Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Owls playing chicken

Features editor Matt Merritt writes:

Last night, I was driving home from Nottingham, at about 11.30pm. It was rainy and windy, and I’d got about two miles from home, on a straight, downhill stretch, when I saw a Tawny Owl standing upright at the side of the road.

I slowed right down and managed to avoid it, and pulled to a halt a little way further on, hazard warning lights blazing, before going back with a torch. To my surprise, it was still there, and didn’t fly away even when I got to within almost touching distance.

Now I was worried. I assumed it must be injured, so I started trying to work out ways to pick it up without hurting it, and without suffering severe injury myself (the wildlife photographer Eric Hosking famously lost an eye to a Tawny Owl). Quite where I’d have taken it, I’m not sure, there not being any all-night owl surgeries in the vicinity. I went back to the car, found a padded photographer’s case to put it in, donned gloves, and prepared for the difficult part.

It had gone, thankfully. I had a good look around the area on foot, drove back up and down three or four times, but it had clearly flown away rather than just hopping into the ditch.

Thing is, this is the third time something like this has happened to me. The first, 10 years ago, was on a similarly lonely stretch of road near Bourne, Lincolnshire, where I was living at the time. That time it was a Long-eared Owl, which was stood in the centre of the road, stock still. I only saw it late and was terrified that I’d hit it, but when I got out to walk back, it watched me part of the way, then flew easily away.

Just a couple of months after that, the same thing happened with another Long-eared Owl (odd because I don’t know of any breeding locally) just about a mile from where I saw last night’s bird.

So, I’m baffled. Roads must be great places to catch voles, etc, as they emerge from cover, but I can only assume the owls get rather dazzled by headlights and are unable to fly away from approaching cars. I’m trying to get an owl expert to explain more, but has anyone out there had a similar experience?

Patch list challenge update

Well, we're approaching the home straight, and intrepid challenger Mike Passman, who watches Thurlestone Bay in Devon, is hanging on to his lead, but there's still time for things to change...

He writes: "September was not as successful as I had hoped – very settled weather with few days with winds in excess of force four, so very poor passage of seabirds.

"A juvenile Pied Flycatcher (163) was found in the willows by East Soar Farm on the 14th. Next day, a Ruff (164) spent an afternoon on Thurlestone Marsh, while a walk around South Milton Ley on the 16th produced a juvenile Redstart (165).

"While searching the Bolberry Down area on the 21st, I flushed a Short-eared Owl (166), with the star bird of the month located in the same field on the 22nd – a juvenile Dotterel (167).

"As usual there was another mega dip – I went to Cornwall for a long weekend on the 25th, when a Glossy Ibis landed on Thurlestone Marsh before moving to South Huish Marsh, last being seen at 8am on the 26th. So far there have been reports of eight species which I have not managed to see! I'm going to need some very favourable weather conditions to achieve the 175 target."

Meanwhile, in the East Midlands, features editor Matt Merritt is desperately playing catch-up. He writes: "September was very quiet indeed, but a juvenile Common Rosefinch (147) trapped and ringed in a Thornton garden on the 26th was an unexpected tick to get - many thanks to Andy Smith for his generosity in letting me, and many other birders, see this great bird.

"October has brought a few ticks that I'd missed earlier in the year - fairly common birds that I'd trusted would cross my path at some stage. So, the 13th brought a flyover flock of Golden Plovers at Cossington (148), and the 14th a Kingfisher (149) at Cropston Reservoir (I've been hearing them at Kelham Bridge all year, but hadn't actually seen one). This one was, bizarrely, behaving almost like a wagtail, hopping around the small boulders on the dam near the waterline, and only once darting out to fish.

"Finally, on the 16th a couple of Marsh Tits were at Beacon Hill - they're usually harder for me to find than Willow Tits, which breed at one of my regular sites."

