Tuesday 30 January 2018

'North American' Horned Lark - Staines Reservoir

A 'North American' Horned Lark was present on the causeway between the North and South Basins of Staines Reservoirs from 19th to 28th November 2017 and while obviously an interesting bird I had no opportunity to go and see the bird. After an absence of a few weeks when the bird was, presumably, feeding elsewhere within the local area the bird was relocated on 22nd January and this time I had a chance to visit the bird. I parked on Town Lane adjacent to the eastern entrance to the causeway and walked onto the causeway, there were around 10 birders and it was immediately apparent that the bird was on show. I bowled up and there it was feeding on the south side of the causeway only 20m or so away. Over the couple of hours that I was there the bird showed well but in terrible light conditions on this still and sunny day. It spent much of its time picking through the weeds on the reservoir revetment. My photos of the bird are fairly poor due to the light but do show the characters that indicate that this is an 'North American' Horned Lark.

HBW Alive currently recognises 28 subspecies over its vast range (other authorities recognise a varying number of subspecies). These are separated based mainly on differences in size, ground colour (partly determined by local soil colour) and pattern. A recent molecular study suggests that taxa in the Old World break into five species and surely more species could be recognised, both in the Old and the New World, with further work. HBW Alive and IOC currently treat all subspecies under one species known as Horned Lark.

In North America there are currently 11 subspecies recognised by HBW Alive. Alpestris is the nominate subspecies within the North American group and so if split would be the 'parent' species with the others being the subspecies of this. Most of the North American subspecies are unlikely to occur as vagrants as they are either short-distance migrants or are resident. Those most likely to occur as vagrants are alpestris and hoyti. Alpestris breeds in eastern Canada and the eastern USA with northern populations wintering in the eastern USA. Hoyti breeds in northern Canada and winters in the northern USA.

The field characteristics of these taxa seem to be poorly described but in essence alpestris has a greater extent of yellow in the face, and particularly in the supercilium, while hoyti has the yellow restricted to the throat with a white supercilium. The bird at Staines thus seems to fit hoyti best but without DNA analysis this seems unlikely to be proved. From the subspecies 'flava', our Shore Lark, differences are based on the limited extent of yellow in the face, the pinkish tones to the plumage and perhaps the more speckled breast but all differences are modest and perhaps variable/clinal.

There seem to be two possible records of 'American' Horned Lark in the UK (with other claims elsewhere which don't seemed to have gained much traction), these are:
  • St Agnes and Tresco, Isles of Scilly - 2nd to 31st October 2001
  • Askernish, South Uist - 9th to 11th October 2014
The Isles of Scilly record was never submitted and current thinking is that it may not have been 'North American' Horned Lark while the South Uist record remains in circulation with the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC). A summary of BBRC's current stance on Horned Lark can be found here

Here are a few links to articles discussing the identification of 'North American' Horned Lark:

The identification and taxonomy of this species remains complex and it would appear that a great deal of further work is required before the North American subspecies are split.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Hawfinch at Mercer Way, Romsey - 25th January

I had a spare few minutes so decided to pop to Mercer Way in Romsey to have a look for the Hawfinch that winter in the park at the end of the road. I spent around one hour with these birds which were showing well on and off and eventually counted at least 27 birds when the flock took flight, but there were probably more than this. It seems strange that these birds winter in such an urban area but the reason these birds are here is that when the park was landscaped a high density of cherry trees were planted. These cherry trees bare a heavy crop of fruit which the hawfinch feed on. These  birds usually show in the trees that surround SU 3589 2175. They can often be seen feeding on the ground amongst the trees or coming to drink at puddles. The images below show two males and a female from the flock.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Stanpit Marsh and Keyhaven - 25th and 31st January

Here are a few odds and ends from the last couple of weeks of popping to sites between commitments. 

This was my third attempt at the Stilt Sandpiper that has been knocking around Dorset for the last few months - since early September I believe. My first was to Lodmoor, Weymouth on 16th September  the day after it had departed the site but I did see a Least Sandpiper so all was not bad. The second attempt was to Lychett Bay, Poole Harbour on 21st September where I got a really brief view before the bird flew. Then with the bird appearing to be semi-settled during January at Coward's Marsh and Stanpit Marsh, Christchurch on 25th January I popped to both sites to try my luck. Sod's law the bird was very distant and I managed only this poor record shot of the bird at Stanpit.

