Monday, 27 March 2017

A Royal Visit to Guernsey

Since the arrival of the enigmatic 1st winter Royal Tern (soon to be American Royal Tern) in early February on my home island of Guernsey I had looked into the various options of getting back to twitch it. Sadly however, there are no "last minute" deals to the Channel Islands, in fact it's quite the opposite with last minute flights approaching or even exceeding £400 return, meaning there was no chance of making the dream a reality, I gave up hope.

I was however planning to make a visit to the island in March (return flight £110) to visit family and friends...

With the Tern still present a week later, often accompanied by the wintering Sandwich Terns, was it a real possibility I could twitch it in over a months time?

With nothing to lose, and a glimmer of hope, my wife and I booked flights for mid-March to visit family. As the weeks passed by, many days would go by without the tern being seen and hope was all but lost when all of a sudden another sighting! This wasn't really surprising as the island is quite underwatched (especially during the week) and the bird was highly mobile, moving from one end of the island to the other in a matter of hours.

The week before my departure and excitement was brewing, it really looked like I was going to have my cake and eat it - combining a much overdue family visit with a top European rarity.

I arrived on the island on Thursday late afternoon. Picked up by my Dad, I persuaded him to take the scenic route back home so I could scan a few bays en route. We started at the Shingle bank, L'Eree and worked our way up the west coast finishing at Grandes Havres. The light was fading, no luck but tomorrow was the big chance.

Friday morning I woke early, this was it, I had the morning to nail this tern before my wife arrived on a flight in the afternoon and we had family engagements. I'd arranged to spend the morning with a local birding mate (@wayneturner4) to look for it. He'd spent several hours on Thursday morning trying to locate it before my arrival but sadly to no avail. It had been seen twice in the week but frustratingly at opposites ends of the island so we really had nothing to go on. We started at the North end of the island, checking out its favourite haunts, then again, then once more before heading down the west coast checking all the bays. Nothing.

Taking a break from the Tern hunt, we had a quick whiz round the headland at Pleinmont. With nothing but a stream of Meadow Pipits and a couple of hunting Peregrines we retraced our steps and did the whole islands west and north coast again. It was now 11:30, 5.5hrs since we'd set off, and we pulled into Pembroke Carpark. We scanned the bay once more, but this time, distantly right out in the bay I picked up a couple of terns, more importantly one of them looked to have dark in the wings! I grabbed my scope and sure enough, a distant large tern with some dark in the wings, feeding with a sandwich tern. It was it! Fantastic, I'd seen it. However it then headed around the headland feeding with the other tern. We jumped in the car and drove to where we thought we'd overtake it and pick it up on the next headland or in one of the bays. We got there, scanned left, scanned right, nothing! We waited, nothing! Had it gone through already? Had it doubled back? We'll never know as another hour and a half of searching was fruitless, though we did see a Short-eared Owl fly over our heads and out to sea.

Was that it? Was that my Royal Tern experience? A distant large tern, I couldn't see the bill, could barely make out anything apart from it was larger than the Sandwich tern and had dark in the wings. I was happy, but at the same time devastated. Such a great bird, such a shit view! My time was up for the day, but hope was not all lost, I had two and a half more days, an understanding wife and family who like to go for coastal walks...

The next morning I got up and had nothing planned for the early part of the morning. My parent's dog needed a walk and so we headed the 10 mins round the coast to Fort Doyle. Halfway there I realised I'd left my camera at home, but this wasn't birding, this was a dog walk, so didn't turn round. We got out of the car, the wind was a howling easterly and the sea was foaming at the surface. We walked 50m from the car before I saw a group of Sandwich Terns in the bay, battling against the wind and flying towards me. There it was, just like that, the stunning Royal Tern - carrot-beak and all! It was all over the place as it flew round the bay, blasted by the wind. I didn't have my camera so I just enjoyed the views. I ran back to the car to get my scope and try and Phonescope it, but by the time I'd found some shelter from the wind all I could find were Sandwich Terns. It had gone again, just like yesterday but at least I'd had great views! Satisfied, we continued our walk before going home.

About 10:30 I got a call from @guernseyguppy who'd had the Royal Tern again and it was heading south from Bordeaux. The next stop from there is Belle Greve Bay, the beach just 30 secounds walk from my parents house. My sister and nephews were due round in an hour so with nothing to lose I grabbed my camera and shot out the door. A few seconds later I was on the beach, a quick scan and there it was! I fired off a few shots and was glad to have something "on film" of my own. It had been feeding in the shallows but was flying south. The sun was in an awful position and if I wanted to get any decent shots of it I'd have to be seaward side of it...
First record shot of the Royal Tern
I sprinted off down the beach, waded through the water and clambered onto some rocks (hoping the tide was on it's way out!). I could see it distantly and hoped it would turn back and come back towards me, feeding once more in the shallows that would now be between me and the shore, with the light on my side, and hopefully within the next twenty minutes before I was due back for visiting family.

Thankfully, it did exactly what I planned and performed stunningly right next to me, sometimes too close to fit the whole bird in the picture, and even catching a fish. My photos aren't perfect but put that down to adrenaline shake and excitement. An American Royal Tern, to myself, on the beach I grew up on. Awesome!

Royal Tern between me and the shore

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Sun's out, adders out... as the old saying goes

With the sun shining and temperatures supposedly reaching 17oCJames Lowan, Will Soar and I couldn't have chosen a better day to go addering at one of our favourite spots in Norfolk for them. A Woodlark sang overhead, several Woodcock flushed out from the gorse and Common Lizards scurried away faster that you could react to see them.

