25 Feb 2017

25 Feb 17 - Getting The Hump

Checking the pager services on Thurday evening produced an unexpected message of a Humpback Whale being seen off Slapton Ley in Devon in late afternoon, with it still being there at dusk. Over the last decade I have heard of a few sightings in the UK, but rarely are any of them in the South. The most frequent locations seem to have been off the Shetlands or Yorkshire coast: neither of which have been particularly convenient to consider for an on spec trip. So one less than three hours drive on the Devon coast was certainly interesting. It was a frustrating day at work yesterday with a few updates that it was still lingering off the Slapton coastline with one Dorset Birder reporting it down to 20 metres offshore. As always there is the uncertainity of why a large pelagic Whale should be seen so close to the shore. The speculation from the Birders was it was down to close in fish shoals which were also attracting a number of Harbour Porpoise & Dolphins, as well as, large Gannet numbers. All potentially supporting the fish shoals & feeding Cetaceans theory. The local press were in favour of it being of its last legs which would be quite a feasible option, but they didn't seem to be quoting any experienced local naturalists. There was no opportunity of taking a few hours off to head West on the Friday. But there was only one day to last to the weekend. 

The forecast for today was for rain to set in from early afternoon, but that looked long enough to allow an early breakfast & the chance to head West based on early news. There was news by 09:00 & I was quickly heading off, with just a short diversion into Wareham to pick up Peter Moore. By late morning we arrived at the northerly most car park along the Slapton coast. About the first person seen was Julian Thomas who confirmed he had seen it about an hour earlier, but it had gone further North and was perhaps a couple of miles or more further away from where we were looking. Soon after that Julian spotted a tweet of it being off Blackpool Sands (close to three miles further North). Deciding the views would have been too distant from where we were, Peter & I decided to head in that direction. After a couple of miles, we found a small layby with a couple of cars in it & just enough room to squeeze my car on the end. We quickly joined a couple of other people looking, but they had not seen it. But there were Gannets feeding close in offshore & good numbers of Gulls so it was worth giving it some time, especially once I managed to get the car fully off the road when one van left. Ten minutes later we had had some short views of a Harbour Porpoise close in off the layby before it disappeared out of my line of sight around the headland.
Harbour Porpoise: Despite seeing at least four Harbour Porpoises, this ropey photo was the only photo I managed. Later in the afternoon, I saw a Harbour Porpoise fairly close to the Humpback Whale. With the large numbers of members of the public enjoying the Whale, but being pretty clueless, then I suspect this was the source of the news that the Humpback Whale was a mother with a calf
Peter & I split up to try different viewpoints as neither viewpoint allowed a huge amount of sea to be seen. The sea was choppy with breaking white waves to fool me into thinking I needed to check each new set of white waves. Then I checked one of the fresh patches of white waves & there was the Humpback about a half mile out from the layby. Not as close as I would have liked, but even on a brief view I was happy it was a Humpback Whale. I quickly call Peter & various others over, including Sue (the locally living sister of Dorset Birder John Down) & gave them directions to where I had seen it. But it had clearly gone down. After a long ten minute wait it resurfaced & was only 100 metres off shore, albeit we had to add another 100 metres of a dropping down field before the beach. But it was still close & it was on the surface & there was no time to waste to grab some photos.
Humpack Whale: The Herring Gull helps to give an idea of the size of the Humpback. Note, the scars along the side of the body
Humpback Whale: This is my third Whale species that I've seen in the UK, with three Northern Bottle-nosed Whales (two on Skye in August 98 and the Bournemouth Bay individual that subsequenlty died in Sep 2009) and two Minkes heading West along the Dorset coast at the end of a Portsmouth - Bilboa ferry trip in Aug 2000
Unfortunately, the next time it reappeared it was back about a half mile offshore again & kept reappearing in the same area over the the next 45 minutes, before we finally felt it had moved South towards Slapton again. Soon after we heard it was back off the central car park at Slapton agaIn so we headed South again.

23 Dec 2016

22 Dec 16 - Happy Christmas 2016

Just a quick seasonal photo to wish all the readers of the Blog a Happy Christmas & good break leading up to the New Year. In case any of you think a photo of a Peacock Butterfly isn't particularly seasonal, then I took this in the sunshine at Studland's Brands Bay hide on 22 Dec with the iphone camera. Peacocks overwinter as adults & potentially can fly in any of the winter months if the weather is warm enough & there is some sunshine. The first one I saw in 2015 was only a quarter of a mile away at Greenlands Farm on 16 Jan 2015.
Peacock Butterfly: Brands Bay
But being honest, the weather wasn't that typical for the date. As I write this on 23 Dec, it has just started to rain & the wind is getting steadily stronger as Dorset sees the outer edges of Storm Barbara. A more seasonal December day.

