Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Great Spotted Cuckoo at Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight - 24th March

On 21st March news filtered through of a Great Spotted Cuckoo at Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight. Initially details were fairly sketchy but the following day news broke of its continued presence and pictures eventually emerged on Twitter and Facebook, as is the way of todays birding world. This was the second record for the Isle of Wight but I was initially not too fussed, I had set aside the weekend to decorate Tobias's playroom and so I tried to stay focused. On Saturday, some nice images of the bird emerged and news that it was very confiding so I accelerated the decorating duties and by Saturday evening I had applied all the necessary coats of paint, got agreement from Sarah and booked my ferry for Sunday. Tobias asked if he could come along and after weighing up the pros and cons I agreed that he would be fine- he was very excited as was I.

We were up at 06:00 and headed to Lymington for our 07:25 ferry across to Yarmouth. The crossing was fairly relaxing and we sat in the lounge and scanned across the Lymington Marshes, this produced around 20 stunning summer plumaged Mediterranean Gull, 30 Eider, 45 Brent Goose and a few wader including Grey Plover, Dunlin and Curlew. I looked hard for my first Tern of the year but there none were to be seen.

Passing along the south-west coast of the island we soon arrived at the carpark at Wheeler's Bay. Tobias wanted to take his binoculars (naturally), drawing pencils and pad and so we spent some time faffing in the carpark. As we left the car a small gaggle of birders arrived in a slightly energised state proclaiming that the cuckoo had just left its usual area and flown inland over Ventnor followed by the statement of 'its never done that before, most unusual'. My heart sank as I felt that we had just seen the aftermath of the cuckoo's departure. I recognised one of the birders, it was my childhood mentor Andy Butler, it was great to see him again but I felt tense and wanted to search for the bird. I glanced down at Tobias and he said 'what just happened Daddy, and looked at me with sad eyes' he knew it had just flown - the lads first dip. We wandered around and Andy showed Tobias his first Glanville Fritillary caterpillars and Wall Lizard - it was just like when Andy showed me my first insects and encouraged me to get interested in invertebrates because 'everybody does birds'.

We wandered along to the cuckoo's usual area of Brambles which were covered with Brown-tail moth caterpillars, the cuckoo's chosen food source, but there was no sign of the bird so Tobias and I walked back to the car to drop off our stuff and lighten the load. I then bumped into Ian Ridett, another friend of mine from my island birding days, and we stood contemplating the situation at the entrance of the carpark located in an elevated position where we scanned the coastal scrub. I then spotted a bird flying low over the sea being chased by a Herring Gull, 'there it is' and I quickly grabbed Tobias and picked him up so he could see the bird. We deduced that the bird had headed back to its usual area so after a swift walk we were there and watching the Great Spotted Cuckoo at close range as it fed on Brown-tail Moth caterpillars in the Bramble thicket. We spent the next hour or so watching this cracking bird, it spent a fair bit of time buried in the Bramble feeding on caterpillars and time spent with its feathers fluffed and presumably digesting and sunbathing. It did, on occasions, show well atop the Brambles where its spikey grey crest and large white tips to all the wing feathers and scapulars were striking.

After enjoying the bird and having our fill Tobias and I wandered off and decided to head for St. Catherine's Point, perhaps for my first Wheatear of the year. However, things were very quiet and there was little to be seen but for my first singing Blackcap of the year and both Dotted Bee-fly and Dark-edged Bee-fly, both my first of the year. After a walk of around 90 minutes we headed back to the car and headed for the 13:25 back to the mainland.

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo, here the loose plumage was during one of the periods when the bird was stationary as it digested and sunbathed. Note the raised throat, breast and rump feathers - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Wall Lizard - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Great Spotted Cuckoo twitch - Wheeler's Bay, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

St. Catherine's Point, Isle of Wight

Dotted Bee-fly - St. Catherine's Point, Isle of Wight

Tobias tackling the steeper slopes at St. Catherine's Point

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Shetland (the Tengmalm's Owl Dip) - 4th-5th March

With some gripping photographs emerging on social media of the recent Tengmalm's Owl at Bixter on Mainland Shetland from 19th to 23rd February and then moving a short distance to Tresta from 24th and showing exceptionally well on 2nd March, I just had to go. So, with agreement from Sarah and with the bird showing well still on Saturday 2nd I hatched a plan to head to Shetland on Monday 4th. Booking my flights by mid-morning on 2nd I watched with some envy as mega images and video flooded from Lea Gardens the owls chosen patch of trees at Tresta. Sunday 3rd was a horrendous day with strong winds and torrential rain and so I was not too surprised that there were no reports of the bird - although I was somewhat nervous given the lack of any sightings. On the 4th I was up at 02:00 and at Heathrow by 04:00 ready for my 06:15 flight to Glasgow and on to Sumburgh. Landing at 11:35 I switched my phone on hoping to see news of the bird but nothing, just a message from Birdguides with a sad-faced emoji symbol. I collected my car and headed north-west in the hope that positive news would appear but it was not to be. On arrival at the site I met with Max Hellicar who had been at the site for a couple of hours looking for the bird. I had communicated with Max before arriving on the island and had arranged to bird with him for a couple of days as he was car-less for his time on the island. Max and I spent the next couple of hours scouring all the bushes we could, no accessible cluster of branches or leaves, no evergreen shrub and no conifer went unchecked but to no-avail.

