BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 1

Last weekend I was incredibly lucky to be able to attend the BTO Bird Camp that took place between 26th-28th May based at the BTO headquarters at The Nunnery in Thetford. For young birders aged between 12 and 18 it is a superb opportunity for the future of birding and ornithology to meet like-minded individuals of the same age and to see some fantastic wildlife.

This series of blog posts will be split into 3 parts as I have a lot to write about! This first part will give an introduction to the Bird Camp – including information about the BTO and the sponsors of the event the Cameron Bespolka Trust – and the first evening. In the second part I will talk about the birds and the moths and in the final part I will talk about the brilliant range of dragonflies, some scarce, that we saw.

I am very grateful to the BTO – British Trust for Ornithology – for organising this event. This is the second year this event has been running, and reading the trip reports from last year’s camp I couldn’t wait to apply and fortunately my application was successful. Along with this event the BTO run many others to develop skills in bird identification and nest recording among others. I believe that these events are really important to ensure that our birds are better understood.

Many of the events that the BTO run are intended to improve the public’s skills in bird surveying, often with a particular survey or census in mind. The BTO run many nationwide surveys to improve the knowledge of Britain’s bird life. These include the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). The BTO is an excellent organisation without which our ornithological fauna would be less well understood and the Bird Camp would not have taken place.

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One of my Cuckoo photos from Thursley Common a couple of weekends ago. The BTO run a Cuckoo tagging project in order to find out more about the lives of these birds, which you can read about here: https://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking

As well as the BTO I am very grateful to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for sponsoring the event. Cameron Bespolka was an enthusiastic young birder who was tragically killed in a skiing accident a few years ago, and the trust was set up in memory of him. The trust’s main aim is to inspire young people to enjoy birds and nature. As well as sponsoring this camp, they have done lots of work here and abroad to help young people get interested in the environment around them. You can read more about Cameron, the trust and their aims on their website: http://www.cameronbespolka.com/

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The camp that I had been looking forward to for so long finally came around last Friday. After a 3-and-a-half hour journey to south Norfolk I arrived at just before 6pm shortly after which we had dinner and an introduction to the camp. We also did a little bit of birding around the Nunnery – we recorded a number of common species such as Jay and singing Blackcap. I even had a brief flight view of a Green Woodpecker and an Oystercatcher flew over as well which I wasn’t expecting. Slightly later on we heard a Tawny Owl respond to Louis Driver’s clever wooden owl whistle!

Most of us had an early night to rest before the 4.30 wake-up some of us had! It was clear that there was lots of great birding to come…

 

 

Summer migrant at last!

The weather last weekend certainly suggested that spring had sprung and the many signs of the changing seasons about such as flowering Wood-Sorrel and active Bee-Flies supported that fact. However despite the beautiful sunny weather, by yesterday morning I was still yet to see a summer migrant this year!

Early yesterday morning I spent over an hour at the beautifully serene and calm Hedgecourt Lake waiting for a particular species I was hoping to see arrive. Ospreys are apparently seen here every spring and autumn when they travel through on their way to their more northerly breeding grounds. However I have never seen a single one here.

The previous evening (Saturday) not one but two Ospreys were reported nearby at Weir Wood Reservoir just as the sun was setting at 18:30. I was hoping that they would carry on their migration northwards earlier this morning and arrive at Hedgecourt, which is the nearest large waterbody to the reservoir. That is the main reason why I was up nearly at dawn getting ready to wait for one to appear.

Unfortunately I didn’t have any luck with the Ospreys at Hedgecourt although there were some other nice birds about around the lake, with many singing Chiffchaffs, a displaying Sparrowhawk and a male Mandarin which flew in.

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Upon arrival back home I heard news that a couple of nice summer migrants had been seen at Weir Wood Reservoir while I had been at Hedgecourt. These were an Osprey, possibly one of the two there yesterday, and a Little Ringed Plover. Encouraged by this news we decided to head to Weir Wood Reservoir to see if we could see either of these birds ourselves.

Weir Wood Reservoir is quite a large reservoir and the whole reservoir cannot be seen from just one viewpoint. Therefore most people visit both ends of the reservoir, the West end and the Dam end. The West end was where we visited first and where the Ospreys were seen yesterday evening and this morning.

Despite the large number of birders at the car park there were few interesting birds to be seen and certainly no Ospreys. According to one of the birders there, Alastair Gray, they can remain well-hidden during a lot of the day simply perched in the trees beside the reservoir and only become noticeable when they set out to fish most commonly in the early morning and late afternoon. They don’t like to fly a lot unnecessarily as it really upsets the local crows which harass the Ospreys until they land! However there was an immature male Goldeneye amongst a group of Great Crested Grebes which was my first of the year.

