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.