Category Archives: Other UK

17th Apr 2017 – Bempton Cliffs

On our way south from Scotland, we broke the journey and then stopped off at the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs on our way home. It was much nicer weather here today, sunshine and lighter winds. We had intended to stay just a couple of hours but ended up stopping here for much longer, marvelling at all the seabirds on the cliffs. It is always a fantastic combination of sights, sounds and smell!

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6O0A6283Bempton Cliffs – all the seabirds gathering on the cliffs for the breeding season

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Puffins stole the show. They are not as easy to see well here as some other places, as they don’t seem to nest on the cliff tops, although they do apparently sometimes come up onto the grass to collect nest material. We saw several lower down on the cliff faces or flying in and out from the cliffs. We explored all the viewpoints, hoping for a closer one, and eventually our persistence paid off with great views of several Puffins at the top of the cliffs.

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6O0A7570Puffins – we eventually found some on the top of the cliffs where we got great views

Getting photos of Puffins in flight was much trickier. They are small birds and move remarkably quickly in and out of the cliffs.

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6O0A7426Puffins – trickier to photograph in flight!

The other highlight was the Gannets. Around 20,000 nest here and they are seen everywhere along the cliffs and over the sea. However, while we were there they were coming down onto the top of the cliffs to collect grass for nest building. At one place in particular loads of Gannets were gathering very close to the fence, giving us views down to just a few metres.

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6O0A7191Gannets – coming down to collect grass on the clifftop

We stood for ages watching the Gannets here, as the birds flew in along the clifftop and hovered down to the grass. At one point we nearly had our heads taken off by a Gannet which misjudged its approach and came in very low behind us – we could hear the panicked flapping as it tried to pull up at the last minute, eventually just skimming over as we ducked!

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6O0A6347Gannets – some came very close as they flew in

The were lots of other auks on the cliffs. Razorbills are very smart birds up close, and we had great fun trying to photograph them flying in and out of the cliffs at high speed.

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6O0A6877Razorbills – looking very smart, in summer plumage

There were plenty of Guillemots too, much browner than the Razorbills and without the more dramatic bill markings, but great birds nonetheless.

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6O0A6726Guillemots – there were plenty of these on the cliffs too

The Kittiwakes were particularly noisy, with many pairs squabbling on the higher bits of the cliffs, their calls sounding appropriately just like their name!

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6O0A6089Kittiwakes – very noisy, squabbling on the cliffs

The seabird interest was rounded off with a few Fulmars gliding effortlessly along the cliff face.

6O0A6182Fulmar – gliding effortlessly along the cliffs

There is not a great variety of different species here on the cliffs, but it was great to see so many of them really close up. And what a spectacle the whole thing is!

There were a few other birds here, not just the seabirds, although we didn’t spend a lot of time looking around the area. On our walk down to the cliffs in the morning, a Grasshopper Warbler was reeling away, tucked down on the other side of a hedgerow out of sight. After watching the seabirds for several hours, we came back to the visitor centre for some lunch. It was nice to see so many Tree Sparrows here – an increasingly scarce species further south. As we ate our lunch outside in the sunshine, a Short-eared Owl was hunting over a field beside the car park.

6O0A7646Tree Sparrow – great to see good numbers still here

It had been a great way to finish our trip, calling in at Bempton Cliffs. It is a fantastic reserve and well worth a visit. We could have stayed much longer and eventually had to tear ourselves away so we could get home in good time. We will certainly be going back sometime soon!

12-16th Apr 2017 – Easter in Scotland

Not a tour, but we spent three days in Scotland catching up on some of the local specialities over Easter, with another day either side journeying up and back from Norfolk. As I haven’t been up to Speyside for a few years, it seemed about time for a return visit.

Arriving early for our overnight stop on the way north, we decided to have a quick look up on the moors. We were quickly rewarded with good views of at least 10 male Black Grouse. They were not doing much this evening, but we had high hopes for more activity the following day! Heading on higher up, we found our first Red Grouse of the trip too, though they too were keeping their heads down from the blustery wind.

It was an early start the following morning, to get up onto the moor for dawn. As we drove over the ridge and looked down into the valley below, we could see a scattering of black dots in the grass – 19 displaying male Black Grouse on the lek. They are far enough away here so as not to disturb them, so we got out of the car and could immediately hear their bubbling calls. We got them in the scope and watched them running round, flapping their wings and leaping in the air, with their body feathers puffed out, tail fanned and white undertail feathers fluffed up. It was quite a sight! There were a smaller number of grey-brown females there too, looking slightly non-plussed by all the action around them.

