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A Field Notebook
  Updated 1/1/70 1:00:00
Webmaster Colin Davies
Generator Blogger
Yellow-legged gull, Pennington Flash

Mid October saw the return of last winters long staying yellow-legged gull to Pennington Flash. It's now a smart 3rd winter bird and hopefully it will remain with us for the rest of the winter so that we can watch it attain full adult plumage. Thanks to John Tymon for letting me know about the bird.

Here it is in 2nd winter plumage from last winter. I wonder where it spent the summer?

It's quite an interesting bird, with a mirror on p10 reminiscent of Caspian gull and a mainly dark quite retarded bill.

It spent a lot of time catching mussels, either diving in as in this instance or stealing from coots.

Dippers at Pennington Flash

Two dippers on a brook near Leigh college were my first at Pennington Flash. Looking at the pale fringes to the tertials, I think that these birds are juveniles.

A late common tern at Pennington Flash

Finally this morning I caught up with a common tern which has been present for a few days at Pennington Flash. It's particularly of interest to me because it's my latest ever common tern, anywhere, in fact it's the first I have ever seen in October, so it was an opportunity to get a good look at it's plumage at this time of year. What makes the date even more remarkable to me is that this is an adult not a juvenile. I would have expected adults to be long gone by now, and any stragglers to be juveniles.

It was very approachable, and I wondered if it was unwell, but an angler told me that earlier it had been feeding on casters which he had been throwing into the water, and later I saw it fishing in the western bay so perhaps it's just a tame bird (extreme northern breeder??). It's also more or less still in breeding plumage, with a full black cap and quite a lot of red in the bill (I love the yellow tip!). Just a hint of a carpel bar perhaps and the dark patch behind the eye is there, despite the fact that the forehead is still black.

It seems quite short legged and pale to me, but a I'm not trying to claim anything other than common tern! Most common terns are long gone from north-west England by the end of September, and what few remain into October are almost exclusively coastal.

A dozing Scops owl, County Durham

When a Scops owl was found roosting in an elder tree at Ryhope, County Durham on Wednesday I was working and unable to respond. Scops owls are pretty small and well camouflaged, a feature which they rely on during the day when they hope to spend the daylight hours unoticed and mainly asleep in usually the denser parts of a tree. Unless a bird returns to exactly the same place to roost the following day, it is unlikely to be found again and I thought I'd missed my opportunity with this bird.

The following morning there was initially negative news. The bird was not in the same roost position as the day before. However eventually it was relocated in the same area, but roosting in a different tree. I was off work but still I didn't respond. On Friday it was not seen all day, and was in neither of the previous roost positions.

I wasn't convinced that it had gone though, I suspected that it was just roosting somewhere which was difficult to view, so on Saturday we decided to head up to Leighton Moss and wait for news. At least Leighton Moss was vaguely in the right direction and offered us some decent birding while we waited.

And so it proved.....at 10am, after seeing a decent selection of birds on the saltmarsh, osprey, little stint, merlin and great white egret, the news broke that we had been hoping for. The Scops owl was back in its original roost position in the elder tree.  Barring being flushed by an over zealous photographer, this was a twitch which almost certainly couldn't fail, because the bird was unlikely to move all day. We set off across country from Leighton Moss, and two hours later we arrived at Ryehope.

What a cracking little bird it was. Only my 3rd Scops owl anywhere, the other two were in Corfu, which, no matter how British that island may feel at times, are certainly not included on my UK list. This bird was asleep much of the time, but it did spend some time preening and stretching.

The Corfu Scops owls were one of my greatest birding experiences. I saw them with my son after a plate smashing meal out. We were walking back to our hotel at night and we came to an olive grove and watched the fire flies dancing over the undergrowth. Suddenly first one and then a second Scops owl started calling at close range. A dark shadow flew overhead and shining  my torch up into the tree I immediately hit an owl with the beam, and we watched it for several minutes until a second bird flew over to it and the pair flew away into the next olive tree. On a branch lower down we also spotted an edible doormouse.

