Wilson’s Phalarope at Vange Marsh, Essex – 23rd Sep

With Tuesday’s excitement passed there remained the matter of observing a juvenile Wilson’s Phalarope that was present for it’s third day beside the Thames estuary in Essex. That is another Nearctic wader I have just one old record for at Staines reservoir, Surrey in 1997. On that occasion the bird was on the opposite side of that huge water body to myself and I relied on someone else to point it out. Hence my interest in a better, current era sighting this week.

This largest of the three Phalaropes breeds in north America and there are a few British records annually of young passage birds, mostly in September. Very different in behaviour to its Grey and Red-necked cousins, Wilson’s is less inclined to swim and more at home on land. The Essex bird was reported early on RBA today and I set off mid-morning in clear, sunny weather conditions; such a contrast to the day before.

vange marsh.1501

Vange Marsh RSPB reserve

vange marsh.1502

Upon parking in RBA’s recommended side street just before 1pm, who should I meet but Oxonbirder Terry Sherlock (aka Tezzer), who was on his way home from Dungeness. There the Empidonax Flycatcher had unfortunately not been relocated today, disappointing the many birders who had travelled down hoping to see it. Myself, Terry and another birder walked out together to Vange Marsh (TQ730870), an RSPB reserve created in 2005 that has a large freshwater lagoon with islands, a smaller saltwater lagoon, reed beds and some grassland with patches of scrub.

We joined a small group who were scanning the freshwater lagoon, upon which the Wilson’s Phalarope was fairly easy to pick out due to its distinctive jizz and energetic feeding action. But the distant bird was directly into the sun and hence a mere silhouette observed from the north. After Terry left for home I walked around to where a few birders were watching the Phalarope from the eastern side of the lagoon. From that spot the plumage detail and slim black bill – as illustrated by the outsourced image (below) – were much easier to decipher. Spotted Redshank were also active on the lagoon, always a good wader to find.

Vange Marsh Wilson’s Phalarope (juv) © Steve Gantlett

I then watched the bird for around 30 minutes. Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes, each of which I have observed a few times, typically spin around on the water’s surface whilst feeding. But this third, fresh water species behaves much more like other waders. Wilson’s is said to resemble Wood Sandpiper by the Helm guide to confusion species, but I couldn’t really see that. To me it looked like what it is: a larger, longer-billed Phalarope that wades instead of swimming. I was able to thoroughly acquaint myself with this third north American wader of my autumn today on what was another very worthwhile day out.

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Acadian Flycatcher at Dungeness, Kent: a first for Britain – 22nd Sep

National birding is starting to do the business for me again this autumn and yesterday, through a sequence of chance events I found myself present at a rather special occasion. That was, once the ID is confirmed the first ever record of a particular north American passerine at the famous migration land fall site of Dungeness in Kent. So how did this entirely unplanned little adventure come about?

On Monday evening my eye had been caught by reports of a Wilson’s Phalarope in Essex, and I invited Ewan to go with me to see it. But when a wet morning dawned his interest waned in a Nearctic wader he had seen several times before to my once, and I had to coax him back into going. We agreed to set off a little later than originally discussed, then just after 10:30am Ewan arrived at my door in the grip of an adrenalin rush. “Come on, we’re going to Dungeness to see a probable British first!”  He had been tipped off by a friend moments earlier.

Never mind that I had just waited 90 minutes: I was now holding things up and was harried out of my home and into the waiting car, only too willingly of course! Andy had also seen the news at work and fed us information throughout our outward journey. The first winter bird was being described on RBA as an Empidonax Flycatcher species, a group of which all but one would be a first for Great Britain. It had been found on a shingle beach at the eastern edge of Dungeness point. Early photographs (see here) that were already in circulation suggested it was allowing a very close approach and was possibly exhausted.