18 Dec 2016

18 Dec 16 - An Early Christmas Present (From The BOU)

This is the time of the year when the BOU often announce changes to the British List, but this year following the disbanding of the Taxonomic Sub Committee, I hadn't been expecting any interesting announcements. So I was a bit suprised to see an announcement that the BOU had added both the Dungeness Acadian Flycatcher & the Papa Westray Chestnut Bunting to the British List. With both being in Autumn 2015, I had been expecting both of these species to take a couple of years before a decision was made for either species. 
Acadian Flycatcher: Dungeness (22 Sep 15)
When news broke of an Empidonax Flycatcher at Dungeness, it didn't take me long to leave the house & I persuaded big Kent lister Marcus Lawson (who is now a Poole resident) to wait long enough to pick him up. I figured Marcus could help keep an eye on what people's thoughts were on the Flycatcher while I was driving. The good news was the first Birders didn't think it was an Alder Flycatcher, the only widely seen Empidonax Flycatcher in the UK & therefore it was a First for Britain. After checking the photos that evening & reading up on the identification, Acadian Flycatcher seemed the best option. This was confirmed within a day or two following review of the photos from the other side of the pond. I saw no reason why this shouldn't get onto the British List & ticked it at the time.
Chestnut Bunting: Papa Westray (28 Oct 15)
I took a more cautious approach with the Chestnut Bunting on Papa Westray. With a dubious record of eight previous individuals being rejected, then I wasn't immediately heading North even after the identification had been confirmed. However, after a bit of reading why the previous records had been rejected I was more tepmted to go. Six had been Spring/Summer records (an unexpected time of year) and the final two records were in September, which were considered to have been too early based upon movements through Beidaihi (North China) & Hong Kong. This was against a background of Chestnut Buntings being a regular cage Bird in those days. But the trade of Eastern Passerines is largely a thing of the past. The BOU report had said that a First Winter in October/November would be treated more favourably. This got me interested & I jumped when I saw an offer of a charter on the pager. This proved to be a great trip & is fully written up here. However, given the BOU's treatment of previous records, I decided to opt for pending the Chestnut Bunting. But now it had been added to the British List, it has been finally added to my British List taking me to 529 for (British & Ireland List) & 523 (British List). The Purple Swamphen & Dalmatian Pelican remain Pended for another rainy day (for the Swamphen & to avoid a likely removal for the latter species).

2 Oct 2016

28 Sep 16 - Joy & Sadness

In July 1989 I twitched for the first time to Shetland with Brian Field, Pete Aley & Jem Babbington for a Brunnich's Guillemot. It had been seen sitting on the cliffs in a Guillemot & Razorbill colony for a couple of weeks and justified the long distance drive to Aberdeen & the significant expense of a flight to Shetlands. The flight into Sumburgh was straight-forward & we quickly drove the 2 miles up to Sumburgh Head. Frustratingly, there had been no sign that morning as the wind had veered & was blowing onto the cliffs. We spent the whole day there, apart from a quick trip to a pub for some food that evening, before myself & some of the other Birders maintained the vigil throughout the night. The rest of my crew chose to catch some sleep: a wise move given that Brian & Pete were the drivers.

The following weekend, Brian & Pete offered me a lift back to Shetland again, but I declined that time as I couldn't justify the cost or face the trip again. On the Sunday, I was just leaving the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater at Cowden, Yorkshire, when Brian & Pete appeared on their way back from a successful return trip to Shetlands. Since that date, there haven't been a lot of chances for me to see a Brunnich's Guillemot in the UK. There was the Dec 2005 Brunnich's that hung around for about a 3 weeks stay, but I wasn't considering extreme distance twitches at the time. The next twitchable individual was the well twitched Portland Harbour Brunnich's with better shots here that stuck around for a week or so between Christmas & New Year's Eve 2013. There must have been very few Birders who wanted to see a Brunnich's that didn't have an opportunity to see that one. I was one of the few who didn't see it. Despite being only a one hour drice from my home, I was in the Andaman islands when I heard the news. With another five weeks left on the Indian trip it was clear it wasn't going to stick around.
Andaman Crake: Ample compensation for dipping Brunnich's, Chiriya Tapu, Andamans (27 Dec 2013)
I had resigned myself to a long wait for the next Brunnich's & also having to head up the Northern Isles on a very expensive trip, especially as the Dorset individual was the first mainland record to have been seen on more than one day. An opportunity to see a Brunnich's appeared to arise a bit sooner than expected when one turned up in Orkney in Jan 16: but it wasn't seen the next day. I was about to start job hunting, so with the negative news, I started circulating my CV. No sooner than the CV was on the job sites, then the phone began ringing. Several agencies interested in discussing job opportunities, followed by Dave Gibbs saying the Brunnich's was back again & offering me a lift to Orkney to see it. But when job hunting I need to stay close to the phone & laptop and had to decline the trip. I thought about a trip the following weekend, but Dave was about the last Birder to see it.

