Tuesday 29 July 2014

Cream-coloured Courser - Socotra and the Isles of Scilly

Having a collection of around 30,000 photographs I find myself spending my occasional spare moment editing, sorting and cataloging my ever expanding library. This is not simply an arduous task it brings back happy memories of trips and great birds. Every so often, when the mood takes me/time allows I am going to post photographs that are either of a great bird or are of those that bring back happy memories.  So to start, one of the best birds out there and highly sought after, the Cream-coloured Courser.

Cream-coloured Courser - Socotra - Simon Colenutt
Cream-coloured Courser - Socotra January 2007 - Simon Colenutt

I visited Socotra as part of a trip to Yemen from 19th-22nd January 2012 with Jon Hornbuckle, Neil Bostock, Janos Olah, Phil Rostron and Zoli Ecsedi. Jon's write-up of the trip can be found here. We found a pair of Cream-coloured Courser nesting on a rocky cliff-top. The birds had eggs and were fairly approachable. Jon and I lay close to the nest covered by a ground sheet to await the return of an incubating bird and after a short while one of the birds returned and settled back on the eggs.

There are five subspecies of Cream-coloured Courser distributed from the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands in the west, through north and central Africa (south of the Sahara in the Sahel region), to Ethiopia and Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula and east to Iran, Afghanistan and North-west India. A distribution map can be viewed here. The nominate race (cursor) makes the most extensive migratory movements with much of the population from North Africa moving south to the Sahel region. It is this race that occasionally occurs in the British Isles with a total of 45 records up to the end of 2012 although only eight of these have occurred since 1950. One of the most famous and well watched of these, a first winter, occurred on the Isles of Scilly from 28th September until 26th October 2004 before it sadly died in a bird hospital on 27th October. I had the pleasure of being on the islands for a week during the latter part of its stay.

Cream-coloured Courser - Isles of Scilly - Simon Colenutt
First Winter Cream-coloured Courser - Isles of Scilly October 2004 - Simon Colenutt

Thursday 24 July 2014

Odds and Ends from the Last Two Weeks

I have been really busy at work of late and barely had time to get into the field or to add to my Blog but here are a few bits and bobs from the last few weeks.

Sarah and I spent the weekend of the 12th July on the Isle of Wight seeing my family. I snuck off for a few hours on the morning of 13th July visiting Newtown and Town and Walters Copse but it wasn't until I got to Brook Down that the sun shone. This is a stunning piece of downland with amazing views of the west coast of the Island and was one of my favourite butterfly sites when I lived on the Island. It was great to visit again. Highlights of the visit included Chalkhill Blue, Clouded Yellow, Dark-green Fritillary, Small Copper, Wall Brown, Downland Robberfly Machinus rusticus and thousands of the scarce pyralid moth Mecyna flavalis. I remember seeing Mecyna flavalis at the site in small numbers previously but never in the profusion that I saw on this visit with tens being flushed with each footstep through the chalk sward.

View of Compton, Freshwater and Tennyson Down from Brook Down

Male Chalkhill Blue - Brook Down

Underwing of male Chalkhill Blue - Brook Down

Female Chalkhill Blue - Brook Down

Ringlet - Brook Down

The Robberfly Machinus rusticus - Brook Down

Small Skipper - Brook Down

Pyramidal Orchid - Brook Down

On the 14th July I popped into Bentley Wood on my way to a survey to see if I could finally get decent views of Purple Emperor. I even went armed with over ripe bananas to place in cunning places around the woods but to no avail, just the usual tree top views that I always get. However, arriving early I was probably the first on the 'switchback' trail and saw two juvenile Goshawk, hunting in the grass and over a log pile, I can only assume that they had a prey item cornered which had taken refuge in the log pile. It was odd seeing these large predators running around on the ground. Other than this I saw little although there were many Purple Hairstreak flying around the oaks as well as small numbers of Dark-green Fritillary. Willow Warbler chicks were out in force foraging through the undergrowth but otherwise the woods were quiet. I soon had to head off to my survey in Nailsea - what a contrast from a beautiful oak woodland to a 1970's shopping centre.