Friday, September 4, 2009

Patch list challenge returns

August is always a fairly quiet time for birders, and it's been no different in our Patch List Challenge, with a month of clam before the forthcoming autumn storms, and one last effort to gobble up those ticks.

Challenger Mike Passman, in Thurlestone Bay, Devon, writes: "I only managed to add four new species during August, which also included a mega dip - Aquatic Warbler only 200 yards from my garden. It certainly beats Mike Weedon's moan about Little Tern!

"A juvenile Curlew Sandpiper (159) made a very brief visit, followed three days later by the only Wood Sandpiper (160) so far on South Huish Marsh. Amongst the large flock of Dunlin on the beach was a single Little Stint (161). Finally, the month ended on a high note with a Whinchat (162) at Soar Farm on the 31st.

"September will be the month that will provide some of my target species to achieve a year total of 175."

Meanwhile, features editor Matt Merritt has been catching up, ever so slightly, since our last update.

He writes: "A rainy Friday evening in July brought an unexpected bonus in the form of a sub-adult Gannet at Foremark Reservoir, Derbyshire. When I went back the following day to try to get a good view of it in the sunshine, it had gone, but a female Common Scoter was another new tick.

"Into August, Cossington churchyard provided five Spotted Flycatchers on the 14th (thanks to Dave Gray and John Hague for that one), and there were more later on, near Groby. I'd unaccountably managed to miss Hobby (even though they're reasonably common up here now), but there were several at Cotes Mill (16th).

"The day after Birdfair, I caught up with some Black Terns at Swithland Reservoir, then missed several possible ticks later in the week when laid up with a heavy cold. But Bank Holiday Monday, the 31st, brought number 145, well on my way to my target of 160. I walked around Measham Sewage Farm, vainly looking for Corn Buntings. As I made my way back to the car across a stubble field, two Whinchats were flycatching from the top of hay bales - they've been elsuive in recent years, so this was a nice find."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cebu Flowerpecker

Features editor Matt Merritt writes:

You may or may not know that the critically endangered Cebu Flowerpecker is the poster bird for this year's British Birdwatching Fair (at Rutland Water, August 21st-23rd).

While I was in the Philippines earlier this year, we attempted to see the elusive little fellas. Only two of our party managed it (yours truly wasn't among them), but it was a fantastic experience all the same, and American birder Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, interviewed local conservationist Lisa Marie Paguntalan about her work in trying to save the bird from extinction.

You can hear a podcast of the interview here, and read more about the bird and the interview here.

Finally, there's my article about the Cebu Flowerpecker in the August issue of Bird Watching, due out July 20th, and a five-page feature on birding in the Philippines, plus a chance to win a great birding holiday there, in our special Summer Issue, due out August 10th.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Patch list challenge update

Things have slowed down a bit recently in our patch list challenge, as you’d expect at this time of year.

Mike Passman, who watches Thurlestone Bay in Devon, writes: “Very little activity in May on the birding front. There was some sea passage on the 11th, with an adult Pomarine Skua (153) flying east in the early evening. There was another male Garganey, briefly, in late afternoon (12th), and next day the first Spotted Flycatcher was on South Milton Ley, with four (14th) in Soar Mill Valley.

“Strong southerly winds and rain (17th) produced three Arctic Skua, the second Pomarine Skua of the month and a Balearic Shearwater.

“The 25th brought a new site record – two mle and one female Tufted Ducks (155), my first in five years of covering this patch. In early afternoon (28th), a female Honey Buzzard (156) flew north over Aveton Gifford.

“Only 19 species to find in seven months, still on target for 175.”

Features editor Matt Merritt, meanwhile, made some slow but steady progress. He writes: “On May 15th, I saw a single Little Tern flying over Cossington Meadows, some reward for a lot of chasing round after Black and Little Terns that week. A gorgeous Wood Sandpiper was the best bird there, although I’d already ticked one at Willington GP earlier.

