Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Hawfinch is surprise talking point (article prepared for the Sunday Independent column)

If one species grabbed the birding headlines this Autumn, then the shy Hawfinch must be a candidate. The species is not a major rarity but more a scarce breeding resident in the UK.  The fascination though stems from its natural shyness.  The species prefers to feed and rest in tall trees, though can be seen feeding on the ground occasionally.  Most observations are usually from a distance or flyovers.  This Autumn has changed all that. An unusual eruption has occurred. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have moved out of continental Europe.  The assumption is a healthy breeding season followed by a shortage of food, prompting a mass migration towards Britain and France.  UK birders have benefitted from a rare opportunity to see the species well in unfamiliar surroundings.

The Hawfinch invasion has been noted across the UK, most notably on the east and south coasts but also inland.  Cornwall has also done well with upwards of 150 sightings (some overlap). The maximum count was nine together in west Cornwall with many sightings of singles and pairs. The species is totally absent as a breeding bird in Cornwall with the nearest population in mid Devon (scarce).  Their preferred tree is the Hornbeam, which is also absent from Cornwall. This would explain their absence here as a breeding bird. The species breeds across Europe and temperate Asia. It is mainly resident in Europe, but many Asian birds migrate further south in the winter.



The Pacific Diver has returned to Mount's Bay, Cornwall for its 11th year.  This mega rare diver is one of only five species in the genera.  It has faithfully returned to the same wintering site every year since 2007.  There are less than ten UK records.  Birders travel from far distances to tick this species, even a group from Norway "twitched" it.  Sightings cannot be guaranteed though.  It usually stays well out in the bay and a telescope is a must for a decent view.   It breeds primarily in northern Canada and eastern Siberia and winters along the Pacific coast of North America.  Given where it breeds, this bird certainly puts in the miles.






Thursday, 23 November 2017

Some birds from South Korea

Our daughter works in Seoul, S Korea so we decided to take an overdue two week trip there last October.  To be honest it was always going to be a family affair so birding was put to the back burner.  But I did manage to get out and see a few nice birds.  

We were mainly based in the capital Seoul but we did catch a bullet train down south for a few days.   What struck me most about this country is the sheer number of people, vast numbers around every corner.  There's no escaping from people.  With a population of 51m crammed in a space half the size of England, its no wonder it feels busy.  Everything is geared to improving human's lot and as far as I could see, with little interest for wildlife.  Every inch of land is intensively farmed, even the corner sections of motorway junctions.  As such, numbers of birds were low, just like they are here in the UK.  Basically, birding was hard work.

All that said, the people are friendly, polite, respectful and the place is uber tidy and manicured. This is a high tech, busy first world country obsessed with technology.

On to the birding, most of our successes were in mixed woodlands and beside watercourses.  Some of the special birds I saw but didn't photo were White's Thrush, Grey-backed Thrush, Brown Shrike, Humes Warbler, Black-faced Bunting, Middendorf's Warbler, Oriental Reed Warbler.

Below are some of the images I took on the trip.



First year male Mugimaki Flycatcher, a few seen in different locations, usually near water.

Male Daurian Redstart, seen on steep slope woods and clearings.

Still can't decide on this one, probably White-backed Woodpecker

Ad male Daurian Redstart

Brown-eared Bulbul, common, seen everywhere.


Spot-billed Duck

Vinous-throated Parrotbill, common and seen in large flocks near water.


Bull-headed Shrike, scarce in the south.  Also saw a few Brown Shrikes.

Great White Egret, common.

Spot-billed Duck, locally common on fast flowing rivers down south.


Oriental Turtle Dove, common.


Arctic Warbler, along with Yellow-browed Warbler, the commonest warblers.


Tree Sparrow, common in every habitat.


Brown Flycatcher, fairly regular in dark wooded areas. (this was taken on 21,600 ISO !)

Grey-naped Woodpecker

Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker

Oriental Turtle Dove, common in every habitat.

Varied Tit, common in dense woodland.

