Friday, April 17, 2015

Chiffchaffs

On a recent lunchtime run I noticed that the Springtime clock had started ticking, "chiff chaff, chiff chaff..." With the arrival of the first migrating warblers the countdown to Summer and warmer days had begun.
But try as I might I could not locate the tiny olivey warbler as I plodded up a hill. The Chiffchaff was singing somewhere in the tops of some trees across a field and birdwatching while running is never an easy prospect. So I contented myself with enjoying the metronomic song of this early migrant confident in the knowledge that I would see one quite soon. But this pattern repeated itself over the next few days as I continued my marathon training. Chiffchaffs were singing from nearly every copse and woodland, but I didn't even get a glimpse; this was getting silly. But last Friday I decided to venture out to my local patch on the Wirral coast, not for Chiffchaffs, but to try and see a Ring Ouzel; up to four had been reported during the day, how could I fail to see one?
But these enigmatic collared thrushes had melted into the fields by the time I arrived and no amount of diligent searching was going to produce a sighting. Naturally, consolation was had by my first actual sighting of a Chiffchaff, although the grey skies were not conducive to brilliant photography. And another bonus was a small party of Wheatears in a horse paddock, these were also a "first" for the year for me, although too distant for even a "record" photo.
Interestingly, the first Chiffchaff I saw last year was in January at Burton Marsh and was deemed to be a Siberian Chiffchaff. There were quite a few Chiffchaffs at that site early last year, some showing the full suite of plumage characteristics to be identified as "Siberian", but also one or two that were definitely Common Chiffchaffs. But the best diagnostic feature is the monosyllabic call. But birders love a good challenge and it is all part of a continuing learning curve for everyone interested in avian taxonomy.


Common Chiffchaff

Siberian Chiffchaff

 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Snowdon via Watkin Path

Over the Easter weekend I really ramped-up the marathon training; I ran 42.5 miles in three days and my "day off" involved a stroll to the top of Snowdon! Naturally time for wildlife watching was limited which is always a shame at this time of year as things begin to hot up; metaphorically and literally.
But a walk in Snowdonia is not just about the breath-taking views, there is always wildlife to be enjoyed as well. It was always going to be busy on a sunny Easter Sunday, so Jane and I chose what is probably our favourite route to the summit, namely the Watkin Path. This is one of the least popular of Snowdon's many paths, probably because it starts at sea-level, but it is also one of the most picturesque. It starts in a beautiful oakwood with little wooden bridges that cross tumbling streams, before emerging into a craggy valley where waterfalls and plunge-pools distract walkers from their main purpose of reaching the top.
The woodland held Blue Tits engaging in their Spring parachute displays, with a background chorus made up of Great Tits, Robins and a trilling Nuthatch. I was hoping to see an early migrant on the slopes of the mountain, maybe a Wheatear's white arse disappearing over a craggy outcrop or the distinctive whistle of a Ring Ouzel from a scree slope but it was not to be. But there were Meadow Pipits everywhere, sip sipping from every boulder and the males enchanted us with their graceful display flights and twittering song; they are clearly better parachutists than the Blue Tits.
But there is one distinctive bird call that Jane and I always compete to be the first to hear, that of the Raven. And we were just passing Gladstone Rock (named after the Prime Minister William Gladstone who gave a speech their in 1892) when Jane heard the distinctive cruk cruk call of a Raven. It glided past us on its massive wings and we could easily make out its dagger-like bill and diamond shaped tail; a very charismatic bird and one that is truly at home among the crags. This was one of about half a dozen that we saw during the day and they never failed to delight us with their mastery of the mountain air.
About two thirds of the way up Jane realised that the sole of her left boot was beginning to come away, so we assessed the situation and decided that it would be best if she didn't attempt to scramble up the scree slope that forms part of the path just below the summit. She was happy for me to walk to the top while she relaxed and enjoyed the views over to Crib Goch.
The summit itself was like Piccadilly Circus, I had never seen so many people there, especially as the mountain railway was not yet taking tourists to the top. I took a few photos and quickly scrambled back down to where I had left Jane. We descended a little further then had a lovely picnic while being serenaded by the ever present Meadow Pipits. The other bird that is quite common at the summit is the Herring Gull, no doubt attracted by handouts from walkers' picnics. But lower down the slopes we were not attracting any avian attention.
Although Jane had become a bit cold while waiting for me, the weather on Easter Sunday was excellent for walking. It had started off very foggy, but as that had cleared it warmed up enough for me to observe a Common Lizard tunnelling into a grassy tussock near the ruined miner's cottages. Unfortunately it didn't want to pose for a picture so we left it in peace.
Further down the valley I removed by socks and boots and dunked my feet in a plunge pool. This was immensely refreshing but after a while I couldn't feel my ankles because of the cold! This was the very same pool that during the hot July of 2013, after a day in the mountains, I had stripped off and completely immersed myself in. On that day the water actually felt warm. Although I have swum in Llyn  Lydaw in the adjacent valley in July and the water there was so cold that you would've thought that the ice age that formed these valleys was still in progress!
My feet soon dried, and we enjoyed the gentle walk down the rest of the valley, stopping only to pose for photographs on a remarkable stone bridge over the stream. Not just a wildlife day, but a day of geology, history, and some of the best views anywhere in the world.
(photos from compact camera and iPhone)