“Willington was the scene for my next tick (24th), with a pair of Garganey. Looking into the sun, they were difficult to find on the distant Canal Pit, but patience paid off.

“On a rainy Saturday (June 6th) I missed a Sanderling at Brascote Pits, but while driving into Leicester to do some shopping, had a Red Kite over rooftops at Field Head. I’ve been expecting one, because there have been a number of local sightings this year – is this the Rockingham population expanding into west Leicestershire?

“Finally, on June 23rd, I heard two or maybe three Quail calling at Groby Fishing Lakes. A really satisfying tick, this one, because I missed them last year.

“The total stands at 137 now, so my 160 target is looking achievable.”

Friday, May 15, 2009

Three’s company: The patch list challenge continues…

Our patch list challenge has gathered pace, what with the arrival of the spring migrants, and of another challenger.

Mike Passman, who watches Thurlestone Bay in Devon, has been the pace-setter so far, and on May 5th he wrote:

“April certainly lived up to expectations, particularly some of the days spent sea watching. First addition to the total was Manx Shearwater (132), with a total of 52 flying east (6th) along with 110 Sandwich Tern and 43 Common Scoter. The same day, a single Cuckoo flew up the valley (133). Walking through Soar Mill Valley (8th) produced a male Dartford Warbler (134) along with two Tree Pipits and three male Cirl Buntings, while in the bay, a single Common Tern (135) was amongst the 23 Sandwich Terns.

“A strong southerly wind (9th) produced two new birds – five Whimbrel (136) and a dark phase Arctic Skua (137), while in the bay were 178 Sandwich Terns, 107 Common Scoters and 242 Manx Shearwaters.

“Early morning (11th) brought two Reed Warblers (138) singing in Thurlestone Marsh, and the following day both Garden Warblers (139) and Sedge Warblers (140) arrived. Monday (13th) produced the first Grasshopper Warbler reeling in South Milton Ley, while a single Whitethroat (142) was singing on the coast path. Next day a partial summer plumage Spotted Redshank (143) spent the day on Thurlestone Marsh while amongst the passing Manx Shearwaters was our second record of Balearic Shearwaters.

“April 16th saw south-easterly winds and as usual the passing seabirds produced most interest – a new site record for me in the shape of a single Great Skua (144). Next day a group of waders at high tide in the bay consisted of two Purple Sandpiper, a Common Sandpiper, five Turnstone and a single Sanderling (145). On 18th a male Yellow Wagtail (146) spent the day amongst the sheep on South Huish Marsh, and the next interesting record (22nd) was a Hobby (147) observed coming in off the sea.

“The 23rd saw the start of two days of good sea passage, including 107 Bar-tailed Godwits (148) with 133 Whimbrel. The 25th saw the largest movement of Gannets - 660 in three hours, plus two Arctic Terns (149), 101 Fulmars, three Great Skuas and a Black-throated Diver. Monday the 27th produced a new site record – an adult Little Gull (150) in the bay. On the 29th, a walk round East and Middle Soar provided 20 Whitethroats and a single Lesser Whitethroat (151). Early evening saw a drake Garganey on South Huish Marsh. Early on 30th the first Swift (152) flew through.

“The target of 175 by 31st December is looking more achievable – there are a few target birds for May which should get the total towards 160, leaving the autumn migration to produce the main thrust towards the target.”

Gavin Black, who birds a Gloucestershire patch, has risen to the challenge too, and writes:

“My list for a 12-mile radius now stands at 118, with about eight others beyond 12 miles and 37 of them seen at or from home, including a Peregrine, a Goshawk and a Woodcock.

“I have had three life ticks within 12 miles – Long-eared Owl, American Wigeon and one which I found for myself, a Cattle Egret. Woodland birds are quite easy to find as I live in the Forest of Dean. I have had Crossbills, Hawfinches and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, and there are 40-plus Bramblings in the garden every day and also Siskins (now starting to dwindle) which did total 100-plus. Ravens and Buzzards are over the house virtually daily.

