Sunday, 30 August 2015

As good as it gets

Wryneck in Alexandra Park, north London, this morning. This nationally scarce migrant has now appeared in the same area of scrub at the site in four of the last five years. Coincidence? Maybe not ...
Having been away in Scotland last week when autumn migration kicked off in style on my north London local patch of Alexandra Park, the obvious assumption was that I had paid the price of being away from home and missed out big time. Wrong. In fact, having woken up early this morning and decided to give the patch a thrash anyway, I actually hit the big time. This morning's visit was probably my best-ever session in the park, a site I first birded as a teenager in the late Seventies.

Four Common Redstarts included this showy individual (above) and a first-winter male (below).
I'd assumed the Wryneck found by David Callahan last week had now gone, as it was unreported yesterday, so instead focused initially on the good numbers of warblers present. After a while I met fellow patcher Gareth Richards and another local birder, Tony Jakeman, who fairly quickly located the Wryneck in a hawthorn in the 'cricket scrub', just west of the pavilion - result! Gaz, Tony and I then birded the bushes extensively, eventually being joined by Alan Gibson, Paul Rawlins, Henry-Wyn-Jones and others, and between us we racked up a really respectable list for this one small area of the site: four Common Redstarts, single Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, 10+ Blackcaps, three each of Willow Warbler and Common Chiffchaff, two Reed Warblers, single Garden Warbler and Common and Lesser Whitethroats, and two Yellow Wagtails and a Peregrine Falcon overhead. In small urban parks with limited potential, such a list constitutes nothing less than a red-letter day.

The least colourful of today's three Willow Warblers.
From memory, Wryneck has now been recorded in Alexandra Park in the second half of August in four out of the last five years. After last year's bird I tentatively suggested that possibly only one individual was involved, an idea given short shrift by some of my birding friends. They may of course be right; I don't expect Wrynecks live for very long and in any case their appearances here will to some extent be influenced by weather conditions. But now it's happened again, I ask the question again - what's more likely, one Wryneck stopping off at the same regular location on its annual autumn migration (something we know happens in many other species), or up to four different Wrynecks randomly finding the exact same inland patch of scrub in north London at the same time of year in a five-year-period? Discuss.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Bee-eater road trip

One of the breeding European Bee-eaters in Cumbria, a county not usually known for its Mediterranean climate.
After an excellent week in Edinburgh, it was time for the long drive south back to London. I usually take the slightly longer scenic route on the A1, through East Lothian, Borders and along the beautiful north Northumberland coast, but this time we headed home via Cumbria, calling in at Lower Gelt Quarry to see Britain's only breeding European Bee-eaters.

European Bee-eater with prey at the quarry. Two adults showed well, but distantly, hence this record shot.
Lower Gelt Quarry, from the RSPB viewpoint: the bee-eaters show on the far ridge.
With a long day on the road and a family eager to get home time was tight, but the site is only a six-mile detour from Junction 43 of the M6 at Carlisle, and it would have been remiss not to give it a try. Nicole Khan, Warden at my local patch of Rainham RSPB, initially made the suggestion, her boyfriend Jason Moule being on the wardening team at the quarry. Jason was there to give us a warm welcome, and after a 10-minute walk involving plenty of Eurasian Siskins and quite a few butterflies (six species), my daughter Ava and I were treated to great scope views (and more distant photo opportunities) of two adults busily catching insects and taking them to the burrow. It's exactly 30 years since I last saw this species in Britain, that occasion involving a long-staying juvenile on Tresco, Scilly, in October 1985.

Chasing prey in the quarry.
More significantly, it is just the fourth British breeding record. Initially there were two pairs at Lower Gelt Quarry, and also two 'helpers', but the other birds disappeared to leave these two individuals busily catching insects for their growing offspring, which we were told were likely to fledge shortly. Although hard to extrapolate a meaningful pattern from four breeding records, the increased frequency in recent years suggests that - perhaps in a warming climate - British breeding attempts are likely to become more commonplace. The other records are as follows:
  • 1955: Streat, Sussex - three pairs attempted to breed, two successfully, fledging seven young.
  • 2002: Bishop Middleham, County Durham - one pair fledged three young.
  • 2014: Niton, Isle of Wight - two pairs fledged eight young (see National Trust video below).

