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A Field Notebook
  Updated 1/1/70 1:00:00
Webmaster Colin Davies
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Mediterranean Gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, Leigh

There's been a cracking adult Mediterranean gull on the Leeds-Liverpool canal  for the past two weeks, between Leigh bridge and the Atherleigh way. This is undoubtedly one of the birds which roosts at Pennington Flash, but it shows a bit better here!

Overdosing on the hooded crow in Ashton

A few more photos of the hooded crow in Ashton-in-Makerfield. In bright sunlight such as today the pale grey in its plumage looks almost silvery, in fact it's a really smart bird.

When it's not on Ashton Heath the hoodie often spends time on Haydock Park racecourse when it is also in St Helens, Merseyside.

This raven flew over whilst I was watching the crow, one of six species of corvid today.
Southern Iberia including Doņana, December 2017
Description: This was a trip to Southern Iberia from 2nd December to 9th December, taking in some of the best birding areas in Europe. We flew to Faro in Portugal and hired a car to drive into Spain almost as far as Cadiz and spent two days in Doņana. In total we saw an impressive 139 species including the majority of the so called target species of the area. The main purpose of the trip however, was to experience the impressive spectacle which is winter birding in Southern Iberia!

I offer guided tours of Southern Iberia and various other localities. If this trip report inspires you to join me, pleaseclick here.

Sunday 3rd December 2017 - Ria Formosa and Quinta do Lago

Touch down Faro, Portugal at 7pm. It was dark so no birding distractions to worry about, just pick up the car, drive to the hotel and get out for some food. The following day we were out at dawn....

Ria Formosa is a great place to start a holiday to Southern Iberia. It breaks you in gently, allows you to see a few of the specialities of the peninsular, and offers up a variety of habitats, including saltmarsh, salinas, freshwater and stone pine woodland.

Today we parked near the airport and walked to Quinta do Lago, a golf resort some 2.5 miles distant. It's a decent walk offering lots of good birding.

Azure-winged magpie (and a hoopoe!)
Quinta do Lago is a great place for seeing azure-winged magpies, in fact it would be virtually impossible not to notice them flying around the greens and fairways of the San Lorenzo golf course where they are joined by the equally stunning hoopoes and offer great photo opportunities.

The magpies would land on the fairways and then fly up and hover for a moment before dropping down again, presumably on some unseen prey. Throughout the holiday we saw hundreds of these birds, in virtually every habitat except saltmarsh and salinas, but nowhere did they show better than at Quinta do Lago.

San Lorenzo lagoon
However the main reason for coming to Quinta do Lago is to visit the San Lorenzo bird hide which overlooks this freshwater lagoon. This is an outstanding place for many species, including good numbers of wildfowl, egrets and herons, ibis and swamphens.

Purple swamphens and a drake gadwall
When I first visited Iberia I thought that purple swamphens (or purple gallinules as they were called then), would be very rare, very skulking and very difficult to see. My first encounter with the species only served to confirm this belief when I had a brief back end view of a bird lurking in a reedbed. Subsequent sightings however have completely dispelled the myth!  In the correct habitat and in the correct part of the world, purple swamphens are not difficult at all, in fact they can be very obliging.

Purple swamphens
On golf courses across the Algarve, purple swamphens can be seen like this, walking across the fairways and greens, out in the open and well away from cover. This is not an unusual scene. When we get to Doņana we can expect to see 30 or 40 birds on view at any one time. They may not like close approach, but they're not skulking, not secretive and not in the least bit difficult to see. In fact you would need to work hard to fail to see purple swamphen at San Lorenzo.

Glossy ibis
Another bird which can show exceptionally well here is the glossy ibis. There are usually a few around this lagoon. They may not be in the huge numbers which occur in Doņana, but nowhere do they show better than at San Lorenzo and today we saw about eight.

Ludo salinas
The walk back to the car took us past Ludo farm and salinas where we saw the usual selection of birds that you might expect on a salina, black-winged stilts, avocets and various other waders, white storks, greater flamingos, spoonbills, egrets etc., whilst overhead was a pale phase booted eagle, marsh harriers, a black kite and at least one osprey. The rattle of the Sardinian warbler was never far away here. In hindsight, perhaps the most intriguing bird of the day was a female ring-tail harrier which flew directly overhead. Too small and long tailed for hen harrier, we initially  identified it as a Montagu's, but looking back at it I can clearly remember a pale neck collar, possibly suggesting pallid. Pallid is now annually recorded in Southern Iberia in winter, so it's not beyond the bounds of possibility but unfortunately I have no photographs so it will have to remain an unidentified ring-tail harrier.

