to have been present in Bucknell Wood most of the time over the last few months. The morning of Sunday 22/11 was beautifully still and clear - perfect to give it a go. An early start is needed here at the moment, as the place has seen a large increase in people visiting for a lockdown stroll. 

Thankfully on my walk round with Em, it was lovely and peaceful, but for the sound of Crossbills! There were 8 in total and actually showed really nicely, feeding away up in the pines along the central track. They were very vocal and easy to locate. I gave what birds I could see a good grilling but certainly all I saw were Commons - all the calls too seemed uniform across the board. But I'll persist - you just never know! A flyover Brambling and at least 10 Siskins were about too.

Finally - the sun hasn't shined a great deal these last few weeks, so it was cool to get some unusually good views of Little Grebes when it did - at the Borrow Pit, Banbury back on 13/11...

Monday, 2 November 2020

Holy Island magic

With Covid numbers unfortunately increasing again - Dan, Gareth and I were praying our plan of a week around Holy Island and the north Northumberland coast wouldn't be scuppered. We were all in need of a break and a chance to spend some prolonged birding time together.

As it turned out, we were good to go, making our way up there on Saturday 17/10. We'd been gazing at the weather charts for ages, hoping we'd get some easterlies at some point - however in reality it wasn't looking great on that front. We were though going to a fabulous area for birding with 1000s of winter wildfowl, the sea and still the strong possibility of something a bit rarer yet to be discovered from the previous week's more favourable conditions. So the excitement was still definitely palpable!

We arrived in the area mid/late afternoon. We weren't able to get across to Holy Island due to the tide, so we made a beeline for Castle Wood, just south of Bamburgh Castle. It was very gloomy and breezy, so not massively conducive for finding passerines but was well worth a go and looked great. We made our way through the wood and dunes, however it was very, very quiet. A flushed Woodcock in the dunes was the best thing we saw. Still, we were out on the east coast, birding in October - we couldn't grumble!

Sunday 18/10 promised to be our best chance of seeing some good stuff and possibly finding ourselves a little something. There was no better place to go than Holy Island with the potential for an impressive list of scarcities still on show, including Brown Shrike, Red-Flanked Bluetail, Dusky Warbler, Barred Warbler & Rosy Starling - all leftovers from the previous week's easterlies.

We made our way across the causeway as soon as it was safe to do so and parked up in a largely empty Chare Ends car park.

We then walked down into the village, immediately on the alert for the recent Bluetail, that had been lingering in the roadside sycamores.

We had a good look about without success. Gareth then saw a Robin chasing something around the hotel garden. Robins are renowned for hammering Bluetails and so I had an inkling. Then, again a Robin chased something right past Gareth and I - Gareth got onto it a touch quicker than me and yes, it was the Bluetail - excellent! We hung around and after a few minutes, it then reappeared by the road and showed really nicely for quite a while, in the sycamores and adjacent wire fence.

We had a look by the school and the Vicar's Garden seeing a few Redwing, Goldcrest and a couple of Blackcap. We continued on towards the harbour, pausing to look for the recent Barred Warbler in a couple of lonely sycamores - surely one couldn't be hiding in here! Well initially, no it wasn't, but it then it suddenly appeared bold as brass on top of a clump of brambles, up behind the boat sheds. Shortly after, it then flew right past us, landing somewhere in the sycamores. It was then that we had amazing, rather uncharacteristic views for a Barred Warbler, as we looked down on it, happily feeding away in the branches in front of us. An absolute treat!

A flock of 6 flyover Twite and a brief Willow Warbler were seen on the edge of the village, at which point we decided to look for the Brown Shrike - a UK lifer for me. A sizable walk followed, out past the Chare Ends car park, before we eventually reached the right area, fairly quickly enjoying some decent, if distant scope views. The Shrike was very active, feeding along a fence line adjacent to some sheep fields, not pausing in one spot for too long. Very nice too!

We came across a few more Twite on the walk back towards the car and had a thorough, but fruitless scan for AGPs amongst the vast Golden Plover flock, out on the mud. After some lunch, we went back through the village, for a look down the Crooked Lonnen to see what we could find. 

While in the village, Gareth was a bit behind Dan and I. We both took a look in a garden opposite the Ship Inn that we all had looked at earlier, saying how good it looked for something. Dan walked on a bit and just as I set off to follow him, I heard a couple of familiar 'tacking' calls, stopping me in my tracks. I waited a second longer and again there it was - it was a Dusky Warbler! I called Dan over and then Gareth joined us. It was very vocal however classically elusive, however pleasingly we did get some views, as it flicked around a small elder. More on this later...