After searching for hidden Ospreys unsuccessfully we then moved on to the dam end to look for the Little Ringed Plover. The walk up to the dam wall was alive with the song of many Chiffchaffs and the blossoming Blackthorns were full of life. There were a pair of Pied Wagtails on the grassy bank of the dam and a Grey Heron flew overhead.

After walking along the dam wall for a little while to my relief the Little Ringed Plover came into view. It was small and slender, moreso than its relative the Ringed Plover, and was feeding right on the water’s edge. I was able to get quite close, up to a distance of about 10 feet, and from there I was easily able to observe its distinguishing features. To separate Little Ringed from Ringed Plover, the easiest feature to see is the colour of the bill. Little Ringed Plovers have an entirely dark bill whereas Ringed Plovers have a bill with an orange base and a dark tip. Also,  if you are close enough, you might be able to see the yellow eye ring of a Little Ringed Plover which is a feature absent in Ringed Plovers.

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The Little Ringed Plover

Although Little Ringed Plovers are regular breeders in England and Wales in the modern day, they first bred as recently as 1938. Their expansion across southern Britain is partly due to the creation of man-made habitats perfect for breeding such as water-filled gravel pits. Now over a thousand pairs of these small waders arrive here each spring to leave again in late June/July.

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I am pleased that I have now managed to find my first ‘proper’ summer migrant of 2017. Over the coming weeks, migration is set to pick up as winds become favourable and it becomes warmer. Hopefully I will soon be waking up to the song of Blackcaps and Willow Warblers!

Twit.

Yesterday I found myself lying down on an edge of a crater-sized hole by the side of the River Cuckmere, with my binoculars pointing down at a tiny, drab, little brown job scurrying about amongst dead grass and plant matter. Streaked brown all over, it resembled a small mouse creeping about feeding on minuscule seeds. The only bit of colour on the whole bird was its tiny yellow bill which would open occasionally to emit its single-noted ‘twit’ call from which the bird’s name ‘Twite’ derives.

Twite are usually gregarious birds in winter, feeding among plants along the coast before returning in Spring to their breeding grounds in the moorland. They are most commonly found between October-March on the east coast of England, where British breeding birds meet continental birds in saltmarshes and other coastal habitats. They are only rarely encountered South of Suffolk nowadays despite there  having been a regular wintering population on the Swale in North Kent in the past. They are therefore real rarities in south coast counties such as Sussex and they have appeared to be declining too.

Before the 1990s, double-figure counts were annual phenomena. However between 1990 and 2000 they were only rare occurrences. Now they have declined so much in Sussex that the last record on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page prior to 2017 was of a single bird with Linnets at Pagham in November 2013.

This particular Twite was first discovered in a patch of brambles along the River Cuckmere, East Sussex on the 5th of February. I was expecting it to be only a short-staying bird and that it would disappear soon. However it was seen regularly until the 15th February. For a period of 5 days after that it was looking like it had left with no news reported on the Sussex Ornithological Society’s sightings page.

Fine weather in Sussex allowed us to visit the Seven Sisters Country Park, and I took the opportunity of making a short walk to the coast through the marshlands of the Cuckmere river delta with no prior thought of seeing the Twite.

However the route we took happened to pass the site where the bird had been frequenting. Only about 30 seconds after arriving at the crater-like hole in the riverbank where the bird had been seen previously, I noticed a tiny bird fly up to perch on a large unidentified object which could have been a large piece of Styrofoam packaging. It proceeded to drink from a hole in the odd object while I managed to get good views of the bird through my binoculars. Small size; brown, streaky appearance; yellow bill… it had to be the Twite!

After allowing me to get some photos of it in the open it flew back down into the dead plant matter and continued to feed only 5-10 metres away from me. Despite its amazingly effective camouflage I was able to watch the bird well for quite a long time. It appeared to be oblivious to my presence and wasn’t wary at all, which surprised me for such a small and vulnerable finch. It felt like a great privilege to be able to get such close views of this Sussex rarity.

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Feeding amongst the dead grass and plants

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Drinking from the unidentified object

Here you can find a short video of the Twite:

A Starling Weekend

On Saturday afternoon, I headed to Hedgecourt Lake to see what might have been blown in on the storm the previous week. I have encountered several normally coastal species at Hedgecourt over the last year, for instance Slavonian Grebe and Scaup. Being the largest semi-natural waterbody in South-east Surrey it appears to be a magnet for seabirds blown in from the coast. Unfortunately there was not much in the way of scarce species, however an Egyptian Goose on the roof of the floating pontoon was a welcome surprise. I believe they frequent the lake but I have never been able to catch up with one here. They aren’t native to the UK, they were brought here for ornamental collections and quite a few escaped. There is now a stable breeding population in the UK, mainly concentrated in East Anglia however they could be seen throughout the country.