There is also another fresh water lagoon here which in fact is the very place where I saw my first skulking swamphen way back in 1994, from a hide on stilts which is now long gone.

Ria Formosa
Ria Formosa with spoonbills in the centre of the photo
The final major habitats here are saltmarsh and estuarine. A large variety of waders occur here and today we saw grey plover, redshank, curlew, whimbrel, little stint, dunlin, sanderling and common sandpiper, whilst larger birds included many white storks, spoonbills and egrets. I've seen bluethroat here in the past, but not today.

Caspian tern
Possibly the star of the show at this time of year however, is the Caspian tern which winter here. Today we saw up to six of these huge terns fishing close to the path, allowing good photo opportunities. Also in this area we saw dartford and spectacled warblers.

Black-winged stilt
Booted eagle
Mediterranean gulls
One of the most remarkable sights of the day was this flock of Mediterranean gulls which passed overhead. There had been about 30 on the water at San Lorenzo, and I guess that some of these were from there.

Tavira at  Christmas
One of the joys of being away at this time of year is to see all of these lovely Portuguese and Spanish  towns and villages lit up with Christmas lights and decorations.

Monday 4th December 2017 - Marismas de Odiel

Marismas de Odiel is a large area of saltpans and marshes on the west side of the rio Odiel, opposite the city of Huelva. It's a good stop off place on our journey from Faro to el Rocio and Doņana, not least because it offers the possibilty of a few species which may otherwise prove difficult. Unfortunately one of these species, red-knobbed coot, we didn't connect with today, but otherwise we did ok here.

Audouin's gull
Probably the main species I wanted to see here was Audouin's gull, and fortunately a drive along the peninsular followed by a walk through the dunes produced the goods, with this fine looking adult in amongst the other gulls. Whilst walking through the dunes we also had the bonus of a stone curlew and a few Dartford warblers.

Greater flamingo
This is also a good place for seeing greater flamingos, but it's not often that they fly quite so close and it's even rarer that I manage to capture it in a photo! Normally all I would get would be its feet! Marismas de Odiel is also one of the best places for spoonbill, and other birds seen here today included southern grey shrike and a flock of 30 black-necked grebes.

Then we pressed on to el Rocio, full of anticipation for what the next couple of days might bring.

Salinas at Marismas de Odiel
Southern grey shrike
Dartford warbler

Tuesday 5th December 2017 - Doņana west of the rio Guadalquivir

el Rocio is an experience like no other. It looks like a cowboy town with wide, sandy streets lined with houses complete with broad verandas and wooden rails for tying up horses. It feels like you've arrived in a frontier town and it would be no surprise if Wyatt Earp himself walked down the street towards you. Yet in the middle of this town there is a church with the look of a cathederal which wouldn't be out of place in a major Spanish city. This is the focal point of the annualel Rocio pilgrimagewhen up to a million pilgrims arrive in the village from all over Spain.

It's also the focal point of another pilgrimage, that of birders and naturalists who use the village as a base for exploring the vast marshes, rice fields and woodlands of Doņana west of the rio Guadalquivir.

We were up early and after a quick breakfast in the Hotel Toruņo restaurant we headed for the promenade. Apart from it's quirky charm and relatively central location, the main benefit to birders from staying in el Rocio is that it is right on the edge of Madre de las Marismas, Mother of the marshes and when the marshes are wet there is often a birding spectacular to be had right from the balcony of your hotel or from the promenade.

Despite the long drought in southern Iberia this year, the marshes were full of water and a quick scan revealed flocks of greater flamingos, spoonbills, cattle egrets, little egrets, glossy ibis, and wildfowl including shoveler, teal, wigeon and greylags. A closer look revealed black-winged stilts, godwits, redshank and lapwings. A cetti's warbler called from the reedbed, stonechats were everywhere and a couple of zitting cisticolas (fan-tailed warblers in old money) flitted in and out of the reeds. Behind us spotless starlings and black redstarts were on the roofs, sardinian warblers in the bushes and white wagtails on the lawns. A lot to take in.

