Sunday, 18 March 2018

Winter birding in Tenerife

Seems like a long time ago now but at the end of January Polina and I headed off to Tenerife for some winter sun.
We were staying on the northern part of the island at the charming town of Puerto de la Cruz. The northern part of the island gets less sun than the south and therefore it is a lot greener and less arid. We were really unlucky with weather and hit just about the only wet week there had been all winter in Tenerife. It didn't bother me too much (though Polina wasn't too pleased), I was just happy to be somewhere else other than cold, grey and rainy Norfolk, the evenings were bright until around 7pm and when it didn't rain the temperature got up to about 18oC.
It wasn't a birding trip but I did have one day to myself to go birding. I really wanted to see Blue Chaffinch so that had to be my number one target in the time I had available. Laurel Pigeon and Bolle's Pigeon would be nice too.
I didn't bother to hire a guide and instead bought a copy of David Gosney's 'Finding Birds in The Canaries' and sorted out car rental with the nearby tourist office.
The nearest spot to where we were staying that was covered by the Gosney guide was a place called Ladera de Tigaiga (sometimes called Chanajiga). This spot had a picnic site where it would be possible to see Tenerife Robin, Tenerife Goldcrest, tintillon Chaffinch (which I had seen in 2015 in Madeira and a very smart bird they are too) and teneriffae race of African Blue Tit. What the Gosney guide didn't say (although its obvious when you get to Tenerife), is that the thirty minute drive to Chanajiga from Puerto de la Cruz goes along some very narrow and steep little mountain roads. I had a Ford Ka and it really struggled on those little roads, often lacking the power to get up - once or twice I had to roll it back and then make a run at it - especially if there was a hairpin on the incline. Anyway I got to Chanajiga and within an hour I had seen all of the above species plus Canary Island Chiffchaff and Canary.

Canary Island Chiffchaff

Canary Island Chiffchaff

Tenerife Goldcrest

African Blue Tit (race teneriffae)

Tenerife Robin

Tenerife Robin
The next bit of the plan was to walk the track to the laurel forest and look for Laurel and Bolle's Pigeon. The habitat was good, plenty of ravines and decent views across them from the path but after spending about an hour and half there all I saw were Blackbirds, a few Blackcaps and more Robins. I needed to allow enough time to drive from Chanajiga to Las Layas which was one hour and twenty minutes away so I had to forget about the pigeons and get back on the road. Las Layas is the other side of Mount Teide and the number one spot in the world for Blue Chaffinch. However, I was a little worried that my Ford Ka wouldn't handle the roads and wasn't too sure about my own nerve on those steep hills and narrow switch-backs. Anyway, weather intervened and having travelled for about half an hour, the road to Teide was blocked due to snow and ice! I saw signs for a place called Las Calderas which looked like a picnic place. I figured that the best bet would be to look in areas with suitable habitat and I might find them myself. In the end that's what happened, I had walked all around Las Calderas and was on my way back to the car feeling somewhat dejected at not having seen Blue Chaffinch or any Pigeons, I took a slight detour to use the gents and came across three birds feeding on the deck just in front of the toilet block - bingo!

Male Blue Chaffinch

Female Blue Chaffinch
After that I headed back with the rental car to Puerto de la Cruz. In the town itself I did have a few other species, Yellow-legged Gull, Kestrel, Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Spanish Sparrow, Plain Swift (love to see swifts in January!), Collared Dove and a singing Canary Island Chiffchaff (which to me sounds like a House Sparrow impersonating a Chiffchaff!).
Obviously there's a lot of stuff I missed having just one day. Apart from the Pigeons I didn't see Barbary Falcon, Berthelots' Pipit (although I have seen them in Madeira) and had no time for any sea-watching. Still, I have a reason to go back though :-)           

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Snow in north Norfolk

Having lived all of my life in Ireland until 2013 it's rather shameful that up until now I had never seen a Snowy Owl. There have been regular wintering birds on the Belmullet Peninsula Co. Mayo and on Arranmore, Co. Donegal but I never felt inclined enough to make the long drive from Cork when I lived there.
News broke of a female Snowy Owl in north Norfolk on Friday afternoon. On Saturday it was relocated along the beach between Titchwell and Thornham Point. We had guests staying with us so that kind of eliminated any chances I had of going and to be honest social media was saying that the bird was distant and the crowds huge - well that was off-putting to say the least. By the time people started posting photos of badly behaved photographers on twitter I had made my mind up not to bother. 
Anyway, come Sunday morning up it popped again, this time at RSPB Snettisham and 'showing well' apparently. I caved in and decided to brave the crowds and go see the bird. And how glad am I that I did!
This is likely to be 'Bird of Year' for me and easily one of the most stunning creatures I think I have ever seen. It was sitting in a tussock of grass when I reached the site near the fence hide at the far end of the Snettisham reserve. A group of about 100ish birders were viewing it and I'm glad to say behaviour was impecible and the bird was too! After watching it for about 40 minutes we were packing up and getting ready to head back when the Owl flew up from its tussock onto a fence post and started preening. Incredible views. I got a bit of a ticking off for arriving back late to Norwich but it was worth it.