Weather dominates October (article for Sunday Independent column 12th Nov)

The weather dominated proceedings in October.  As expected, hurricanes Nate and Ophelia eventually tracked across the Atlantic and duly deposited many North American and Canadian vagrants on these shores.  By Monday 23rd, an astonishing 27 Nearctic passerines had reached Ireland and Britain this Autumn.  Some don't survive the exhausting trans-Atlantic flight though.  A Yellow-billed Cuckoo arrived on St Agnes, Scilly on the 20th but died the following day.  Scilly has had a remarkable golden spell, with Nearctic highlights being a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cedar Waxwing (4th UK record), Wilson's Snipe and Cliff Swallow.  Eastern rarities included an Isabelline Wheatear, Wryneck, Rosefinch, Lapland Bunting and three Bee-eaters.  The undoubted mega rarity was an Eastern Orphean Warbler on St Agnes.  Initially thought to be a Western Orphean Warbler, a series of good photos led to this bird being reidentified as an Eastern Orphean.  Quite a haul.

Cornwall has hosted three Red-eyed Vireos, all seen in the far west of the county.  On Saturday 7th October, a Cliff Swallow put in an all too brief appearance at Porthgwarra.  Photos were taken by the single observer and pending acceptance, will be the county's first record.  Given that the last sighting of the Scilly bird was on the 6th October, presumably both sightings refer to the same bird.  Perhaps the most remarkable record was the third Blyth's Reed Warbler trapped and ringed this year at a private site at Nanjizal, near Land's End.  The finder has now found all four county records in his ringing nets! 

The UK's most elusive finch is the Hawfinch.  Its a rare breeding bird in the west country and is completely absent in Cornwall.  This autumn though has seen a remarkable influx across the UK.  Scilly has recorded up to 50 birds with groups of up to five also flying around west Cornwall.  The species is occasionally prone to irruptions where big numbers move out of continental Europe in search of food.

Hawfinch at Nanquidno.
Ex-hurricane Brian hit the UK and Ireland over the weekend of 18th/19th October.  Originating from the Azores, the expected high numbers of seabirds were blown ashore.  Skua numbers were high with Great Skua reaching three figure counts.  Lesser numbers of Pomarine Skua, Arctic Skua and a single Long-tailed Skua were logged off Pendeen.  Close views were also had of Sabine's Gulls, Grey Phalaropes and Leach's Petrels. 

Looking forward, the Autumn migration is far from over.  We can look forward to more Nearctic waifs and if the wind shifts to the east, some exotic Asian vagrants would be very welcome.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Juv Baird's Sandpiper at Marazion beach

The Marazion bird is the first Baird's Sandpiper of the season and represents the 36th record for the county. It remained on the beach around the Red River outlet for just over a week.
 
Regarding past Baird's records in Cornwall, the exact numbers are curiously difficult to reconcile as records rejected by the BBRC are in fact included in the official CBWPS file. Including this bird, there has been a total of approximately 36 birds, the first of which apparently occurred in 1965, though this bird does not appear in the CBWPS Report as it was rejected (presumably by BBRC). A similar fate happened to another report in 1966. Thus the first authentic Cornish record was at Ruan Lanihorne and is attributed to Ted Griffiths and Stan Gay in 1980.
 
 