White-spotted bluethroat on el Rocio promenade
Suddenly a robin size bird popped up onto the fence, a stunning white-spotted bluethroat in full breeding plumage at point blank range. These birds breed in Iberia and I have seen them before in both Portugal and Spain in winter, but they don't usually look this good in December!  A cracking bird, we watched it as it occasionally disappeared under the board walk to feed before flying back to the reeds and then returning to the fence. Bluethroats are funny birds, sometimes they are very skulking, yet at other time such as this, they can be as tame as a robin.

Time to move on though, we had a lot of places to visit today, many more birds to see, and Doņana is a large area to cover with plenty of potential for getting lost resulting in wasted time!

el Rocio church
Just enough time for a little sightseeing though. We may be primarily here for the birding but it's nice to take in some of the culture and appreciate some of the architecture. It's all part of it after all.

Madonna of the Dew
Our breakfast bar
Great location for a hotel! el Rocio.

The promenade
Dawn over Madre de las Marismas del Rocio, taken from the promenade

Fan-tailed warbler (or Zitting cisticola)
Greater flamingos, el Rocio marsh.
Sardinian warbler
Spotless starling
Black stork
Today we were heading for the the Valverde centre in the heart of Doņana, not because it's any better than anywhere else in Doņana, but simply because it's a central point which offers facilities and refreshment, and also because to get to it you pass through some wonderful places and can see some great birds.

We took the scenic route, down the Corredor Verde to Canada de la Ruinzuela, through Isla Mayor and its rice paddies, past Casa de Bombas and Veta Hornito to arrive at Valverde at about 3pm. No worries though, even in December it's not going dark here until 6:30pm, so plenty of daylight left. En route we saw many great birds including a flock of 150 black-winged stilts and 50 avocets at Canada de la Ruinzuela and many white storks, egrets, flamingos, glossy ibis and black storks at Isla Mayor.

At the start of the Corredor Verde we came across two little bustards, but even they were eclipsed by the sight of two displaying black-shouldered kites which twisted and turned and danced in the air like a childs paper plane on a light breeze, before briefly locking tallons and then flying to land in a distant tree.

Cattle egrets near Casa de Bombas

Common Cranes

By the time we had reached Casa de Bombas we were beginning to see flights of common cranes, and just a mile or two past the pumping station we came across a large flock on the ground. These are always one of the highlights of a winter visit to Doņana. To see one or two or even double figures counts in the UK is one thing, but to experience a flock of 1500 or more in Doņana is quite another. It's like watching a large flock of geese, small groups are constantly flying around and their calls fill the air. Meanwhile in the background, marsh and hen harriers drifted past quartering the marshes, hundreds of white storks were dotted across the area in small groups, and other birds which barely get a mention and were largely taken for granted included 20 great white egrets, 50 cattle egrets, hundreds of crested larks, 50 buzzards, 50 kestrels and 100 corn buntings. A great spectacle.

Common cranes
Common cranes
The Valverde centre was fairly quiet for birds, as it often is in winter, but it provided some nourishment and we were ready to go again after a short break. That said, we did get some nice views of purple swamphen from the cafe as we drank our coffee, and flocks of common cranes continued to pass overhead.

However, just a mile or two past the centre we came across another flock of cranes on the ground and we decided to stop and have a proper scan over the area. This is often a good area for larks, and so it proved again as a flock of around 1000 birds contained largely calandra larks, their black underwings making them easy to pick out in flight. Closer scrutiny revealed their black collars, whilst other species in amongst the flock included lesser short-toed larks. Suddenly there was a crashing through the reeds behind us, and a huge wild boar ran past us! What an experience, I've never seen one so well!

This also seemed a good spot for hoopoes because there were several on view, whilst the ubiquitous marsh harriers, buzzards and kestrels provided the background entertainment. And still more flocks of cranes flew over calling.....

One of the features of the holiday was the large numbers of chiffchaffs. Theye were everywhere, in the woods, in the marshes in the reedbeds, alongside the rice paddies, from Quinta do Lago in Portugal to the furthest point we travelled to in Spain. Everywhere! At first we had a go at identifying them to species and managed to pick out both common chiffchaff and Iberian chiffchaff on plumage and call. However after a while we gave up, we were seeing hundreds of chiffchaffs everyday and identifying everyone to species level was way down our list of priorities! Please just accept that there were a lot of chiffchaffs everywhere!

