2017 Review

This is my first blog post for a whole year, largely due to the fact that I’ve been in full-time employment for the whole period and free time has been a lot more scarce. I have managed to do a fair bit of birding and its about time for a summary.

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The first two months were very quiet, the birds of note were 1 Black Redstart, 2 Egyptian Geese (seen at the end of 2016 also), 3 Spotted Redshank (including 1 self-found) and Marsh Harrier, all seen at Goldcliff (Newport Wetlands). Stock Dove was also added to my Gwyddon Valley list. A visit to the Poole harbour area in early March produced some reasonable birding; Green-Winged Teal, (58) (Dark-Bellied) Brent Geese, (15!) Spoonbill, Red-Breasted Merganser, Marsh Harrier, Green P1010520 CedSandpiper and Mediterranean Gull were all noted. I began work as an ecologist in March, and the survey work immediately brought reward; eight Goshawk flights were seen during a vantage point survey in North Wales.

A visit to the Redhouse area at the Newport Wetlands began the Spring with, (self-found) Garganey, Cattle Egret and Spoonbill all seen. In April, I dipped Black-Winged Stilt at Slimbridge, but a 1st-winter Little Gull P1010650 Ced

compensated. The first British tick of the year came on 2/x/17, when a pair of Temminck’s Stint were successfully twitched at Goldcliff. A relatively quiet Summer followed, with a heavy work load meaning little birding, though some reasonable birds were seen during surveys: excellent views of Nightjar at a site in the valleys, and at other sites; good numbers of Red Kite, Redstart and Marsh Tit at a mid-Wales site; and Lesser Whitethroat in Somerset. A Cuckoo was also seen at the Wetlands, and a trip to Cotswold Water Park produced a second
P1030093 CedBritish tick; Red-Crested Pochard with up to 30 birds seen.

The Autumn produced by far the best birding of the year. It began on the 1/ix/17 with a juvenile Woodchat Shrike near Chipping Sodbury. Things were quiet for a few weeks, with Leach’s Petrel dipped at Severn Beach, a very quiet visit to Kenfig and an uninspiring seawatch from P1030626 CedWooltack Point (Pembrokeshire) later in the month. A second seawatch early in October, from Strumble Head was much more productive, with 2 Pomarine Skua, 3 Great Skua, 3 Arctic Skua and 2 Red-throated Diver the highlights. Things really picked up with a visit to the Scillies from 11-14/x/17. A Stilt Sandpiper on the journey south kicked off the trip. The best bird was the Eastern Orphean Warbler  on St. Agnes – a first for Britain! It was incredibly elusive in the morning P1030956 Cedbut eventually gave itself up and was seen well feeding on berries down the hill from the parsonage. An Isabelline Wheatear was also seen well on the airfield and a probable Wilson’s Snipe on Porthellick pool stood out from the Common Snipe, looking much colder in colour. Other highlights were; 2 Great-Northern Diver, 4 Balearic Shearwater (3 self-found), 2 Great Skua, American Golden Plover, Rose-P1040408 CedColoured Starling, 2 Yellow-Browed Warbler (1 self-found) and 2 Hawfinch. Back on the mainland a memorable day was had on the 17/x/17, when I finally caught up with Leach’s Petrel (a long-standing bogey bird) self-found off Goldcliff point in the wake of storm Ophelia. Later in the day, I successfully twitched the Rock Thrush near Abergavenny, a smart bird in a fantastic setting and I had it all to myself.

P1040871 CedFollowing this, things settled down for the winter, with a Spotted Redshank at Goldcliff and a Merlin at a site in west Wales the only birds of note in November. The year ended on a high note though, with a trip around the Severn on 30/xii/17 with my girlfriend Sophie, producing decent views of Hawfinch at Parkend (Forest of Dean) a 1st-year female Penduline Tit near Gloucester (ringed earlier in the year on Alderney) and Bewick’s
P1050095 CedSwan, Merlin and Water Rail at Slimbridge.

This was a reasonable years birding given the lack of free time, with some quality birds seen. As last year it was greatly improved by a few days birding on an off-island in the Autumn.