Other than a number of Blackbirds and Redwings, the Crooked Lonnen was fairly quiet, although we did hear a Yellow-Browed Warbler call from a garden set back from the road with a tin-roof house.

Having reached the north end of the island, we walked west to Sandham Bay, to look for anything new and then to see if we could connect with the Rosy Starling that had been there earlier.

No Starling but a really nice selection of waders including up to 4 Purple Sands, Barwits, Turnstones, Sanderling and Dunlin, as well as an adult Med Gull & several 1w Kittiwakes offshore.

We made our way back to the village via the Straight Lonnen as the light was just beginning to close in. Had a mad moment near the willows as a Merlin flew out of the long grass in front of me with what looked like a Starling! The Brown Shrike was also seen from this side too, looking back west.

We had a quick mooch around by the harbour once back at the village and were lucky enough to chance upon a Black Redstart - a fab way to end a seriously good day's birding!

We began the next day, Monday 19/10 with a walk around the west end of Holy Island including the Snook, Half Moon Slack and the north shore.

It was fairly apparent that there were next to no new arrivals with a Fieldfare, a couple of Goldcrest, Snipe and a few Stonechats about. Slim pickings, but hardly unsurprising given that the wind was now S/SW! A dead Harbour Porpoise along the north shore strand line was sad, but fascinating to see one up close and appreciate exactly how small they are.

We took a walk around the village afterwards, again enjoying views of the Bluetail on the way through. We enjoyed more calling from the Dusky Warbler. It was then apparent that at a similar time, a Dusky was still being seen in the garden at the other end of Marygate. So it appeared this bird, that I'd picked up the previous day, was in fact a new bird - woohoo, high fives all round and a great little find for us!

We also picked up Sibe-type Chiffs both in the Dusky garden and down the road, towards the harbour. Both giving that distinctive Bullfinch-like call.

Another stroll up the Straight Lonnen revealed the continued presence of the Brown Shrike, in the company of a male Stonechat

Up again we went to Sandham Bay where this time, we saw the juvenile Rosy Starling amongst a large gathering of Starlings, feeding on the exposed seaweed.

As we walked back to the car, a very vocal female Brambling dropped into the Straight Lonnen Willows on the way back to the car. We then drove off the island for a scan at Stag Rocks, Bamburgh. Shortly after leaving Chare Ends, we spotted a flock of 100-150 Twite flying around the saltmarsh. I managed to get the car window down quickly enough to enjoy their 'twanging' calls as we drove past. Very nice!

At Stag Rocks, conditions were rather gloomy! But we did well, with a surprise winter-plumaged Puffin, 1-2 Black-Throated Diver, c60 Purple Sands (definitely the most I've ever seen together) on the rocks below us, a flyby Sandwich Tern, 4+ Red-Throated Diver & several Guillemot & Razorbills and lots of Shag.

Tuesday 20/10 again began at Castle Wood Bamburgh. TWO Red-Flanked Bluetails had been discovered there since our visit on Saturday - one rung on Sunday and another un-ringed bird on the Monday. So we felt a little disappointed we didn't initially connect with these ourselves - but hey-ho!

We slowly, meticulously made our way through the wood, north to south - it was all very quiet! It wasn't very bright or warm so wasn't all that surprisingly that there was little passerine activity.

We then had calling Crossbill, several Redpoll and Siskin over, while Dan had both Swallow and Water Rail in the nearby dunes. I joined Dan, before Gareth messaged to say he had one of the Bluetails on the east side of the wood - the message quickly followed by 2! 

We soon all enjoyed lovely views of the birds feeding together, side-by-side for a few minutes - a magic moment really, seeing two together on the same branch! One was ringed and it seemed pretty certain these were the two birds found in the last couple of days.

They then slipped away and we didn't come across them again, so kudos to Gareth for getting onto them initially!

Before we left, Dan also picked up a Sibe Chiffchaff closeby, which I saw briefly before it flicked off into the dunes.

The rest of the day was spent south of Bamburgh. Firstly, we dropped in at Boulmer to see the female Desert Wheatear that had been discovered at the weekend. It was pretty distant, but cool to watch as it went about it's business in the middle of a roadside ploughed field, near Seaton Point (the pale blob in the photo below!).

Low Newton, further north appeared to be a decent prospect - it looked like an awesome local patch for someone, with an excellent array of habitat.

A couple of Tree Sparrows in the car park were good, before we headed down towards Newton Pool. A flooded field close to the pool looked decent for waders and on this occasion held a few Ruff, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and a Snipe among other things. The area between here and the pool look amazing for migrants with a nice mix of sycamores, scrub and reedy habitat. A couple of Pallas' Warblers had been here in recent days however not for us.