Isla Mayor
Night heron in the Corredor Verde
White storks
White storks and spoonbills at Isla Mayor

Wednesday 6th December 2017 - Doņana east of the rio Guadalquivir
A journey over to the east bank of the rio Guadalquivir from el Rocio is a longish drive of up to 180km, but it is well worth it. Today we headed first for the furthest point on our itinary, Bonanza saltpans and the freshwater lagoon of Laguna de Tarelo. I like this lagoon because it offers the possiblity of several species which can be quite difficult to find elsewhere, and it's a different type of birding to the rice fields and marismas which dominate much of Doņana. If you like, it's a softer, gentler type of birding.

It's no less exciting though! Within minutes of leaving the car we were walking through a stone pine woodland and overhead we were glimpsing hirundines between the pines which surely were crag martins? While we were trying to get a decent view of these to confirm the identification, suddenly a swift shot overhead. Was that a pallid swift? It looked brown. We moved towards a clearing in the woods to try to get a better view. There was another swift. Yep, pale throat it's a pallid. Hang on though, that was more than pale it was white..... and it's got a white rump! Now panic set in, was it white-rumped swift or was it little swift? Either would be good, both are rare breeding birds in Andalucia but I wasn't expecting either of them in winter. Unfortunately the bird had gone, disappeared over the trees as quickly as it had arrived.

Little swift??
There was a viewing screen ahead which overlooked the lagoon. We should be able to see more sky from there and the birds might be feeding over the water. Almost ignoring the white-headed ducks on the water and allowing ourselves no more than a cursory glance at a firecrest flitting around in the pines, we continued to look to the skies. Over the next few minutes we saw many crag martins and swallows, a single red-rumped swallow, a house martin, a few pallid swifts and we were able to confirm that there were indeed at least two swifts with white rumps flying around and their squared off tails immediately identfied them as little swifts. And relax....

Little swift is the rarer of the two swifts with white rumps in Spain, at the time of writing known from just a single colony with scattered single nests elsewhere. It's estimated that about 30 pairs breed in Spain, so a pretty decent find in the middle of December.

Definately little swift!
Little swift
Now we could take the time to have a look over the water, where we discovered a nice flock of 34 white-headed ducks intermingled with common pochard and red-crested pochard. In the bushes at the side of the lake we counted at least 40 roosting night herons, a pale phase booted eagle flew overhead whilst in the distance an osprey hovered over unseen water beyond the lagoon. Great stuff. We ate our lunch, had a quick look at Bonanza saltpans and then headed back north towards Seville. Our second major destination of the day was Brazo del Este, one of the top birding destinations in Doņana, and we were keen to get there as soon as possible.

White-headed ducks
Red-crested pochard

Brazo del este is an incredible birding experience. No words or photographs or list of birds seen can do it justice. You can only know what it is like by being there. The approach to Brazo del este is fairly uninspiring, through miles of farmland, but gradually it gets better and better until you reach the river and turn north. Now the rice paddies are in front of you and if you're lucky enough to be here at harvest time you'll really understand why this is considered to be one of the greatest birding experiences there is.

Job done for the season. A rice harvest tractor is moved back to storage.
Just part of a flock of 10,000 glossy ibis!
If your only experience of glossy ibis is twitching the occasional bird or two in the UK then it's hard to comprehend what a flock of 10,000 glossy ibis looks and sounds like. From a distance it's almost as if there has been a large spillage of oil over the fields. The air is full of their calls and flocks are flying in to join the masses all of the time and from all directions. It's just staggering. Other birds are here as well, white and black storks, spoonbills, egrets, gulls and waders, but it's hard to avert your gaze from the glossy ibis spectacular. It's just mesmerising.

Glossy ibis

And still more glossy ibis kept arriving!
Black stork, almost overlooked in the excitement
Black-winged stilt
Eventually we had to move on in anticipation of still more great birding experiences ahead of us. Just a mile or two from the ibis spectacular, we arrived at Brazo del este. There was a black and white haze on the water.....

Part of the flock of at least 1000 black-winged stilts.
Individually black-winged stilts are beautiful birds. Imagine then how a flock of over 1000 looks! Quite spectacular would be an understatement. Every now and again they flew up in panic from some real or imagined unseen predator before settling again, whilst in the reeds in the background around 200 purple swamphens were flying around or feeding or just perched up on top of the reeds. How do the reeds support their weight? In just one small patch of reedbed I counted 40 swamphens in one quick scan. In the distance there was a circling flock of 20 marsh harriers, and ibis, egrets, storks and ducks constantly flew past. A red kite circled overhead.

