Monday 7 June 2010

Richmond Park. Red-backed shrike.

Having failed by 10 minutes to see the Banstead red-backed shrike, I went to Richmond Park yesterday, sunday, where a male had been reported, 'walk West from Sheen car park'. West from Sheen car park the land didn't look right. There were no bushes and small trees in open terrain or fences that shrikes like. I wouldn't have found the spot except for meeting someone who had just seen it and was going home. It was in a large hawthorn tree where it had been for about an hour. Would it come out?

Dog walkers went very near. A mallard landed on the improbably small pond only a few metres in diameter. We sat on a nearby tussock and waited. Then the bird was spotted. I took a few photos and watched the shrike for a while. I had only brought my smaller lens. Even though it would take half an hour to go back to the car for my 500mm I decided it would be worth it. When I got back the shrike was still there. Hid behind a bush and got some shots of it sitting in wait, but not actually catching anything. A nice trip to the park.

Red-backed shrike

Sunday 6 June 2010

Marmora's Warbler good, Forest of Dean better.

My first reaction on hearing the news of a Marmora's warbler in Blaenavon, Gwent was: "What's a Marmora's warbler?" Oops. Showing my ignorance again. The next question was: Should I go for it? The first day news was a bit dodgy. 'Probable', 'mobile' and 'elusive' are not words you want to hear when contemplating a 165 mile journey to see a bird. The second day reports were more encouraging so I decided to go yesterday, Sat 5 June.

I left early and arrived easily and found the car park (that lonely road on the moor is actually in Google street view). There were probably 200-300 people there already. No sooner had I got to the spot than the bird emerged unexpectedly from a bush at the side of the road and flew in front of my face a couple of metres away! It was a while before it reappeared so, in the meantime, I enjoyed the other birds. There were several cuckoos, one being mobbed by tree pipits (both year ticks), willow warbler, meadow pipits, whinchat, etc.

Tree pipit


After twenty minutes, the Marmora's warbler reappeared causing a surge. It favoured a wall on the North of the road which was good from the point of view of light. I managed shots from about 100m and the bird is small. Nevertheless, you can clearly make out the Dartford warbler look, the orange legs, red eye, black tip to bill and plain breast. It was singing away most of the time. Lovely.



Marmora's warblers normally live on Mediterranean islands such as Corsica and Sardinia. The last record in the UK was about ten years ago. After about an hour it was still only nine o'clock. I spoke to some guys from Essex who told me the Forest of Dean was very nice, especially for goshawks displaying in the Spring. It was too late for that but it was on my way home so I went to have a look. I was sure to be able to get a drink at the RSPB visitor centre!

On arrival at the Nag's Head, sorry I mean Nagshead RSPB, the visitor centre was very spartan with no facilities at all except for toilets. They had solar panels for electricity but they were not working so there were no lights. The volunteers were very helpful and, hearing that I'd been up since 5 o'clock, they gave me a coffee from their own personal flask. Thanks very much to the Harrisons (I think they were so called). That was very kind. I was gasping.

The Forest of Dean is gorgeous. It's a large area of mature woodland, ideal for pied flycatcher and wood warbler. On my way to the lower hide I heard a family of treecreepers. They were very mobile and light levels (photographically speaking) were very low in the wood. I had to up the ISO to 1600 most of the time and this does affect the quality of the photos. I know some people say modern cameras are good to 1600 and even to 3200 but I notice a distinct graininess even over 400.


The hide was a very old fashioned one from 1986 with very narrow slits only about 180mm high. I had a job looking out and I only just managed to get my lens through the opening. There was a nice spotted flycatcher nearby and a nuthatch also came to the same tree.


Even though I applied -1.3 stops of exposure compensation, the pale bird in sunlight is still overexposed. -2 would probably have been right for a small pale bird with the dark trees around.

I then had to find a pied flycathcer and wood warbler. According to the volunteer, pied flycatcher should be relatively common in the wood. It was simply a case of finding a nesting box with them in it. Returning birdwatchers, however, reported that all the nesting boxes seemed to be occupied by tits. I found a point where I could watch three nesting boxes at the same time. The middle one did have pied flycatchers in. The guys from Essex appeared at that moment and so did the wood warbler which proved to be very mobile and elusive.

Pied flycatcher.

Pied flycatcher.

Wood warbler.

On my way home I stopped off at Highnam Wood to see if there were any nightingales. The nature trail was good, but I found no nightingales. I met the Harrisons again, checking nesting boxes. They'd finished their shift at Nagshead and they'd been to a wedding in between!! That's efficient use of time.

Time to go home and look at the photos.

Friday 4 June 2010

Devon and Cornwall for Gilbert and Sullivan.