Shetland Trip – Day 8 – 3/x/16

After the previous days excitement I decided it would be worth the early start to see what the days net round produced. And I wasn’t disappointed! As head warden Dave Parnaby came entered the ringing room he announced that they had caught a 1st-year Common Rosefinch and that it was in one of the bags! After processing a few commoner migrants including a Redwing and a Garden Warbler, the finch was pulled from the bag, processed and shown outside. The relatively plain streaked brown plumage, bold black eye and typical finch bill allowed easy identification. The bird was shortly released and seen briefly when it landed in the plantation before being lost to view. One of the less inspiring additions to my British list but still interesting to see. Hopefully the next will be a spring male!


After breakfast, I headed out for my last few hours on the island before my 11 o’clock flight. I began by photographing the Great Skuas on the hillside behind the observatory.





I spent the remaining time in the south, where there appeared to have been a bit of a clear out. The highlights were only one Yellow-Browed Warbler, two Lapland Bunting and a Whinchat. The Short-Toed Lark showed very well again in the Cra – a nice conclusion to my time on the island!


I grabbed my things from the obs, hopped aboard the plane and enjoyed the short flight back to the mainland. After a bite to eat in Lerwick, I checked the bird news but was disappointed to see that things were very quiet!

I took the decision to head north towards Unst in the hope of finding something myself. However, as I headed towards the ferry terminal, a bleep from the pager informed me that a Swainson’s Thrush had just been found on the Fetlar! A change of tack was in order. I boarded the Fetlar ferry, but was becoming increasingly aware that I was racing against the light. It was already past 5 o’clock when I landed, meaning that I had only an hour of light left. When I arrived on site it appeared that everyone else had left, but one other local birder arrived and joined me. Inevitably, we couldn’t find the bird as dusk turned to dark but I decided it would be worth a go the following morning so hunkered down in the car for some shut-eye.

Shetland Trip – Day 5 – 30/ix/16

I left mainland at 11 in the morning, with no news of new birds in. Flying from Tingwall we followed the cliffs of south mainland in the small aircraft and then headed out over open water until we reached Fair Isle; probably the best birding site in the UK, and a place that I have dreamed of visiting ever since I started birding.


And over the first few hours, the birding didn’t fail to deliver. As I got of the plain, a pair of Lapland Buntings flew over calling. My first birds on the island and my first self-found birds of this species. Not a bad start! I was greeted by the warden Dave Parnaby, and we set off down the hill in the car. We hadn’t got far though, when a medium sized, pale bird flew across the track in front of us. Dave stopped the van, and we quickly got onto the 1st-year Short-Toed Lark which had been present for a while previously. It showed well for a short time before flying off again, but it was a British tick for me and only my third bird on the island!

We headed down to the observatory where I was shown to my room and given a short introduction. After a quick look around I headed back out, this time armed with my camera, and quickly refound the lark showing well by the roadside. It was strikingly pale, with a sandy brown plumage, and a subtle peach wash to the unstreaked breast. The bill was short and deep, and the cap was darker and had a touch of rufous.




The bird eventually flew up the hill towards the water tanks, just as Dave Steel arrived from the obs. We headed up together and after some time we relocated the bird near the airstrip where it continued to show well until we left. We returned for lunch at the obs, where I learned that the Bluethroat was still showing well at Shira. I headed in that direction, and as I went, I noted several Lesser Redpoll, 2 Merlin, 2 Yellow-Browed Warbler, 1 Black Redstart, 3 Whinchat, 1 Whitethroat, 1 Blackcap and good numbers of Twite. A further four Lapland Buntings were also seen, including one very showy individual not far from the obs at Gully.




Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Bluethroat at Shirva, but there was plenty of other good birding to be had, with 50+ Golden Plover, 5 Dunlin, a Knot, over 100 Pink-Footed Geese, a Peregrine, Great Skua and Fulmar all seen. Not a bad first day by any means, though the general impression at the evening log was that it had been fairly quiet!