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6O0A5073Black Grouse – great to watch them displaying on the lek

A little further along, we managed to find a single male Black Grouse closer to the road, so we could get some photos. The Red Grouse up on the tops were now calling and displaying. There were also displaying Common Snipe in the valley and several Curlew and Golden Plover on the moors. It had certainly been well worth the stop here. Then it was on with the journey up to the Highlands.

One of our main targets for our stay here was Ptarmigan. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for our stay was not ideal – windy with blustery showers. Not great for hiking up to the Cairngorm plateau. The best day appeared to be on our first full morning there, but it didn’t look good first thing with snow overnight on the tops and low cloud lingering. Thankfully, after breakfast, the cloud base lifted and we could see a short window of opportunity.

We had hoped we might find a Ptarmigan on the slopes below the fresh snow this morning, but it didn’t help that there were lots of people walking up despite the weather today, it being Easter weekend. We got up to a plateau above 1000m where it was safer to stray from the path and a bit of exploration was quickly rewarded with a Ptarmigan running away from us over the snow. We followed it slowly and were eventually able to get quite close to it. A smart bird!

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6O0A5511Ptarmigan – on the Cairngorm plateau above 1000m

The view was impressive up here too, with all the snow on the mountains. However, we could see some darker cloud approaching, so we decided to call it a day and head back down. We were glad we did, as it started to spit with rain for a time and the tops disappeared again into the cloud.

Scotland April 2017 Cairngorms ascent_4Cairngorm Plateau – still with plenty of snow

On our ascent, we had seen a few Red Grouse, but on the way back down we were able to appreciate just how many of them there were on the moors here, and watch them displaying.

6O0A5354Red Grouse – plentiful on the moors lower down

Back down near the car park, a Ring Ouzel flew up from the shorter grass below the ski lifts.

6O0A5570Ring Ouzel – this smart male was feeding around the ski lifts

Crested Tit is one of the other key target species for any visit to the Highlands and we were not disappointed. They can be harder to see in the summer months, and familiarity with their distinctive call certainly helps in locating them. We heard quite a few Crested Tits, when we were in the Caledonian Forest, and got great views of two pairs. The second pair, we watched collecting nest material and the male courtship feeding the female. They are certainly full of character!

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6O0A5922Crested Tits – great birds to watch, we found this pair collecting nest material

As well as the Ospreys at the RSPB’s Loch Garten reserve, we saw several elsewhere. The best moment was probably one flying past the window of our B&B while we were eating our breakfast one morning!

6O0A6028Osprey – a female, calling from the nest, while the male was presumably off fishing

With just a couple of days to play with in the Highlands, and the best morning reserved for the hike up into the Cairngorms, we were always likely to be at the mercy of the weather with our other targets. On our second morning, despite cloud and showers, we headed up to the Findhorn Valley to look for eagles. As we drove up, we could see dark clouds over the head of the valley and when we got there the wind was whistling in and regular sleet showers were blowing through. Not ideal!

We sat in the car for an hour, scanning the hills, but a brief brighter interval produced just a couple of Common Buzzards. Two Wheatears were feeding on the grass in front of the car park and a pair of Common Gulls were hanging around there too. It seemed unlikely there would be any eagles this morning, so we decided to move on.

As we headed down the valley, it brightened up a little lower down. We made our way up over the hills and down the other side to the RSPB reserve at Loch Ruthven. Between the showers, we walked along to the hide. We could see three Slavonian Grebes out on the water, but they were all rather distant while we were there. There are still a lot more to return here yet. A summer plumage Red-throated Diver was fishing on the loch too, along with a few ducks – Goldeneye, Wigeon, Teal and Mallard.

6O0A5850Slavonian Grebe – one of three out on the loch today

With the weather improving a little, and after lunch back at the car park, we decided to have another go at the Findhorn Valley. As we arrived, the head of the valley was still in cloud and another wintry shower blew through. But we could see some blue cloud coming in from behind us and we hadn’t been back five minutes when a 1st winter Golden Eagle appeared over the ridge at the back of the car park. Unfortunately it didn’t hang around and we just got a quick look at it as it disappeared back over the top. A short while later, the Golden Eagle reappeared much further down and we watched as it flew across the valley being mobbed by a Raven. A Peregrine was flying around the hill behind us too.