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial


September 2015 | Issue 279

In the quiet news period of the summer holidays, frivolous stories often compete with factual reporting on the front pages of national newspapers. This year’s ‘silly season’ has been worse than most, with national media attention focused on the perceived problem of ‘aggressive’ gulls. It stemmed from three incidents involving attacks on pets in the West Country, leading Prime Minister David Cameron to call for “a big conversation” about whether a cull was needed.

At least the Prime Minister admitted he knew little about the subject. It’s a shame that those responsible for the ensuing press coverage weren’t so frank about their ignorance. Instead, we were treated to such idiot reportage as ‘Moment killer seagull turns cannibal ...’ (Daily Mail), ‘Seagull terror: lock up your babies’ (Daily Star), ‘Psycho seagulls keep out illegals’ (Daily Star again), ‘Reign of terror by vicious seagulls’ (Express) and, from an American perspective, ‘Killer seagulls are terrorising animals in the UK and experts fear a baby might be next’ (Time magazine).

Ah, ‘experts’. Step forward the much-quoted Gull Awareness Group, apparently the creation of a single Cheltenham resident with no declared expertise beyond hating gulls and launching a petition to have them culled. Tabloid hacks would surely do better to talk to the RSPB, which has been at pains to point out that the main species involved, European Herring Gull, is a declining Red-listed Bird of Conservation Concern, and shouldn’t simply be culled. The RSPB has backed the call for a gull “conversation”, but even though the charity will bring scientific evidence to bear in the debate, is this really the answer to an issue over-hyped through irresponsible media coverage?

Common-sense measures to change refuse practices, humanely deter roof-nesting gulls and stop people feeding them in problem areas would surely go a long way to reducing nuisance issues, even if there are wider questions about population dynamics and the marine environment that need addressing. In the meantime, let’s hope the tabloid press find a more productive way of filling column inches before the summer’s over.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Birding the Lothian coast

Wood Sandpiper at Musselburgh Lagoons this afternoon.
After Birdfair and a pit-stop in Yorkshire on the way north, I met up with Haze, Ed and Ava for a week with the Edinburgh branch of the family. We get up to my Dad's several times a year but this is our first visit in a long time during the festival. Today I took time out from stand-up comedy and other cultural diversions to bird along the Lothian coast, starting at one of my favourite migrant traps, Torness Power Station.

After noting one of the local Peregrine Falcons and then clocking a Merlin which shot through, chasing anything as it went, I focused on looking for migrant passerines. Torness has recently produced Barred Warbler and Wryneck among other notable migrants (see the excellent Birding Lothian website for the latest local news). I started more gently with a couple of Northern Wheatears, but on entering the shelter belt along the entrance road quickly flushed what looked like an Icterine Warbler. Before I could relocate it there was a minor interlude involving armed police, who wanted to know what I was doing lurking in bushes with a telephoto lens near a power station! They were fine once they realised I was birding, and within 10 minutes or so I got a proper look at the 'Icky' before it disappeared again. A Willow Warbler appeared to be the only other migrant in this strip of cover; I worked the other patches of scrub east of the power station but couldn't find the previous day's Barred Warbler, nor in fact any other migrants.

Sandwich Terns and Black-headed Gulls on Musselburgh Lagoons, against the backdrop of the Firth of Forth.
Juvenile Ruff (front) and adult Common Redshank for comparison.
Time was somewhat tight as I wanted to be at Musselburgh for high tide soon after noon. A quick scan of Belhaven Bay en route produced Eurasian Whimbrel and Greenshank, an appetiser for the main course further west. The lagoons at Levenhall Links were superb for shorebirds, the grassy banks being crammed with massed ranks of Oystercatchers and Eurasian Curlews, and the pools packed with a good range of waders - of some 15 species in the area in total, Wood Sandpiper was the most notable (found moments before I arrived by Dave Allan), but also there were also two Little Stints, numerous Ruff, 120+ Sandwich Terns and a Little Gull.

Drake Velvet Scoter off Morrison's Haven - one of many.
Nearby, I checked the sea at Morrison's Haven, where good numbers of Velvet Scoter (seemingly all drakes) were offshore, along with a single summer-plumaged Red-necked Grebe and a good range of commoner seabirds. Further east at Seton Burn I spent a good hour going through huge numbers of gulls but could find nothing unusual bar a somewhat pale juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull (more on that in a separate post), while at nearby Longniddry Bents, another four Red-necked Grebes helped to round off an excellent day in the field.

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