Stilt Sandpiper, 1st Winter - Stanpit Marsh, Christchurch

After a bird survey on 31st January and before picking Tobias up from school I popped to Keyhaven for two patch-ticks. Firstly, three White-fronted Goose (two adults and a juvenile) which looked a little plastic on the balancing pond near to the old dump at the west end of the Ancient Highway. Then a 1st winter Iceland Gull foraging for worms in the horse field to the east of Aubrey Farm, Lymore Lane at SZ304917.

White-fronted Goose (two adult and juvenile)- Keyhaven

Iceland Gull (1st winter) - Aubrey Farm, Lymore Lane, Keyhaven

Little Egret - Aubrey Farm, Lymore Lane, Keyhaven

Saturday 13 January 2018

Pennington Marsh - 12th January

After dropping Tobias at school I spent my first morning of 2018 at Pennington Marsh. I only had a couple of hours and my main aim was to try to see a patch tick. So after enjoying the spectacle of high numbers of Teal, Wigeon, Pintail, Lapwing, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover on Pennington Marsh I headed for the seawall. Here, I soon located the Red-necked Grebe off the jetty that had been present for a couple of weeks and while scope views were okay it was far too distant for any photographs, still, can't complain it was great to get a patch tick on my first visit this year. Also here, a single Great-northern Diver flew west and a Spotted Redshank showed well on Pennington Lagoon. The morning had started misty but it soon became quite a pleasant still day and I enjoyed my time at the marsh even though there birds were the typical winter fare.

I was limited for time as I needed to get to a bird survey up the road at Marchwood for 11:20 but after this I headed to Beaulieu Road Station, my plan was to find a flock of Parrot Crossbill but despite playing recordings in suitable habitat I saw none (not very surprising). It was deadly quite and other than a few common woodland birds plus Dartford Warbler I saw/heard very little and then it was time to pick Tobias up from school and head for home.

Pintail - Pennington Marsh

Wigeon - Pennington Marsh

Teal - Pennington Marsh

Cormorant eating a ridiculously large Eel - Pennington Marsh

Cormorant eating a ridiculously large Eel, down it goes - Pennington Marsh

Spotted Redshank - Pennington Marsh

Black-tailed Godwit - Pennington Marsh

Here is a recording of a flock of Black-tailed Godwit feeding on the grassland just off the Lower Pennington Lane car park. In the background can be heard Teal, Wigeon and Lapwing. The godwits are the 'chuck' calls in the foreground of the recording.

Ruff - Pennington Marsh

Ruff - Pennington Marsh

This is a recording of the general soundscape at Pennington Marsh, here can be heard Wigeon, Pintail, Teal, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Curlew, Blue Tit and Canada Goose plus me fumbling the microphone - its a busy place.

And here are some general recordings from the day, the Spotted Redshank was from Pennington Marsh with the 'pliip' of Teal in the background. The Reed Bunting (with a churring Wren in the background) and Mistle Thrush are from Beaulieu Road Station while the Song Thrush is from Marchwood.

Reed Bunting

Mistle Thrush

Song Thrush - Quite a remarkable difference from the Mistle Thrush with notes over a wider bandwidth (at least 2.5-8.5 kHz compared to 1.5-3.5 kHz in Mistle Thrush) and in far less standardised sequences.