I had high hopes for this weekend. Not only was I going to see my sister sing in G&S's Ruddigore but I could spend a whole day going down to Devon. I had high hopes of seeing cirl bunting at Labrador Bay, just South of Teignmouth. After a gorgeous day on Thursday 13 May, the Friday turned out to be awful in the West. It rained most of the day and I only heard the cirl buntings. I don't blame them for not coming out to show for me. I wouldn't have come out either!

Well, dippers aren't afraid of rain are they? I knew there were dippers at Aveton Gifford in South Devon. I just couldn't find the right spot on the map. After that, I went for a coffee and cake in the local shop; comfort eating!

Well, the next day was lovely so I thought I'd head for Cornwall where quite a number of useful birds had been sighted. I left early for the Camel estuary for 3 spoonbills and a lesser yellowlegs, a rare wader from America. Got there quite early and went down to the flats only to be greeted by thick mist. Before it cleared a fox came along the path towards me, stopped briefly, before carrying on straight towards me. He looked me up and down, then passed within two metres of me on his way somewhere. He did have a rather opaque looking eye so maybe his sight was bad.

Fox with dodgy right eye!

  I made out a heron in the mist



The mist cleared half an hour later but I was clearly in the wrong place. Further up the river I met someone from Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society who very kindly told me the spoonbills were at their private sanctuary but the yellowlegs had gone. He said he was sure the others wouldn't mind if I had alook from their hide, and they didn't. Just that the spoonbills had flown a few minutes before I got to the very impressive new tower hide (thanks very much guys, much appreciated).

Ah, well. There was still the woodchat shrike at Polgigga, near Lands End. I was halfway there already! Cormwall is surprisingly difficult to get about in. It took nearly one and a half hours to get there. The instructions on the pager were unusually accurate. I got straight to the spot to find another birdwatcher, David Bradford, already there and not having seen it. It didn't show up in the next ten minutes and we judged it too near the middle of the day. I wanted to see the choughs at Lands End and it turned out that David had had a hot tip on where to see them. "Lead on" I said.

We went to one of the valleys by the airport. I had been there once before and I had seen a chough fly over last year. We followed the coast path round and saw some charming stonechats on the gorse. The yellow backdrop of the gorse made the stonechats stand out in a lovely way. I spent some time taking pictures.

 Stonechat - male

In scanning the cliffs I saw a buzzard fly to it's nest and closer inspection with the scope showed two chicks.

Buzzard on nest with chicks

David decided to call it a day. He left wondering if he'd see from my blog that the choughs came after he left! I continued with the stonechats for a while and then decided to go to Cot Valley, the next valley over from where I was. This is quite hard to get to because you have to go through St Just where the lure of the fish and chip shop proved too much. With full stomach I pressed on. At the bottom of Cot Valley I walked along the coast path towards where I had just been. I met Peter Tonkin. He was also looking for choughs and had his camera ready. Two choughs flew to the top of the cliff above our heads and out of our sight. We pressed on and after ten minutes two choughs came very close. One went into an old mineshaft. The other posed for us on the edge for 30-40 seconds, long enough to get good views. It was, I think, the closest either of us had been to a chough. Very nice.

 Chough, Land's End

It was getting late and the satnav showed over two hours to get back to Plymouth. I decided not to look for shags as I would surely see them in July when I would be back in Cornwall.

The light opera was very enjoyable, despite their selling out of ice-cream very quickly.

On Sunday, after lunch, my sister came with me to Plymbridge Woods for a walk to see the peregrines. They had young in the nest. We talked to the volunteer. The dipper hadn't been seen that day. While we were talking I kept an eye on the river and suddenly the dipper was there!! Great! Gill, my sister, was chuffed at seeing nuthatch, great spotted woodpecker and a grey wagtail that also appeared over the river.

I left after breakfast on Monday and decided to visit Labrador Bay again to see if the cirl buntings would come out to play. A couple of hundred metres from the car park I saw a chap with binoculars and I stopped to ask him if he had seen any cirl buntings. "I'm doing a survey of cirl buntings" he said! There were some in the hedges along the main road, but he advised me to look from the carpark. It was good advice. I went down the ridiculously steep field and immediately saw a female. I couldn't take any photos though, coz I'd left my tripod in the car! I had to walk up the steep field again to get it.

Cirl bunting, male.
Labrador Bay, Devon

As I wasn't a million miles away from Dawlish Warren I decided to go there and see what was about. It was quite a hot day and I had forgotten how tiring it is to walk through soft sand. At the far end of the spit I saw a group of whimbrel. I managed to get fairly close before they flew off.



There was a small flock of dunlin too, almost unnoticeable on the edge of the water.

They just looked like pebbles.


That was the highlight of the afternoon apart from a few common whitethroats, greenfinches, goldfinches, and mainly herring gulls. There were a few shags / cormorants on a distant sandbank but they were far too far away to be sure what they were.

At home I was pleased about the choughs, the dipper, cirl buntings and the whimbrel. Wonder what my year list would be like if I saw, say 90% of the birds I hoped to see!!