Last Sunday afternoon, I had a concerned phone call from Peter Moore (using the alternative meaning for concerned of "it's not a Tick for me, but I know you need it & you haven't got a hope of getting there before work tomorrow"). Did I know about the Anstruther Brunnich's? No I hadn't been checking the pager in the last hour as I was working at home. I quickly checked Anstruther was a small port on the mainland to the North East of Edinburgh, but a quick look out of the window confirmed there wasn't a two seater Harrier jump jet sitting in the field next to my house. With three hours of light left that would have been the only option to get there before another week of work. Monday & Tuesday dragged with regular checks to RBA confirming it was still showing extremely well in the small harbour. By Tuesday afternoon, I had made good inroads into my urgent to do work & could consider asking for a day off at short notice. Fortunately, the boss said yes. The car was already packed in the hope I could head North that evening & it was only a modest 490 miles from the Winchester office until I was pulling into Anstruther harbour about eight the following morning. A quick check to RBA confirmed it had been seen that morning, but I couldn't see anybody looking at it. Twenty minutes later I had checked the inner & outer harbours & also the bay beyond on the South side of the harbour. No sign of the Brunnich's or any Birders. Surely it must have moved out of the harbour, as there should have been other Birders. But despite being a major rarity on it's third morning, there was nobody else there. Finally, one local Birder arrived. He confirmed he had been watching it among the boats in the inner harbour the previous evening. He then headed off towards the harbour mouth which I had already checked. I headed back to the inner harbour where I picked it up swimming across the main channel. It must have been swimming between the boats as I walked past earlier that morning.
Brunnich's Guillemot: Hanging around the boats
After waving to the local Birder to indicate I had seen it, I started to watch the incredibly showy Brunnich's & to get some photos.
Brunnich's Guillemot: It spent most of the first hour asleep between two close boats. Occasionally, paddling to keep it's position between the boats. No wonder I hadn't seen it earlier
Brunnich's Guillemot: Looking more closely it was clear it was in heavy wing moult & seemed to have shed all its longest primaries
Brunnich's Guillemot: More worryingly, it also had traces of oil on its wings
Finally, it woke up, headed out into the main channel within the inner harbour & started to preen.
Brunnich's Guillemot: Showing the chinstrap
It was clear at this point, that not only was there oil on the wings, there was also oil on the breast. I was worried that it was injesting some of the oil & that ultimately that might end make it worse than it already was. Although I didn't see it feed, the local Birder said it had been actively catching small fish in the harbour the previous day.
Brunnich's Guillemot: It looked a very sad individual when it flapped its wings. The oil was quite extensive on the lower breast
Hanging around in the small harbour isn't a typical habitat for this hardy Auk & it reminded me of the Northern Bottled-nosed Whale that hung around off Bournemouth beach in Sep 09. This was another species that typically isn't seen close to land in normal circumstances, but for several days it hung around breaching & performing on the surface. Then one morning it was seen floating motionless in the water having died overnight. So I wasn't surprised to hear the Brunnich's had been found dead a couple of days after I saw it: a sad end for a great looking Auk. Having said that with over half of the UK records being found dead or nearly dead, then perhaps it isn't too suprising that it didn't survive: especially given the oil. It's a shame that there wasn't an attempt to catch it & hand it over to a local rescue centre which have experience of dealing with oiled Auks.
Pink-footed Goose: We are grateful for any Pinkies in Dorset & certainly don't expect to see sights like this 
It was great to see a couple of flocks of Pink-footed Geese fly over: one of 71 & then a smaller flock of 12.
Pink-footed Goose: You can just make out what it is
As I left the numbers of local Birders had swelling into a major twitch: The fourth Birder had just walked out of view of the camera