It seemed unlikely we would better that today and with the day getting on, we headed back down the valley. We took a different route back and stopped off by another loch on the way. It was very windy and  the wind was whipping up the water so it was quite choppy. Scanning with the scope in the lee of the car we were able to locate a single Black-throated Diver, a stunning bird in full summer plumage.

There were various other birds which we caught up with on our travels around Speyside. We heard lots of crossbills, but they were rather flighty and often hard to see. We had nice views of Common Crossbill in the forest and of a family which came down to the small deciduous trees alongside the river in Carrbridge, presumably to drink. There were more crossbills in Abernethy Forest, and we heard both Common and Scottish/Parrot Crossbill flight calls from birds passing overhead. Some larger billed birds resembling Scottish Crossbill were feeding in the trees around the car park at Forest Lodge on a couple of occasions but did not hang around long enough for us to get a prolonged look at them.

6O0A5621Common Crossbill – along the river at Carrbridge

Exploring along various rivers produced a few additional species too, including Goosander, Common Sandpiper and Grey Wagtail. However, the pick of the bunch was Dipper – it was great to watch them feeding in the shallows, dipping under the water.

6O0A5830Chestnut-bellied Dipper – the native British subspecies of Dipper

Mammalian interest on this trip was provided chiefly by the Red Squirrels which we saw at several sites. Two Mountain Hares were seen at the top of the Findhorn Valley. We also saw the herd of (re)introduced Reindeer in the Cairngorms and a few Bank Voles running around under the feeders at Loch Garten.

6O0A5599Red Squirrel – thankfully not uncommon around the forest here

After that, unfortunately our short visit to Scotland had to end and we started to make our way south…

29th Jan 2017 – Ducking & Divering

Not a tour today, but a quick visit out of county to explore some sites in southeast Lincolnshire. It was a lovely sunny winter’s morning, but we knew to expect some rain in the afternoon, so we had to make the most of it.

For the last ten days a White-billed Diver has been delighting the crowds along the river Witham near Woodhall Spa. This is a true arctic species, breeding along the coasts of northern Russia and normally wintering along the coasts of northern Norway. Small numbers are regular off Scotland or the Northern Isles, but it is very rare this far south and particularly away from the coast. To see one up close on an inland waterway is a very rare event.

The White-billed Diver has been feeding along a 7 mile stretch of river and can move remarkably quickly up and down its length, so it can be a long walk at time. We stopped first at Kirkstead Bridge but were told it was heading north so drove round to Stixwould Station instead. This was the right thing to do – we lucked in and the White-billed Diver was diving just off the bank here.

6o0a5574White-billed Diver – a juvenile, feeding along the River Witham

White-billed Diver is a large bird, the size of a goose. However its most striking feature is its enormous bill. It is not really white (nor is it yellow – its North American name is Yellow-billed Loon), but rather a pale ivory. The neat scaled pattern of the upperparts immediately identify this bird as a juvenile, born and raised in the arctic in summer 2016.

6o0a5583White-billed Diver – allowed really close up views on the river

The River Witham is quite narrow which allows for very close-up views of the White-billed Diver. It was diving continuously and at times would surface closer to the near bank, despite the crowd gather to watch it. We followed it up and down the river for a while. A stunning bird to see.

After watching the White-billed Diver, we made our way round to the gravel pits at Kirkby-on-Bain nearby. There was a small crowd gathered here watching the Ring-necked Duck. A resident of North America, it is a regular visitor here in small numbers. This was a smart drake, similar to a male Tufted Duck but with a more patterned bill, peaked crown and two-toned grey and white flanks.

img_0285Ring-necked Duck – a smart drake

The Ring-necked Duck was loosely associating with a small group of Tufted Ducks and diving constantly. There were several Common Pochard on the same pit and a female Scaup appeared with them too. A nice selection of diving ducks! On another pit across the road, a juvenile Glaucous Gull was loafing with a small mixed raft of gulls.

