Sunday, 23 December 2012

Birding in the West of Hampshire

Over the last few weeks bird ringing activity has been non-existent, mainly due to the waves of torrential rain and high winds that have been sweeping the country. Even just getting out to do a spot of birding has been difficult, unless, that is, you are covered from head to toe with waterproofs. However, over the weekend of 8/9th December I did manage to get in a spot of birding in the west of County.

Wetland Area with Lapwing, Wigeon, Black-tailed Godwit and Glossy Ibis (the small black dot in the middle)

I had not recently been birding in this area and with the arrival of a few unusual birds it seemed like a good place to go on the one day it wasn't raining, although it looked like it was going to at any minute. My first port of call was Bickerley Common, a flooded meadow to the south of Ringwood. Most of the river valleys in Hampshire are swollen at the moment, and the River Avon is no exception. Water has spilled from the main river channel into the adjacent floodplain creating some interesting wetland habitat for birds. On the plus side this has created sanctuary areas that have become inaccessible to humans thereby limiting disturbance, but on the negative side, there are so many of these flooded areas that birds are widely spread and often difficult to find. But this is not the case at Bickerley Common, where the flooded meadow has become a haven for wetland birds, with the two most noteworthy species being glossy ibis and great white egret.

Great White Egret

Arriving at the site the closest bird was the great white egret, this species has become semi-resident in the area over the last few years, with a colour-ringed bird, originally of French origin, spending most winters at the nearby Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), Blashford Lakes reserve. Unfortunately this bird spent all of its time feeding in thigh deep water and so it was not possible to see if it was the colour-ringed individual.

Great White Egret

In contrast the glossy ibis was happily feeding right at the back and was virtually the furthest bird, giving acceptable scope views but useless for photography (as can be seen in the first picture). There was also a good mix of other wetland species including black-tailed godwit, snipe, green sandpiper, lapwing, kingfisher, Canada and greylag goose, teal, wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and tufted duck. So a good variety of species to start the day. I next headed up to the Avon causeway and Harbridge in search of a Bewick's swan, a species which used to winter in large numbers in the Avon Valley, but those days are long gone. With no sign of the Bewick's and not much else to see in the area I headed back to the HIWWT's Blashford Lakes reserve.

Little Grebe

I started at Ibsley Water and more wetland birds. The middle of the day is not the best time to visit since all of the goosanders will have dispersed across the valley, but nonetheless there were still birds to see, pochard, tufted duck, goldeneye, pintail and good numbers of shoveler. Another noteworthy species for its scarcity these days was ruddy duck, an introduced species  from North America into the UK, that has recently undergone a massive decline due to a licenced cull. The species' fate was sealed due to its interbreeding with the closely related and much rarer white-headed duck in Spain. Ruddy ducks are the more dominant species, as with many North America species, and have been identified as one of the causes of the decline of the now endangered white-headed duck. The licenced cull has been very effective and now only very small numbers of this species exist in the UK.

Wigeon, Gadwall, Coot and Red-crested Pochard

My next stop was Ivy Lake, and the usual location for a very obliging bittern, but not this day. A drake red-crested pochard was causing some interest among the local birders but otherwise the species present were much the same as seen on Ibsley Water. One of the highlights of visiting Blashford Lakes is the excellent views of lesser redpolls and other finches and woodland birds drawn in by the abundance of food provided by the Trust. Identification of the different redpoll types can be very tricky when they are feeding at the top of an alder tree, but here the birds are drawn down low to the feeders.

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

The redpoll sub-species cabaret, which is the common race in the UK, is generally smaller and darker than the flammea race, which occurs in Fenno-Scandia. Occasional birds of the race rostrata have been recorded at Blashford lakes in recent years, these birds generally larger, darker and more heavily streaked than the race cabaret.

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis flammea cabaret

The variation in colour and size of individual birds can make identification of the different races very subjective, and things are not helped by variations in lighting conditions. I did not see any birds that even vaguely resembled a common (mealy) redpoll, maybe one will turn up later in the winter.

Brambling Fringilla montifringilla

Of course redpolls are not the only species visiting the feeders bramblings, chaffinch's, siskins and nuthatch's are all attracted in and give excellent views.

Female Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs

Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea caesia

So if you are visiting Hampshire and want to get to grips with identifying lesser redpolls, there are not many better places to visit than Blashford Lakes in the winter.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Waxwing Fest in Hampshire!

After watching the National bird news and seeing that waxwings were being seen everywhere, it was somewhat frustrating that none were present in Hampshire. However, this week a few scattered records began to appear and today there were even more. I had a bit of spare time later in the afternoon and so decided to go out and look for some. My first stop, in Stubbington missed them by a few minutes and so I headed to a group of 16 in Hedge End. Initially the birds were perched in the top of a sycamore tree, before dropping down to feast on berries on the only small rowan tree in the area.  

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

As is typical for this species, they are incredibly confiding, and so it is possible to get some fantastic views, and great photos.