“A friend and I had the county’s earliest ever Swallow on March 14th while carrying out a WeB survey on the river Severn. However, I hardly ever get House Sparrows at home (only twice in 26 years) and last week I had my first ever garden Collared Dove in that period. I visit RSPB Nagshead throughout the breeding season to check nestboxes and I shall certainly be adding Redstart, Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler to my list very soon!”

Finally, features editor Matt Merritt has been trying to make up for lost time, and writes: “My first House Martins were seen on the way home from work (April 15th), and the same evening, I picked up Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Common Sandpiper at Swithland Reservoir. It all kicked off the next day, too, with a single Avocet at Wanlip Meadows, along with Green Sandpiper, Ringed Plover and a brief visit by several Dunlin. A Grasshopper Warbler was reeling at Kelham Bridge later that evening, but it was the Avocet – one of my target birds for the year – that was the biggest thrill.

“The 17th brought a single Yellow Wagtail and a Sedge Warbler at Cossington Meadows, and the following day a trip to Willington Gravel Pits brought more Ringed Plovers, plus Whimbrel, Willow Warbler, and a single Curlew (surprisingly elusive this year). The 19th brought a Red-crested Pochard at Watermead CP, a Whitethroat at Kelham Bridge, and my first Cuckoo of the year, on the pit bank at Snibston Grange (actually heard while playing cricket, rather than birding!).

“I was away for a week, and returned to find that all hell had broken loose! I dashed to see the Pectoral Sandpipers at Cossington Meadows (one was still left), then back over to Willington for two Whiskered Terns (a patch first, it goes without saying) and several Arctic Terns. There was a hiatus then until May 5th, when I managed to pop and see a Wood Warbler in Victoria Park, Leicester, found by Dave Gray.

“Last weekend, I mopped up Tree Pipit at Beacon Hill, and finally got my first Swifts, with loads at the cricket ground (there was a Garden Warbler on the pit bank, too) and a pair returning to the regular nest next door but one to my house. Kelham Bridge had plenty of Reed Warblers, then on the 12th I added a Lesser Whitethroat at Thornton Reservoir, plus a flyover Turtle Dove.

“Finally (14th), I saw two small groups of Black-tailed Godwits at Willington GP, plus a Wood Sandpiper, both good patch ticks and enough to give me hope that the 160 target is more than achievable. I'm now on 133 - it's tantalisingly within sight.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Patch list challenge update

The year list challenge continues. Mike Passman sent this latest bulletin from his Devon patch Thurlestone Bay, for the period March 12th-31st. He writes:

“As expected, some very good records while some days were very quiet, probably due to a spell of very settled weather.

“Saturday, March 14 produced the first WHEATEAR (121), a very nice male, while five RAVEN flew through with 20 LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS on South Huish Marsh - signs of the start of spring migration.

“Monday, March 16 was a very sunny day with no wind and few birds in the Bay except for a very nice GLAUCOUS GULL (122), my first site record for this rare gull in the south-west. Tuesday, March 17 really did confirm spring was in the air – walking round the coast path, two SWALLOWS (123) flew past within six feet, and three SAND MARTINS were on the marsh. A late afternoon visit to South Huish Marsh found a pair of GARGANEY (124) tucked into one of the banks fast asleep. Wednesday, March 18 brought two female BLACK REDSTARTS and two male WHEATEARS, and the next day, there was the largest spring count of WHEATEARS – 15 in the field by South Huish Marsh, along with a single SAND MARTIN, whilst a female PEREGRINE caused consternation.

“Friday, March 20 produced the first SANDWICH TERN (125), with two arriving in the bay during the morning. Five COMMON SCOTER flew east, with a single BLACK-THROATED DIVER on the sea. Nothing of any significance passed through until Wednesday, March 25, with two new additions – the first TREE PIPIT (126) arrived off the sea and landed for a brief rest with a female BRAMBLING (127) by South Milton Ley. At high tide, six TURNSTONE, a DUNLIN and a PURPLE SANDPIPER were in the bay.