1980 Ruan Lanihorne 31 Aug - 2 Sep
1980 Predannack Airfield 20 Sep
1980 Davidstow 21 Sep - 1 Oct
1981 Davidstow 22 - 24 Sep (not in 1981 report)
1981 Marazion 28 Sep - 10 Oct
1981 Ruan Lanihorne 15 Oct - not in BBRC
1983 Siblyback first year 3 - 18 Sep
1983 Camel ad. 14 Sep
1983 Davidstow 15 - 16 Sep
1983 Marazion Beach 20 - 25 Sep
1983 Carnsew Pool 28 Sep (rejected)
1984 Record at Crowdy Res/Davidstow 12 Sep (rejected)
1984 Siblyback 26 - 29 Sep
1988 Stithians first year 4 - 15 Sep
1989 Stithians first year 24 - 30 Oct (per 1990 report)
1989 Crowdy first year 1 – 11 Oct
1995 Upper Tamar Lake first year 15 - 18 Sep
1995 Colliford Lake first year 23 Sep then Dozmary Pool on 24 Sep
1997 Gannel Est on 3 Aug.
1997 Hayle Est. on 31 Aug.
1997 Devoran, Restronguet Creek on 10 - 21 Sep
1998 Davidstow (2) one 11 - 20 Sep, with a second on 16 Sep
1999 Camel ad 22 - 25 Aug
2001 Long Rock Beach, Marazion 16 Sep – 17 Oct
2004 Crowdy/Davidstow 4 – 21 Sep, but (2) on 7 + 10 Sep
2004 Marazion Beach 7 – 11 Sep and 15 – 16 Sep
2004 Stithians 13 – 26 Sep
2005 Hayle Est 1 Sep (not in BBRC)
2006 Hayle 8 – 13 Sep (possibly another bird 4 Oct not submitted to BBRC)
2006 St John’s Ford 20 Sep
2006 Trevose Head 23 Sep (not submitted to BBRC)
2009 Marazion Beach 3 Sep to at least 17th Sep
2009 Davidstow 1 Sep to at least 16th Sep
2011 Hayle Estuary 30th Aug to 11th Sep
2012 Marazion beach an adult photographed, 31st Aug.
2016 Gannel Estuary 25th-27th Sept
2016 Davidstow 2nd Oct-12th Oct, presumed same individual from the Gannel.
2017 Marazion beach juv 3rd-11th Sept

Historic Totals Aug 7, Sep 26, Oct 3. The most popular site is Marazion Beach with nine records here.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Yellow fever on Portland

The weather has again been changeable, unpredictable and anything like Summer. And just for good measure, the first Atlantic depression named Hurrican Gert hit Cornwall last weekend bringing with it a raft of unusual seabirds.  The highlights were two Fea's Petrels, one seen from a special pelagic boat trip out of Falmouth (Sunday 20th) and another on the same day from Chynhalls Point, Coverack.  A Wilson's Petrel was also seen from Coverack on the same day and another Wilson's was retrospectively identified from photo's.  On the Scilly Isles, the Wilson's Petrel, which breeds in the South Atlantic, has been recorded from special seabird pelagic trips a record 25 times on the bounce.  Thousands of Manx Shearwaters can be seen from most headlands as the numbers build up before finally migrating en masse south to Argentina.

The major attraction this week though has been England's first Amercan Yellow Warbler, found by Portland birder Duncan Walbidge at Culverwell, Portland Bill.  This bird hit the headlines and even featured in the local BBC news.  Not without good reason though.  Not only is this the first record for England, its also the first record on the British mainland and also the earliest ever North American passerine to find its way to these shores.  As expected, interest was naturally high and some 100 birders connected with it on the day it arrived (Mon 21st).  Sadly it departed overnight, much to the disappointment of the assembled 250 or so birders desperate for the tick next day.

Yellow Warbler is a common and widespread songbird in North America and Canada.  The species winters in northern South America and the southern states of North America.  The Portland bird no doubt was migrating south towards its wintering quarters and blown off course by hurricane Gert.  How it found its way to Portland will be open to discussion.  Of interest, a second Yellow Warbler was found on the same day in Ireland.

(article prepared for the Sunday Independent column).



Sunday, 13 August 2017

Seabird pelagic magic continues

Unsettled and changeable weather has again been the feature of the last two weeks, no doubt caused by the jet stream lying to south of the UK.  For the holiday maker hordes visiting the west country, the position of the jet stream will be a consternation.  But for the keen birder, this will mean Utopia as unusual seabirds push further north than normal.

The highlight of the past fortnight must surely be the most incredible gathering of seabirds seen from the Sapphire pelagic trip off Scilly on the 3rd August.  A huge raft of some 4500 shearwaters including 750 Great Shearwaters, 250 Cory's Shearwaters and a respectable 15 Wilson's Petrels put on a feeding frenzy display, fuelled by Bluefin Tuna creating a vast bait ball of food.  Bob Flood from Scilly, an experienced seabirder with over 700 pelagic trips under his belt had "never seen anything like this before".