A very skulky Lesser Whitethroat, (presumably the recent blythi-type rung here recently) gave us the runaround. Initially we thought we had another Dusky Warbler as it called for a short while from a reedy area close to the pool hide. However after quite a wait, it eventually started calling again and then revealed itself as a Lesserthroat. You can hear Gareth's recording of the bird here. Other birds noted before we left were a female Goldeneye on the pool and a calling Cetti's Warbler.  

We had a brief look around nearby Newton Steads and then again finished our day at Stag Rocks for another look at the sea.

That produced a smart 1w Little Gull lingering offshore and a few more Purple Sands.

On the way back, a quick scan of Budle Bay at high tide didn't produce very much, but I did have 2 Brambling flyover and a Kingfisher zipped past.

Wednesday 21/10 saw us back onto Holy Island for another circuit.

Firm highlight for us was the presence of TWO Dusky Warbler together in the garden opposite the Ship Inn - absolute scenes! Definitely our best views yet too. A great recording of Gareth's here. It was also further concrete evidence that there were indeed two birds and that we had found our own Dusky.

We had prolonged views of a Merlin from the Straight Lonnen, perched up for a while and then unsuccessfully chasing a Skylark up into the sky. Yet again, the Brown Shrike was still in situ closeby.

A new bird for the trip was a single Slavonian Grebe near the harbour, while the Barred Warbler appeared again, bold as brass out in the open once more!

Twice, we saw the Rosy Starling, this time around the village. It showed particularly well in the golden late afternoon sun for a short time.

The Bluetail was on show as we were leaving, high up in it's usual sycamores, pumping it's tail vigorously. The downside was we were really pushing it with the tide time and so we had to drag ourselves away. A real shame as the late afternoon light was fantastic and would've offered a great chance to get some nice photos. What was cool was it began calling quite frequently - something I have heard once before with the Gloucestershire bird some years back. I managed a quick recording, but this coincided with a car driving past at just the wrong moment and it never called again! 

We popped down to Budle Bay before the day was out, enjoying great numbers of ducks and waders, plus a vast flock of Barnacle Geese coming in from the north, joining a load of Pinkfoots already there.

Thursday 22/10 was a significantly more relaxed day after - shall we say a heavily, whiskey-related lie in.

Still, we eventually headed out late morning (on what was a cold, windy and wet day), for a long walk at Ross Bank Sands. This is an area of dunes and sandy beach between Budle Bay and Holy Island. It is an absolutely vast area to bird, but it was a much needed jaunt, to blow off the cobwebs of the night before!

Not a great deal of birds were seen given the amount of ground we covered. Best were a grand total of c40 flyover Twite and a distant 'Commic' Tern offshore. We didn't get to the far north end where it was likely we may well have seen Snow Bunting and a few other bits and bobs. But we were pretty knackered, wet, wind swept and hungry!

On the walk back, the main excitement was us managing to navigate a large, intimidating, but ultimately docile Bull stood right in front of the gate we were needing to get through! But, we made it back to the car unscathed for a late lunch and were treated to the impressive sight of several hundred Barnacle Geese, making their way across to nearby Budle Bay.

Budle Bay was in fact where we completed our day - turning out to be a very worthwhile visit!

Dan and I began scoping through the good numbers of wildfowl and waders scattered across the wide expanse of mud and channels. Dan then let out that trademark ohhh...I've got a Green-Winged Teal! Indeed he had - good old boy! A bird just beginning to moult out of eclipse, into adult male plumage but those crucial vertical white bars were showing themselves well, if not yet complete. There was also no sign of any vertical, white flank stripes coming through and the facial markings clearly lacked the the more yellowy tones and boldness of a Eurasian (nicely illustrated in the ropey side-by-side phone-scoped shot below). Another great find for the week! 

In addition to the GWT, Whooper Swans heading north, right over our heads was a bonus. The long-staying Spotted Redshank revealed itself, good numbers of Barnies and Pinkfoots were at the back of the bay and waders included Greenshank, a few Black-Tailed Godwit, Bar-Tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers, Knot and plenty of Redshank and Dunlin. Yet again, the Northumberland coast was delivering some fantastic birding!

Friday 23/10 was our last full day. We would be hard-pressed to find anything particularly new, but it would still promise to be a day full of birds. Little did we know how the day would end!

