Monday, 21 January 2013

Snow-bound patch delivers

This was the scene as I walked to work through the snow today. Alexandra Park was transformed by the white stuff, if rather birdless. But then it happened - a distinctive flight call that I know well, even if not from these parts. Woodlark! As instantaneously as it clicked, it was followed by the rasping chirrups of Skylarks. I looked up to see a significant lark flock heading north, presumably reorienting after the snow had stopped. There were 24 birds in all - one Woodlark and 23 Skylarks. The former was my first at this north London site, which for a brief period in the mid-Seventies had its own regular wintering group of Woodlarks. A couple of east-bound Fieldfares were the only other evidence of hard-weather movement, but my year-list for the park grew further later in the day at the Birdwatch office, from where we were treated to the aerial antics of not one but two Peregrines - the latest in a sequence of recent sightings. Are they moving in to the area?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Bird feeding in the snow

Friday 18 January 09:02 hrs
Friday 18 January 11:28 hrs
After the damp squib of last Tuesday when the forecast snow failed to materialise, this time the prediction was correct and it reached my part of north London soon after 09:00 on Friday 18th. With conditions deteriorating steadily and the roads on the hill where I live ungritted, I abandoned plans for a 40-mile round trip for gulls on the Thames and instead focused on garden birds. You can see from these images that it didn't take long for the white stuff to transform my view of the garden.

Fieldfare on the lawn yesterday - a rare treat in the garden, almost always occurring only in hard weather.
This winter I’ve been experimenting with some new bird foods, having been sent samples to test by a number of different companies. First up is an innovative product range produced by Chapelwood, whose idea, almost literally in a nutshell, is to target particular species and families, rather than adopting a ‘one food suits all’ approach. This is an interesting idea, but one with obvious pitfalls as well as plus points.

One of three Mistle Thrushes in the garden over the last two days. This species dominates Fieldfare at apples.
For a start, the considerable overlap in the diet of many garden birds means it’s hard to be overly specific with a single product. If it tastes good and is digestible, then birds will eat it if they can – especially in winter. On the other hand, if the ingredients preferred by a given species are included in such a mix, it is likely that that species will feed on it (assuming it is present in the first place) – so it should work in theory.

This male Blackcap obviously didn't read the label and tucks into Chapelwood's Finest Finch Food regardless.
I tried Chapelwood’s Finest Finch Food first, filling a tubular seed feeder two-thirds full. The packaging is strangely upmarket for bird food, as is the price at £3.97 per kilo on Amazon. But you are paying for quality: this mix is rich in sunflower hearts, niger seed, peanut nibs and millet. The first birds to try it, and very quickly, were actually Great Tits; over several visits they clearly enjoyed it. Shortly afterwards, a party of five Lesser Redpolls – the first ever on my feeders – tried out the Finest Finch Food too, a vote of confidence for sure. Chaffinches and a Robin have also fed on it quite regularly and today the crowning glory was my first male Blackcap of the winter (following a female in December), so it certainly gets the thumbs up, even if its audience is broader than finches alone.

Having appeared for the first time today, this male Blackcap quickly bossed the hanging feeders.
In view of the price, products in this range - I've also being using Finest Blackbird Food with great success for that species and Mistle Thrush - are very much luxury options, perhaps for use in topping up feeders stocked with a more basic mix, or for getting a feeding station started. My preferred main options are a high-quality mix (ideally with mealworms to benefit a wider range of species) and sunflower hearts; a combination of these and premium products such as Chapelwood's specialist range has resulted in 21 species in the garden over the last three days of snow, which I reckon is a pretty healthy return.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Azores Bullfinch crowdfunding campaign

Azores Bullfinch: still classified as Endangered by the IUCN.
As a regular visitor to the Azores and a long-standing supporter of the campaign to ensure a future for the endemic and endangered Azores Bullfinch, I am well aware of the problem of securing funding for long-term field conservation. Back in 2008, in support of BirdLife International, I was delighted to help with  fundraising for the Priolo, as it is known in the islands, and at Birdwatch we pushed the cause strongly in our role as a BirdLife Species Champion. That initiative resulted in most of more than £51,000 raised by the magazine being contributed to the cause, but with a project on this scale money runs out quickly and now the time has come to renew the effort.
Azores Bullfinch habitat: Serra da Tronquiera, São Miguel, with native laurel scrub  and alien Japanese Red Cedars.
SPEA, BirdLife's partner in Portugal, has just launched a campaign to support Azores Bullfinch conservation work using the 'crowdfunding' website Indiegogo. Normally used to generate finance for projects such as independent films, crowdfunding could well succeed as an innovative way to reach out to the public globally to help finance local conservation work.

Interpretative display at the Priolo Centre, an important education resource, on São Miguel.
The new SPEA crowdfunding campaign is simply entitled 'Let’s save the Azores Bullfinch' and runs only until the end of February 2013. In that time it aims to raise at least $28,000 for the continuation of the work needed to avoid the decline of this endangered species. This amount will contribute to mantaining the 22-strong project team who continue the effort to restore the species’ habitat, controlling invasive plants and re-establishing the native Azorean flora on which this once-common endemic bird depends. Donations are welcome through, and according to the amount given donors will receive a range of benefits, from sponsoring a native plant right up to a one-day guided tour to see the area under restoration and, hopefully, the species. Please give generously!

