Monday, 27 November 2017

Close to home

This weekend has been beautifully bright, crisp and cold. This encouraged me to get out and explore some sites close to home, in the hope of unearthing a few local scarcities. I have to say it turned out to be really successful!

A still & sunny morning was forecast for Saturday (25/11) morning and so I was keen to get out first thing to my local patch of Bucknell Wood. I've had some very decent luck with Hawfinches locally in the last few weeks and I was really hoping to get one on my Bucknell patch list too, knowing full well, this winter was THE chance to get them here.

As predicted, it was a stunner of a morning and It was pleasing to find no other cars in the car park. I had the place to on!

Walking down one of the main, central tracks through the centre of the wood, I heard that distinctive sharp, snappy call that I had become so familiar with during the last few weeks...Hawfinch, boom!! It flew over the track and then away from me, before luckily circling back round and going right over my head calling loudly throughout. What a treat!

On a bit of a high, I continued on with a big old circuit of the wood, however there were unfortunately no more Hawfinch sightings. I did though enjoy a few other nice bits & bobs, including a couple of vocal flyover Brambling, 4 Lesser Redpoll (including a bird with a metal ring - too far away to read), a flyover Cormorant, several vocal Raven & Siskins.

Sunday (26/11) was again lovely and bright, however there was a bit more of a breeze, with a right old chilly edge to it! I decided to try out the fields between Brackley & Croughton in the vein hope of finding a Hen Harrier, a real Northants bogey bird of mine! This area has real potential for finding winter raptors with large open fields and a nice mix of rough areas, hedges and woodland, as well as several high points to scan the area. Barely 5 minutes from home, I took the road to Hinton-in-the-Hedges off the A422, on the western edge of Brackley. This road climbs right up to a significant high point in the landscape and is a good vantage point to scan for birds. Driving along here, the small-ish silhouette of a bird sat in a roadside sapling loomed into view. It was about Jackdaw size, but it just didn't look right. As I slowly crawled towards it, the bird dropped down into the adjacent field, revealing a flash of blue, pointed wings...a male Merlin!! I tried my best to creep out of the car and to the boot to get my camera and bins but unfortunately the bird flushed. I quickly got to the bins and watched it cruise down to a distant fence. Here it sat for a good 10-15 minutes allowing good if distant scope views (horrific phone-scoped photo below at x60!). Bumping into a Merlin anywhere is special but this really was an unexpected treat. A serious local mega!

I spent the rest of my morning walking a long stretch of bridleway north of Croughton, a track I hadn't yet explored. There is a decent chunk of woodland here and some large open fields. There were plenty of birds about but nothing spectacular. Best were a couple of flyover Golden Plover and a couple of showy Red Kites.

Later on, a quick look at Thenford Church again proved fruitful with a couple of relatively brief flight views of a female/1st-winter Hawfinch, loosely associating with a group of Redwings.

I finished my day over at Boddington Reservoir for the gull roost. It was a very decent roost with excellent numbers of larger gulls. I managed to pick out at least 5-6 adult/4th winter Yellow-Legged Gulls, as well as a possible adult Caspian Gull at last knockings, in the near darkness.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Kitti & Kes

The Grimsbury Reservoir patch has been painfully quiet for quite sometime. This week however, I was treated to a bit of a surprise, with a smart 1st-winter Kittiwake bobbing about on the water, a short way off the pontoon at the southern end of the reservoir.

It soon moved to the centre of the reservoir with a group of LBBGs, however typically these were soon disturbed by a fisherman and all drifted off away from the reservoir. The Kittiwake wasn't seen again. Boooo! This was amazingly the fourth Kittiwake I've seen at Grimsbury in three years and the third I've found! Not bad for humble old Grimbo!

Other than a few Yellow-Legged Gull sightings and a solitary male Stonechat, the other recent highlight has been the reliable presence of an extremely confiding female Kestrel, allowing an amazingly close approach down to around 15-20 feet. A bit of a treat to see one so close!

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Invasion of the monster Finch!

