Playing catch up around the Humber: mega Sibe and Swamphen + Isabelline Wheatear – 19 & 20th October

In the end I had to go. Having negotiated favourable (I hope) part-time working arrangements with my latest employer, these two days would be free. So I decided to travel beyond 200 miles for the second time this month and see the East Yorkshire Siberian Accentor at Easington.

When Wednesday morning came I searched for overnight accommodation on-line, finding a single en-suite room in a well-reviewed Hull B&B for £40. The first SA sighting appeared on RBA just before 8am and I made the booking immediately. Next I fired off a few texts to Oxon birding colleagues and some quick replies came back. “Well worth it” (Badger) … “It’s gotta be done!” (Andy) and … “Welcome to the dark side” (Clackers). Then, fortified for the journey by the usual selection of CDs with oomph – The Cult, Aerosmith and the top hatted one, of course – I headed up north.

It didn’t take long to hit the first snag, a road closure on the A43 at Towcester that necessitated the same diversion via Buckingham that Mike and myself had made four days earlier. Soon after joining the M1 I experienced the 50mph variable speed limit stretch, through road works with no work actually going on, that I had read about in some of Ewan’s blog posts. But once past the M6 interchange, with my Japanese tin can’s cruise control set to 70 mph, the miles sped past until I reached the port city of Kingston-upon-Hull. After that, as I had been warned it’s another 40 minutes or so mostly through low speed limits to the village of Easington.

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“Are you lot all looking at me?”

I arrived on-site at around 2pm, and there in a weedy strip of land between the outer and inner security fences of the natural gas terminal was the prize (above) I’d seen a few trillion pictures of over the previous four days. Collins describes Siberian Accentor as a shy bird that keeps mostly in cover, and that’s exactly what this extreme vagrant did for the two hours that I stayed here. 50 metres or so away was the private garden in which many of these pictures (see here) must have been taken last Friday. I must assume that the preference then for feeding openly amongst the moss there may be less typical behaviour.

As I say fairly often, I will not be submitting the images (below) for any awards, but they convey exactly how this bird was observed today and how well camouflaged it was in this habitat. In short it was an exceptional rarity in a quite unattractive place. As a spectacles wearer, the double line of security fencing (mesh then electric) through which I had to follow the bird’s movements was particularly distracting. But the bold head pattern, with broad and long buff supercilium and black cheeks, always stood out and the visitor was undeniably a cracker!

This was not the only mega at Easington yesterday. About a half-mile walk from the first spot an Isabelline Wheatear had been present all day in a ploughed field behind the coastline. A middle eastern breeder that should winter in sub-Saharan Africa, a record number of these have also turned up in the British Isles this week. As I walked down to the second location (TA407186), no parking signs were out in force. Local residents, having already experienced the year’s top mass twitch, were clearly wary of another invasion.

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North Sea coast at Easington

Initially, tired from my day’s exertions, I could not locate this bird by myself. But as soon as more birders arrived … well they found it for me straight away. This is a pale-toned Wheatear, very similar to a female Northern Wheatear but slightly larger and with a more upright stance. One diagnostic of a shorter tail with broader black band was quite apparent as this individual moved around on the brown earth here. It is a species I added to my life list on Cyprus’ Akamas peninsula in April 2012, but have always wanted to remove all doubt about since that bird was self found. Comparing my pictures then to today’s first winter bird in the RBA gallery (see here) confirms that historic record.

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2012 adult Issy Wheatear in Cyprus

I slept very soundly overnight. This morning there was no sign of the Siberian Accentor that must have waited for me to drop in and then gone on it’s way. What a nice mega! Elsewhere a sixth bird for Britain turned up in the Hebrides. The Easington individual was the first ever on the mainland, hence the mass twitch that occurred after it’s arrival a week ago on the afternoon of 13th. Since then further SAs have occurred at Saltburn, Cleveland; in Sunderland and on Holy Island. And across north-eastern Europe an amazing 91 had been logged by 18th in Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, Germany and Poland. It is not yet understood what has caused this irruption, but prolonged easterly winds out of the western end of their breeding range is a factor and more birds are anticipated.

The plan for today (20th) was to visit the now resident Western Purple Swamphen across the Humber Bridge in north Lincolnshire. I have been asked by other Oxon birders why I went for the Least Sandpiper in Devon on 1 August instead of this bird when it first arrived on these shores. The answer is that the former was a lifer whilst WPS, also a national first if accepted, is a British list addition for me. But there’s nothing wrong with those given reason to be nearby, hence the double agenda for this week’s trip up north.