All the way round the M25 and through the Kent motorway system Ewan was like a taught spring, running on adrenalin. After all: “This is what we wait all year for,” as he explained. I had read of his birding exploits on many occasions. Now I was witnessing the legend in action and just trying to take things all in my stride while joking about stopping for a sandwich break. We arrived on site just before 1pm to find a large but not huge group of birders lined up outside a small white bungalow. The star visitor had relocated to the shelter of the garden there.

Probable Acadian Flycatcher

Probable Acadian Flycatcher

Within minutes the Flycatcher came onto the top of a water butt to one side of the dwelling (pictured above). Having seen it I went back to the car to retrieve my camera’s battery that in the rush I had left behind. On returning the bird posed twice more in a similar way and those were the best views we had of it. When the weather turned wet this bird kept a lower profile in the garden, but was seen briefly several more times over the next 90 minutes or so. And for many of the birders who arrived after ourselves that was as good as things got. Ewan being a man who enjoys a good drenching as part and partial of a high octane twitch, I tucked into his lee side and kept tolerably less wet than he did, without him really noticing until I told him!

The lady of the house could be seen inside taking photographs of all her surprise guests, then the man arrived home and went inside. Both people were watching the bird themselves at the window, which did little for the chances of it perching on the water butt again, but then they do live there so we couldn’t complain. By 3pm the number of birders outside had possibly tripled, with cars parked along both sides of the access road for some way back. Realising we were unlikely to get better views than earlier, and sensing a possible bun fight as the crowd swelled further, Ewan and I decided to leave. It had been quite a special outing. For a superior, big lens photograph of this bird in the garden see here.

“Dear, there’s a lot of people standing outside the house with telescopes and cameras”

The day’s final report on RBA said that at 7pm the Flycatcher species flew to scrub 250 yards south-west of the garden and was lost to view in fading light. It was thought to be an Acadian Flycatcher, indeed a first for Great Britain and only the second for the western Palearctic following one found dead in Ireland in 1967. The ID was confirmed on 2nd October after DNA analysis of droppings taken from the beach (see here).

Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Ringstead Bay, Dorset – 18th Sep

This is one of the more regular north American waders to make landfall in Great Britain during autumn passage. For me the species also carried “important lifer” status due to the usual sort of reason that I dipped my only previous attempt at it two years ago. On that occasion other Oxonbirders saw the bird briefly and distantly on Slimbridge’s estuary mud before my arrival. I consider that today’s Buff-breasted Sandpiper, in a ploughed field above the Purbeck Heritage Coast, offered better value.

This morning while enjoying a coffee ahead of a planned supermarket visit, I scanned RBA and there it was: news of a previously unseen Nearctic vagrant within my twitching range. Briefly I considered this day’s alternatives of gardening or what has become the onerous task of paying attention to my Oxon year list. It took about five minutes to shake off the lethargy those twin prospects had induced, then I upped and went.

One way of knowing you're in Dorset

One way of knowing you’re in Dorset

Very soon my little white economy car was eating up the familiar miles southward on the A34. Reaching the M27 the weather became sunny to enhance the sense of re-motivation within me, and those fair conditions prevailed until I arrived on site at midday. From a National Trust car park at SY752814 a track led east and slightly inland to where I could see a group of birders at the spot described on RBA. The Isle of Portland (pictured above) shimmered as it does offshore in a hazy, deep blue light.

Returning birders all offered positive news and on approaching those who remained I saw the Buff-breasted Sandpiper crossing higher ground to my left. So this lifer was not only ticked easily but self-found. I was struck immediately by the Dunlin-sized juvenile bird’s distinctive appearance. In shape and jizz it resembles a small female Ruff but with a shorter, finer bill and very attractive sandy buff underparts. As it moved about I was also reminded of a Cream-coloured Courser observed in Fuerteventura last February.

Distant Buff-breasted Sandpiper (left)

Distant Buff-breasted Sandpiper (left)

Once I joined the group my efforts at keeping on this bird were less successful. Black rain cloud was approaching from the west and attempts at obtaining digiscoped images suffered from being rushed. Fearing a drenching, everyone beat a retreat to the car park but in the event the rain wasn’t too heavy. After a break of about an hour I returned to the same spot.