Back on the Cornwall mainland, I was fortunate to be beside the visiting Yorkshire birder who found Cornwall's 11th Fea's Petrel off Porthgwarra on the 2nd August. Some 50 or so birders had also read the weather reports correctly and made the long trip to Cornwall.  This extreme south westerly point of the county has an unusual history of turning out rarities. Indeed the Fea's Petrel was the tenth record for Porthgwarra.  And just for the cetaceanistas, a Minke Whale and 30 Common Dolphins were seen off Tater Du on a peleagic trip out of Penzance on the 10th August.

Devon has also shared in the spoils with a Barolo Shearwater seen off Prawle Point on the 3rd August.  This species is a real rarity with just 81 UK records but in the last ten years, sightings have dropped away making this species a top prize.

Away from seabirds, the Cornwall Birdwatching Society has just released news that Cattle Egret has bred for the first time in Cornwall. Four adults and a newly fledged juvenile were seen at Walmsley Sanctuary, Wadebridge this week.  This heron has been expanding its range from the Mediterranean and it was only time before it bred here.  Also at Walmsley, 14 Glossy Ibis put in an appearance last week, joined by three more this week.  One was a young ringed bird and traced back to a ringing program in Donana, south Spain.  The extreme heatwave in that area is  no doubt pushing birds north to the UK.

Looking forward, the next two or three weeks, seabirds will still feature high on the agenda.  Early September will see the wader migration move in to top gear.  Bring it on!
Great Shearwater off Tater Du, Cornwall

Minke Whale, off Tater Du, Cornwall, August 2017.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Seabird bonanza in the west country

The weather over the last two weeks has been very favourable.  That is to birders.  Seabird enthusiasts to be exact.  July is fast becoming a very important month in the birding calendar for finding rare seabirds in the south west.  Cornwall, Devon and even Dorset have been rewarded with some exceptional sightings.   I say "even Dorset" as this county is not renowned for rare seabird sightings, but a Great Shearwater normally seen off Cornwall and Devon coasts, gave stunningly close views off Portland on the 26th.  Many experienced Dorset birders had not previously seen this bird in their county.

The highlight for Devon was the county's 5th Fea's Petrel, video'd off Berry Head, South Devon on the 11th July.  This species breeds in the eastern Atlantic islands and just a handful of birds are seen annually, usually off Cornwall, Scilly or south west Ireland.

Off Scilly, the famous summer pelagic boat trips on the Sapphire boat have logged several rare Wilson's Petrels, most offering close views.  On 27th an incredible 20  were logged.  Cornwall has had its fair share of rarities though with six sightings of Wilson's Petrel (three from pelagics out of Penzance), the others from the Lizard and Porthgwarra.  The Lizard scored well on the 21st July with 296 Cory’s Shearwater, 66 Great Shearwater, 9 Sooty Shearwater, 1 Balearic Shearwater, 1 Long-tailed Skua, 1 Pomarine Skua, 6 Great Skua, 2 Arctic Skua, 109 Storm Petrel, 1 Wilson’s Petrel and 1 Sabine’s Gull.

Arguably, the best day was Saturday 22nd July when a strong candidate for Scopoli's Shearwater was seen off Porthgwarra.  If accepted, this would be the first record for Cornwall.  Depending on who you talk to, Scopoli's has not been granted its own status, rather a sub species of Cory's Shearwater.  The small size, different underwing plumage and geographically distant breeding populations will surely see a status change soon.  A large all dark petrel was seen by one lucky observer later in the day from the same site. 

Looking forward, August is equally a great month for seabirds and all eyes will be on weather forecasts for those big Atlantic low pressures.  We will also start to see the southerly movement of waders as they move out of their Arctic breeding grounds.  All in all, a busy time ahead.
Record shot of Wilson's Petrel, one of two seen off Penzance on a pelagic

Great Shearwater off Penzance, July 2017

Storm Petrel off Penzance, July 2017

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Amur Falcon - first record for Cornwall

On Thursday evening on the 6th July, west Cornwall birder Mark Wallace found the rarest bird of his career so far.  A regular walk after tea down Bosisto Lane chanced upon the county's first ever Amur Falcon, a small falcon displaced thousands of miles from where it should be.  After some discussion and checking of photos, the bird was identified as a first summer female (i.e. a young bird no more than a year old, aged by the heavy wear to the flight feathers and scapulars). The news was duly relayed and a few locals connected that evening.  At first light on Friday (05.38) some 200 of the UK's keenest assembled for a sighting.  They were not disappointed as it was found roosting in a bush by the side of the road near the disused quarry.  It remained at the roost site until 09.20 when it flew off towards Nanjizal.  It was briefly seen in flight at 11.03 and that was the last sighting.