This autumn will long be remembered for the unprecedented numbers of Hawfinches reaching our shores. This appears to be in part at least, due to some kind of failure in their food resources in eastern Europe, forcing them to move North & West.

Sightings were initially, almost exclusively flyovers, mostly through the South midlands, where numbers were hitting 100 from some of the higher watchpoints...often before midday!

Sightings are now far more widespread, and searching any suitable habitat, particularly around Hornbeams & Yews, their two favourite sources of food, is quite likely to prove successful.

I was keen to join in on the invasion, which began while Em & I were out in Asia. After a week or so back in the UK I was yet to connect with one, despite sightings across the midlands still going strong. So knowing my house is on a fairly high point in the local landscape, I decided to get a bit of early morning vis-miging in before work each day.

My first go failed to produce any Hawfinch however I was very pleased with a couple of garden ticks in the shape of a Little Egret and a small group of Golden Plover over, as well as a Brambling and very decent numbers of both Chaffinch and Redwing.

My persistence soon paid off on the morning of Tuesday 31/10. I picked up the distinctive sharp flight call of a Hawfinch. I frantically looked around to see 3 birds heading high-ish west...Redwing...Redwing...HAWFINCH! I was understandably chuffed, what a mega garden tick!

The next day, yet more excitement ensued with a pair, followed by a single Hawfinch going through, again West. Finally Monday 06/11 again provided two further singles. 

Since then, I made it my mission to find some more settled birds locally. Surprisingly quickly, this also paid off, with the discovery of several birds around Thenford Church, between Brackley & Banbury. It was an area I suspected could be productive, with plenty of mature Yew trees here, as well as lots of large, parkland trees around the adjacent Heseltine estate. 

The birds have proved to be quite a crowd puller for local birders, however due to their elusive nature, several have gone home disappointed. They certainly aren't the easy things to catch up with due to the extensive amount of suitable habitat and getting decent photos has proved tricky! They do though appear to still about, with up to 6 seen most days within the last week. Fingers crossed they are there for the winter!

Friday, 17 November 2017

Weekend in the South West

Had a very enjoyable weekend in Cornwall & Devon with my other half, celebrating my 30th birthday (eeeek!) between 02/11 - 05/11.

Did a little bit of birding, here and there, popping into Bowling Green Marsh near Exeter and doing a bit of walking along the coastal paths around Polzeath & Port Isaac. Birding highlight of the weekend was a visit to Labrador Bay near Teignmouth for Cirl Buntings. I managed to find at least 30 birds showing well at the western end of the reserve, sheltering from the stiff easterly wind.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The honeymoon!

Having got engaged in Iceland back in March 2016, myself and Em finally tied the knot at the end of September. Woooo! For our honeymoon, we spent the majority of October in both Vietnam & Malaysian Borneo.

It was a really exciting trip, particularly Borneo, where we had some incredible wildlife experiences. There were so many highlights although the primates in particular were really stand out.

We spent the whole time in the vast state of Sabah, briefly exploring the area close to Mount Kinabalu, before moving East to Sandakan. From here we explored the rainforest around Sepilok before finally spending a few days along the Kinabatangan River as far as the village of Sukau.

For the most part, we had our own guide, which have to say was well worthwhile, particularly along the Kinabatangan, where we had their full attention, as well as being able to approach the wildlife that bit easier, as apposed to being part of a group. Exploring the Kinabatangan with our guide was a particularly exciting part, cruising up and down the river searching for things, not knowing what will appear around the next bend in the river!

On the mammal front, the highlight was one, possibly two wild Orangutan around Sepilok. The first was a young male (photo 3 of 4) coming to the daily feed at the Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, who we were told was not part of their programme. Seeing this was amazing however if I was ultra picky, it wasn't quite the same as seeing one in the wilderness! The other Orangutan (photo 4 of 4) will have to go down as possibly wild. This was seen close to the Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre at some distance. Looking at the photos of it, I can't see any evidence of tattoos (to show it was part of the rehab centre projects) but hard to tell for certain considering the distance we saw it at. Lovely to see all the same!