Before we could get onto Holy Island, we began the day at a freezing cold Stag Rocks, Bamburgh for a scan. As it turned out, this would bring us another new bird for the trip, as a group of redhead Goosander headed past! Three female Goldeneye were also seen, plus a few more Common Scoter and other usual suspects. Interestingly, Goosanders were also then seen both at Budle Bay on the way through and in the channel as we crossed to Holy Island. A small arrival it seemed!

On arrival at Chare Ends, we were greeted by a very heavy rain shower. We sat it out in the car for a bit, with Dan spying a brief Brambling in the adjacent hedge.

Eventually, we headed out for another circuit. At least one Dusky Warbler again showed, while the Sibe Chiff was calling well there too.

One real notable thing was an arrival of thrushes as the drizzle fell. Regular small groups of Fieldfares, Blackbirds and a few Redwing were either coming in over the dunes, or literally dropping out of the sky above us, straight into the hawthorns along the Straight Lonnen. It was really exciting to see and intriguing given the wind was SW!

The Brown Shrike was right on the straight Lonnen. However, before we realised, Dan & Gareth a short way ahead of me, literally came face to face with it, just the other side of a bush! In no time it shot off back west to it's favourite, distant fence line. Couldn't be helped but, bugger - could've got some mad photos!

We fancied a change of scenery and so for the first time in the week, tried somewhere north of Holy Island and a scan of the sea at Cocklawburn. It was a lovely spot and produced at least 20 Red-Throated Diver, a small group of Teal, several Common Scoter and a Goldeneye.

Before the day was out, we returned to Holy Island for a dusk scan for Short-Eared Owl - a bird we were surprised not to have stumbled across so far. We parked up at the Snook car park for a look about - I wandered up to a nearby rise in the dunes for a scan, while Dan & Gareth stayed by the car.

The sunset was awesome, coupled with one heck of a wide, sweeping view across the Lindisfarne NNR. A Merlin cruised over the car park and swept off towards Snook House, on the hunt for dinner.

This idyllic scene was soon rudely interrupted by some maniac shouting in the car park behind me - it was Dan. JOOOHHHNNNN!!! PALLID SWIFTTTTT!! I swung round to look up and there, high in the air was the shape of what was seemingly a broad-winged, almost dumpy shape of a Swift, with a/the Merlin in hot pursuit. Holy s**t!!

I ran back down to the car, grabbing my camera off Dan, however it was impossible to get my autofocus to hone in on such a small, increasingly distant spec in the sky.

Frustratingly, the bird quickly gave the Merlin the slip and was gaining height, becoming a spec and then gone. It all happened so quickly and with none of us getting enough on it, it can only go down as Swift sp. One thing we were all agreed on, the bird felt different and definitely appeared more broad-winged. Whether this was due to a change in posture as it was frantically trying to power away from the Merlin and gain height, rather than our more familiar soaring Swift view, I don't know.

We zoomed down to the village in the hope it might have lingered, but nothing. We then saw another report of a Common/Pallid Swift over Seahouses - presumably our bird. So a bit of drama to end the day, only because Gareth had popped out of the car for a cigarette. Eagle-eyed Blockley strikes again!

Perhaps the one that got away - an almost bittersweet end to the day. But still, an exciting end to our final day around Holy Island and another good find, whatever the species!

Saturday 24/10 was largely to be spent travelling home.

We did though plan to make one more birding stop of some sort. We settled on Nosterfield Local Nature Reserve in North Yorkshire, not too far off the A1.

A great little reserve and my kind of place, with the main viewpoint over the reserve located in the car park itself!

After a bit of a scan, we picked up the long-staying Lesser Yellowlegs feeding below us. Only my second ever and first for many years, so it was good to have a prolonged look at one again!

Other birds of note were a late Little Stint (actually my first of the year), a Green Sand, a Peregrine, several Ruff, a flock of Pinkfoots, quite a few Curlews and our first Pochard and Coot of the trip!! In fact I think the Coot caused the biggest cheer of the trip haha!

There ended one heck of a good week. In what are strange times, it was so refreshing to detach from reality, have a laugh and enjoy a full week's birding with your mates, in what has to be one of the best areas for birding in the country.

136 species in total, plus finding Dusky Warbler, Green-Winged Teal and a Swift species, together with seeing Brown Shrike, another Dusky Warbler, 3 Bluetails, Rosy Starling, Desert Wheatear, Barred Warbler etc - not bad really!

It wasn't just the rare stuff though, it was also the general day-to-day birding that was just so enjoyable, with such big numbers of ducks, geese and waders to enjoy too. We're all completely sold on the idea of autumn birding in the NE - we will be back! 

Lockdown #2

From 05/11, we were once again into another bloody national lockdown until 02/12. At least t his time measures weren't quite so restrict...