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Lincs Wildlife Trust’s Alkborough Flats NR

I have observed Swamphen many times previously on the Iberian peninsula, where I knew the species by the alternative name of Purple Gallinule. Having experience of wetlands there I could see exactly why this individual should chose to make its home in the large expanse of Alkborough Flats at the confluence of the rivers Trent and Humber. I also wondered whether it might have considered there was a little too much going on at its initial stopping place, the one time birding mecca now family fun park of RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk. That would be a sentiment I share entirely and was another reason for not going there in August.

The on-site information boards explain that the present Alkborough Flats, formerly arable land has been created as part of the Environment Agency’s flood risk management strategy for the Humber estuary. A breach in the sea defences allows water to be stored over one-third of this 1000 acre site during extreme high tide events and so helps to reduce flooding in places such as Hull, Gainsborough and York. In the process new mud flat and saltmarsh habitats are developing naturally to the benefit of wildlife, and other areas are being turned into grasslands and reed beds.

The Gallinule / Swamphen’s favoured location can be scanned from a signposted viewing area (SE883221) across a field from one reserve car park (pictured above). Many visiting birders have had to content themselves with distant sightings from this location on a low escarpment above the flats. But today the bird had been reported from the hide at the western end of the lagoon in the vista. I could see people inside and decided to go down, the question being what was the best route. Oops, definitely not this way (pictured below)! Oh dear, there must have been another clash of interests here between green clad optics carriers and the local property owning elite. Well. this is a private road.

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When I walked around by the permitted paths, I couldn’t see the cited access point anyway. There was a second car park about 300 metres from the hide and a hard track between the two. The plaintive pinging of Bearded Tits was issuing from the reed beds here as I went along. On reaching the hide I didn’t want to be the irritating (to me) type that walks straight in and asks: “Any sign of the whatever,” without even looking. So I sat down and scanned around until a lady to my right said: “It’s coming out again now.”

There on the far side of the lagoon the Purple Swamphen / Gallinule was moving from right to left along the reed edge in all it’s blue, red and white splendour; just as I had seen them do so often in the Algarve and Coto Donana. In the archive picture from 2014 included above, the pose is identical. I only needed to tick this bird for blighty and did not linger too long here. Marsh Harriers were quartering the reed beds and on the way back to my vehicle the habitat seemed to be alive with Bearded Tits that would burst out in groups and fly around to the delight of onlookers. They are always a nice bird to see.

With two British list additions in addition to the lifer, my agenda for this trip was now complete. The satnav took me back to God’s own county (Oxon) by the M69 / A46 / M40 route that was much better than the outward journey. And so I arrived back home in the late afternoon feeling as shattered as I had anticipated, but all this had been well worthwhile.

Radde’s and Barred Warblers on the north Norfolk coast – 15th Oct

Gaining another of the more regular autumn drift migrants was a very satisfying bird life list addition this weekend. There was a good sized fall of 22 Dusky and 11 Radde’s Warblers along England’s east coast through Friday and Saturday. So as Mike and myself drove up to Norfolk we picked out the first of four Radde’s to be reported in the county and headed for a spot just west of Wells-Next-the-Sea.

The previous two weeks had produced a birding purple patch in Blighty, due to high pressure settled on Scandinavia beneath which a strong easterly air flow deposited a veritable cornucopia of Siberian breeders at coastal sites from north Norfolk upwards. The trouble is most of this was so far from home, beyond my range. The outstanding areas were the Spurn peninsula, Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire. But getting there entails a gruelling 200+ mile motorway trek that I just would not regard as enjoyment.

Instead I interested Mike in a weekend expedition to Norfolk, where two lifers Olive-backed Pipit and Radde’s Warbler had been logged all week. When Saturday came I would have loved to go for Britain’s first mainland Siberian Accentor in Yorkshire, but neither of us could face that journey. Around 9:30 am we arrived at a muddy farm track called Garden Drove, off the A149 near Wells (TF944434). There, at a spot about half way to the coastal salt marsh, upwards of 20 birders were staking out a hedge in which was said to be the Radde’s Warbler.