Shetland Trip – Day 4 – 29/ix/16

After an excellent 24 hours, day 4 dawned with strong wind from the NW and persistent drizzle. Things got worse when I discovered that my phone had broken, meaning that I now had to rely fully on the less than adequate pager which I had rented.

I decided to head to Laxo, Mainland, for the Bluethroat which had been reported for several days. It seemed like it would be easy, but unfortunately it wasn’t, the weather meant that the bird had gone into cover and refused to come out during the couple of hours that I was there. A distant Merlin was meager consolation.

With the forecast supposedly better in the north, I decided to try my luck on Unst again. A Blyth’s Reed Warbler had been in a small garden at Uyeasound for the best part of a week. However, the wind once again put paid to my plans, and in a couple of hours the only bird I saw was a Yellow-Browed Warbler. Meager consolation once again.

I headed back to mainland where I discovered that the Greenish Warbler at Aith (which I had dipped on my first day) had reappeared. Convinced I couldn’t dip a third bird within the same day, I headed to the site, arriving early in the evening. I remained in the area until dark but unfortunately I failed once again! And once again the only consolation was offered by a Yellow-Browed Warbler.

All in all a very tough day, and one which proves that birding on Shetland is not always easy!


Shetland Trip – Day 3 – 28/ix/16

As  promised, day three dawned bright and with only a gentle breeze, much more birdable conditions. I’d spent the night in the car at Skaw (the most northerly occupied settlement in the UK), and began at dawn by walking some distance up the burn where a Paddyfield Warbler had been seen the previous day. Unfortunately there was no sign of the bird there over several hours of searching. Several Wheatear and Snipe where seen, and a Whinchat. Eventually, large numbers of birders arrived, but unfortunately the bird still couldn’t be relocated. However, consolation came when a Little Bunting was located on the fence line above the burn and was seen briefly by a few. Unfortunately the bird did not show particularly well. An Osprey was also seen over the car park later, being mobbed by a pair of Ravens.



Moving on from here I drove south, hoping to find some good birds of my own. As I came towards Baltasound, I noticed a promising looking plantation which turned out to be at Halligarth. As I entered I passed two birders who were leaving, and they told me that they had just relocated the Icterine Warbler which had been seen recently at the nearby Setters Hill Estate. They also told me that a Dusky Warbler had just been found up the road at Burrafirth! Unfortunately, I spent the the next half hour failing to see the Icterine, though I did see a Wood Warbler (which appeared to have an injured wing but gave excellent views), two Yellow-Browed Warblers (one of which was self-found), a Brambling, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap and a Garden Warbler.


I decided to return later, and made the ten minute drive up to Burrafirth where a fair crowd had assembled. I was informed that the Dusky Warbler was still present but had gone into cover. Fortunately, it soon decided to fly up into the open, and spent several minutes feeding along the edge of the stream giving reasonable ‘bin views’ though it was slightly distant. The generally plain plumage, fine bill, neat supercillium and dark lores were all seen and just about captured in the appalling record shot below (the bird is in the center with facing away from the camera with its head turned to the left showing the dark lores):


I arrived back at Halligarth at midday, and spent another half hour, adding only a third (second self-found) Yellow-Browed Warbler to the tally. This time, several other birders were present too, but were also having no luck. As they were about to head off, I decided to try some gardens just to the south of the plantation, and almost immediately located the Icterine Warbler feeding in the open along a hedgerow and fenceline I quickly called the other birders back and a small crowd enjoyed excellent views of the bird, a well marked and bright individual, as it performed well. The lemon wash to the breast and face was striking, as was the pale secondary panel, thick blue-grey legs and long primary projection. This was a particularly satisfying British tick, after I missed a bird during a quiet week on the Scillies in 2013.


After some time watching the bird and a quick bite to eat, I decided to head for Norwick (to the north), where some good birds were being found. Unfortunately when I arrived neither the RB Fly or the Rosefinch, but my second Little Bunting of the day was appreciated, showing a little better than the earlier bird, sitting in a sycamore in the afternoon having been flushed from a crop field.

