Bonaparte’s Gull in Weymouth – 31st Mar

New Birds in England are becoming more difficult to find as my life list grows. The outstanding candidate in the six days since my Belgium trip has been a north American rarity Bonaparte’s Gull. These have been present in Cardiff, South Wales; and Weymouth, Dorset. Today I went for the latter bird as it involved the more pleasant drive (120 miles) and location. This proved a wise choice as the Cardiff equivalent was elusive until late afternoon.

Present weather patterns appear to be holding up the spring passage, making local birding tedious so I made a snap decision to hit the road again. After leaving home at 8:30am, to avoid the rush hour around Winchester and Southampton, bright sunshine came to prevail when I reached the M27 but very strong, cold wind persisted throughout the day. I arrived at the RSPB’s Radipole Lake reserve in Weymouth shortly after 11am to be told the star visitor was showing well.

Bonaparte's Gull Radipole Lake RSPB

Bonaparte’s Gull
Radipole Lake RSPB, Dorset

The Bonaparte’s Gull (pictured above) was viewable from a path known as the Buddleia Loop. There was a shelter there containing a jolly band of locals but I needed no assistance in identifying my bird. This first-winter individual stood out at once from the other species it was associating with: a very small gull with a busy, almost delicate flight pattern. A number of people in the visitor centre and shelter all described this gull as being “tern-like” in it’s behaviour and that description was quite apt.

I watched the “Boney” for some time in the freezing wind and then returned to the visitor centre. Outside I caught up with the reserve’s more famous north American resident, the drake Hooded Merganser. He had apparently just returned from four weeks’ holiday, or possibly a search for a mate, and was looking as dapper as ever (below).

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Hooded Merganser (male)

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

I have retained a soft spot for Dorset since first visiting as a teenager and relish any reason for going there again. So I travelled back to Oxford via Dorchester then Blandford Forum to reacquaint myself with the green and rolling landscape of this lovely county. There was more scope for nostalgia when I reached Salisbury in neighbouring Wiltshire and found a free two-hour parking space close to the city’s cathedral close, a beautiful and historic location with fond past associations. Eventually I reached home, pleased with my day out, its birding result and most of all my flight shot of the Bonaparte’s Gull.

Salisbury Cathedral ... surely England's finest

Salisbury Cathedral …
surely England’s finest

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Zoom – Kalmthoutse Heide, Belgium – 23rd & 24th Mar

Black Woodpecker being one of the few birds resident in Belgium but not Britain, I have for years wanted to visit the area north and east of Antwerp where they are found. My attempts at researching this trip also produced references to Middle Spotted and Grey-headed Woodpecker, though I suspected these were real scarcities. My base for the two days was the excellent Klokkenhof Hotel in Brasschaat, where I secured a last minute rate.

The most promising looking site was the cross-border (with Holland) nature reserve of Zoom – Kalmthoutse Heide. It’s page on Holland.com says all Belgium’s Woodpeckers may be found here, but on enquiring at the on-site education centre I was told the only new one I was likely to see was Black. This was no surprise: had the tourist site authors heard of the other two on my wish list I wondered?

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Z-KH is a 10,000 acre area of dry and wet heathland, inland dunes, pools and coniferous forests (pictured above), lying north-west of the town of Kalmthout. The education centre staff recommended two “hot spots” where Black Woodpecker might be found, stressing that the birds favour areas with burned and fallen trees. I checked out both of these on Monday morning without success.

Then I recognised a loud call that had been mimicked to me coming from a wooded area about 500 metres from the centre. As I walked towards the sound my first Black Woodpecker flew out of those woods and towards the place where I had just been. A little later I heard probably the same bird drumming from that location. So I had gained a flight view and now had two more half days in which to find a perched bird.

Here’s what I hoped to see © rights of owners reserved. The right hand bird is a female.

Crested Tit and Treecreeper are also resident here. My best view of the former was actually in the car park. I wasn’t able to catch one of the latter to measure the hind claw, but hoped I might have seen Short-toed Treecreeper since both varieties are found in Belgium. Later on Monday afternoon I heard another Black Woodpecker drumming from some distance away, the sound continuing for considerably longer than a Great Spot and having a larger more resonant tone. Both the drumming and call are audible at up to 4km distance.

Having covered only a very small area of the reserve on these two visits, I walked for some way further in when I returned on Tuesday morning. The more open areas held large numbers of Larks and Pipits, and in particular the liquid song of Woodlark was a frequent back drop. Every so often one of the last-named would proclaim itself from an exposed song perch, in what Collins Bird Guide describes as “sweet but melancholy notes”. But I was not to see another Black Woodpecker either perched or in flight, though I did hear what must have been another one calling on Tuesday morning.