We visited known favourite spots on the heath from previous years as well as searched the heath, in suitable sun-traps, for new spots. We encountered an incredible 17 adders including some tiny individuals, presumably last years hatchlings. I put this key down next to this adder to show just how small it was!

I'm learning that adders are surprisingly difficult to photograph, they're easily spooked, there's always bits of vegetation getting in the way and its hard to get a good angle.

Upon returning to the heath a couple of weeks later we again saw good numbers of adders and I got some better results (below).

Friday, 3 March 2017

The first signs of Spring

With Spring just around the corner, the first warmth and a little sunshine coaxes us wildlife enthusiasts (geeks) out of hibernation. Before the arrival of our avian summer visitors there are thankfully a few, now annual, excursions into the British countryside that break up the tedium that is February.

For those willing to wander, James Lowan's ( @JLowenWildlife ) excellent book "52 Wildlife Weekends: A Year of British Wildlife-Watching Breaks" offers up some great ideas for things to do in February (and every other month) up and down the country. However, with similar species on the agenda, I stayed within East Anglia and had some great days out.

The Brecks 

With the forecast predicting sunshine and little wind, it was pre-dawn when I picked up a mate and we headed down the A11 towards Breckland. An early start is preferable for our first target of the day, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers at Santon Downham. The area is one of the last haunts in East Anglia for what was once a widespread species. Sadly on this occasion, despite perfect weather, the species lived up to it's name and remained lesser spotted... We were however treated to two young otters foraging their way down the river while looking for them.

We moved on to another area in the Brecks, this time our target was Goshawks. A disarray of cars and a line-up of the latest and greatest tripods, telescopes, DSLRs and 500mm lens indicates you've arrived at one of Norfolks, supposedly "hush-hush", premier Goshawk watching locations. It was not long after we added ourselves to the melee of birders and photographers that we were witness to why this is THE place to observe Goshawks in Norfolk. Initially one, then two pairs circled and displayed distantly over the pines to the north. A cry from a splinter-group of birders fifty yards up the road had us all focused on a lone bird powering its way from the west towards us. A fly-by, right across in front of us, before starting to display, thinning its tail and puffing out its bright-white undertail coverts. From out-of-nowhere, as often the way, a second bird joined it. It was then we were treated to my best ever views of Goshawk, a prolonged fly-by by the two birds, one following the other like a ME109 being chased by a Spitfire, every move of the front bird mirrored by the bird behind. Fantastic to watch. The birds split up, one drifted back and a sparrowhawk came in to view at the same time as the Goshawk. We all assumed the Sparrowhawk was somewhat further in the distance until a dive of the Sparrowhawk proved to be it mobbing the Goshawk and it was in fact at the same distance. Never have I seen so obviously, the dramatic size difference between the two species, the full wingspan of what was obviously a small male Sparrowhawk being smaller than a single wing of this huge, presumably female, Goshawk. To complete the action we saw the close birds in full on display once more and then one bird drifted off into a blunder of woodpigeons, even briefly attempting a hunt. Top wildlife watching!

A brief search for Stone-curlews proved fruitless so bacon sandwiches were the next target. These successfully filled the gap before the planned evening roost of Hawfinches. As far as I'm aware, this year has been the best year for Hawfinches since I arrived in Norfolk 12 years ago. With over 60 being counted coming to roost at Lynford Arboretum on previous nights, it was there we had decided to end the day. On this day, we counted somewhere in the region of 40 arriving and departing the tall pines at the arboretum, though an accurate count was impossible due to their behaviour on this particular evening. Though they were not particular close, it was great to hear them calling and see small flocks moving around the treetops. A great finish to the day.

I'll be back for them peckers.

Hawfinch high in the pines at Lynford 

Breaking the Winter woes, part 2 Norfolk Birding

White-winged gulls have been a major feature of this winter and this Glaucous Gull at Titchwell in early January was a real brute!

Record-breaking numbers of seaduck were off Titchwell in January and one beautiful flat calm day @JLowanWildlife and I counted 154 Long-tailed Ducks, 82 Velvet Scoter and 2+ Black-throated Divers

Black-throated Diver off Titchwell

Some Tundra Bean Geese were in a field with pinks at Weybourne

and Dartford Warbler were numerous but difficult to photograph in North Norfolk

Breaking the Winter woes, part 1 Twitching

Winter in England is rubbish, we all know it, thankfully I spent most of the winter not in England. Sadly however, I couldn't stay away all winter so to boost my vitamin D and fight those wintry blues I tried to get out and about at least a few times.


Amazingly, despite turning up not long after I left the country back in November, the Dusky Thrush was still present in Derbyshire. Managing to rally together a few other of Britain's worst twitchers ;-)(@stuart_white73 @mr_shortwing and @White1Julian, who also hadn't seen the bird despite it being there for over a month), we headed to Beeley and then down to the Cotswolds for the wintering Blue Rock Thrush.

Despite black ice trying its best to sabotage our twitch. Both were seen immediately and there were bonus bacon sandwiches available at the BRT. Result!

The Dusky showed well though mostly distant (here pictured with a Redwing). The BRT repeatedly ate fat snacks from someone's garden then sat back sunning itself and digesting on a roof. 

At the end of the month, Will Soar, @keith_langdon and I headed down to Kent to see the male Pine Bunting. It showed well, though distantly when we got there before becoming extremely elusive after 30mins or so. Sadly it was too distant for a photo.

A couple of days later, @keith_langdon and I were this time joined by @yoavperlman and we headed to Lincolnshire for the White-billed Diver. This incredible beast performed marvelously up and down the river allowing for some excellent photo opportunities. This is the second White-billed Diver I've seen extremely well after the bird on the Hayle, Cornwall in 2007.