It was still lovely sunny winter weather while we at Kirkby-on-Bain, but as we made our way south it clouded over and started to spit with rain. We wanted to visit a site for Long-eared Owls at Deeping Lakes. The birds roost on an island here, away from disturbance and it wasn’t long before we were watching them through the scope. They were tucked well into the vegetation today, which made them a challenge to see, but eventually we counted three in total.

img_0305Long-eared Owls – three, hidden in the trees

There were lots of ducks out on the water here and we spent some time watching the Goldeneye in front of the hide. The birds were displaying, fascinating to watch as the males throw their heads back and kick their legs out, the females responding with their heads laid flat to the water. We even watched a pair mating.

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6o0a5805Goldeneye – displaying in front of the hide

It was also nice to see several Goosander here. At one point a smart salmon-pink drake swam past close to the hide.

6O0A5857.JPGGoosander – a salmon-pink drake

As we made our way back to the car, it started to rain a bit harder. We wanted to have a look at Deeping High Bank, which thankfully meant we could do some birding from the shelter of the vehicle. We had been alerted to the presence of a Scaup along the river here and we spotted it down on the water with a group of Tufted Ducks as we drove along. It was a 1st winter drake, but still the emerging grey upperpart feathers of the Scaup stood out next to the darker back Tufted Ducks.

6o0a5918Scaup – a first winter drake

We had hoped to look for some Short-eared Owls along the bank here but the deteriorating weather put paid to those ambitions. We had to make do with an obliging Great White Egret instead.

6o0a5941Great White Egret – feeding on the far bank of the river

As the rain set in harder, we decided to call it a day and head for home. It had been a very pleasant and productive visit to Lincolnshire, perhaps a place to visit again in the future.

20th-28th Oct 2016 – Tresco Revisited

The Isles of Scilly are a great place to go birding, particularly in October. While not as good as they used to be, possibly due to a changing climate and a now more northerly atlantic storm track taking more transatlantic vagrants further north, exciting birds do still turn up. St Mary’s is the main island, where most birders have historically stayed, but I have been visiting Tresco for almost twenty years now. This October half term was no exception and once again we spent a week on the island.

6o0a5350Little Bunting – the first bird at Borough Farm, Tresco

The tone was set on the first full morning, on 21st October. Walking round the fields at Borough Farm, a small bird flew up from a weedy strip and landed in the hedge the other side. It was perched face on, but the fine black streaks on the breast and chestnut cheeks confirmed it was a Little Bunting. It has been a good year for this species in the UK, a scarce visitor from the north-eastern European taiga on its way to its wintering grounds in India and SE Asia. It is always a nice bird to find.

The Little Bunting hung around in the same field for several days. We had to wait until 24th October for our next good find. Walking around the fields at Borough Farm with fellow Tresco regular Steve Broyd, my son Luke and another of the visiting birders, we happened to be discussing how it is a good many years since there had been an Olive-backed Pipit on Tresco. They seem to still be regular on the other islands, but for some reason they don’t seem to turn up here (perhaps it is the lack of habitat, more on which later…). A couple of minutes later and a pipit flew up ahead of us from some weeds and dropped straight back down out of view. There had been a Tree Pipit here a couple of days previously so we had to check it out properly – as it crept into view, we could see it was indeed an Olive-backed Pipit, with a bold pale supercilium and pale spot on the rear of the ear coverts.

6o0a5949Olive-backed Pipit – the first we had seen on Tresco for many years

6o0a5410Tree Pipit – had been around Borough Farm a couple of days earlier

The Olive-backed Pipit flew up into the hedge and perched in the branches preening, where we could get a good look at it. Then it dropped back down into the field further along. When we had first seen it, we had noticed a second bird in the same field. As we walked a little further up the track, a Little Bunting flew out and landed in the hedge behind us.

6o0a5739Little Bunting – a second bird at Borough Farm

We had just seen the first Little Bunting fly back to its favoured field – could this be a second bird? I saw this bird again in the same place in better light early the next day and it looked much duller than the first Little Bunting. However, it was not until late that afternoon that our suspicions appeared to be confirmed and we found two Little Buntings feeding together.

6o0a6045Little Bunting – two birds together at Borough Farm on 25th

That may not be the end of the story. Looking closely at the photos, it appears that neither of the two Little Buntings on 25th October was the bird which we had first seen earlier in the week – it seems that there may have been three Little Buntings in total at Borough Farm that week!