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The weather was cool and sunny throughout the two days of my visit, enabling me to fully appreciate the subtle beauty of this place. So yes there are Black Woodpecker here though I suspect not large numbers, and there is a vast amount of habitat in which to search for them. Discovering a nest site then staking it out in the breeding season would probably be the best strategy for observing and photographing these birds. If I can find a Belgian photographers’ network then perhaps I might come back here one day.

I returned to blighty thinking it would be worth spending more time in both the locations of this trip. The two additions took my European life list to 390 birds.

Wallcreeper in Dinant: a Belgian epic – 22nd Mar

If the most satisfying bird life list additions are those that require a bit of working at then this was a minor classic. I had failed previously to find Wallcreeper on both my spring trips to Provence in 2012 and 2013. This Alpine species winters on rocky inland cliff faces such as that region of France abounds with before returning to higher altitude usually in April. And the presence of one as far north as Dinant in south-east Belgium struck me as a rare opportunity being conveniently much nearer. This bird was discovered here on 30 December and is the first reported in Belgium since 1988.

From the blogs of those Oxonbirders who travel regularly to see birds it is plain that we share a common motivation. Every so often we just have to get away again. Hence, with the same birds appearing day after day on British RBA and the spring passage in its earliest phase, I decided to indulge in a trip a little further afield. Dinant lies in a spectacular gorge through which the River Meuse flows in the Ardennes region. Like many people perhaps, I have travelled through Belgium more often than stopping there, and this was an area I had for some years wanted to experience more closely.

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Meuse gorge, Dinant

I arrived in the town late on Saturday afternoon amidst the kind of overcast murk that had been sapping my spirits at home. The recent directions on RBA had said merely ‘Montagne de la Croix’ or ‘Meuse’ and the bird had last been reported on 14 March. From the picture (above) it can be seen there is a vast amount of habitat in which a Wallcreeper might lose itself. MdlC was the name of a steep road leading out of Dinant, but there was only one small rock face there that was suitable. I checked some other cliffs nearby to get bearings before a Sunday visit, then headed for my overnight stay in nearby Falaën.

The choice of stopover proved to be a distraction since in the morning I elected to explore briefly the picturesque ‘Haute-Meuse’ in which my hotel lay before resuming the quest. This scenic area of winding roads through deep river valleys, abbeys, fortresses and chateaux is a playground for outdoor activities of the man-made kind, and is also very popular with bikers. Hence I was pleased to be here out of season, even though overcast skies remained from the previous day.

Dinant: citadel and Montagne de la Croix (to right on skyline)

Dinant: citadel and Montagne de la Croix (to right on skyline either side of church)

Returning to Dinant at around 11am I scanned all the rock faces for the Wallcreeper between Montagne de la Croix and the citadel, without success. Walking back again I ran into the first Belgian birders of the weekend who were watching a cliff behind the Palais de Justice and Police station (pictured below). This was on the corner of Place de Palais Justice and Rue en Rhee. The two ladies, who had the Belgian equivalent of RBA on their iPhones, said the bird had last been seen here at 6:30pm on Saturday and goes to roost under the eaves of the Palais building, but it has been seen earlier on some afternoons. I had of course been nearby shortly before that time without knowing exactly where to look.

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Part of Montagne de la Croix

It was now just after 1pm and the rest of my day was therefore mapped out. I could move on to my next destination, not see the bird and accept a frustrating dip (which was unthinkable having travelled so far) or stay here until roost time but hope the bird might show itself earlier. The two ladies soon left, then a resident walked through and showed me another nearby spot that the Wallcreeper frequents. At 2:45pm the sun came out but things were becoming a lonely vigil. After two breaks, one to take better pictures around town and the other for a welcome beer, I came back just before 5pm and more locals then began to appear.

This was clearly the business end of the day. The first birder to arrive, Robin Gailly pointed out the gap under the eaves on the back wall of the Palais de Justice where the bird goes to roost, and said it had been active on the cliff face for an hour before doing so on Saturday. The significance of that timing was of course not lost on me, and my companion explained that the whole cliff face in this part of Dinant is known as Montagne de la Croix. As more birders joined us further local knowledge flowed. I learned all the Wallcreeper’s favoured haunts, some of which different people went off to check while I stayed put.

The Wallcreeper roosts under the eaves above the circular window

The Wallcreeper roosts under the eaves above the circular window of the Palais de Justice

At just after 6:30pm Robin located the bird distantly on the walls of the citadel (pictured above). We watched it busying itself for about 10 minutes then it flew our way. Eventually the object of my quest arrived on the cliff face above us foraging for insects, flashing it’s colours and offering superb views. What a beauty, with a character and charm all of its own: slate grey with deep magenta fluffy bits, almost mouse-like and in perpetual motion. Had the six hour wait been worth it? Of course it had. Lastly the Wallcreeper transferred to the Palais wall before disappearing in an instant into its’ chosen dark hiding place. Bed time.

Blurry Wallcreeper Well they move so fast!