All pictures in this post © and courtesy of Mike Kosniowski

It took a few calls from those around me to get on to this constantly moving little bird, but eventually its quite attractive diagnostics were plain enough to identify. Radde’s has a rather large-headed and bull-necked appearance with pale legs and a thicker, more tit-like bill than either Willow or Dusky Warbler. It is more colourful than the drab brown and buff latter, with the upperparts typically olive green and the underparts dull yellow. Radde’s also has a long, clear-cut supercilium and eye-stripe and dark yellow or orange-toned under tail coverts. I found it difficult enough keeping my binoculars on this bird, but Mike’s long lens on a monopod managed some images (above) that show all this to reasonable effect.

Up until this point my heart had been in East Yorkshire but my head in Norfolk. Now having gained an important lifer I felt very content with the day’s work so far. My one previous attempt at Radde’s, a few year’s back near Alton in Hampshire, had involved staring at a mass of vegetation for around three hours without seeing anything. We next moved on to Wells Wood, in various parts of which another potential lifer, Olive-backed Pipit had been reported throughout the preceding week.

From the beach car park in Wells (TF914454) we walked westward along the Peddar’s Way trail in search of a spot known as the drinking pool. There a Pallas’ Warbler had also been seen as well as the OBP, but in more than an hour on site we couldn’t be sure of having ID’d either bird. Most of the birders who had been here through the morning had given up and dispersed by the time we arrived. Two more OBP sightings in the vicinity were posted on RBA while we were there but who knows? The species, like Tree Pipit is often found in or around trees, and this is an awfully big wood in which to find one. I consoled myself that there will be easier to observe individuals at other sites in the future, whenever that might be.

There was still time to fit in my fourth Barred Warbler (pictured above). This species is more frequent in Britain than Dusky or Radde’s, averaging around 170 records a year, the great majority of which are first winter birds in autumn. Today’s Barred was at Burnham Overy Staithe at one end of the quay (TF845443). The large, pale Warbler would emerge at intervals from a mass of vegetation close by some houses, before relocating once again. A Dusky Warbler had earlier been reported further east along the sea wall, but people here who had looked for that bird were saying it had flown off. So the day’s tally was now two lifers out of a possible four for Mike, and one out of two for myself.

I am coming to regard my British bird list, now at 326 as a little less modest considering the range that I operate within. Soon after starting this journal just over two years ago I gained my 300th, and despite that aversion to long distance twitching I keep on chipping away. Of the autumn drift migrants Dusky, Booted and now Radde’s Warbler have all been added in the last 10 months, and so further names beckon like Greenish, Arctic and Paddyfield.

Two more days in north Wales – 5 & 6th Oct

Since my end of April visit to Llangollen (see here) I have wanted to pay more attention to this part of the world. And the presence this week of Booted Warbler, a lifer at the Great Orme’s head, Llandudno afforded an opportunity to do so. My latest venture into part-time “living-wage” employment is proving erratic to say the least and I have had a certain amount of gardening time of late. But whilst finding some motivation for that necessity is welcome, the familiar urge to hit the road had been growing again in recent days. So although 205 miles is way beyond my usual birding range, on Wednesday I just upped and went anyway.

Never mind the M6 and A55, I took the more leisurely route through the scenic beauty of the Vales of Llangollen and Conwy, and along the winding, single carriageway A5 in between. It was a clear sunny day that had been another reason for doing this and the north Wales upland landscape did not disappoint. Managing the journey with just one short break and no cat naps, I arrived on site some time after 4:30 pm to find several birders observing the Booted Warbler.

The massive limestone headland of the Great Orme is a rather wild and empty landscape (above right). Earlier in my day Clackers, who had been here on Tuesday with Ewan (see here), described how the Booted Warbler was showing down to two metres. I suspect many of these images (here) on RBA were posted after that. The autumn drift migrant had not only chosen to be this obliging but was doing so right next to a car park. Now in strong wind the bird appeared quite hyperactive, moving around constantly between the various clumps of gorse.

A common and widespread breeder in central and eastern Eurasia, Booted Warbler tends to frequent low bushes and weedy fields. The normal wintering grounds are central and southern Asia. This is a small and strikingly plain warbler, the upper parts resembling the colour of milky tea and the underparts off-white.

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Booted Warbler

My own best picture (above) shows the rather domed head shape, short primary projection and short square ended tail. Other diagnostic features are a strong facial pattern, with beady eye and pale lateral crown stripe. The pale orange bill is longer and sturdier than a Chiffchaff’s with a dark tip, and appears slightly angled upwards. I watched the bird for around 90 minutes in the cold wind and fading light, then went to find my B&B.