Monday 8 January 2018

Cornwall Weekend 5th - 8th January

Sarah, Tobias and I were down in our cottage at Trowan, Cornwall for the weekend. We need some work done to the bathroom and so much of the weekend was taken with organising this but we did find time to spend by the sea and some general relaxation in the cottage. On 6th I picked up Nigel Wheatley from his home in St Just at 07:30 and we headed out on a mornings birding before meeting with the girls and children for the afternoon. Nigel suggested we spent some time looking for 'white-winged gulls' on the south coast as there had recently been an influx onto the Isles of Scilly. So we headed, in the dark, to Penzance and to Jubilee Pool. As the light was increasing, and even before we got out of the car Nigel picked up an immature Iceland Gull flying west but we had fairly poor views. Scanning from Jubilee Pool across the bay it was evident that there were very large numbers of gull present. These were attending the half dozen or so Pilchard boats that were busy catching large numbers of fish in the bay. Scanning through the flocks I eventually picked up a distant 1st winter Glaucous Gull around one of the fishing boats but it soon settled on the water amongst the throngs of gulls present and I lost the bird. Also at sea were good numbers of Guillemot, Kittiwake, a single male Eider and around eight Great-northern Diver. Roosting on the seawall were around 75 Turnstone and a total of 22 Purple Sandpiper. Having exhausted this area we headed to Newlyn Harbour which was also alive with gulls but scanning the flocks the only bird of note we recorded was an adult winter Yellow-legged Gull. After grabbing a pastie and some coffee we headed to the main car park at Marazion. Scanning to sea here produced a close flock of 13 female Common Scoter and a close Red-throated Diver but most of the gulls had dispersed as the Pilchard boats were no longer fishing. I picked up a distant juvenile Pomarine Skua which flew east and eventually disappeared into the sun and then behind St. Michael's Mount. A pod of around 10 Bottle-nosed Dolphin were busy feeding close to shore in the bay to the north-east of St. Michael's Mount and around six Harbour Porpoise were present off shore. We moved around to the other car park closer to Marazion but scanning here produced nothing new of note. Our morning was drawing to a close so we decided to spend the remaining hour at the Hayle Estuary. Scanning from the The Old Key House we recorded a juvenile Spoonbill, a single adult Mediterranean Gull, three male and a female Goosander, 250 Golden Plover, 12 Bar-tailed Godwit, six Black-tailed Godwit plus good numbers of Teal, Wigeon, Lapwing, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Curlew and Oystercatcher. There were numerous gulls including around 75 Lesser Black-backed Gull but disappointingly no white-winged gull. So, our mornings white-winged gull hunt had produced two rather ropey views of an Iceland Gull and a Glaucous Gull, still, it had been a very enjoyable morning spent birding with Nigel. We headed back to the cottage to meet the families and spent the afternoon eating and drinking.

On the 7th Sarah, Tobias and I went for a walk along the beach at Marazion. An Iceland Gull had been reported in the overflow carpark over the last couple of days and as we drove to the car park I noticed a gull which was clearly a white-winged gull. Stopping the vehicle we had excellent views of this first-winter bird. The bird was feeding on bits of dead Herring Gull and also on worms drawn to the surface of the grassland of the car park.

First-winter Iceland Gull - Marazion

First-winter Iceland Gull with remains of Herring Gull - Marazion

First-winter Iceland Gull hunting for worms - Marazion

First-winter Iceland Gull - Marazion

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Parrot Crossbill, Wishmoor Bottom, Berkshire - 3rd January 2018

While in India news broke of several flocks of Parrot Crossbill in the UK including 28 at Santon Warren, Norfolk, six at Upper Hollesley Common, Suffolk and 16 at Wishmoor Bottom, Berkshire/Surrey. Remarkably all of these flocks were found on 26th November. Parrot Crossbill is a World tick for me and so I was keen to visit one of these flocks. Unfortunately, with end of year staff reviews and then Christmas I had no time to visit but today I had a couple of hours before a bird survey. I was on site by 07:30, walked to the location described by Birdguides and waited. The weather was dreadful with Storm Eleanor still in the process of passing and hammering much of the UK. The winds on site were around force 6-7 and the light levels were very low. At around 08:30 I picked up a flock of birds in flight which turned out to be the Parrot Crossbill flock, 12 birds in total. I followed these birds for the next 1.5 hours as they showed fairly well on and off mainly feeding in the tops of the Oak and Scot's Pine. The birds were fairly active frequently flying from tree to tree and giving a distinctive call when in flight or about to take flight. The light was poor and so my photographs are not so good but here is a selection, each photo depicts a different individual.

Parrot Crossbill - Adult male

Parrot Crossbill - Adult male

Parrot Crossbill - Adult male

Parrot Crossbill - Female.

Parrot Crossbill - Female.

Parrot Crossbill - Presumably a 1st winter male bird showing a wing bar.