Barn owl
Still there was no let up to the excitement, as we left Brazo del este we drove past rice paddies which held thousands of waders, mainly dunlin and we spotted a barn owl on the ground, a magnificent bird and a great way to end the day. What a day! Was it really just one days birding?

Thursday 7th December 2017 - Sierra de Aracena

After a final goodbye to Madre de las Marismas we left the marshes and rice paddies behind and set off into the mountains for a different, less intensive kind of birding. The next two days were to be spent targeting some enigmatic species which just can't be found in Doņana.

We drove towards the mountains of Aracena and passed pylon after pylon with white stork nests, some with as many as seven nests per pylon. Cattle egrets were everywhere and red kites and buzzards hunted the fields.

Black vulture
As soon as we got into the mountains proper we started to see vultures and the first two we saw were our main target species, black vultures, these days also often called monk or cinereous vultures. Magnificent birds, they obliged by circling quite low overhead for several minutes allowing us to see them in great detail, even including their diagnostic yellow feet. It's not everyday you see a vulture well enough to determine the colour of its feet!

At a second stop we came across a large group of mainly griffon vultures which stretched away into the distance, with at least 100 birds circling. These were a bit more distant, but the closest two birds were black and griffon vultures which circled together and provided a great comparison between the two species.

Several further stops produced more vultures as well as many woodland species which were common but new for the list, including short-toed treecreeper and best of all a new Spanish tick for me in the form of a woodcock which I flushed from a wooded stream as I searched for salamanders.

It was dark when we arrived at our hotel overlooking the rio Guadiana and the hilltop village of Mertola.

Black vulture
White storks on nests
Mertola at night - the view from our hotel
Seriously, is there a better view from a hotel anywhere?

Friday 8th December 2017 -The plains of the southern Alentejo

The rolling plains of the Alentejo stretch for mile after mile after mile. It seems like every telegraph pole has a storks nest and every storks nest has a small colony of Spanish sparrows. In summer Montagu's harriers and black kites quarter the fields and great spotted cuckoos harass the azure-winged magpies.

As we drove through this arid landscape we spotted another black-shouldered kite sitting on a telegraph post and every wire had a southern grey shrike or an azure-winged magpie.

Great bustards
This is the best area in Portugal for bustards, particularly great bustard and it's one of the easiest place to see them..... if you know where to look! Fortunately we knew exactly where to look and came across a flock of about 30 birds today.  I have seen great bustard close to the road in this area on previous visits, but generally they are quite timid birds and usually slowly walk away from you even at quite a distance. Even today in mid December heat haze was a bit of a problem, but in spring or summer it can make viewing virtually impossible unless you're prepared to be there early morning, and at that time of year the height of the vegetation can cause further problems.

While we were watching them we also kept seeing small groups of distant black-bellied sandgrouse flying around, easily identifiable but frustratingly brief and distant. Eventually though a flock of 50 sandgrouse flew low right over our heads allowing us to see every detail.

Great bustards
Common Cranes
There are plenty of common cranes in this area in winter, and at various places along the route we could hear them and it sounded like there were quite a few, but these three were the only cranes we saw today.

Sharp-ribbed salamander
Despite the impresssion of a dry, arid landscape, there are damp areas and ponds, and a bit of searching in these areas can occasionally be productive as it was today when we found this sharp-ribbed salamander.  This is a species which is endemic to Iberia. Winter is generally the best time of year for seeing amphibians in the Mediterranean though they do wait until the rains before they become active and  at the time of writing it had barely rained for six months following a summer with temperatures reaching 50'C, so unsurprisingly there weren't that many amphibians around during our stay this week.

Thekla lark
This area is also good for Thekla lark and today we saw several, including this one obligingly sitting on a fence alongside the car. Apart from anything else, note the clearly convex base to the lower mandible which is a feature of thekla lark and seperates it from the very similar crested lark. Several other features also make this a thekla lark, including the heavy streaking on the chest and flanks on a white base colour, dark streaked ear coverts and white eye ring and white eye stripe. What isn't obvious from these photos is the habitat, which is arid, stoney hillside, classic thekla lark habitat rather than crested lark, though it should be noted that the latter do occur here and so care is needed when claiming thekla lark.