Juvenile Goshawks - Bentley Wood

Willow Warbler - Bentley Wood

The usual treetop view of a Purple Emperor, and…..

The usual treetop view of a Purple Hairstreak

On 21st July I was working in the New Forest for much of the day so popped into Pennington Marshes before my first survey. Wader passage continues to gain momentum with now around 150 Dunlin, 8 Greenshank, 120 Black-tailed Godwit and 9 Little Ringed Plover present on the lagoons but little else of note. The first returning juvenile Black-tailed Godwit were present but the majority of birds were adult birds in summer plumage.

Adult Summer Black-tailed Godwit - Pennington Marsh

Dunlin - Pennington Marsh

Dunlin - Pennington Marsh

On 23rd July I was working in Chelmsford so could not resist an early start to have a go for the Collard Pratincole at Minsmere. I have not seen any Pratincole species in the UK so the extra 1.5 hour drive was too much to resist but alas it was not to be. I waited in the East Hide from 09:30 until 11:15 before having to leave to find out that the bird was seen flying from the East Scrape to the South Scrape at around 11:30, the bird was then seen on and off for much of the early afternoon on the South Scrape - bugger! There was a good selection of birds on the East Scrape with 4 Greenshank, 9 Spotted Redshank, 12 Dunlin, 6 Knot, 6 Common Sandpiper, 1 Wood Sandpiper, 3 Ruff, 4 Sandwich Tern, approximately 120 Common Tern and 4 Little Tern. The highlight was a flock of around 70 Little Gull, this is easily the largest flock that I have seen in the UK previously and consisted of a range of ages, many of which were in moult.

Greenshank - Minsmere

Part of flock of around 70 Little Gull - Minsmere

Nesting Sand Martin - Minsmere

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Skomer 6th July 2014

Sarah, Tobias and I spent Sunday 6th July on Skomer. We had not been to the island for around eight years and Tobias never, and with his burgeoning interest in birds (all either 'quack-quacks' or owls) we thought that Skomer would be a great place for him to get close to some wild birds - in particular Puffin. We took a bit of a risk in that the only day we had for the island was the Sunday but in the event the weather was superb, almost too hot and sunny in fact. To cap it, the Grand Prix and the tennis finals meant that numbers of visitors on the day were low and the mid-morning boat was cancelled. We arrived at the ticket office at 08:30 and booked our tickets and still had time for a 45 minute stroll around the nearby headland. A distant pair of Chough were seen as were a family group of Northern Wheatear, the male now looking very ragged after the breeding season. The juveniles were evidently recently fledged, this is not a plumage that I am particularly familiar with. Swallows gave excellent views, particularly around the toilet block where a pair had decided to nest on the cistern in the gents, peering down on you as you relieved yourself prior to the ferry crossing.

Northern Wheatear  - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Male Northern Wheatear

Northern Wheatear  - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Juvenile Northern Wheatear

Barn Swallow  - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Barn Swallow

Skomer from the mainland
North Shore of Skokholm from the Mainland

The 20 minute ferry crossing was fairly uneventful with no Porpoise or Dolphin seen and the only seabirds being the common island breeders. As we had eaten no breakfast we headed to the Old Farm in the centre of the island which, since our last visit, has been converted into volunteers accommodation and a picnic area. We sat and enjoyed the view and listened to the Sedge Warblers and Wren singing from the Bracken, the latter sounding a little different from the birds that I am accustomed to hearing, supporting a Welsh island dialect.

Sedge Warbler - Skomer _ Simon Colenutt
Sedge Warbler - Skomer

From the Old Farm we walked west to Marble Rocks overlooking Pigstone Bay. I have been to Skomer on two previous occasions in May and June, at this time I have either seen carpets of Bluebell or a sea of Red Campion in bloom. During this visit the island was a little less colourful being smothered with a cover of Bracken and Bramble, however, on the shorter cliff top swards the vegetation was dominated by a mix of low growing Sea Campion, Scarlet Pimpernel, Sea Mayweed and Thrift making for an equally colourful display.