Bored of it all!

Female Snowy Owl, Snettisham, Norfolk

Female Snowy Owl, Snettisham, Norfolk

Female Snowy Owl, Snettisham, Norfolk

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Black Rodney

Being cooped up in a hotel on a training course all week had me ready for a little bit of birding on the weekend. I had to decline the kind offer from James Lowen to join him on Saturday to see the Black Redstart at Sheringham but I was able to make it up there with Nick on Sunday morning and despite the biting cold the conditions were otherwise not too bad at all. The bird was favouring an area of open lawns that are part of an apartment complex on the sea-front just beside the RNLI carpark (which may have  been something to do with the supply of mealworms it was getting).
Normally a wintering Black Redstart wouldn't tempt me out like this but this bird was a cracking male. For all the female type birds I've seen wintering in coastal locations like this one, I have only ever seen one other male Black Redstart.

Male Black Redstart, Sheringham, Norfolk - 21 January 2018
By the way the name Black Rodney is a county Cork thing (specifically a Tony Nagle thing), how Tony came up with the name I don't know and there's no logic to it because Common Redstarts are not Rodneys either. In any case, the name has stuck!
After an hour of lying on the hard ground of the carpark in order to get eye-level shots, I decided I'd had enough. The temperature was still only 1oC and lying on the hard, cold ground was a really fast way to loose body-heat, despite the many layers I had.

Almost frozen!
We replenished our energy levels with a fine full English breakfast in nearby Cromer and from there went on to Letheringsett to search for the Coues's Arctic Redpoll(s). The Redpoll flock was flightly to say the least, added to the fact that there was a mobile flock of Goldfinches, another flock of Linnets, some random Bullfinches thrown in, plus the light was dire and the cold was numbing. All in all the whole thing was a bit of a mess. We had brief views of a possible Coues's Arctic as it perched above our heads, the bill looks good but I couldn't see the rump and the undertail coverts were obscured by a stray twig - still, make your own mind up.

Possible Arctic Redpoll - Letheringsett, Norfolk - 21 January 2018

Sunday, 7 January 2018

A visitor to Shangri-La

Well I didn't expect to find myself peering into the garden of the Shangri-la cottage at Waxham in early January - I usually reserve this particular activity for Spring or Autumn. However, a report yesterday of a Hume's Warbler was too good to miss. I haven't seen Hume's up to now - dipped on a few alright - so I had to make the effort.
However, I wasn't too optimistic after seeing the words..... 'tho elusive', 'very mobile' and 'heard calling'. What's more I expected a bit of crowd too.
Yet, when I arrived there were maybe ten birders on site and most had already seen the bird with the last sighting only ten minutes before I arrived. I found a sheltered spot in the sun on the edge of the garden and waited. After twenty minutes or so a small bird flew into the hawthorn above me and gave a call that to me sounded like a disyllabic version of Yellow-browed Warbler - that must be it. However, it didn't hang around and immediately bombed off into the thick trees at the rear of the garden.
Anyway to cut along story short, it was calling from time to time and that was the best way to locate it. Eventually we pinned it down to a favourite area (basically at the back of the garden viewed with your back to the sea looking in from the narrow path). It mostly fed down low or amongst the Celandines (I think that's what they are) and occasionally popped up onto a low branch. It is exactly as described in the literature - like a dull Yellow-browed Warbler, the call is similar to YBW but to me appears to lack the second, middle syllable.
The bird was very active and difficult to photograph but I did manage a couple of shots - backlit and high ISO but still happy enough with them.

Hume's Warbler, Waxham, Norfolk

Monday, 1 January 2018

The final fling

2017 had not been a vintage year for birding as far as I was concerned. But with one day left there was still a chance to salvage something.
Myself and Nick Watmough headed down to Suffolk on the morning of the 31st December. The Coues's Arctic Redpoll was still present at Hazelwood Common near Aldeburgh and I had never seen Arctic Redpoll (seeing as I would be losing Lessser Redpoll as a species from midnight I might as well cancel out the loss by adding another Redpoll species!).
Anyway, when we arrived the weather conditions weren't great (wind and rain), the Redpoll flock was skittish but we managed to get views of the bird as it perched in the trees belonging to the garden of the white cottage.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll, Hazelwood Common, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
We didn't really improve on those initial views, the flock was very mobile and when perched in the tress there was usually some twiggery blocking the shot. We decided to come back later when the weather was set to clear a little and meantime we would head towards the Martello tower at Aldeburgh and look for some Snow Buntings.
We parked near Slaughden Sailing Club and walked along the sea wall towards the Martello Tower all the while scanning for Snow Buntings. We got nicely distracted along the way by two Purple Sandpipers. They weren't too perturbed by our presence and we managed some nice close-up shots as they dozed on the rocks just yards from the crashing surf.