While watching the goose, I heard a whoosh above my head. I looked up and I was slightly surprised to see a flock of around 100 Starlings making their way to the other end of the lake. It appeared that one of the most iconic Hedgecourt events of the winter was beginning: a Starling murmuration! Plenty of other similar-sized groups of Starlings soon joined and several thousand were swarming above the icy waters in just a few minutes. The noise was immense – every Starling was calling to their companions, creating a sound that carried all the way across the lake.

Although the main murmuration had taken place at the far end of the lake the whole flock was beginning to fly straight towards us. The tightly-knit group made several quick flybys. Every one of the many thousand birds passed over us in just a few seconds leaving nothing but the plops in the water as they lightened their load.

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Once these amazing aerial displays were finished the Starlings poured into the reedbed closest to us. An endless stream of birds flew into the reedbed for minutes on end, they never seemed to run out. Soon around ten thousand birds were flying around and settling in a reedbed that is only a fifth of a hectare in size. Again, the noise was truly spectacular! Starlings often use murmurations to exchange information about the top places to find food, one of the hot topics would have been the best feeding spots.

Reedbeds are excellent habitats for many different species, a variety of different invertebrates, plants, mammals, fungi, fish and of course birds utilise them in many different ways. I was sure that these Starlings filling up the reedbed in their droves would push something out… and I was correct! Firstly a Kingfisher shot out like a bullet and crossed to the Alders on the other side of the lake and secondly a magnificent Bittern flew on deep, pounding wingbeats to a farther reedbed. This was my first here this winter. They are winter visitors to much of Britain including Hedgecourt; however around a hundred pairs do breed, mainly in East Anglia.

Unfortunately, the Starlings soon began to quieten down. The light was fading fast and the lake was beginning to freeze over once more. On Sunday morning they would wake up again, stream out of the reedbed and visit the most popular feeding areas. Then that same evening they would do it all again …

That evening, just after the murmuration, I heard news of an immature Starling that was being seen in a garden in the busy town of Crawley. But this wasn’t just an ordinary Starling! This particular Starling had become lost on its migration and somehow arrived in rainy Sussex having come from somewhere between the steppes of Eastern Europe or Western Asia and its wintering area in the Indian subcontinent! It was in fact a Rose-coloured Starling!

Rose-coloured Starlings are closely related to ‘our’ Common Starlings. However they are easy to separate, more so in adults. Even juveniles like this one can be told apart without much scrutiny. Adult Rose-coloured Starlings in their breeding attire are very beautiful birds, their plumage an equal mix of pink and black. Their breast and back are pink, along with their bill and their legs. They have black wings, tail and vent along with a glossy black head which often shows a long crest drooping down the nape. Non-breeding adults aren’t much different, however the pink colouration is dirtied by a grey-brown, the crest is shorter and stubbier and the black colouration on the head and flanks becomes scaly and vermiculated.  Juvenile Rose-coloured Starlings are similar to juvenile Common Starlings, however significantly paler. The main distinguishing feature, however, is the pale-yellow base to the bill.

This particular individual had been seen in a suburban garden around Bradfield for the last few weeks, although the news had only just surfaced. I imagine it was a non-birder who first spotted it on their patio but wasn’t able to identify it. Anyway, it appeared to still be in the area and I was eager to glimpse this very uncommon vagrant for myself. So the next morning we parked by the side of the road and immediately I could see that there were many Starlings around. Rose-coloured Starlings are unusual among vagrants in that they usually don’t turn up at the expected coastal rarity hotspots, for instance Spurn or Flamborough Head. Instead, they prefer to visit places I would never imagine a rarity to find itself, for example business estates or generally biodiversity unfriendly areas such as this suburban Crawley district. This is because they prefer to associate with large flocks of their only British relative, the Common Starling, during their stay on our shores.

Within fifteen minutes of our arriving on the right street a group of fifteen or so Starlings were spooked from one of the gardens and flew up into a large bare Silver Birch right next to our vehicle! It was easy to see the odd one out, the pale plumage of the juvenile Rose-coloured contrasted strongly with the other Common Starlings. After making sure that it was the right bird (it did indeed have a pale yellow base to the beak), I took a few record shots (photos that are intended mainly as proof rather than a photographic masterpiece!) through my binoculars and just a minute after I first spotted it it flew off over the rooftops. It wasn’t the most amazing view, however I was pleased that I did manage to get a glimpse of this unusual wanderer.

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The Rose-coloured Starling in very poor lighting. You might just be able to make out the pale yellow bill.

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A much better photo of the starling by Mya Bambrick, a fellow young birder who managed to see the bird later that day.