14 Sep 2016

28 Aug 16 - Slea Head, Ireland

After we left Inch Beach, we followed the road out to Slea Head at the far end of the Dingle. A good number of tourists had already arrived before us. We tried some seawatching from the car park overlooking the Blasket Islands, but other than a few Gannets, Fulmars & Shags, it proved quiet.
The Blasket Islands from Slea Head: The final population of the islands which had dwindled to 22 (from around 200 at the start of the century) were evacuated in 1953
Herring Gull: Adult. The locals Herring Gulls were very approachable
Herring Gull: Juv
Dave returned from exploring the nearby headland with news of a Bumblebee tick for me. So we headed down to see it. By this time, the steady breeze had dropped & the Midges had appeared in large numbers: we were all keen to see one or two quickly, before quickly escaping.
Moss Carder Bumblebee: The all yellow hairs (& lack of any black hairs) on the abdomen is one of the features. It does occur in Dorset & now I know the features will have to pay more attention to my local Carder Bumblebees
One of the great things about the West coast of Ireland is the masses of wild flowers on the verges. Unlike the UK, where wild flowers are often seen as something that needs cutting back by local councils or farmers, nobody seems to do that in Ireland to the same extend as in the UK. There were some stunning local roads full of various species of native flowers, along with large blooms of Montbretia & Fuchsias: both common garden escapes.
Montbretia: A stunning roadside verge as we headed back towards Dingle
We headed back to see the Royal Tern again & had better views for our efforts. Then it was time to start heading back towards Rosslare. As we passed Ballylongford, Paul mentioned there had been a Semi-palmated Sandpiper there on the previous day. We had no further information other than it had been in a flooded pool in a field. Deciding on a quick look, we followed some side roads down to edge of the Shannon. There was no sign of any flooded pools, but after a couple of miles we found the ruins of Carrigafoyle Castle with a causeway across to the small island of Carrigafoyle. Apparently, there were 2 Semi-Ps on the island, but it would have been hard to find the exact location without further information. But it was worth the diversion to see the castle & have a quick look at the saltmarsh.
Carrigafoyle Castle: This was built between 1490 & 1500 by the O'Connors of Kerry who appear to have made their money by a mixture of taxation of ships going up to Limerick & smuggling
Carrigafoyle Castle: This is now an Irish National Monument 
The Dunbrody: The final stop on the way to Rosslare was to photograph this modern reconstruction of an 1840's Irish famine & emigrant boat. New Ross