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

I have never had the pleasure of ringing a waxwing, and for obvious reasons would love to. Ageing birds is apparently relatively straightforward with first year birds lacking white on the inner web of the primaries, this is clearly illustrated on the image below.

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

Waxwing ©T. D. Codlin

If you are thinking of going to see any, don't leave it too late since they go to roost very early; these birds started preparing roost at around 15:30 before heading off at around 3:40pm.

Waxwings ©T. D. Codlin

Friday, 7 December 2012

Biscay 4th - 6th December 2012

This week I had the offer of a trip down through the Bay of Biscay on the Brittany Ferries ship Cap Finistere, and despite it being mid December, and the weather looking quite grim at times, I decided to go. The trip was to follow that of the old P&O ferry, Pride of Bilbao, travelling from Portsmouth, in the UK to Bilbao, on the north coast of Spain, and then back again. The trip was slightly delayed due to bad weather in Biscay on the previous trip, but undeterred we eventually boarded and were soon underway. Not really surprisingly, given the time of year, our group of seven and two other people, were the only foot passengers to board, along with only 74 vehicles, so the upper decks were fairly empty.

Over night the weather was rough and the ship was given a bit of a hammering by the angry sea, but by morning, the rain had stopped, but there was still a mighty swell and a high sea state. Given the poor sea state, it was undoubtedly going to be difficult to see cetaceans, but within the first hour 10 common dolphins had come into the bow to ride the bow wave. 

First Winter Kittiwake

Bird wise there wasn't much going on other than a few black-legged kittiwakes that made for the back of the ship, in search of any scraps in the wake. There was a good mix of both adult and first winter birds, a colleague suggested that first winter birds, with their strong black 'W' on the upper wing were a much better looking bird than the adult birds, but I wasn't convinced. I really like the neat black wing tip, pale grey upperwing and mantle, and grey nape of the adult birds.

Adult Winter Kittiwake

Other birds included the occasional great black-backed and herring gulls, and a few northern gannets. The weather was actually quite pleasant and surprisingly mild for the time of year, but in the distance a few storm clouds were gathering.

Great Black-backed Gull

The first storm passed by the back of the ship, and other than a slight increase in the sea state and a light shower we escaped. A good feature of this ship is an under cover section at the stern, which means that even in bad weather you could stay out and sea watch.

First Storm Passing the back of the Ship

The next storm was heading straight for us, forcing several northern gannets and fulmars ahead of it as it came, but no other sea birds, which was a shame.

Northern Gannet

This second storm was fierce, and the driving rain and strong winds made viewing very difficult. We persevered for a while but with very little visible we decided to have a short break.

Second Storm in full Swing

As we continued south the sea state calmed and the sun came out, just for a while before it set, but as we approached Spain, in the dark, it began to pour with rain, and did it rain. Unlike the Pride of Bilbao, it only takes two hours to turn this ship around, and therefore we were not allowed to disembark. When we asked why, we were told that there was no where to go, and when we looked out we could see that the ship had docked in the new part of the port, and there really wasn't anywhere to go in two hours and it was pouring with rain anyway.

Approaching Sunset of the Southward Journey

The ship set sail in the dark, and after another stormy night we awoke to a blue sky and calm seas, not what we were expecting so we quickly got up and headed out. The ship was taking a different route to previous trips and was just off the French coast, where we had excellent views of the westernmost tip of the Brittany peninsular, Point du Raz and its stunning little light house 'La Vielle'

La Vielle, Point du Raz, Brittany

There was much fishing activity in this area also, and subsequently many more birds, including more kittiwakes, some guillemots and puffins and then some Balearic shearwaters. Initially just a few but as we moved moved north we had soon seen over 40 birds, some of which gave some excellent views.

Balearic Shearwater

This is the first time I had seen so many of this species on a trip across the bay, and presume they had been pushed in close to coast by the bad weather. Other bird species included more than a dozen Mediterranean gulls, a mixture of adult and second winter birds, which was nice, although this is a species I now see every time I go out birding at home.

Balearic Shearwater
Continuing north we were soon passing the lighthouses of St Mathieu and enjoying some spectacular scenery....

Lighthouses at St Mathieu

                          ....................before passing the marker of Grande Vinotiere, which provided the ideal place for great cormorants and shags to rest up.

Grande Vinotiere

Once away from the coast and the Channel Islands, and back in open water, we were soon seeing more cetatceans; a lone bottle-nosed dolphin rode the bow wave for a while and several more common dolphins joined in the fun. Several bonxie's (great skuas) provided some bird variety, and then it was dark again and time to retire back the cabin and pack.

So despite the variable weather, we had had an enjoyable trip, with the star bird for me being balearic shearwater. The limited number of cetaceans seen was disappointing, but I suspect that in part was due to the weather, but it may be due to cooler waters at this time of year and therefore less food, I will just have to go again to find out!
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