Sea Campion and Scarlet Pimpernel - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
Sea Campion and Scarlet Pimpernel - Skomer

Breeding gull were much in evidence with the Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with either fledged young or well grown young practicing their flying. The Lesser Black-backs in particular were vigorous in their defence of their young, particularly around the Young Ground area where the path passes through a nesting colony, here visitors are bombarded by feisty parents. There are around 12,000 pairs of Lesser black-back breeding on Skomer.

 Adult Herring Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Adult Herring Gull - Skomer

 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer

 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer

 Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull - Skomer

At Skomer Head we loitered and scanned the sea for Cetaceans but with no luck although the view of Grassholm was spectacular with one side of the islands swathed in the white of the 39,000 pairs of Gannet that breed there. This is 10% of the world population and the third largest colony in the UK behind St Kilda and Bass Rock. GPS tracking of these birds has shown that most move north into the Irish sea to feed but it is hard to believe that the large numbers seen off Cornwall in the summer are not birds from this colony. The distinctive, "chow' of Chough was heard and four birds flew past us giving great views.

Grassholm from Skomer - Simon Colenutt
 East Coast of Grassholm from Skomer

The commonest bird on Skomer is the Manx Shearwater with some 120,000 pairs breeding across the island, this coupled with the 45,000 breeding on the nearby Skokholm make for the largest breeding concentration in the world. However, its a rare event indeed to see them during the day on the islands and although I spent maybe 45 minutes scanning to sea I saw none. The only signs were the numerous burrows spread throughout the islands and the scatter of dead birds left after gulls, mainly Great Black-backs, capture any that fail to return to sea or the safety of the burrows come dawn.

 Dead Manx Shearwater - Skomer

We continued around the island stopping at various view points to watch the thousands of Guillemot and Razorbill breeding on the cliffs. Many of these now seem to have well grown chicks close to fledging. With around 20,000 pairs of Guillemot (2005 census) and 5,000 pairs of Razorbill breeding on the island the site, sound and smell of these colonies is something to savour.

Auk Colony - Skomer

One of the highlights of any visit to Skomer in spring are the Puffins, these are perhaps best seen at The Wick in the south of the island. Here the birds afford amazing views as they go about their business, regularly walking across the path and through the legs of visitors. During this visit the Sea Mayweed was growing at Puffin head height and the birds looked quite at home in their mini jungle. Many were evidently feeding young and were to-ing and fro-ing with bills filled with Sand Eel. There are some 10,000 breeding pairs of Puffin on Skomer with around 2,000 pairs on Skokholm.

The two other Auk species breeding on Skomer are the Guillemot and Razorbill, these are abundant but tend to be less showey than Puffin since they nest on the steep cliff faces. I have found the steps to the ferry the best location for seeing these two species close-to.

Guillemot - Skomer

Razorbill - Skomer

We left Skomer at 15:00 having spent a fabulous five hours enjoying the wealth of seabirds on this beautiful island of the coast of Pembrokeshire.

Details of how to visit the island can be found here.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

June Rarities


This is my summary of what I consider to be the most exciting records from the UK in June 2014, this is not aimed at being a comprehensive account of all the rare's in the UK in this month, for such accounts see the Birdguides review of the week or the Rare Bird Alert weekly round-up. I am largely writing this as a personal record of UK records and sightings to aid my knowledge and feed my interest in UK bird records. I aim to publish the previous months records in the first week or so of the following month. The photographs that I used have been gleaned from the internet, I aim to provide the photographer with full credit and a link to their website or blog, if you see that one of yours has been used and you object to this then please email me at simon@ecosa.co.uk and I will remove it immediately.

A summary of the weather for June 2014 can be found here.