“Friday, March 27 produced the next addition to the year list – three GREY PLOVER (128) flew NE over South Milton Ley, whilst both BLACK AND RED-THROATED DIVER were together on the bay at high tide. Sunday, March 29 produced five SANDWICH TERNS together on the rocks in the Bay, while on Thurlestone Marsh a male GARGANEY was found together with a male SHOVELER (first for several weeks). The roost on the marsh produced nine SAND MARTINS and six SWALLOWS, with a late TAWNY OWL flying through my garden.

“Monday, March 30, saw, surprisingly, the drake GARGANEY still on Thurlestone Marsh, while a visit to the pumping station at South Milton Ley produced two WILLOW WARBLERS (129), with a highlight being a singing SIBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF – interesting to compare its song to the regular CHIFFCHAFF.

“Tuesday, March 31 brought a cloudy early morning and a slight east wind, which can be promising. Twenty-five SAND MARTINS and 10 SWALLOWS were over Thurlestone Ley at 8am while South Huish Marsh, at 10am, had a flock of 80 SAND MARTINS and 20 SWALLOWS with at least one HOUSE MARTIN (130) amongst them. Seawatching in the bay produced a few auks passing through, with one PUFFIN (131) close in.

“A very good end to what has been a very interesting start to the year – a total of 131 species for the local patch is certainly ahead of what I expected. April and May can only increase my expectations.”

Meanwhile, in the Midlands, landlocked features editor Matt Merritt is struggling to play catch-up. He writes:

“The first couple of weeks of March were a write-off, as I was out of the country, but our geographical position means that we rarely get any really early migrants.

“Attempting to make up for lost time, I caught up with a BLACK-NECKED GREBE at Swithland Reservoir on the 27th. I’ve seen them often in autumn, but to get one in full breeding plumage was a real treat.

“Walking round Cossington Meadows after work on the 30th, I got my first singing BLACKCAP, two LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS, and a really fine male WHEATEAR, three enjoyable if predictable ticks. I then started April with my first SWALLOWS, at Thornton Reservoir, and followed it on the 4th with a flock of LINNETS at Charnwood Lodge. They’ve been strangely elusive lately, so it was good to see them back. At the same site, a pair of MANDARIN were sitting on the little stream, and flew away into the heart of the woods, suggesting possible breeding.

“The next day, back over the Derbyshire border at Foremark Reservoir, I caught up with a female RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (very rare round my way), then added SAND MARTIN and WATER RAIL at my local reserve, Kelham Bridge (I’ve heard the latter umpteen times already this year, but I don’t count that).

“So, the running total stands at 104. I missed a RING OUZEL at Charnwood Lodge by minutes, but there’s time to put that right, and I’ve looked for LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKERS everywhere but the obvious site, Swithland Reservoir. Having failed miserably, I’m swallowing my pride, giving up all hope of actually finding one for myself, and going looking for the old regulars.”

Monday, March 23, 2009

Patch Challenge Update

Time for the latest updates in our patch year listing challenge. Reader Mike Passman, who watches Thurlestone Bay, in Devon, is taking on our own Matt Merritt, who watches an area around his Leicestershire home. And it’s still Mike who’s setting the pace…

He writes: “On February 17th, we had 75 WIGEON on on the sea and marsh – one of the largest flocks of the winter – with COMMON SCOTER, BLACK-THROATED DIVER and GREAT NORTHERN DIVER in the bay. Among a large flock of 160 BLACK-HEADED GULLS was a full adult MEDITERRANEAN GULL, taking my patch total to 115.

“On the 18th the WIGEON flock increased to 116, with 11 SHOVELERS and five LAPWINGS on the marsh. In the bay there were five GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS (my site record) and a single BLACK-THROATED DIVER. On Monday 23rd February there were two MEDITERRANEAN GULLS, plus six COMMON GULLS and a RED-THROATED DIVER in the bay.