Thekla lark
Thekla lark
This is a different thekla lark to that above, but all of the same criterea apply, though it's perhaps not such a classic thekla. Once again though, note the convex base to the lower mandible, probably the most important feature in identifying the species.

The Mertola lesser kestrel nesting colony on the far side of the ria Guadiana from the hotel swimming pool!
Our hotel at Mertola had spectacular views overlooking the ria Guadiana and Mertola. Of particular interest to me was the great view you got from the hotel of the lesser kestrel colony on the other side of the river. Not particularly relevant to this trip because there are no lesser kestrels about in winter, but a good selling point for future trips at the correct time of year?

Homes for lesser kestrels

Saturday 9th December 2017 - Quinta do Lago revisted

Our flight was in the evening so we had opportunity for a full days birding and decided to spend it back at Quinta do Lago and San Lorenzo. After a hectic week it was a chance to catch up with any missed photo opportunities.

Waxbills - Photo Mike Brown

Azure-winged magpie
Kentish plover
On the estuary we came across a few Kentish plovers which were new for the trip, and on the same mud flats we found a nice group of fiddler crabs.

Male and female fiddler crabs
Purple swamphen

Purple swamphens. The perfect end to a great trip!
If you have enjoyed this trip report and would like to know more about how you can join me on a future trip, pleaseclick here.
Caspian Gull, Pennington Flash gull roost
Caspian Gull

Day after day of doing the gull roost and a long day at the flash today in the freezing cold was finally rewarded with this fantastic bird...... and I saw it as well!

I was out and about on a non-birding mission when I got the call from John Tymon to inform me that he had found a 2nd winter Caspian gull in the roost from Green Lane at Pennington Flash. It was 16:15, nearly ten minutes past sunset. Could I get there, what chance did I have?? Only one way to find out, I set off for Green Lane, but no time to go home for the binoculars or the telescope, I didn't even have my coat, my hat or my gloves. All I had was enthusiasm and hope.

I pulled up alongside John, who thankfully was still there and he let me view the bird through his scope and take these few photos. Only at that point did I realise how cold it was and I decided that I'd done all that I could so I got back in the car and headed home. The light had completely gone, I had no optics, I had no warm clothing.

This is only the second ever Caspian gull at the flash, both found by John and both also seen by me!  It's clearly a different bird to the first which we saw just before Christmas, because unlike todays bird the first had a glaucous gull like bill, pink with a black tip.

The scoter experience, North Wales

A favourite day out of mine at this time of year is a trip to the North Wales coast where one of the the highlights is the opportunity to view the scoter flocks which feed offshore. I know that this isn't everybodies cup of tea due to the often extreme viewing distance and the difficulty in picking out individual birds, but I just love the shear spectacle of thousands of black ducks on the water and the challenge of finding something good.

However more on that subject later, because on arrival at Llanddulas today and before we got the scopes out to look through the scoter, we headed 200m down the beach from the car park to the mouth of the river Dulas where for a few days there has been a glaucous gull feeding on the carcass of a harbour porpoise.

No matter how many glaucous gulls I see, and this was about my fifth this year, I never tire of seeing this magnificent gull, the second largest in the world after great black back.  This year has been exceptionally good by recent standards, because often these days I can go a year or two without seeing glaucous gull and I would consider Iceland gull to be the commoner of the two white winged gull species.

This bird might be in the first winter of it's life, but technically it is not in 1st winter plumage. Due to their very late moult, Glaucous gulls do not have a true 1st winter plumage, just varying degrees of worn juvenile plumage. This bird is in juvenile plumage.

Viewing the scoter flocks off the North Wales coast can often be difficult and uncomfortable. They are usually so far out that 60x magnification is required and if there is any kind of wind it can make viewing very difficult. With just binoculars you could walk past a flock of 10,000 birds and not even notice that they were there.

Uncomfortable and difficult though it may be, watching a distant feeding flock of scoter is one of the great birding experiences in my opinion, they're just an awesome spectacle. Sometimes the whole flock flies 500m like a giant shadow over the water, before dropping down, and then the birds at the rear take up again and fly to the front, and they keep repeating this, almost as if none of them want to be at the back. Just as when watching a starling murmuratrion, it is the whole rather than the individual that impresses.