Read press release

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Inner London's first Bearded Tits

It takes quite a lot to overshadow the continuing presence of two Buff-bellied Pipits together in the London Area, but that feat has now been achieved - by two Bearded Tits. The first time the species has ever been seen in Inner London, their presence in a tiny reedbed close to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in the ludicrous location of Hyde Park is the reason for their impromptu fame. Often perched within feet of passers-by, 'pinging' and swinging among the phragmites heads in the cold east wind, they have drawn a steady crowd throughout today as birders arrived from far and wide to admire them.

Amazingly, the lost duo were originally located by north London birder Alan Gibson back on 11 December and have presumably been there ever since. Alan is a long-serving stalwart of my Alexandra Park local patch, but our paths haven't crossed there over the Christmas period. So in a refreshingly old-school approach to bird news dissemination, Alan - who does not have a mobile phone or a computer - rang my office at Birdwatch on 4 January and left a message about them. I was in Scotland at the time, so didn't see it until my return to work four days later, by which time I assumed they must be long gone (indeed so did he, thinking they may have flown off when he first found them). Nonetheless, I alerted Hyde Park patcher Des McKenzie to the news and tweeted it out via @birdingetc for general interest anyway; Des then reported that another Hyde Park birder, Ralph Hancock, thought he may have heard a Bearded Tit at the site. So it was game on for dawn yesterday, and Des duly relocated the birds.

It seems extraordinary that they have lingered so long at this marginal site, and also remained undetected; even more incredible that they are back on the map following a Sixties-style field telegraph alert. The story may not be over yet, as both individuals are ringed. From analysis of the hundreds of photos taken of them, it may be possible to piece together the code and trace their origin - hopefully more to follow on this.

Some of the ring code can be deciphered from the images - in time, it may be possible to trace the birds' origin.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Highland fling

Male Capercaillie: one of the most highly prized of Scotland's specialities.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of joining the guiding team at Heatherlea as a guest leader for a birding holiday with a difference - the New Year Birdlist Booster, an innovative joint promotion between the specialist Speyside tour company and Birdwatch magazine. Designed to get year lists off to a flying start with Scotland's speciality species, it also became clear as the group of 13 expectant clients assembled that a few life list gaps would be plugged too. Heatherlea's in-house guides for this trip were the excellent Phil Knott and Johnny Pott.

Sunrise over the mountains, from our base in Nethybridge.
The formula for the trip was flexible, with all participants present for the first three days and most staying for the whole week. We hit the ground running in the first hour of the first morning with a fine lek of nine Black Grouse, and went on from there to notch up a terrific line-up which included Rock Ptarmigan, Golden Eagle, Crested Tit and, bird of the trip for many, Capercaillie - a truly magnificent sight. The supporting cast wasn't to be sniffed at either, and included Whooper Swan, Pink-footed GooseLong-tailed DuckGreat Northern and Red-throated DiversHen Harrier, Purple Sandpiper, Glaucous Gull and Hooded Crow. Crossbills of any sort were notable by their almost complete absence, however - just one fly-over bird and two 'heard onlys' suggest that the populations of all forms in this part of the Highlands are much more mobile than most birders would imagine.

Great views were had of another Caledonian specialist, Crested Tit.
I should stress that the above line-up was in just the first three days, after which I had to return to London because of other work commitments. The group went on to notch up many other successes, among them American Wigeon. Mammals were noteworthy, too, and included Red and Roe Deer, Mountain Hare and Red Squirrel. As and when a trip report becomes available I'll update this post with a link, but suffice to say a good time was had by all. Many thanks to Phil and Johnny, and also to Heatherlea proprietor Kevin Shaw for his help.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year!

Part of the Waxwing flock at Lakeside Thurrock today - a good bird to see on 1 January, and indeed any time.
New year, new year list. I was out at dawn on my Rainham Marshes patch this morning, working the West Marsh and stone barges area first. At the barges I met up with Chris and Pete Langsdon, who'd started the day well with Short-eared Owl and a first-winter Caspian Gull - two species we weren't to see again. But it was an excellent day nonetheless, with the more notable sightings including an immature female Marsh Harrier, Peregrine, c40 European Golden Plover, 23 Eurasian Curlew roosting over high tide, a Jack Snipe and 20+ Common Snipe on the saltings, a single first-winter Yellow-legged Gull, 3+ Rock Pipits, Grey Wagtail (not easy here), 2 European Stonechats, 4+ Cetti's Warblers, Goldcrest and 2 Corn Buntings - my personal total was a very respectable 69 species at the end of the day. A half-hour diversion early afternoon east to Lakeside Thurrock added a 70th in the form of Waxwing, a flock of 120 or so feeding in plantings around the Costco car park. As starts to the year go, it was a good one.

Some of the birds were feeding on low plantings about three feet above the ground, for nice eye-level views.
This is the main part of the flock - guess the number visible, then count them and see how close you were.


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