I was now the only person there. Quite a lot of Ringed Plover were in the field but at first there was no sign of the star visitor. Then I picked up the BBS again more distantly than before, moving around on the horizon of rising ground and removing all doubt as to its self-found status. I hope I am not mis-using that term, my meaning being birds not pointed out by other people. For about an hour I watched the BBS feeding in this field and was joined by more birders while doing so. The image (below) is the best I could obtain before leaving at 5pm.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper (juv)

This was a very satisfying day with a much-sought life list addition of my fourth Nearctic wader of 2015.

Barred Warbler at Staines Moor, Surrey – 9th Sep

This was my third Barred Warbler and second in England. Pictures on RBA and elsewhere of a bird near Heathrow Airport suggested people were getting quite close to it. I had hoped to be working again this week but things got put off, prompting a mini-motivational crisis with the insect season having all but run its course. So trying to capture better images of one of the more frequent autumn drift migrants than a year ago at Dunstable (not a great ask – see here) would fill a day nicely.

Staines Moor SSSI (TQ035735) is one of England’s largest areas of neutral grassland that has never been agriculturally improved or extracted for gravel. Originally a clearing in the Forest of Windsor, this large alluvial meadow has remained unploughed for over 1000 years. It lies immediately east of the M25 between the Wraysbury and King George V reservoirs, just to the SW of Heathrow Terminal 5. The site that is crossed by the Colne and Wraysbury rivers, also features ponds, ditches, marsh, scrub and woodland, to which the large adjacent reservoirs help to attract bird life.

Having texted Ewan early in the day he replied after I had set off to say he and fellow Oxonbirder Clackers were on their way, so we agreed to meet on site. From half way round loop-shaped Hithermoor Road in the village Stanwick Moor a metalled path leads below the western edge of King George V reservoir. Here I came across four local birders watching two young Little Owls that were dozing on a large dung pile on the far side of a horse paddock. So I went back to the car to retrieve my digiscoping collar but the result (below) was not great.

Little Owls

Little Owls

Those birders told me the Barred Warbler was also showing well, as did others walking back between there and the spot itself. About 100 metres beyond the Owl field a track led off to the SW through a board-walked marshy area. Upon emerging from Willow scrub it was at once apparent what a magnet for over-flying passerines this open space must be, surrounded as it is by large water bodies, industry, housing and Heathrow Airport. But when I reached the BW’s favoured haunt the only remaining birder said the visitor had just flown from the large bush where it had been gorging on blackberries for more than a hour.

So if I hadn’t been distracted by the Owls I too would have seen the BW but not for very long. I waited for Ewan and Clackers to arrive then we began to search the area. A patch watcher pointed out the BW’s “favourite bush” so we hung around there while each wandering off in turn. Eventually I heard Ewan talking on his phone. The Clackmeister had relocated the bird, or perhaps it had found him, dropping suddenly into the next bush to where he was standing. We hurried over but the BW was out of view again. More birders arrived at this point then an anxious wait ensued.

Barred Warbler (1w)

Barred Warbler (1w)

After almost three hours on site myself, the young  Barred Warbler re-appeared in the top of the bush where Clackers had first seen it. Lots of Whitethroat, Blackcap and other common species had been active in the interim but this large Sylvia warbler is unmistakeable. As before my own arrival, the BW fed intently on blackberries changing location little, and the assembled group of birders watched and photographed the bird for around 30 minutes. My companions, both of whom are much more experienced birders than myself, said they had not previously watched the species at such close quarters.

A feast of blackberries

A feast of blackberries

So today required more than a little working at but had a pleasing outcome as my objective of gaining reasonable images was achieved. On our walk back to the cars the Little Owls were still in the same spot though my efforts at photographing them, given the distance were no better than in the morning.

Little Owl

Little Owl