No edible doormice around today, but whilst we were watching the owl, a 1st winter barred warbler suddenly popped up  in the next bush and sat in full view sunning itself for several minutes. Also in the bush, a spotted flycatcher.

After leaving Ryehope we headed to Hartlepool headland where we saw at least two yellow-browed warblers, my first for the year.

UK life list: 426 (Scops owl); Year 2017: 250 (Scops owl, barred warbler, yellow-browed warbler)

A St. Helens mega

A hooded crow which was found in stubble fields just east of Haydock island on Monday is only the second ever known record in St Helens and the first since March 1979. Despite being a mainly sedentary species breeding in Ireland, North West Scotland and the Isle of Man, hooded crows are occasionally recorded in north west England and more regularly in North Wales, and I've seen them on several occasions on  the Formby mosslands and fairly frequently on Anglesey. As recently as two weeks ago I saw one at Morfa Madryn near Llanfairfechan on the North Wales coast. Hooded crows in these areas tend to be coastal, probably because of pressure from territory holding carrion crows and inland hoodies are rare in our area.

The origin of these birds is unclear. Although hooded crows breeding in the British Isles are regarded as resident and sedentary there is in fact some movement of birds which may account for occurances in our area. Also some Scandinavian populations are migratory and an annual smattering of birds on the east coast of England each year probably orginate from these populations. A drift west from the east coast is a possibility and it's also possible that some of the birds in north west England and Wales are ship assisted.

The species shows clinal variation, with larger and darker birds in the north and west of Europe, and smaller and paler birds towards the south and east. This bird appears to be quite large, but it also seems quite bright and pale which is something of a contradiction if we are to seek clues to the birds provenance from its plumage. Perhaps it is the brightness of plumage which makes the bird look larger than it actually is.Note however the size of the bill and compare with the photographs at the bottom of this page.

Hooded crow does hybridise with carrion crow, but in my opinion the photographs here clearly show that there is no hint of hybridisation in this individual.

A few more hoodies for comparison.....
Here are a few other photos of hoodies from my travels. Obviously light conditions vary as does the size of individuals within a population.

Ireland, 2016. To my mind this is the closest fit to the Haydock bird, large size, pale grey, big chunky  bill.

Ullapool, north west Scotland July 2017. Hard to be sure, but this doesn't look quite such a big bird to me. Certainly pale enough though.

Paphos, Cyprus December 2014. This looks a lightweight bird with a much smaller bill.

Holyhead, Anglesey 2016. Allowing for the fact that it was pouring with rain when I took this photo, this bird looks quite dark. It also looks really small, almost jackdaw like.

The morning after the storm and an unexpected phalarope

Storm Aileen arrived overnight with west north westerly winds in excess of 70mph and at this time of year that can only mean one thing - Leach's petrels.

With high tide at the ungodly (and dark) hour of 4:45 and sunrise two hours later at 6:45, I decided that  with a high tide visit obviously out of the question, the next best thing I could do today would be get to New Brighton on the north Wirral coast for dawn. At first light petrels which have sheltered in the Mersey overnight can often be seen leaving the river and I was pretty confident that I would see a few today. Moreover I also knew that there had been a couple of grey phalaropes hanging around Fort Perch Rock for a couple of days and having already seen over 35 petrels on Monday at Hilbre, it was the phalaropes which really drew me to New Brighton.

I arrived at New Brighton at 6:55 and almost immediately picked out a couple of obligatory Leach's petrels for the day list and decided to now concentrate on finding the phalaropes. What a merry dance they lead me! First of all one flew and landed in front of a friend allowing him to fire off some great photos before disappearing minutes before I reached the spot. Then I was standing in the sea watching shelter while two other birders described a phalarope in flight which I failed to get on to. Finally I spotted two birders on the beach photographing what turned out to be a phalarope, but again by the time I got there the bird had gone.

By this time it was nearly low tide, but the petrels just kept on coming, and now they were flying incredibly close, right along the tideline and sometimes across the beach. On one such flyby, I was concentrating so much on trying to get a photo of the petrel that I completely failed to notice that it was flying directly over a grey phalarope, and I only realised that the phalarope was there when I looked at the photo nearly two hours later! And I still hadn't seen a phalarope!