On Thursday I returned at 7:30am to find the Booted Warbler frequenting a grassy area where the close encounters had occurred two days previously. Conditions were now much less windy and the bird was not so mobile, spending more time feeding on the ground. After a break for breakfast I came back again and stayed for a coupe of hours in company with several other birders, some of whom were Welsh speaking which was interesting to hear.

For much of the time this warbler remained foraging in one area of long grass and its diagnostic head pattern was very noticeable. It seemed settled in this location and all present were being considerate, standing in line a safe distance back and skirting the viewing area widely when coming and going. But eventually two later arriving people with cameras just had to try to get closer, put the bird up then chased after it. More new arrivals then joined in the pursuit. I decided the likelihood of a closer photo opportunity was fading fast and so left. It was in any case almost midday and time to go sight seeing and indulge some early life memories.

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Llandudno: Grand Hotel and pier

This north Wales coast holds many such associations because until I was aged 12 family holidays were taken in Colwyn Bay where my grandparents were caretakers of a place of worship. So that was where I headed next today. I had re-visited once previously in 1993 to find that, other than the gargantuan trench of the A55 having been ploughed through the town, things had changed very little and the old seaside resort had acquired a faded air. This time much more “progress” was in evidence.

The streets around where my grandparents lived are now a conservation area. So the early 20th century red brick houses that I recall so well, with turrets at the corners of the biggest ones, are all being refurbished in their original style. But elsewhere the space of my childhood memories had been filled with various public leisure facilities. The formerly charming Eirias Park for instance now holds an events centre and 15,000 seat stadium. I didn’t look to see what the seafront structure pictured below right is, but it is just so ugly and in your face.

A little to the west the long derelict pier (pictured below) has yet to be either demolished or rebuilt. I left here thinking that too much has changed not necessarily for the better for me to want to re-visit again. I considered that Llandudno still has the genteel and affluent ambience of it’s Victorian heyday. But Colwyn Bay has the air of a town that was allowed to outdate too much before being partially redeveloped in a hurry.

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Colwyn Bay seafront looking west

A historic site that I wanted to see again was Conwy Castle on the other side of Llandudno. This has long been considered one of Wales’ most picturesque, but upon my arrival conditions had become overcast and the road bridge below the medieval ruin was a construction site. The yellow stone grandeur of my recollection, that is also portrayed in classic paintings and illustrations of the site, has assumed a duller, dirtier appearance with the passage of time. In short I was disappointed. Conwy is nonetheless an evocative place that I would like to experience again if time on a future excursion here allows.

And so my agenda in north Wales was complete. A birding lifer, an overnight stop, some history and lots of nostalgia. I just have a special feeling for the area, arising out of an age of childhood innocence, that has never left me in adult life. And it was so good to have enjoyed those sentiments again, courtesy of that little off course waif the Booted Warbler.

2016 Oxon autumn wader passage: 3 – Knot at last!

Thanks to a tip-off this morning from Farmoor Reservoir patch watcher Dai, my jinx county bird for 2016 is no longer so. The call came as I was at home considering a trip to North Wales to try for a Booted Warbler. Having just found a well-rated Llandudno B&B offering last minute single rooms with breakfast for a mere £28 I was thinking that potential lifer might indeed be meant. Then upon hearing of the local interest I started to feel even luckier.

When I got to Farmoor Dai was on the causeway watching the Knot that even at a distance stood out as being larger and plumper than the more frequent reservoir waders featured in part 2 of this mini-series. Definitely not a species that I would confuse with any of those others, no matter what some county seniors might have liked to tell me in the past. Though showing fairly close, the Knot seemed very aware of our presence, so we passed it on the blind side of the causeway and went to check out a Little Stint that Dai had also found at the western end.

Mindful of needing to get started for Llandudno if I was going to I didn’t spend too long with the second wader and walked back. On approaching the Knot again it looked more comfortable with the attention it was attracting and seemed less nervous. So I skirted round the bird again then sat atop the wave wall and let it approach. Now the beauty walked right past me and another of those close up Farmoor photo opportunities arose that I so enjoy in the autumn passage season. By now I had been joined by Clackers who though one of 2016’s leading Oxon year listers had also missed out on Knot until now.  Then, greatly satisfied with the belated sighting, we went our separate ways.

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Little Stint

It has been a good Oxon year for both these species that are not always seen annually here. Whether I will yet add the two missing waders of Grey Plover or Bar-tailed Godwit to my 2016 county year list, and hence post a fourth entry in this mini-series, I cannot tell.