View of the Miner's Path, Pyg Track and the mighty Crib Goch

South Ridge



iPhone panorama, note the snow!
 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Iceland Gull

Bizarrely, Iceland Gulls do not breed in Iceland. They do breed in Greenland and Northern Canada, and more interestingly for us, a number of these enigmatic white-winged gulls turn up in Britain during the winter months. March is a good time to find one of these birds as they begin to migrate back to their breeding grounds.
Exactly ten years ago I photographed two Iceland Gulls at Llandullas on the North Wales coast, so I was quite excited when a juvenile bird took up residence at Pensarn not far along the coast from where I last saw this species. Unfortunately, on the bright sunny day that I first visited the shingle beach where the bird had been, to use twitching parlance, "showing well" the gull could not be found. So I amused myself by photographing the local Black-headed Gulls. A week later on a really grey Sunday afternoon I returned to the site and had great views of the bird all to myself. The bird was aged as a juvenile, and was slightly smaller than the accompanying juvenile Herring Gulls. It had pale coffee-coloured barring on the plumage and white tips to the primary feathers. At the time of writing (end of March) the bird is still present. As is the Laughing Gull in New Brighton (see earlier post). It's a great time to be a larophile!

Black-headed Gull












Juvenile Herring Gull


 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spotted Redshank and Other Waders.

On a recent visit to Leighton Moss RSPB I had hoped to photograph some Avocets that had returned to the Eric Morecombe pools. Unfortunately, they were feeding on a very distant pool and were only just visible through my telescope. But, as always, there is always something of interest to photograph, and when that other something is one of my favourite waders, a Spotted Redshank, I am more than happy. This elegant winter-plumaged bird fed at times in the company of a Common Redshank, so it was also a good opportunity to study the differences between the two species.
It was a blustery day, and most of the other birds were sheltering from the wind, but Curlew, Oystercatcher and Little Egret all came into photographable range.
Another bonus was the presence of a small group of European White-fronted Geese in a field near the level-crossing. These were probably feeding up on the first leg of their migration back to their breeding grounds. I finished the day off on the main reserve where a unusual pair of Great-crested Grebes were showing interest in one another; unusual because one of the pair was still in winter-plumage. I had hoped they might indulge in their beautiful mating ritual, the famous "weed dance", but maybe they were not quite ready for that.
Also the resident pair of Great Black-backed Gulls that nest on the island opposite the Public Hide were displaying to one another. Although at one point one of the birds almost landed on a lapwing that was also asleep on the island!








Spotted Redshank (left) and Common Redshank


 



European White-fronted Geese
Black-headed Gull






 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Leighton Moss Tufted Ducks

I visited my spiritual home at Leighton Moss RSPB again last week! I headed straight for the Public Hide which is situated halfway down the main causeway. This hide overlooks a large expanse of freshwater and is surrounded by extensive reedbeds. It is one of the best places on the reserve to view fabulous species such as Bittern, Marsh Harrier and Otter.
After a dull start to March we were lucky that the sun was shining on the day of our visit. I quickly found a the mother Otter and her two cubs swimming in the distance, but they soon swam out of view. A female Marsh Harrier flew across the reeds on the far side of the reserve and it too disappeared. And the Bitterns failed to materialise while we were there.
But a very common species gave what twitchers would call "crippling views!" There was a small flock of Tufted Ducks milling around right in front of the hide and they provided superb close photographic opportunities for about twenty minutes. The black heads of the males occasionally flashed with a blue iridescence as they swam in the sunlight. I tried to catch this colouration on my camera with moderate success, but they were a joy to watch nevertheless.
There were also six young Mute Swans still sporting some brown juvenile feathers that were also fun to photograph. Two adult swans, most likely the parents of the cygnets, swam past the hide; they will probably not tolerate the presence of these young birds much longer.









Female Tufted Duck