“A walk around Aveton Gifford (24th February) produced two GREEN and three COMMON SANDPIPERS with a YELLOW-LEGGED GULL (116), two MARSH TITS (117) and a single NUTHATCH (118). Last view over the marsh before departing on holiday saw a single BLACK-TAILED GODWIT return.

“Next records were on 11th March, with two SAND MARTINS (119) flying over the marsh, two CETTI’S WARBLERS and a male BLACKCAP in full voice, and surprisingly a female BLACK REDSTART still visiting my garden. On the marsh amongst a party of 10 PIED WAGTAILS was a single WHITE, bringing my total to 120. Favourable weather over the next three weeks should see the start of the spring migration.”

Matt writes: “I’m still making very slow progress, this time with the excuse that I was out of the country for two weeks. Just before leaving, I did get my first SKY LARKS singing and displaying at Sence Valley Forest Park, and luckily don’t seem to have missed any outstanding rarities while I away, apart from a Bittern.

“I finally got back out around the patch last weekend, and added four more ticks. First, at Willington Gravel Pits, there were two adult MEDITERRANEAN GULLS in breeding plumage, giving me almost a full set of gulls for the year (just need a LITTLE GULL now). On the Canal Pit there, REDSHANK was the only wader, but I’ll be going back over the next few weeks, because it’s a likely site to get a lot of passage waders.

“At nearby Foremark Reservoir, I finally caught up with the long-staying RED-NECKED GREBE, and then the following day, saw one of the RAVENS that frequent Swithland Reservoir mobbing one of the many BUZZARDS in the area.

“My total now stands at 94, but that includes a lot of species I wouldn’t have expected to get, and is still missing some that ought to be definites in one or the other winter period. If I can catch up with some of the rarer migrants (RING OUZEL, REDSTART and BLACK REDSTART are usually possible, with effort), then my target is in sight.”

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Great List Challenge 2

Mike Passman, who has taken up our year list challenge, is watching his local patch of Thurlestone Bay, Devon, and so far is showing up Features Editor Matt Merritt's efforts on his Leicestershire patch.

Mike writes: "I returned from looking after our Grandaughter on Saturday, January 31st, and withdrawal symptons were quickly overcome with the sight of a DARK BELLIED BRENT GOOSE on South Huish Marsh, to increase the list to 103. On the morning we left - January 20th - a quick visit to the sea watch car park produced an immature male LONG TAILED DUCK whilst number 102 was MUTE SWAN, which I had omitted to count on January 2!

"February started out very good with two BLACK REDSTART in the garden - one a stunning male - two PURPLE SANDPIPER in the bay whilst a ringtail HEN HARRIER quartered one of the local fields in mid afternoon - she had been seen by other local birders whilst I was away.

"3rd February started the cold weather spell. While parts of Devon were to be enveloped in up to a foot of snow, our little area of the South Hams didn't even get a covering. Seawatching on the 3rd for two hours with a favourable force 5 south-easterly wind paid dividends. GANNETS started passing, and two FULMAR were quickly followed by a GREAT NORTHERN DIVER with a single BALEARIC SHEARWATER all flying east. On the sea a SLAVONIAN GREBE took the total to 108. At least 30 auks and 15 KITTIWAKE also passed through. Late afternoon saw the largest flock of LAPWING - 150 - this winter with 50 GOLDEN PLOVER and 35 FIELDFARE on South Huish Marsh - further evidence of cold weather movement.
Thursday 5th February, whist not adding to the year list, was notable for very good views of the ringtail HEN HARRIER, flocks of 15 SKY LARK AND 25 REDWING at South Milton Ley, with 14 CHIFFCHAFF still surviving the cold weather and a CETTI'S WARBLER calling.