Just stunning views today of Leach's petrel, with several birds flying 3m or less from us, right along the tideline and occasionally weaving in and out of the admiring birders on the beach. One of the great birding experiences of my life!

The phantom phalarope! How could I have not noticed this in the field! Mr. Observant! When I took this photo I'd been looking for grey phalarope for nearly four hours and had all but given up any hope of seeing one and I completely failed to notice this bird until I looked at the photo two hours later.

Here comes another!

Try focusing on that!

At last somebody pointed out a grey phalarope and boy it was worth the wait. What a stunning bird! An adult with a yellow base to the bill.

This has to be one of the most attractive winter plumage grey phalaropes I've ever seen, and the amount of yellow at the base of the bill is very extensive, unusually so I would say.

The seawatching shelter at New Brighton.

New Brighton lighthouse and Fort Perch Rock.

An exhilarating day with huge skies, a great day to be on the coast.

Later this afternoon I called in at Frodsham with Ray for a look at a juvenile red-necked phalarope, my second phalarope species of the day and my third in five days following a Wilson's at Alston Wetlands on Saturday.

Exorcising the demon. Rosy starling, Kendal

My first ever rosy (rose-coloured) starling was a replendent full summer plumage adult way back in August 1994, at Moelfre on Anglesey. Wonderful though that bird was, it did set the bar a bit high for all subsequent rosy starlings, and it's taken me 23 years to pluck up the courage to go and have a look at a juvenile, which I have always considered to be a bit on the dull side. Just to make matters worse, todays bird was in the middle of a housing estate, just about the worst place imaginable for birding. I always feel unwelcome, self conscious and even a little bit silly when I'm birding in amongst residential properties. However, we were in the area today so it seemed a good opportunity to exorcise the juvenile rosy starling demon once and for all. Deep breathes.....

Actually though, not a bad looking bird and easy enough to identify. Dark wings  contrasting with a paler body, short stubby bill with a yellow base.

Quite distinct, even high up on a wire.

Clearly a stubbier bill than the common starlings.

Right, let's get out of here.....
A journey around Inverpolly
Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag and Ben Mor Coigach.
Just north of Ullapool in North West Scotland lies Inverpolly, an area which I would argue is on a par with any in the UK in terms of beauty. The mountains are not the largest, but there are few more spectacular and the sea scapes are the best you will find anywhere in the UK. Here is my whistle stop tour around the area.

Loch an Eisg-brachaidh.

Loch Assynt with Suilven behind. Loch Assynt is usually a good place for black-throated diver.

Quinag. This is always a good spot for golden eagle, and today I was lucky enough to see a bird displaying spectacularly, climbing high and then dropping like a stone before roller coasting high again.

Devil's-bit scabious.

 Suilven. This is one of the most spectacular mountains, and also one of the hardest to climb, not least because of the length of the walk to the foot of the mountain. It might look spectacular, but it's only 731m or 2,400 feet high.

Lochan an Ais.

The limestone outcrop at Knockan Cliffs.

Loch Assynt with Ben More Assynt behind and to the left.

Ardvrech castle on Loch Assynt with Breabag behind. Between the two you can see the limestone cliffs of the botanically famous Inchnadamph.

Ben Mor Coigach.

Stac Pollaidh.

Achnahaird Bay. There aren't many of these sandy bays, but when you find one they are hidden gems, with lots of botanical interest and often plenty of waders.

Achnahaird Bay. Ringed plover and Dunlin.


White wagtail.

Watching Petrels (and shearwaters) in the Minch
Sooty shearwater

The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin watching boat left Gairloch at 5:15pm. We were on our way to the Burma Bank, an under water sand bank in the North Minch, between Stornoway and Ullapool. The scenary was breathtaking, worth the price of the trip alone, with spectacular views along almost the length of the Outer Hebrides, from  the Uists in the south to Lewis in the north, whilst out to the east I could see the impressive peaks of Inverpolly, Ben more Coigach, Suilvan, Cul mor, Stac Pollaidh and many more. South was hardly less impressive, with tremendous views over Skye and Torridon.