However out on the sea today there were no huge concentrations to admire, just a few hundred common scoter which were a little closer than usual. Scanning through the flock with the bright sunshine directly behind us we were able to easily pick out two stunning drake surf scoters, still a good way out, but at least on 60x we could see plenty of detail on their heads. Then suddenly they flew, and we had two drake surf scoters flying directly towards us with a couple of hundred common scoter before they dropped in again. Not always easy to see, they could go missing for several minutes at a time in the swell, but when they did show they were a very decent scope view.

Photography was very difficult of course, they bobbed up and down so much and even when they were in view I still couldn't see them through the view finder, it was just click and hope in the general direction of where they were last seen. No change there then!

I could barely feel my toes they were so cold, and even with multiple layers on it felt icey. We retired to Conwy RSPB for a brew and a piece ofBara brith, and then after a failed search for a firecrest we were ready to talk scoter again! We headed back along the coast to another great spot, Pensarn at Abergele. Once again we failed to find any huge concentrations of scoter here, just a few hundred birds, but they seemed even closer than those at Llanddulas so we unloaded scopes and had a look.

Within a couple of minutes of scanning we had found two drake surf scoters, and a further scan to the right revealed another two. At least six drake surf scoters for the day, not a bad result, and we hadn't even found 95% of the scoter flocks. How many more must there be out there? Difficult enough to pick out the stunning males, it would be reasonable to assume that there are likely to be at least as many females and juveniles which go largely unnoticed in the flocks! I have seen females from this coast but not singularly, they are easiest to pick up when you find a couple of displaying males accompanying them.

We had just enough daylight left in the day to call in at Kinmel Bay near Rhyl where a couple of snow bunting obliged by showing exceptionally well.

Desert wheatear, Whitby
Desert wheatear

We travelled through snow and ice across the wild North Yorkshire Moors to the beautiful coastal harbour town of Whitby. Hard to believe as we crossed this bleak and hostile landscape that our target was a bird which breeds in the equally harsh yet meteorologically opposite arid steppe and desert zones in North Africa and the Middle East. Desert wheatear is a regular, annual, late autumn / early winter visitor to the UK, though goodness knows why. It should be wintering on the edge of some desert in Africa or south west Asia, yet here it is, the picture of health, thriving on a coastal footpath on the east coast of the UK, a region notorious for it's icey winds and certainly not noted for its desert like habitats. Nor is this bird a one off, in fact it was the second desert wheatear I have seen between Christmas and New Year on this stretch of coast in recent years.

Desert wheatears can be very approachable, but this bird was exceptionally so, often landing within  3 or 4 feet of us. As seems to be the norm these days, meal worms were being thrown onto the footpath to keep the bird in its favoured area for the benefit of photographers. I can't say that I'm in favour of this behaviour. It's often justified by asking"what's the harm in feeding birds?", well that may be a valid point if the food is being left to help the bird through the hardships of winter, but not if it's just to help photographers get better pictures. Providing the food may actually delay the birds departure and make it more susceptible to a lack of natural food and even harsher conditions deeper into the winter when the photographers have taken their fill of pictures and no longer provide the meal worms.

After we left Whitby we headed for Flamborough Head, and near Buckton we screeched to a halt when Ray spotted this large falcon on the telegraph post. It looks very like a grey morph gyr, but it's actually an escaped falconers hybrid which has been in the area for a couple of weeks.
A strange gull roost
Iceland gull, 2nd winter

A strange gull roost at Pennington Flash this afternoon, for a long time there seemed to be more birders than birds, with 10 scopes looking out over the flash where the only birds present were a handful of very distant large gulls in Ramsdales and 50 or so black-headed gulls coming to bread even more distantly on the car park.

Then at 16:25, and with the centre of the flash still flat calm and devoid of gulls, the fog rolled in and we could see even less and with sunset at 16:28, the afternoon seemed to be over. Miraculously though after a 5 minute white out the fog lifted, and though there were still very few birds compared to some roosts, a flock of a few hundred black-headed gulls and perhaps a couple of hundred large gulls was revealed quite close to us.