"Saturday 7th February started very well with my early morning scan of THURLESTONE MARSH (from my bedroom window). Suddenly all the ducks took flight and at least 15 SNIPE were flying around, all the commotion caused by an immature female MARSH HARRIER which spent 15 minutes quartering the reeds before departing in a SE direction. Walking back from the village shop, a single female SISKIN became No. 110.

"After a period of very heavy rain the local marshes were flooded with standing water, and on 11th February I awoke at 6.30am with a TAWNY OWL calling from a tree in the garden, with the early morning scan of the marsh producing a very nice male PINTAIL. With clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine I decided to walk round Soar Mill Cove valley and was rewarded with three male and two female CIRLBUNTING - one of the special birds of South Devon – and a FIRECREST, taking the total of 114.

"There a very few birds known to be on the patch that I haven't managed to find - the most elusive at the moment has to be BARN OWL."

That's great going from Mike, and Matt's struggling to keep up. He writes:

"A week or more of heavy snow during February curtailed my local birding, but in between times I've taken my total up to 89, and added quite a few more 'elite' species. Best of all were the gulls at Albert Village Lake, a flooded former opencast pit. I didn't find the MED GULL reported (I won't sweat it, though, because I'm confident there'll be more), but I did mop up GLAUCOUS, ICELAND, YELLOW-LEGGED and CASPIAN, plus a single OYSTERCATCHER.

"It's also getting so that, although it's still too dark to actually go birding before or after work, there's enough light as I leave home and get back to get a few ticks from behind the wheel. So, in the last couple of weeks there's been LITTLE EGRET, LITTLE OWL, and several SPARROWHAWKS (including, twice, a bird flying virtually across the bonnet while I was stopped at junctions). Other ticks have included GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER, GOOSANDER and SHELDUCK, and as I write the first CURLEW and RINGED PLOVERS are going through, so they're my next target. Oh, and although I got them on January 1, the local PEREGRINES have been hunting spectacularly.

"Finally, I did a bit of off-patch birding at Great Easton, near Eyebrook Reservoir, last week, and saw four Short-eared Owls (very rare in Leicestershire) and, in a nearby tree in broad daylight, two Tawnys."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Great List Challenge

A number of Bird Watching readers picked up the year list gauntlet we threw down and challenged members of our team, and we’ll be making regular updates, in the magazine and here, to let you know how things are going.

Mike Passman, whose local patch is Thurlestone Bay, in Devon, challenged Matt Merritt, whose patch covers the area around his home in Leicestershire. And so far, it’s Mike who’s setting the pace!

He writes: “Anticipation was high at the start of the New Year, but with a houseful of guests staying overnight and celebrations continuing until the early hours, it was after 2pm before watching could start in earnest. Being fortunate to overlook Thurlestone Marsh, the count rose rapidly, with the total by 5pm reaching 45, highlights being a juvenile male Black Redstart caught by a local ringer, Lapwing, Snipe and a single Dunlin.

“An early start on January 2nd produced a female Black Redstart and five Black-tailed Godwits, both from my garden. A walk round Thurlestone Bay produced a Common Scoter on the sea and seven Ringed Plovers on the beach. An afternoon visit to Aveton Gifford added Redshank, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper (over-wintering), four Little Grebes, Great Spotted Woodpecker, closely followed by Treecreeper, Jay, an overhead Raven, and a group of eight Redwings and two Mistle Thrushes.

“ A late afternoon visit to South Milton Ley added Grey Wagtail, three Chiffchaffs, Bullfinch, Reed Bunting, and a Cetti’s Warbler, increasing the total to a respectable 69 species.
“First surprise came on January 3rd, with the onset of a very cold spell of weather. South Huish Marsh produced a male Pochard with an adult Gannet in the bay – the former is only the second record in four years. Over the next three days the total rose to 75, with Water Rail, Linnet and Fieldfare observed from my garden, plus a Guillemot in Thurlestone Bay.

