White-billed Diver at Bardney, Lincs – 25th Jan

This is the last European diver, or loon as they are also known that I needed for my birding life list. I usually associate reports of White-billed Diver with northern Scottish coasts. So when a juvenile turned up five days ago at an inland river site south-east of Lincoln, just within my preferred range, it was a must see. Even more so after I viewed these images (here) on RBA.

On Monday at a county twitch in north Oxfordshire I overheard a conversation about this bird and expressed my interest. The next day Ewan called to say he was up for it if I would do the driving and so it was agreed. I was sickening for a cold that I did not want to pass on to my friends at the charity shop, so a birding day out with a hardy soul who though warned was not bothered by my germs was an attractive prospect. And so we set out northward at 9am on a foggy Wednesday morning.

In Europe White-billed Diver breed in arctic coasts of Russia and winter chiefly along the north-west Norwegian coastline. It is a rare winter visitor further south around the North Sea though there are notable annual spring gatherings in Scottish waters off the Isle of Lewis and the coast of north Aberdeenshire. Inland British occurrences are very rare indeed and hence this bird has been nominated the Bird Guides bird of the week.

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White-billed Diver: first winter (foreground) and adult breeding © Crossley ID Guide to Britain and Ireland

The day’s first sighting on RBA told of the Lincs WBD drifting north along the River Witham past a tiny village called Southrey (TF138663). We arrived there some time after midday to find a gaggle of birders milling about and wondering in which direction to search along the towpath. The latter half of our journey had been through cold clear sunlight but once we got close to the location it became apparent the whole area was blanketed in freezing fog that would not be burning off any time soon.

At 12:20 a birder checking RBA announced that the diver had been relocated a few miles to the north at Bardney Bridge (TF113693). Cue a mass re-location. Ewan and I were amongst the first to arrive there and about 500 metres north of the said bridge we sighted a very impressive looking bird indeed, keeping company with a Cormorant. White-billed Diver is the largest of its genus that breeds in Europe, even bigger than a Great Northern Diver. The two species are quite similar in appearance but WBD’s distinctive and most impressive feature is a large, straight, up-tilted white bill that in summer turns yellow. Hence this bird is also cited as its north American title Yellow-billed Diver (or Loon) in some sources.

I observed the diver for a short time then attempted to photograph it, at which point I realised there was no SD card in my camera. It happens … well sometimes! And so I rushed back to the car to retrieve the spare I always carry, passing many more birders converging from various points along the River Witham and all enquiring about the WBD. “Keep going, you can’t miss it,” and such like I responded but it appeared that all of them did. I could not have imagined this bird could move on so far in the short time that I was away.

Returning to take my pictures, or so I had thought I stomped on and on to eventually rejoin a confused melee of birders all at a loss to know where the WBD had got to. It seemed that only the first several people on site, including ourselves had managed to connect. Ewan said he had seen the diver turn around and probably head back south, and so we agreed to search in opposite directions. Walking north I quickly encountered people coming back from a lock and barrage beyond which the bird was unlikely to have passed. Then Ewan called to say he had viewed the WBD very briefly as it surfaced back near Bardney Bridge. I conveyed that to those ahead of and behind me and so things continued.

It became clear this powerful swimmer must be travelling for considerable distances under water. The thing was that people walking the towpath all headed for the group of birders they could make out in the fog ahead instead of keeping an eye on the river. And so almost everyone missed the bird. Meeting Ewan again he suggested we went back to Southrey and wait for the WBD to pass. Back there it soon became apparent that lots of other people, most of whom had yet to see the bird all had the same idea. By 2:30 pm we decided to look further south again, but discouraged eventually by the dismal and freezing weather we gave things up and headed home.

In various ways this was a frustrating day, due not least to the local weather conditions and also because out of carelessness I did not capture my own images of an important lifer. But I had seen the WBD well which most birders in the area did not on this occasion. It seems rather bizarre that such a large and stand-out bird could have eluded most of its audience so thoroughly for much of the time, but that is what happened. Most importantly I have now observed all of the European divers in Great Britain.

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Rose-coloured Starling at Crawley, Sussex + Oxford Waxwings – 10 & 11th Jan

The first-named is a bird I have intended to visit for some time. The now second calendar year juvenile has been gracing a suburb of the Gatwick Airport metropolis since early November. But I wanted to wait until its moult progression more closely resembled the splendid pink and black plumage of an adult (outsourced picture below right).

There are 30 plus British records of Rose-coloured Starling in most years, some of which like this particular youngster over-winter. It is a scarce south-east European and south-west Asian breeder, and the normal wintering grounds are in southern Asia. I had seen a first winter juvenile once before in my home area close to Oxford in January 2010. But that distantly viewed bird had just looked like a very pale common Starling in a large flock. So when Ewan, who had seen the Crawley bird closer to its arrival (pictured below left) said he was going for a second look and invited me along, I jumped at the opportunity.

Arriving in the residential district of Broadfield (TQ255345) late morning we found the RCS at once, its presence being revealed by two other birders. We too were able to walk right up to the low trees it was favouring beyond a garden wall where clearly a large amount of bird food was being put out. Then for the next hour or so we just snapped away with our cameras, while more birders came and went, mostly on time out from their jobs and also doing a check on the juvenile’s progress into adulthood. Now and again local residents would drive by smiling knowingly inside their cars: “birders again”.

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Rose-coloured Starling (2cy juv) at Crawley today

As the partially moulted bird moved around it became readily apparent just how well things were coming along. My favoured Helm guide to bird identification describes juvenile RCS as pleasant, bland-faced, innocent looking birds with rather loose, fluffy plumage; and I have to agree. The images in this post were captured with my 300mm telephoto lens. It really was that easy, unlike the recent Dusky and Blue Rock Thrushes.

The above sequence shows the frequent bill cleaning behaviour that the bird engaged in. Also in addition to the more developed glossy black plumage, how the beak is turning from yellow to pink and a noticeable crest is forming. I believe the moult should be completed by February when I will be greatly tempted to observe this bird again if it remains. After all I have yet to come across one in southern Europe.

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Common (left) and Rose-coloured Starlings for comparison

Back home in Oxford, one of the stand-out birding events of the new year has been the much anticipated arrival of Waxwing in the city. 2016/17 has been touted as an irruption winter since the early influx of large numbers of the Scandinavian berry bandits into Scotland and northern England. Now for the last four days a small group of six birds has been active along one arterial road in north Oxford, paying frequent visits to an ornamental berry tree from more lofty surrounding perches, as Waxwings do. I have visited the location in each of the last two days, and these (below) are my better digiscoped records of the occasions. The right hand image illustrates just how thoroughly the berry tree has been stripped of its fruit.

On the subject of local birding, my Oxon county year list for 2016 had I been keeping one would have ended on 173 (plus two heard only). Somewhere in the 170s is usual unless one doesn’t go on holiday in the passage season, is able to drop all other commitments and go after every county bird, and is an excellent networker to get all the tips quickly from other birders. So topping my 2012 and 2013 totals of 181 will have to wait for another year, if I should choose to indulge such a widely denied practice. The 2016 Oxon year rather fizzled out in December, but then two Bean Geese arrived late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, the month long presence of three Cattle Egret has been revealed on a north Oxon pig farm, and more Waxwing are likely as forecast “Arctic blasts” look set to “batter Britain” through January.