The other highlight of the week on Tresco also appeared on 25th. There had been a Pallid Swift seen on St Mary’s the previous afternoon, but there was no sign of it there that morning. It had been mostly bright and sunny but early in the afternoon, a bit of cloud descended. I happened to bump into Steve Broyd along Pool Road and, as we stopped for a chat, Steve announced that he could see a Swift heading our way. Sure enough, it was a Pallid Swift, possibly the St Mary’s bird relocating but perhaps not impossible that it was a different one.

6o0a5885Pallid Swift – spent the afternoon of 25th October over Tresco

The Pallid Swift spent a several minutes hawking over the fields along Pool Road. As it banked and turned, it caught the light and we could see its overall brown plumage tone, the prominent white throat patch and pale face highlighting the dark ‘alien’ eye. Reeling off a few photos, I managed to capture the spread tail, with the outer tail feather (t5) short, not noticeably longer than the next one (t4). All good features of Pallid Swift.

It drifted off higher as the cloud blew through and spent an hour or so flying up and down over the trees on Middle Down. Then later in the afternoon, we found the Pallid Swift again over the other side of the island, over Old Grimsby.

One of the drawbacks of staying on Tresco is that it is not so easy to get to one of the other islands if something good turns up. There were lots of quality birds on St Mary’s and St Agnes, but unfortunately none lingered long enough for us to get over to see them this year – or even survived long enough. A Pale-legged or Sakhalin Leaf Warbler might have been the bird of the trip if we had seen it but was sadly found freshly dead on St Agnes on 21st, apparently having flown into a greenhouse window.

Two Red-flanked Bluetails were on the islands also on 21st, one on St Mary’s and one on St Agnes, but neither was present the following day. A reported Siberian Stonechat on St Mary’s the following day was misidentified and it was only later that evening, after it had departed, that it was correctly identified as a Caspian Stonechat from photos. A Rustic Bunting was also only seen very briefly on St Mary’s that same day.

A report of a probably Dusky Thrush on St Mary’s on 26th at least came out early enough for us to catch the boat over. Unfortunately it was only seen by one observer and promptly disappeared before we – or anyone else from St Mary’s – could get there. We did have a very pleasant day on St Mary’s, the highlight of which was seeing two more Olive-backed Pipits in fields at Old Town.

img_7974Olive-backed Pipit – two were on St Mary’s on 26th but there had been three on 25th

A possible Asian House Martin reported on St Mary’s late on 27th was relocated at Innisidgen on the morning of 28th. We were due to leave later that day anyway, so had to make a quick decision and managed to get an earlier boat over to St Mary’s. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it had been identified as just a regular House Martin – we did see a little group of four House Martins along with about half a dozen Swallows.

A possible Eastern Yellow Wagtail was reported at the riding school that morning, which was just a short walk away, so we went to have a look for that. It was showing very well, but unfortunately was just a Yellow Wagtail – it called like one of the western races while we were there and had a dull yellow wash under the tail and a bright yellow patch on its breast. However, otherwise being rather grey, it could perhaps have been a Grey-headed Wagtail instead, the Scandinavian race of Yellow Wagtail. There had been an Eastern Yellow Wagtail on St Mary’s several days before we arrived, but that had obviously departed.

6o0a6343Yellow Wagtail – one of the western races, possible Grey-headed?

Although we didn’t find any other rarities during the week, there were plenty of other birds to look at while we searched the island. A selection of photos of some of the other highlights are included below.

6o0a5654Short-eared Owl – two showed very well, flushed from a roost at the woodpile on 24th

6o0a5227Black Redstart – one or two most days, but with larger numbers on 24th & 28th

6o0a5303Common Redstart – this 1w male spent most of the week at Borough Farm

6o0a5462Redwing – good numbers of thrushes passed through earlier in the week

6o0a5313Ring Ouzel – two came in with the other thrushes on 21st

6o0a6126Yellow-browed Warbler – seen daily, present in very good numbers this year

6o0a5319Goldcrest – as usual, there were plenty around the island

6o0a5781Firecrest – 1 or 2 were seen on several days

6o0a5334Pied Flycatcher – a late bird, lingering in Abbey Wood for several days

6o0a5613Curlew Sandpiper – on Abbey Pool all week, sometimes with two Dunlin

6o0a6286Jack Snipe – one or two were on Abbey Pool

6o0a6243Greenshank – 22+ on Tresco, but this one confiding bird was on St Mary’s at Lower Moors