After we had tired of peering into bushes we decided to take a break and head south for a tick for Max, the long staying Pied-billed Grebe at Loch Spiggie, a bird that I had last seen on 5th October 2018. From the southern end of the Loch we scanned vut could not located the grebe but did record good numbers of Goldeneye, Wigeon, Teal, Tufted Duck, a total of 23 Whooper Swan and four summer plumaged Red-throated Diver. We then headed to the north-west corner of the loch where Max's friends had seen the bird a few days ago. Pulling up in a lay-by close to the loch, Max was quick to locate the bird close to the shoreline. We hopped over the style and wandered to the waters edge but the grebe was very wary and swam to the centre of the loch, often partly submerged to avoid detection.

We then headed north pausing at Setter to scan the Greylag Goose flocks for two Bean Goose that had been present but we both felt a little half hearted, keen to get back to Lea Garden to look for the Tengmalm's Owl. We briefly paused at Cunningsburgh where a wintering juvenile Common Rosefinch, which has been present since 6th January,  showed quickly amongst its adopted flock of House Sparrow in the local gardens. After getting our fill of this rather drab bird with a simple-looking expression we continued north to our main target.

We stopped in the tall pine trees in the vicinity of the Methodist Church at Tresta peering into the tall pines here and working the bushes along the Burn of Tresta. A Woodcock was flushed as was a flock of 23 Collared Dove but little else was seen and certainly no owl. We then headed back to the garden and began peering into bushes until dark hoping to see the owl as it emerged from roost, but there was nothing, all was quiet and pretty down-heartening but tomorrow was to be another day.

Pied-billed Grebe (adult summer) - Loch of Spiggie

Pied-billed Grebe (adult summer using evasion tactics) - Loch of Spiggie, Mainland Shetland

Common Rosefinch (juvenile) - Cunningsburgh, Mainland Shetland 

Common Frog - Lea Gardens, Tresta, Mainland Shetland

Day 2 dawned bright and early and having checked out of the Lerwick Hotel I collected Max from the Islesburgh House Hostel just up the road from my hotel at 06:15. We headed directly to Lea Gardens full of optimism - a new day, a new dawn. We began peering into the bushes, starting in the central garden area where the bird had favoured the previous days but nothing. And then an owl flew over my shoulder and in the very brief glimpse I had I thought that it was probably a Short-eared. Calling Max he said he had just flushed a Long-eared Owl and so this was very likely his bird. I flushed the bird a couple more times as I searched through various trees and bushes and that was all the excitement there was. Time passed by and our spirits began to wain, more birders turned up, we now numbered seven. We hatched a plan to head to Bixter, and to the garden where the Tengmalm's Owl had originally been seen. Loading the car with a couple more birders we headed off on the five minute drive to the garden. I knocked on the door but the daughter of the owner of the property declined us access to the garden and so we searched the pines from the boundary of the garden. Max and I saw a Sparrowhawk fly off from the garden, it was carrying prey and both Max and I thought that it was most likely a Water Rail. Searching the perimeter pine trees my levels of despondency increased and suddenly the realisation of the dip tipped me over the edge, I had had enough and wanted to go and do something else. Max took a bit more convincing but eventually we headed back to Tresta, dropped the other birders off and headed north-east to Bretabister and Nesting where a White-billed Diver had been present. 

We scanned the sea and had some nice views of Great-northern Diver as well as distant views of Red-throated Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser and Guillemot and a school of five Common Porpoise but no White-billed. Time was pushing on and I had in mind my flight back south, so we headed down to Lerwick and spent some time around Gremista. Max had purchased three loaves of bread to draw the gulls in but they didn't seem interested and it was comical watching Max throw the bread towards the sea just for the wind to send the bread back overhead and into the car park. Eventually, he generated some interest amongst the gull community and a 2nd winter Iceland Gull appeared and showed very well. Also offshore here were small numbers of Fulmar, Kittiwake and around four Long-tailed Duck and 12 Black Guillemot, some of the latter now in summer plumage. It was now 12:15 and time for me to head off south to Sumburgh for my 14:00 flight home, I said my goodbyes to Max who was on the boat to Aberdeen that evening. As I drove south I reflected on what had been a good couple of days birding but a major dip. This dip was probably second in stature to my missing a Wallcreeper in-off the sea at St. Catherines Point in the 80's (see here), that dip still haunts me even though I have now seen Wallcreeper. The Wallcreeper dip eclipses the Tengmalm's Owl by a long way but the owl still hurt, and will hurt in the future, such are the highs and lows of birding - thats why I love it and live for it.

Oystercatcher - South Nesting, Mainland Shetland

Long-tailed Duck (adult male, winter plumage) - Gremista, Lerwick, Mainland Shetland

Iceland Gull - Gremista, Lerwick, Mainland Shetland

Iceland Gull - Gremista, Lerwick, Mainland Shetland

Iceland Gull - Gremista, Lerwick, Mainland Shetland