12 Sep 2016

28 Aug 16 - Tom Crean (Antarctic Explorer)

After first hearing the story of Shackleton's 1914-17 Antarctic Expedition, Earnest Shackleton became my all time explorer & survival hero. Shackleton's first expedition to the Antarctic was as Third Officer on Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Expedition of 1901-04. He marched with Scott & Edward Wilson to a new record of 82 degrees South.
Window celebrating the Discovery Expedition: South Pole Pub, Annascaul. I remember visiting the Discovery when she was tied up on the Thames when I was a kid. She is now berthed in Dundee having been saved for the nation
Shackleton returned to the Antarctic when he led the British Antarctic Ninrod Expedition of 1907-09. He reached 88 degrees South & his team were only 97 miles away from the South Pole before being forced to turn back. In 1911, Roald Amundsen successfully reached the South Pole, followed five weeks later by Scott's team on the Terra Nova Expedition of 1911-13. Sadly, Scott & his four companions all died on their return after reaching the South Pole.
Window celebrating the Terra Nova Expedition: South Pole Pub, Annascaul
With the South Pole reached, Shackleton & his crew of twenty-seven sailed again on the Endurance on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in August 1914. The aim was to be the first expedition to successfully cross the Antarctic continent. Due to heavier than expected sea ice, the Endurance was trapped short of her destination & was frozen in over the winter.
Shackleton's famous advert for crew: South Pole Pub, Annascaul
After eight months of being trapped, the pressure of the ice finally cracked the hull & water started to pour in. The crew were forced to abandon the ship & set up a base on the ice. After the ship sank a few weeks later, Shackleton & the crew spent two months on a large ice floe, hoping it would drift towards Paulet Island, 250 miles away where they knew stores were cached. After another couple of months, they transferred to another ice floe for another couple of months. This floe drifted to within 60 miles of Paulet Island, but they were stopped by impassable ice. The floe broke in half in April 1916 & Shackleton ordered the men to take to the three lifeboats & take to the open seas. They reached the uninhabited Elephant Island after five days at sea.
Window celebrating the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on the Endurance: Showing one of ship photographer Frank Hurley's superb photos of the Endurance, South Pole Pub, Annascaul
Ten days later, Shackleton along with Captain Frank Worsley, Second Officer Tom Crean, John sailors John Vincent & Timothy McCarthy & carpenter Harry McNish, set off in the James Caird, the strongest of the lifeboats, to sail the 830 miles to South Georgia. After fifteen days, thanks to the navigational skills of Worsley they sighted the Southern side of South Georgia. But hurricane force winds stopped them landing for another day. They landed on the unoccupied Southern side of the island. It was a further thirty two miles across the island & it took nearly two days for Shackleton, Worsley & Crean to cross the snow covered mountains, before they finally made it to the isolated whaling station at Stromness. Shackleton, Worsley & Crean entered the history books in a tale of epic survival.
Tom Crean's status: Tom Crean's Memorial Park, Annascaul
A boat was immediately dispatched to rescue Vincent, McCarthy & McNish. It was to be a longer wait for the remaining men stranded on Elephant Island & it took Shackleton three attempts over four months before they were finally rescued on 30 Aug 1916 on a Chilean boat. The whole story sounds more like the imagination of a Hollywood film than reality (although Hollywood would probably add Kate Winslet as ship's nurse & thrown in a Great White Shark attack tearing a boat in half in their usual crassness). Shackleton returned to Chile without losing any of his crew: an amazing feat. Many of his crew joined up to flight in the First World War. Timothy McCathy & Third Officer Alfred Cheetham both lost their lives at sea after being torpedoed on different ships before the end of the war.
Tom Crean's status: Tom Crean's Memorial Park, Annascaul
Tom Crean's status with two of the sled dog puppies: Tom Crean's Memorial Park, Annascaul
The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had a second ship, the Aurora which had sailed at the same time as Shackleton to lay out food depots along the second half of Shackleton's intended cross polar route. While ten of the men, including the expedition leader, Aeneas Mackintosh, were on the ice laying out the depots, the Aurora broke free of her moorings in a storm. She was unable to return after the storm due to the ice conditions. Later she became trapped in ice & drifted well away from where the men were on the ice. After a year, she finally escaped the ice and was forced to return to New Zealand. On reaching Chile & hearing the news, Shackleton left for New Zealand, where he managed to arrange a rescue expedition for the ten stranded men on the Aurora. He rescued seven of the ten men originally stranded on the ice. Unfortunately, three (including Mackintosh) had died while being stranded on the ice.
Stone from near to Shackleton's Grave: Tom Crean's Memorial Park, Annascaul
Memorial plaque: Tom Crean's Memorial Park, Annascaul
For those of you who have got this far into this story will perhaps be wondering why I've chosen to tell this story when the last couple of Posts have been about the Royal Tern twitch. Well by chance, my B&B on the night of seeing the Royal Tern was in Annascaul, which was Tom Crean birth place. He was an Able Seaman on Scott's Discovery Expedition of 1901-04. He returned to the Antarctic with Scott as a Petty Officer on the Terra Nova Expedition 1911-13. That wasn't enough for him & he sailed for the final time with Shackleton as Second Officer. Having made it home to Ireland, he spend a few more years in the navy, before returning to Annascaul & opening a pub called the South Pole pub. He ran the pub until his death in 1938 at the age of 61.
The South Pole Pub, Annascaul: Having read a bit more about the life of Tom Crean, I will have to make a return visit to Annascaul when there is an future excuse to head over to Ireland

10 Sep 2016

28 Aug 16 - Portland, Ireland

After seeing the Royal Tern, Dave, Paul & I decided to head for Inch Beach on the Dingle peninsula rather than dash for the Rosslare ferry & a return to the UK. Dave & Paul were keen to run the Moth trap they had brought & I was keen to head to any potential Birding spots on the West coast. Inch Beach is a great looking sandy peninsula that sticks out about two or three miles into Dingle Bay on the South side of the Dingle peninsula.
Inch Beach: What a stunning beach
Inch Bay
There was a good roost of Gulls on the beach, but I failed to find any interesting Gulls in the flock.
Inch Beach: Looking towards Slea Head
The drawback with Inch Bay was it was still school holidays & there is limited accommodation next to the beach. In the end, we found one room with B&B for Dave & Paul within walking distance of the beach. Dave set the Moth trap running around dusk & they were planning on an early start to check it at dawn. I ended up in the next small town of Annascaul, about five miles further up the road. My priority as sole driver, was to get a good nights sleep, rather than an early start to check Moth trap. After breakfast in my B&B, I headed back to collect Dave & Paul. They had had a good night with the Moth trap with a Portland Moth as the highlight.
Portland Moth: This appears to be the first record from Inch Beach for around fifty years & was released soon after
I had assumed this was named after Portland in Dorset, but apparently coincidentally Martin Cade caught one at the Portland Bird Obs only a few days later which is only the second island record of modern times. It is named after the Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland who was an Eighteenth century aristocrat & who had the largest natural history collection of the period.