Borough Farm has been one of the best places for birding on Tresco for the last few years, and this was the case again this year, hosting the 2-3 Little Buntings and Olive-backed Pipit while we were there, as well as many commoner birds. Most of the rest of the estate has been vigorously tidied up – now looking as smart as a home counties golf course! Gone are the weedy bulb fields along Pool Road, for example, replaced by improved grassland for cattle grazing which is regularly mown or replanted. Several of the hedges were removed to make larger fields and the remaining ones are regularly flailed to a nice smart square shape. Unfortunately, all of this renders this area all but useless for birds. Other parts of the island have been similarly tidied up. Tresco used to be one of the best islands for rarities, but now struggles in comparison with St Agnes or St Mary’s. Lack of habitat is probably one of the main reasons.

tresco-2016_9Tresco – the fields along Pool Road, now improved grass and tidy hedges

tresco-2016_11Flailing the hedges – one of the regular activities designed to keep the estate ‘tidy’

Borough Farm is the only remaining place on Tresco where there are still traditional bulb fields and the combination of weeds and overgrown hedges, including some large sycamore hedges, act as a magnet for any birds visiting the island. Unfortunately Tresco Estate has decided to take back the farm later this year. At this stage, we do not know what the estate plans to do with the land but given that they gave up growing bulbs many years ago it seems unlikely it will be kept in its current state. Probably it will be tidied up and put down to grass, in line with the rest of the estate.

It was therefore very sad walking round Borough Farm for the last time this year, looking at the fields and reminiscing about all the great birds I have seen here over the last twenty years, not knowing what it will be like in the future. Perhaps it is finally time to call it a day on my visits to Tresco?

p1330769Borough Farm – the contrast is clear, weedy fields and overgrown hedges

p1330780Borough Farm – the Olive-backed Pipit and one of the Little Buntings were in here

p1330770Borough Farm – the Olive-backed Pipit also spent some time in this field

17th Oct 2016 – Away Day to Spurn

Not a tour today, but a day off and a very rare day trip out of Norfolk to Spurn in East Yorkshire for a spot of birding.

Siberian Accentors breed in Siberia, from the just west of the Urals east to the far NE, and migrate down to Korea and eastern China for the winter. Before this year, there had never been one seen in the UK before. There were 32 records in Europe up to 2015, of which over half had been in Finland and Sweden (though none in those countries for the last 12 & 16 years respectively). Here in the UK, it had got to the point where we thought there might be a barrier in the form of the North Sea – perhaps these accentors did not like sea crossings?

That all changed on 9th October when a Siberian Accentor was found on mainland Shetland. It was a great record, but too far away for many mainland birders and it departed quickly, after its second day. At that stage, the Shetland bird was the fourth in western Europe this year. Since then, things have really gone mad, probably reflecting a very large high pressure system over northern Europe which persisted for an unusually long time in the first half of October, bringing winds from way off to the east during the period in which they were migrating. More and more have been seen, and there have now been five different Siberian Accentors in the UK. At the time of writing, 80 have been seen in western Europe in the last two weeks and the total is increasing daily. Amazing!

One of the UK’s Siberian Accentors was found at Easington, on the Spurn peninsula in East Yorkshire late on Thursday 13th. Like the Shetland bird, it could easily have moved on quickly, particularly with bright and clear conditions overnight on Saturday and Sunday. However, it was still present on Sunday night…

We set off early in the morning on Monday, trying to avoid some of the worst of the traffic. At around 7.20am, we got the news we were hoping for – the Spurn Siberian Accentor was still present, the quest was on. After negotiating the late rush hour traffic around Hull, we got to Easington at 10am and walked the short distance to where the bird has been feeding. A small number of birders were gathered and within seconds we were watching a Siberian Accentor – a bird none of us had seen anywhere in the world and a near mythical species for me when I was growing up. Amazing!

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6o0a4727Siberian Accentor – the second ever to be recorded in UK

After we had had our first session watching the Siberian Accentor, news came through that an Isabelline Wheatear had been found in a field just a short walk away. Breeding from southern Russia across to Mongolia, down to Turkey in the south west, and wintering in Africa and across to NW India, they are rare visitors here. Though with 34 records in UK up to the end of 2015, they are not as rare as the accentor. Still it would be a great bird to see.