Scanning through the flock in what little daylight remained we managed to pick out the 2nd winter Iceland gull, 3rd winter yellow-legged gull, adult Mediterranean gull and best of all my first ever roosting adult winter little gull. Of course I have seen this species at the flash before, usually on early spring passage in March or April, but I've never actually managed to see one in the roost before so a decent night all round. No sign of the now regular Caspian gull, but it may well still be around. Three different species of white winged gull in the same roost, it's a pity that a glaucous gull didn't turn up to complete the set. Surely that really would have been a Pennington Flash record!

Yellow-legged gull, 3rd winter

Mediterranean gull. This photo of the long staying adult was taken on 23/12/2017, its hood is a little more complete now.
A week at the roost 27th January - 2nd February 2018
Caspian gull -Đ John Tymon

Another week at the Pennington Flash gull roost and not much has changed except that gull numbers have gone down considerably, especially the larger gulls. The Caspian gull is still around, seen on four out of seven nights and the Mediterranean gull was seen most nights. The Iceland gull has become very intermittent, only seen on three nights this week and even the yellow-legged gull has become unreliable and a bit more difficult.

When the Caspian gull does appear it can come in quite close and sometimes relatively early, as can be seen from John Tymons excellent photos here. Although at a distance its bill still seems quite dark, in fact at close range it now has a distinctly pink base.

Caspian gull -Đ John Tymon

Caspian gull -Đ John Tymon

Mediterranean gull

Yellow-legged gull

Argentatusherring gull with pale primaries

Glaucous gull, Hollingworth Lake

For the past week or two there has been a very obliging juvenile glaucous gull at Hollingworth Lake, near Rochdale in Greater Manchester. I've put off going to see it for a number of reasons, not least because I don't like the place and the traffic can be very bad in that area, but also because I didn't really want to see the bird surrounded by the massed ranks of photographers no doubt trying to feed it meal worms or fish and chips or some such thing. However having heard one or two encouraging and reassuring reports, today I finally succumbed, and when Elaine announced that she'd liked to go for a walk, I suggested Hollingworth Lake.

The bird is showing very well at close range,  though fortunately when it lands on its favoured jetty it's not too close. There is a 2m high gate which prevents photographers trying to get a photograph of its eyeball on macro focus.

Of course with my little camera I'm unlikely to be able to add much to the plethora of photographs which are already out there, but I'm still quite pleased with my efforts, especially these with the canoes going past. I can't decide which of the two photos I like best, the top one is a better balanced photo I think, but the bottom one has the name of the lake on the boat which is good.

Always nice to get a sharp open wing shot. I think this is probably about the whitest looking glaucous gull I've ever seen. Glaucous gulls don't moult for the first time until they are well into their second year, so this bird is still in its juvenile plumage, but it's probably a lot whiter now than it was six months ago due simply to feather wear. That said, the feathers visible on this photo don't look particularly worn, especially when compared say to theHeuglin's gulls I've previously seen in Cyprus in December 2016oragain this year in January.

Fieldcraft tip No.1: If you want to get a  really close up photograph of a gull, make friends with a  likely looking mother and child and eventually they'll start chucking bread in.

I'm not happy about this photo, it breaks one of the unspoken rules which apply to all high arctic species.  Never allow yourself to be photographed sandwiched between a Canada goose and a mallard. The bird is an embarrassment. Six months ago it was likely stealing food at a polar bear kill, but now this! Complete lose of credibility.

The sun can be a curse as much as a blessing with such a white bird as this. Really a bright cloudy day is better, I just about got away with it in this photo. Don't ignore the common gull in the background, what a cracker! I haven't accidentally drawn a red line across these photos by the way, that's some kind of rope thingy on the jetty. No idea what, but it certainly adds colour.

Hooded crow, Ashton-in-Makerfield

This morning I called in for another look at the hooded crow at Ashton-in-Makerfield. It was my first visit to the site since last Wednesday when I had a run in with a photographer which left me a bit disillusioned and depressed. I didn't even leave my car today, I simply pulled up at the side of the grass, with the sun behind me, put the window down and waited. After a few minutes the bird duly obliged and landed just a few metres from my car and I was able to take a few photos without chasing it or causing any disturbance. Eventually it was inevitably flushed by a photographer who decided to walk straight across the grass towards it, at which point the bird flew up into the trees and I left. No doubt this chap got some half silhouetted shots of a bird looking down from a tree, appearing harassed and afraid, which he's probably filed away under the heading wildlife photographs. Meanwhile, I'll have to content myself with these photos of the bird on the ground, looking relaxed and natural.

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