Purple Sandpipers, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
While we watched, a flock of 5-8 Snow Buntings flew over our heads and pitched down somewhere near the Martello Tower. They were a little difficult to relocate at first but eventually we found them feeding behind the shingle ridge at the back of the tower. They too were skittish (there were lots of walkers by now), so we figured the best option for photos was to retrieve the car from the car park and use it as a hide. This worked out very nicely and the birds fed within a few feet of us as we snapped away from the warmth and comfort.

Snow Buntings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
After a coffee break we headed back to Hazelwood Common for another go at the Arctic Redpoll. The skies had cleared and the wind had dropped but the flock remained mobile. I managed one shot of the bird as it sat out in the open for a few minutes, sadly a little too distant but you can't always have it everyway.

Coues's Arctic Redpoll, Hazelwood Common, Suffolk

Showing its white bits nicely!
And then it was time to head home and call in the new year.
So, despite it being a relatively poor year for birding, this last day out was one of the best. Thoroughly enjoyable, good company (thanks Nick), good birds (including a lifer) and obliging subjects. Feeling a bit more optimistic about birding now too!!

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

2017 Highlights

Well, another year almost done. 2017 draws to a close and with that its time to cast my mind back and look at some of my birding highlights.

This year was a hard pick, when spring finally rolled around it was a quiet enough affair for me. The summer brought its usual doldrums and the quietest autumn I can ever remember almost had me hanging up the bins! April and June trips to Mallorca and Latvia respectively just about saved the year.

In reverse order, here are the highlights!

3. Garden Redstart

No not in Norwich - but in Latvia. A male bird was visiting the garden frequently so I set myself up and finally suceeded in getting some respectable shots of one of my favourite bird species (See more photos on Chat show).

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2. Collared Flycatcher, S'Albufera, Mallorca

A short trip to Mallorca in April with Nick Watmough really exceeded my expectations. I had been twice before but still enjoyed several lifers in Spectacled Warbler, Moustached Warbler and this superb male Collared Flycatcher. A relatively rare bird for Mallorca and a fine male to boot! See more on Mallorca trip

1. Corncrake, Lielupe, Latvia

A long awaited lifer! I had first heard one at the tender age of 8 back in County Sligo and several times since in Donegal, Offaly and various parts of Latvia, but getting even so much as a glimpse had been impossible - up until last summer. I had a very close encounter with the bird (as you will see if read back on Crex crex at last). I didn't get any photos but have this short movie clip as a reminder of an unforgettable encounter.

And that's it - fingers crossed for a better year in 2018, it can't be much worse that 2017 - right? A trip to Western Sahara for Golden Nightjar might be next time I have something birdy to write about but in the meantime, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The end?

By morning the wind was up again. I decided to check Happisburgh and if nothing was doing there then I'd call time on the whole thing and go home early.
As usual the churchyard was empty, there was no shelter there from the brisk west wind. However the band of trees by the cricket club was a little better with a busy tit flock that included several Goldcrests and I thought I had a brief glimpse of a Yellow-browed but couldn't be certain. I checking the willows at the pond just as bird flew in and perched up - Black Redstart (or Black Rodney to use its County Cork name).

The Black Rodney!
This put a little spring in my step but to be honest from that point onwards it never got any better. I completed a circuit around Happisburgh and later on walked the Nelson's Head track as far as the container but all I had were Blue Tits and Wrens. With no sign of any other birds around Norfolk (apart from a fly-over Serin at Hunstanton) - I called time on my week, returned to caravan, tidied up and headed back to Norwich.
The next a Great Grey Shrike was found at Happisburgh (well done Richard Moores) and a Barred Warbler at Trimingham - what did I do in my past life to deserve such luck??
I think every five years or so you get a dud autumn - and I was due one. The last one I had was in Cork in 2012. But this on this occasion, with precious little time off available, it felt like a waste of my holidays. Maybe its over-familiarity, or the over-crowded UK birding scene - or whatever but I'm not enjoying birding as much as I used to and really need to think about whether I change my attitude towards it or drop out altogether.