We walked over to where the Isabelline Wheatear had been and a small crowd was already gathered. The bird was there, feeding out in a cultivated field, with a regular (Northern) Wheatear nearby for comparison. Isabelline Wheatear can be a tricky bird to identify, with some pale Northern Wheatears looking confusingly similar at first glance. This bird was not the brightest Isabelline Wheatear we have seen, which made it all the more interesting to see. There are some key identification criteria for this species, including the much wider black terminal band on the spread tail, the colour and pattern of the wing coverts and the spacing of the primary tips and all fitted Isabelline Wheatear. A real bonus bird for our visit here.

6o0a4623Isabelline Wheatear – a large, pale wheatear

6o0a4581Isabelline Wheatear – note the very broad black terminal band on the tail

We had just enjoyed a very good weekend in Norfolk, with lots of Siberian waifs and strays being blown in on the easterly winds along with large numbers of commoner migrants, but by all accounts Spurn had also enjoyed a huge fall of birds. After two clear nights, a lot of those had moved on but there were still plenty of other birds for us to see. After a second session back watching the Siberian Accentor it was nice to have an opportunity to explore the rest of the Spurn area for the remainder of the day.

There has been a large arrival of Tundra Bean Geese in recent days and on our way between the Siberian Accentor and the Isabelline Wheatear we had noticed a flock of around 10 in a stubble field beside the road. On our way back, we stopped for a proper look. They had obviously been feeding in the wet field, as their bills were caked in mud, mostly obscuring the distinctive orange bill band. However, the structure of the bill on a Tundra Bean Geese is distinctive, very different from the bill of a Pink-footed Goose. Through the scope we could just about make out a little orange on the bills of a couple of them.

img_7873Tundra Bean Goose – 1 of around 10 in a stubble field near Easington

A brief stop at Kilnsea failed to locate the Pallas’s Warbler in the bushes in the car park of the Crown & Anchor, but it was rather windy while we were there. A Glossy Ibis had dropped in to Kilnsea Wetlands earlier but there was no sign of it as we passed. However, when we parked up at Canal Bank, we were told it was now out on the saltmarsh on the edge of the Humber Estuary but out of view. Shortly after we got out of the car, it flew up and circled round, its glossy wings shining green in the sunshine, before dropping down again. We were fortunate to catch it, as a few minutes later, the Glossy Ibis flew off again and continued on its way south, crossing the Humber from Spurn Point to Lincolnshire.

There was no sign of any Jack Snipe from the hide at Canal Scrape, although a Water Rail stopped to have a bathe on the edge of the reeds. We didn’t stop long here though, as time was pressing and we wanted to walk out all the way to Spurn Point, three miles away. Ideally we would have had more time to explore the area, but it was already early afternoon and we were told we should be back at the Warren by around 5pm to avoid being stranded, as the high tide later today could cover the breach in the peninsula.

There were lots of areas of scrub which were crying out to be explored as we walked down towards the Point, but we had to avoid the temptation and crack on to the end. Even just along the ‘road’, there were still good numbers of Robins and thrushes, especially Redwing, and a few Goldcrests. Some of the Robins were particularly tame!

robinRobin – a very tame one (photo credit Luke Nash)

By the time we got to the Point, we knew we didn’t have much time. On the walk down, we were told that there were still a couple of Dusky Warblers in the bushes and helpfully a couple of locals pointed us in the right direction. They can be particularly skulking, but with the wind having dropped, one of the Dusky Warblers decided to perform amazingly for us in the afternoon sunshine. Although it did go missing at times, we watched it flycatching in the bushes and hopping around on the grass! Interestingly, it was not the best marked Dusky Warbler, with a rather subdued pale supercilium. However, it called fairly regularly which helped us to locate it.

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6o0a5188Dusky Warbler – a very showy bird at Spurn Point

In order to get back over the breach in the time we were told, it was going to be a brisk walk back. We had a quick look on the way for the Olive-backed Pipit which had been on the Point earlier, but there was no immediate sign so we didn’t linger. A brief and light squally shower blew through as we strode over the narrows, though thankfully the wind was now at our backs. It did also create the most stunning double rainbow, the inner one with amazingly saturated colours, which hung just a short distance ahead of us on our way.

There was still just enough time to stop at Kilnsea in the last of the afternoon light before we had to head for home. We found a few people in the churchyard looking for the Pallas’s Warbler, but we were told it hadn’t been seen for over an hour. The wind had dropped a little and there was now some late sun on the trees, after the rain had passed through, but it was still a bit cool. A Chiffchaff promised something more exciting until it came out from the leaves to where we could see it.