With the evening fast approaching, a began the journey back to the mainland. Another pleasant surprise awaited there, when I checked the local bird news and discovered that an Arctic Warbler had been found at Frakkafield near Lerwick. I raced the fading light and incoming weather front, arriving on site at quarter to six, in already heavy rain. The first bird seen in the plantation was another self-found Yellow-Browed Warbler. A nice bird, but not the one that I was after. As I headed around, I noticed a pair of Warblers flying down to some nettles. Looking through the bins, I could see that the first was a Blackcap, onto the second and there it was! It showed well for some time, though the downpour made viewing very difficult. The single wing-bar, dirty off-white underside and thin, bold supercillium which stopped before the forehead, were noted.



My third British tick of the day, and a quality bird!

Shetland Trip – Day 2 – 27/ix/16

Day 2 of the trip was my first day on Shetland. The forecast was for strong south westerly winds and plenty of rain, not ideal birding weather on Shetland and so it proved. After grabbing some breakfast and a coffee in Lerwick, I headed for the plantation at Aith where a Greenish Warbler had been found the previous day. Unfortunately several hours of searching failed to turn up the bird, or anything else for that matter.

Other birds seen during a tough morning on the mainland were; White Wagtail, Wheatear (2), Kestrel, Pink-Footed Goose (110+), Raven, Hooded Crow, Red-Breasted Merganser, Lesser Whitethroat and Rock Dove – slim pickings.

My spirits somewhat dampened, I decided to cut my losses and head north taking two ferries and arriving on the most northerly island in the UK, Unst, at about 4. A few birds had been reported here throughout the day, and I decided to try for the Radde’s Warbler in the garden at Valyie, Norwick. After a short wait (and a brief glimpse of a Yellow-Browed Warbler) the bird showed, though was incredibly elusive! Brief glimpses showed all of the salient features; short stout bill, bold supercillium (rufous at the front and pale at the back), compact Wren-like build and apricot undertail coverts. Unfortunately I didn’t manage any record shots of the bird, but you can follow the link below to see one on the Shetland Nature website:


It had been a slightly disappointing start to the trip, saved slightly by the Radde’s, but I was optimistic for the next 24 hours which were forecast for much better birding conditions!

Shetland Trip – Day 1 – 26/ix/16

This weekend I returned from a two week trip to Shetland, where the birding was some of the best I have ever experienced in Britain! Over the next week I’ll write a day by day account of the trip, beginning with some birding I did on the journey north.

My first bird of the trip was a pretty good one. During the drive, news had broken of a rare Arctic seabird in the harbour at Anstruther, Fife, and it was still present when I arrived at 12:30. It was a BRUNNICH’S GUILLEMOT, a new species for me and a mega-rarity in a british context. While I was there it dived regularly but was never seen feeding, it also spent a lot of time preening but appeared to be in a bit of a mess with the flight feathers from both wings in heavy moult. However, the black feathers of the upper body, moulting white chin patch, short deep bill and white line at the bill base were all seen as it showed well coming within a few metres at times.


Sadly this bird was found dead in the harbour on the 30th September, and was clearly in a malnourished state. There has been some doubt about the identity of this bird, with some suggesting it may be a hybrid Brunnich’s x Common Guillemot. The corpse has been retained and will be subject to DNA analysis, the results of which are eagerly anticipated!

I reached the Aberdeen area with several hours to kill before my ferry, so decided to have a go for the Semipalmated Sandpiper which had been present at the Ythan estuary to the north. Unfortunately there was no sign of the bird which had last been seen, fluched by a Peregrine the previous afternoon according to Birdguides. However, a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper and a wealth of other more common waders were pleasant consolation.

With a little time still remaining, I payed a quick visit to the nearby Forvie NNR where a 1st-winter Red-Backed Shrike showed well next to the visitor centre, though remained deep in cover. I did manage the record shot below.


Following this was a quick drive down to the ferry where I boarded successfully and spent a somewhat sleepless night looking forwards to the quality birding which awaited.