June 2014
On the 31st May a Short-toed Eagle was found during a guided 'Birds of Poole Harbour' field trip at Morden Bog, Wareham Forest, Dorset. The bird remained in its favoured Scot's Pine until 10:00 on 1st June before it circled and flew south-west. The bird then proceeded to undertake a tour of south-east England being present at Beaulieu Road, Station on the morning of 8th June before settling at Ashdown Forest in East Sussex from 15th to 29th June where it showed well on occasion. An account of the finding of the bird in Ashdown Forest can be viewed here. Remarkably, after its disappearance from Ashdown Forest it relocated back to the New Forest in the Beaulieu Road Station/Pig Bush area from 30th June to the months end.

This was the third record of Short-toed Eagle (if accepted) for the UK with previous records being of the famous Isle of Scilly bird which wandered the islands from 7th-11th October 1999 and a bird seen at Dawlish Warren and Orcombe Point, Exmout on 16th October 2011.

Short-toed eagle typically breeds in arid areas where there is a high abundance of its reptilian prey although in the north of its range it occurs in wooded landscapes interspersed with heathland and grassland. The species breeds through southern and Eastern Europe, north-west Africa, Turkey and as far east as Lake Balkhash in Kazahkstan. In the Western Palearctic it is almost entirely a summer visitor with eastern populations wintering mainly in India while western populations winter in the northern tropics of Africa from the Sahel to Ethiopia.

Short-toed Eagle - Morden Bog, Dorset (Paul Morton)
Photo by Paul Morton of 'Birds of Poole Harbour'. This is taken at the point the bird was found, must have been mind blowing!

Short-toed Eagle - Morden Bog, Dorset (Aidan Brown)
Short-toed Eagle by Aidan Brown, see more of Aidan's 
stunning photos on his blog A Dorset Diary

On 2nd June a stunning male Spectacled Warbler was found singing near to Gun Hill on Burnham Overy Dunes, Norfolk. The bird showed well on and off until 18th June. This will be the 8th record for the UK if accepted following birds in Yorkshire (1996), Suffolk (two records in 1997 and 2008), Devon (1999), Isles of Scilly (2000), Norfolk (2011) and Hampshire (2011). The Scilly 2000 bird being the last widely accessible bird with the more recent birds being either suppressed or short stayers.

Spectacled Warbler, Burnham Overy Dunes - Taken by John Richardson, see John's fantastic photographs of birds and more on his blog 'Old Man of Minsmere'

Spectacled Warbler breeds around the Mediterranean including Spain, southern France, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya. The species breeds in low scrub, salt flats and semi-desert. In the south of its range it is largely sedentary while birds from the northern part of the range move southwards a relatively short distance to areas to the north of the Sahara.

On the 15th June a Eurasian Scops-owl was disturbed from its roost in the garden of Holland House, North Ronaldsay where it promptly flew straight into open nets and was ringed. It was returned to its roosting area  and was still present at around mid-night on 16th June but was not seen subsequently. However, it or another was present on 24th June west of Camb on Yell, Shetland (the 14th for Shetland). An account of its finding on Orkney can be found on the North Ronaldsey Bird Observatory Blog here.

Eurasian Scops-owl - North Ronaldsay - Rael Butcher
Eurasian Scops-owl - North Ronaldsay. 
Photo by Rael Butcher.

To the end of 2012 there have been 97 records of Eurasian Scops-owl in Britain and Ireland. Geographically these are widespread with Shetland (13 records) and Orkney (7 records) being favoured localities. Away from these islands there is a slight south and south-east bias to the records. The species has been found in all months of the year with the exception of February and December with a clear peak in records during the Spring. 

Eurasian Scops-owl is a widespread species being ground throughout southern Europe, the Middle East and as far east as Lake Baikal. Through much of its range it is migratory wintering in Africa south of the Sahara. Those that occur in the UK are typically returning birds that over shoot there southern breeding grounds and hence the spring bias to records.