There appeared to be something else in the back of the trees, so we walked around to the gate the other side, where it was more sheltered from the wind even if in the shade. Scanning the trees this side, we found another Chiffchaff and a couple of Goldcrests in the sycamores before we got a glimpse of the Pallas’s Warbler among the thicker, greener leaves of an ash tree right above us. We called the others over and had lovely views of it just above our heads – our favourite ‘seven-striped sprite’. It was a great way to end our brief visit to Spurn, watching the Pallas’s Warbler flitting around in the tree.

Then with the light starting to fade, it was back in the car for the long journey home. What an amazing day!

October 2015 – Gone Scilly

The Isles of Scilly are a great place to spend time birding in October. We spent a week on Tresco, the second biggest of the islands.

Traditionally, Scilly was regarded as one of the best places in the UK to catch up with American vagrants. The highlight of our week was a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper which flew in calling and then spent just one evening feeding on the muddy edge of the Great Pool on Tresco.

IMG_2307IMG_2290Spotted Sandpiper – dropped in for an evening to Tresco Great Pool

The American equivalent of our Common Sandpiper, the juvenile Spotted Sandpiper is distinguished among other things by plainer tertials and greater coverts, a shorter tail and yellow legs. Only the adults in summer plumage have the distinctive spotted underparts. It is a regular vagrant to UK, with about 200 records here and a small number normally appearing annually.

A day trip across to St Mary’s, the largest of the islands, allowed us to catch up with a couple of lingering birds there. Blyth’s Pipit breeds around Mongolia and winters in southern Asia and is a very scarce vagrant to the UK. One had been hanging around in a couple of grassy fields here for over a week already the time we got a chance to see it.

IMG_2193Blyth’s Pipit – a very occasional visitor from Asia

Having seen the Blyth’s Pipit, we walked round to the airfield where a Short-toed Lark was feeding on the short grass right next to the runway. These are much more regular visitors to the UK from southern Europe, and this individual had been here for nearly two weeks already. It was completely unphased by aircraft taking off right behind it!

IMG_2266Short-toed Lark – feeding on the short grass on the airfield

As well as rarities, Scilly is a great place to catch up with other migrants. There were at least four Yellow-browed Warblers around Tresco while we were there – it was hard to go for a walk around the island without running in to one or two of them, or at least hearing their distinctive calls.

P1120077Yellow-browed Warbler – one of several on Tresco this week

Commoner migrants also pass through the islands on their way further south. This Whinchat spent an evening feeding on the fence along Pool Road. It was still present briefly the following morning, and then seemed to continue on its way.

IMG_2329Whinchat – spent an evening feeding by the cattle field

The Great Pool on Tresco has an enviable record for turning up rare wildfowl, as well as vagrant waders. Migrants including a single Pintail and a couple of Shoveler appeared amongst the Gadwall, Teal and Wigeon while we were there. A couple of Pink-footed Geese seemed slightly out of place. A single Garganey was present throughout our stay, and was the best the Great Pool could muster this year.

IMG_2338Garganey – lingering on the Great Pool all week

Jack Snipe are also regular at this time of year around the Great Pool. They are largely crepuscular, best looked for early in the morning or at dusk. One was present for much of the week. They have a distinctive feeding action, bouncing up and down constantly. The Jack Snipe was joined by a single Common Snipe one evening,  which took to bouncing up and down as well while it was together with it.

IMG_2339Jack Snipe – regular on the muddy margins around the Great Pool

Tresco has traditionally held a small number of introduced Golden Pheasants. Sadly the population there, as with most of the rest of the UK, is no longer considered self-sustaining and is boosted by periodic additional releases. They are still great to watch, easiest seen at dusk along the road by the abbey.

P1120182Golden Pheasant – a stunning male

Non-avian interest is now provided by the introduced Red Squirrels. Although not native to the islands, Tresco has no Grey Squirrels, which have seemingly proven so harmful to the populations of Red Squirrels across so much of the UK. They can now be found in various places around the island.

P1120113Red Squirrel – one of the recently introduced individuals on Tresco

Above all, the islands are simply a lovely place to spend time walking, with the added advantage that you never know what might drop in while you are there. Well worth a visit.

P1120148Sunset on Tresco looking towards Bryher