Wallcreeper in failing light

Here are some better images of the same bird (in winter plumage)

© rights of owners reserved

My day in Dinant had been a truly memorable one. After success with Egyptian Vulture in Fuerteventura last month, another straggler had been struck off my southern Europe wish list and I moved on to Belgium’s northern heaths to seek out another lifer, Black Woodpecker.

Montagne de la Croix (above buildings)

Montagne de la Croix (above buildings)

Lesser Pecker at Rickmansworth – 8th & 10th Mar

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is a bird I have seen just twice before. So reports of a pair in recent days at Rickmansworth Aquadrome in Hertfordshire tempted me out for a 44 mile Sunday drive along the M40 and M25. On my arrival at 07:45 it was the kind of calm, sunny morning I understand to be best for sightings of this difficult to locate species. The directions on RBA were “at the sailing club end of the causeway”.

There are two LNRs on the former gravel workings here: the Aquadrome and neighbouring Stocker’s Lake. The former is more like a public park, the latter is wilder and the “causeway” runs between them. As I approached two birders were clearly on a LSW and one of them showed me the bird, a male in his scope. It was in a large Oak tree on an island in Stocker’s Lake but soon moved as they do. In trying to relocate it for myself I had a couple of glimpses as the LSW moved around but no more, and it drummed a number of times. Though I have heard this in the past I gained a better impression here of the sound being lighter and lasting longer than a Great Spotted Woodpecker, one of which was drumming nearby for comparison.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (c) rights of owner reserved

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
© rights of owner reserved

Six birders had now gathered. The Oak was also being favoured by a pair of Stock Dove, Ring-necked Parakeet came and went, and various small birds confused the issue. Irritating Canada Geese on the lake kept up a cacophony of honking and passers by asked the inevitable questions. The Lesser Peckers’ presence in the area seemed to be common knowledge amongst dog walkers though.

At 9am a bird returned to the Oak tree and began drumming again but I managed just another brief glimpse before the Great Spot saw it off. At least I now knew which “dead branch” was being referred to by those around me, since there were various of them to select from. I watched that place where the LSW came back to for the next hour, during which the other birders all drifted off and the forecast cloud set in, but without success.

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The location for these Herts birds is by the “you are here” label at the bottom left of this site plan (above). I had gained a third Lesser Pecker sighting but not satisfying or self-found views. My previous experiences of this species at Church Wood, Bucks (Feb 2012) and Cothill, Oxon (Apr 2013) were much better. Hence I decided to come back here earlier on another calm, sunny morning if possible. On Monday I received a call from Oxonbirder Ewan Urquhart who was interested in seeing the LSW himself, and we revisited this Tuesday morning.

Within minutes of our arrival just before 7am, the sound of drumming commenced from a little further back than the Stocker’s Lake island, but we could not locate the bird at once. I trained my scope onto the same spot as Sunday, that was said to be the LSW’s favoured drumming post, and waited. Then at 07:20 the drumming was clearly coming from the large Oak tree, and there in my scope was the male bird. We watched for a few minutes as it drummed, then preened and eventually flew off to one side; and that was both a satisfying and self-found view. Mission accomplished. More birders (pictured below) came and went in the next three hours but the LSW was not seen by anyone again before Ewan (second from right) and I left at 10:30.

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New Scarlet Tiger and butterfly season – 6th & 7th Mar

In recent days I have started to notice Scarlet Tiger moth larvae on the walls of my park home again. These were presumably on the way down from their winter hibernating places. Then yesterday during a gardening session … well, there they were in numbers, and the resourceful little creature’s had gone straight for the Green Alkanet. This was the original food plant before the population explosion of last autumn that decimated much of my wildlife garden. Many of the plants the larvae migrated to then have yet to make new growth, and Green Alkanet is currently something of a scarce resource, so I shall watch and see what happens.

Scarlet Tiger larvae on Green Alkanet

Scarlet Tiger moth larvae on Green Alkanet

By late morning I was thinking it’s warm enough for the year’s first Brimstone. I therefore paid a visit to Bagley Wood just south of Oxford in the afternoon sunshine. That had been a reliable location for a first sighting in previous years but I didn’t find any butterflies this time. While I was there a Brimstone was seen though on Otmoor. So on joining up today with “The Massive”, the regular group of Oxonbirders who walk the reserve on weekend mornings, my eyes were peeled. Early in the day cool winds predominated but by midday the forecast spring sunshine took charge. And here is my first Brimstone of 2015, one of two seen along the bridleway close to the reserve entrance.

Brimstone (male)

Brimstone (male)

7 March was also the date on which myself and other Oxon, Bucks and Berks observers recorded their first Brimstones in 2014. BST is just three weeks away and spring is in the air once more. It is my intention to present a full British butterfly year in this blog through the forthcoming 2015 season. Here’s some more wildlife observed on Otmoor RSPB reserve, north of Oxford today.

Basking Grass Snake

Basking Grass Snake

Maddish March hare

Maddish March hare