Across the road from the Orangutan Rehab Centre is the Sun Bear Sanctuary, also well worth a visit. We were able to enjoy rescued Sun Bears at close quarters, climbing trees and play fighting. It's so sad that throughout Asia, these stunning animals, Orangutans and many others are slowly disappearing due to the illegal pet trade, medicine trade and habitat loss. Us humans really have a lot to answer for!

We were very lucky to see a group of wild Bornean Pygmy Elephants close to Sukau, feeding on the side of the Kinabatangan River. These were by no means certain, however thankfully we were at a time of the year when they can be found moving along the river. They spent pretty much the whole time in the long grass, however we were able to get pretty close and enjoy good views.

We managed to see four species of monkey in all, including Pig-Tailed Macaque, Long-Tailed Macaque & Silver Langur. The Long-Tailed Macaques, were particularly bold around the Abai Jungle lodge, with Em & I having one particularly nasty encounter, being cornered by a seriously feisty beast, baring his teeth and growling at us. Somehow, we managed to escape...lesson now learned, never stare a Macaque in the eyes, this tells them you want to fight! Woops!

Of the monkey species we saw, it was the Proboscis Monkeys that really stole the show. We saw quite a few troops of 15-20 and spent quite a bit of time watching their antics.

Onto the birds! I saw just shy of 100 species which was pretty decent going. Rarity wise, three species stood out. Firstly we managed to jam in on TWO Bornean Bristleheads at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, Sepilok. This was made the more remarkable by the fact we were only looking for about 15 minutes before a huge tropical storm swept in! This is a very unique species in that it is the only member of the Pityriaseidae family. It is also a Bornean endemic and is notoriously difficult to see due to spending most of their time in the tree canopy. So basically, we got very lucky!

Another standout was catching sight of a couple of Storm's Storks high over the Kinabatangan, near to Abai village. These are exceptionally rare and endangered, with a very fragmented population across Malaysia & Indonesia of perhaps only 400 individuals left in the wild. So a very special encounter.

Finally, the other real stand out bird was encountered while on an evening boat cruise down a tributary of the Kinabatangan. The boat screeched to a halt and the guide announced to us that in a nearby dead tree was a very special species. It turned out to be three male White-Fronted Falconets, a Bornean endemic and one of, if not THE smallest bird of prey species in the world, being no more than the size of a Chaffinch! Amazing!

The Hornbills were my personal bird highlight, they really were impressive! We saw 4 out of the 8 Bornean Hornbill species with Oriental Pied the most common, as well as seeing Black, Bushy-Crested & Wrinkled. The one I really wanted to see, Rhinoceros unfortunately eluded us! Twice we saw probables, however neither us or the guides saw enough to confirm for sure.

We saw 6 stunning Kingfisher species, including our very own Common Kingfisher! My favourite though was this formidable Stork-Billed Kingfisher, found by Em sitting motionless on a riverside branch! Look at that bill!

There were several reptile highlights including 3 separate Crocodile sightings, Mangrove Snake, a couple of other snake sp. and amazing views of a couple of large Monitor Lizards around Abai Jungle Lodge.

There were some spectacular butterflies, however the Common Tree Nymph was the one that really wowed me the most with it's approximate 15cm wingspan and transparent wings. They would glide around the forest, barely flapping their wings; a real mesmerising sight!

Our day spent close to Mount Kinabalu allowed to connect with a few very cool plants. A walk with our guide around the botanical gardens was really interesting, finding out what many of the local plants were and still are used for in Bornean culture. Here we saw a few native Orchid species including one of the smallest in the world, the Pin-Head Orchid as well as the aptly named Dancing Lady Orchid.

Down the road we paid a visit to the Poring Hot Spring which I have to say, was a bit of a uninspiring tourist trap. However, here we were able to see a flowering Rafflesia keithii, the biggest flower species in the world. Quite a bizarre sight and a unexpected treat! The ones we saw were not at full size but were still a good c3 feet across!

This is a bit of a highlights package and so there are plenty more photos on my flickr page here:

Close to home

This weekend has been beautifully bright, crisp and cold. This encouraged me to get out and explore some sites close to home, in the hope of...