The key question is how did it find its way to west Cornwall? One will never know for sure. One theory is that it could have hooked up with migrating Red-footed Falcons coming out of Africa and wandered with them in to western Europe.  Given the high number of vagrant Red-foots in the UK alone, its a plausible theory.

The record is the first for Cornwall and only the second for Britain, following a male in Yorkshire at Tophill Low from 14th Sept to 15th Oct 2008.  This bird was misidentified as a Red-footed Falcon throughout its stay and was only identified retrospectively in photos.

The species breeds in south-eastern Siberia and Northern China before migrating in large flocks across India and over the Arabian Sea to winter in Southern Africa.  The route that they take from Africa back to their breeding grounds is as yet unclear.  It was earlier treated as a subspecies of the red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus) and was known as Eastern Red-footed Falcon.

Addendum:

Completely unexpectedly, the bird was re found on Monday morning (17th July, ten days after it was last seen), by Jean Lawman in the St Buryan area.  She was reasonably sure this was the same bird that she had seen many photos of. A phone call to John Swann led to Royston and John Ryan checking it out.  After some searching it was refound and confirmed at 12.35, again at Crean with two Hobby's at 13.05, then back at the Crows-an-Wra substation at 17.15 til dusk.  In the intervening period, there were also two unconfirmed reports at St Levan and St Gennys.

First summer female Amur Falcon, Steve Rogers.

Image by Lee Evans.

Amur Falcon by John Chapple




One good tern deserves another (article prepared for Sunday Independent column)

The last couple weeks of June has seen some variable and extreme weather.  High temperatures reached that of the famous '76 summer peak of 35 degrees.  The latter part of the month saw heavy rain.  A change of weather usually means a change of birds.  And June didn't disappoint.

The highlight of the month goes to the Elegant Tern, first appearing in a tern colony in Hampshire at Hayling Island on the 7th June.  The bird was wearing colour rings which proved it to be the same bird as seen on the French Atlantic coast since 2002.  It was trapped and ringed in Gironde in July 2003.  The first British record was at Dawlish Warren in May 2002.  The records quite likely to refer to the same bird, which has also been seen in southern Spain and twice in South Africa!  To the delight of Dorset birders, it was relocated at Brownsea Island on the 21st June. (There are three other yet to be accepted records in the UK).

Remaining with the seabird theme, Cornish sea watchers have been rewarded with early sightings of some of the rarer shearwaters including Cory's Shearwater (breeds in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands), Sooty Shearwater and Great Shearwater  (both breed in the South Atlantic).  Several Wilson's Petrels have been seen from specialist pelagic trips from Scilly and SW Ireland.  The latter three species have already bred during the south Atlantic summer and are now migrating north on circum-polar route covering eastern North America and then south via the Western Approaches.  Cornwall and Scilly are thus perfectly geographically positioned to see these birds.  Depending on wind direction and strength, Porthgwarra, Cape Cornwall, Pendeen and St Ives are ideal sites to see them.

Disappointing news has been announced by the RSPB this week. The rare and protected Hen Harrier has declined considerably and is on the brink of extinction in England.  Just four pairs bred in 2016. The reasons are habitat destruction and persecution by game keepers on grouse moors.  Hen Harrier retains a foothold in Scotland Ireland but even here, numbers are in decline.  The last pair to breed in Cornwall was way back in 2002 when three young fledged.  How things can turn.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Common Whitethroat feeding young

I had a chance to photo a family of six Whitethroats last week, with both parents feeding four young. It was great to see them out in the open.  In West Penwith, the Whitethroat is the most common breeding warbler.  The species breeds throughout Europe and across much of temperate western Asia. This small passerine is strongly migratory and winters in tropical Africa and Pakistan.