Of course I was hoping to see a few whales and dolphins, but my main reason for being on the trip was the sea birds. Petrels are always the stars of the show for me, and up here both British species breed in large numbers, though in my experience you are much more likely to see storm petrel rather than Leach's in the Minch. Today we saw both, with up to 50 stormies and a single Leach's pattering and gliding across the water on a relatively calm day by Minch standards.

Sooty shearwater
However one of the first birds we saw on our arrival at Burma Bank was a sooty shearwater. This is what I had really been hoping for today. Sooty shearwaters breed on islands in the southern hemisphere and have one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom, with the Atlantic population breeding on the Falkland Islands and migrating north in a circular root, arriving in British waters in August and September, when they are often seen around northern Scotland, including the Minch. We saw at least 30 of these birds, some coming very close to the boat.

Sooty shearwater
Obviously not a great photo, but it shows all of the relevant identification features, and it has just flown 8000 miles for its photo to be taken!

Arctic skua
Other sea birds seen included Manx shearwaters, Arctic skuas and bonxies, plus the usual gannets, kittiwakes, fulmar and auks.

The Ullapool to Stornoway ferry making its way across the Burma Bank is a good cheap way of birding these seas, the only problem is of course, it does tend to just plough straight on regardless of the birds and cetaceans. Try asking the skipper to stop because you think you've just seen a sooty.....

The Minch is a good place for seeing cetaceans and they are regularly seen from the ferry, especially common dolphins, but I also managed to see a pod of about five Risso's dolphins logging not far from the boat. Logging is the term used to describe cetaceans which are asleep and not moving on the surface. Because they were still I could clearly see the  scars on their bodies which are one of the diagnostic features of Risso's dolphins,  caused by fights with other Risso's dolphins, but also their favoured prey item, squid. The only other place I've seen these dolphins is Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire. Minke whales are also often seen at this time of year, but not on this journey.

Watching petrels at Hilbre Island

To my mind there is no finer place than Hilbre Island on a day like today, with waves crashing over the island, strong winds, squally showers and petrels, lots of petrels. Well, it was a bit more than showers really, more like torrential rain at times and I was extremely grateful and lucky to be offered the shelter of the seawatching hide for the duration of my visit. A visit over high tide means that you have to stay on the island for at least five hours with no shelter which is not to be undertaken lightly in conditions like these.

Goodness knows what it must be like to experience a hurricane with 150mph winds, but today the wind speed peaked at about 48mph and I could hardly walk into it, and the noise was just tremendous. Even in the best of weather it's about a 45 minute walk from West Kirby to Hilbre Island, but today was a struggle and when I at last reached the island at about 11am I was exhausted, yet excited, and I settled down in the hide for what promised to be a decent sea watch if the smattering of sea birds seen in the proceding days was anything to go by. Petrels were on the move, and they were the main reason for my visit.

Within minutes I'd spotted my first petrel, clearly a Leach's gliding and pattering and  gallantly battling it's way west into the teeth of the gale force wind. It had my admiration. I'd found it hard enough to walk into that wind, yet here was a bird barely the size of a starling flying headlong into it and making better progress than me.

In the five hours or so that I was watching, I counted at least 35 Leach's petrels, some close in shore, other's a long way out at sea, all heading west. There were obviously many more out there, and in fact they were still passing the hide even when I finally left at 5:15pm, two hours after high tide and six hours after I had arrived. A possible Wilson's petrel flew east halfway through the afternoon, with a flight quite unlike the Leach's petrels and a white rump which appeared to extend almost right around its body.

Manx shearwater

Gannets were passing close inshore and a few Manx shearwaters took the mickey out of me by gliding past almost without a flap, straight into the gale. Then I noticed a more powerful looking bird coming straight towards the hide.  It was obviously a large skua, but not a bonxie because it was a pale phase bird, and when it got close to the hide it veered to the west and there were the twisted spoons in the tail of a stunning barrel chested adult pomarine skua. A breathtaking moment! There were bonxies out there, and I saw at least four terrorising the gannets and other sea birds which included a steady procession of Sandwich terns and at least five, possibly 10 black terns.



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