“January 6th was the first outstanding day of the year at Thurlestone Bay, producing a Black-throated Diver, 11 Razorbills, and on the rocks, two Turnstones and two superb Purple Sandpipers – a very difficult wader to find on the coast. The day just got better with a Cattle Egret flying up the marsh at 1.45 pm – a great garden tick. A visit to Aveton Gifford in the afternoon (temperature constantly below zero) produced Yellowhammer, Green Sandpiper, four Common Sandpiper and Kingfisher. On the drive home I had to stop driving to pick up a flock of 16 Golden Plover, a first record for the patch since I started my records in 2004. A low flying Sparrowhawk took the total to 86.

“The following day was almost as good. With the marshes fully frozen over, a walk round the reedbeds of South Milton Ley produced two very elusive records – singles of both Jack Snipe and Woodcock.

“ A Black-throated Diver was present (9th), joined by a Red-throated Diver, while the 10th produced another new site record in Thurlestone Bay – a male Velvet Scoter. In a local garden there was a female Blackcap, while on a late afternoon visit to South Milton Ley, a male Peregrine flew across the marsh.

“Next additions to the year list came on the 17th – a Lesser Black-backed Gull was at Aveton Gifford with four Gadwall on South Huish Marsh, where a Bar-headed Goose was amongst a flock of Canada Geese. Very stormy conditions overnight produced a fly-through Egyptian Goose, with the 100th species of the year a Water Pipit."

Meanwhile, in Leicestershire…

I was out at first light on New Year’s Day,” writes Matt. “There was a hard frost, and no one was around, so I started by looking for loitering Waxwings at Barrow on Soar. No luck, so it was straight on to Cossington Meadows, where I picked up plenty of ducks (Mallard, Tufted, Gadwall, Pochard, Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon), plus Great Crested and Little Grebe, Snipe, and a nice surprise – two Chiffchaffs along the river.

“ I called in at Swithland Reservoir – no woodpeckers at all, let alone a Lesser Spotted, but one of the regular Peregrines was up on its usual perch. I dashed across country, picking up all five thrushes on the way, and after a vital stop for hot soup, carried on to Staunton Harold Reservoir (on my patch, but across the border in Derbyshire). Here I was able to get Lapwing, Buzzard and Goldeneye, and in the car-park, Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer (sadly no Siskin or Lesser Redpoll).

“I finished up at Kelham Bridge, a former sewage works now turned into a small Wildlife Trust reserve. Willow Tits (easier to find than Marsh Tits, in these parts) were around the feeder, but the reported ringtail Hen Harrier failed to show. I then spent the best part of three days looking for it, with no success, although Bullfinch was a consolation, as was a Jack Snipe across the road at Sence Valley Forest Park. I also slipped back across to Staunton Harold to see a darke Smew – a good ‘elite’ tick for me (ie. outside the range of birds I actually expect to see on-patch).

“At this time of year, work means I do no birding on-patch in the week, but the following Saturday, the 10th, made up for that. I started at Staunton Harold, and ticked off another elite – Scaup – plus Nuthatch, then added Grey Partridge during the drive to Cossington. Once there, I was able to find Linnet, plus four great wildfowl ticks – Brent Goose (dark-bellied), White-fronted Goose, Pink-footed Goose and Whooper Swan. All elites, and the Brent a patch first for me.

“The next day, I stopped off in Loughborough to see a flock of 50-odd Waxwings stripping berries from a tree, much to the consternation of the local Mistle Thrushes. A great tick, but an even better all-round birding experience.

“Since then, the only addition has been Tawny Owl, from my bathroom window, with the local pair hooting and kee-wicking all night. So, the total is 79.
“But (and it’s a big but), there’s a Great White Egret at Sheepy Magna, just on-patch. I looked for it the other day, but it was out of sight (though still present). Hopefully it will hang around, or, as it did last year, move to another local site such as Watermead Country Park. I live in hope.