The Scottish Islands scored again on the 16th June with a stunning Bridled Tern in the tern colony at Buness on the fabled island of Fair Isle. An account of the find on Fair Isle can be found on the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Wardens blog here and here. The bird then toured the island over the coming days being seen at the South Light, in the tern colony at Shalstane and at South Harbour until the late afternoon of 19th June. Then, amazingly on the 20th the bird was refound on the Farne Islands, Northumberland on 20th June and remained until the months end. An account of the re-find on the Farne Islands can be found on the FFarne Islands Blog here. This was most certainly the same bird that was found on 1st July 2013 on Farne Islands where it remained until 19th August with tours to Saltholme and Cresweel Pond, Northumberland, East Chevington in Cleveland, Isle of May in Fife and the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire. 

Bridled tern - Farne Islands, Northumberland - David Kinchin-Smith
Bridled Tern - Farne Islands (David Kinchin-Smith)

Bridled Tern is a Pantropical species breeding widely in the Caribbean, West Africa, through the Indian Ocean and in Australasia. It is widespread at sea but movements away from breeding colonies are poorly known.

There are 23 records of the species in the UK up to the end of 2012, these are widely distributed as would be expected for such a wide-ranging species although there are four records from Northumberland. Records have occurred from April to November with the peak months being in June, July and August.

Waders and Dragons

After a few weeks without a visit I finally found time on the 30th June to spend a few early morning hours birding at Pennington Marsh. I arrived at 06:30 and birded the area around Shoveller Pools, Keyhaven, Fishtail and Butts Lagoon. There was no real anticipation of seeing anything of great note but as always its a pleasant spot to be early in the morning before the site is invaded by mad yelling dog walkers who seem to find pleasure in shouting inane things at their dogs across the marshes. 

It was soon apparent that small numbers of wader are already on the move with a male Ruff, 30 Curlew, a single breeding plumage Turnstone, three Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit all probable migrant birds.

The Ruff appeared to be a male in heavy moult out of breeding plumage and is presumably a failed breeder. While the three Bar-tailed Godwit were all in heavily abraded winter plumage and presumably were young birds that had not acquired breeding plumage. The Black-tailed Godwit were a mix of four summer plumage birds and two winter plumage birds and so were presumably a mix of failed breeders and young birds that had not acquired summer plumage. 

Ruff - Shoveler Pools, Pennington Marshes

 Bar-tailed Godwit - Intertidal area at Pennington Marshes

Black-tailed Godwit- Butts Lagoon, Pennington Marshes

Mixed with these migrant waders were the local breeding species with a total of four adult and at least three juvenile Little Ringed Plover and many Redshank including a juvenile on Shoveller Pools which made me stop and look as at this time of year they can readily be mistaken for Wood Sandpiper or Lesser Yellowlegs.

Little Ringed Plover - Shoveller Pools, Pennington Marsh

Redshank - Shoveller Pools, Pennington Marsh

There was little else around with the passerines present being mainly local breeders with an abundance of fledged Whitethroat and Reed Warbler. So as the dog-walkers appeared I decided to head for Crockford Bridge between Lymington and Beaulieu in the New Forest. Crockford Bridge is a classic site for Odonata with many of the New Forest species present and I can spend hours here ankle deep in mud, water and Bog Myrtle.

The first thing I saw was a Spotted Flycatcher, remarkably the first that I had seen this year and also the first I had seen at Crockford Bridge. This bird was in song probably indicating that it was breeding within the woodland lining the stream.

Spotted Flycatcher - Crockford Bridge, New Forest.

Odonata were present in abundance species recorded were Large Red Damselfly, Small Red Damselfly, Southern Damselfly, Beautiful Demoiselle, Keeled Skimmer and Emperor Dragonfly. But all too soon I had to leave and meet friends for lunch.

 Large Red Damselfly - Crockford Bridge, Beaulieu

 Small Red Damselfly - Crockford Bridge, Beaulieu

  Southern Damselfly - Crockford Bridge, Beaulieu

  Beautiful Demoiselle - Crockford Bridge, Beaulieu

Wing venation of  Beautiful Demoiselle - Crockford Bridge, Beaulieu

Xanthogramma pedissequum -  Crockford Bridge, Beaulieu

Kelled Skimmer - Crockford Bridge, Beaulieu