Purple Sandpipers at Newhaven

With the year coming to an end I though that it would be a good idea to go out on one last excursion in search of wildlife. I chose Tide Mills, a long-abandoned coastal village near Newhaven in East Sussex which has a record of scarce or rare birds like Rose-coloured Starling, Red-backed Shrike, Grey Phalarope and Tawny Pipit.

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The Red-backed Shrike at Tide Mills, 25 September 2016

The reason why I chose to visit Tide Mills was due to a few interesting birds that had been recorded there in the last few days. Firstly, a male Serin had been spotted near the village ruins. These are usually only rare passage migrants in the UK, however as it is December and far from the main autumn or spring migrations I am not sure why it turned up here. Since the 1970s there have been a few breeding attempts in the southern and East Anglian counties however never more than a couple each year.

Also, there is a strong wintering population of a dozen or so Purple Sandpipers that visit the pier at Newhaven. Along with Brighton Marina, this pier is one of the most reliable sites to see Purple Sandpipers in Sussex and as I had not yet seen one in Britain before I was keen to take a look.

Unfortunately the Serin had either moved on or was hiding well within its bush when we visited. Despite many people searching for it we had no luck, which is a shame, however we still had the Purple Sandpipers to look forward to.

Walking along the pier we looked down at the struts below us, which is where the Purple Sandpipers usually spend their time. However we hadn’t seen anything by the time we reached the halfway point which was worrying! We continued to walk along the pier, still looking down. Fortunately I looked up for a brief moment to see how much of the pier we had left to walk and to my surprise I spotted a group of medium-sized dumpy birds sitting on the concrete beams projecting off the top of the pier!

We slowly made our way closer until we were as close as we could get. We could see that most were indeed Purple Sandpipers, 12 in total, along with a few Turnstones. They were barely wary of us at all, most of the time simply eyeing us from just a few metres away. I suspect that the high tide probably pushed the sandpipers off the concrete foundations below, which allowed us to get such good views of them. Not what I was expecting at all! We spent a little while with these very cooperative birds taking many photos, some of which I have attached below.

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Rutland Water(birds)

On Saturday I was very pleased to be going to Birdfair. Birdfair is the bird enthusiast’s event of the year, taking place at Rutland Water: one of the best birding sites in the Midlands. It was great to meet many new people from the birding community and attend some nice talks and events, however the highlight for me was seeing many amazing birds in the nature reserve.

In the morning, just before lunch, I was able to go to Swarovski tower. The Swarovski tower is where people can go to try out the Swarovski telescopes and it is located in an excellent position overlooking the nature reserve. The telescopes were perfectly positioned; when I looked through the first scope I was amazed to see a pair of Great White Egrets! These are huge white herons which aren’t common in Britain although they have been increasing in numbers. I had only seen 1 before this, read about that one here, so I was very pleased.

The next scope I looked through held another surprise: an Osprey perched on a fence post in the water! Along with the Great White Egret, I had only seen one other Osprey before this one. And my first one was seen flying while travelling along the M23, so these were much better views by comparison! 8 pairs of Ospreys bred at Rutland Water last year, which is a great number considering that they first started breeding here in 2001. Rutland Water is one of the few sites in England where Ospreys breed, with a few pairs breeding in Wales and the main stronghold being in Scotland. You can tell that the Osprey I saw was a male due to the lack of a heavily marked breast band.

I am quite happy with these two photos even though they were taken through the Swarovski telescopes without any digiscoping equipment.

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The pair of Great White Egrets

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The male Osprey. Unfortunately the lack of a breast band can’t be seen in this photo.

Just after lunch I met up with other young birders and naturalists for a walk around the nature reserve, visiting several hides. The first hide we visited was Sandpiper hide. Plover hide overlooks Lagoon 4 which has several scrapes and lots of open water. On the nearest scrape to the hide there were several waders: 2 Lapwings, 2 Common Sandpipers and a single Little Ringed Plover. On the opposite side of the lagoon to the hide was a flock of Great Black-backed Gulls, the largest number I’ve ever seen together. You don’t often see such large aggregations inland at this time of year, however Rutland Water being such a large water body I wasn’t too surprised. Great-black Backed Gulls are one of the more coastal of the large gulls, only really venturing inland during the non-breeding season. The population swells in winter with many tens of thousands of gulls joining the British population. Especially large numbers are found around landfill sites and in roosts at reservoirs.

My favourite hide was Shoveler hide, it was packed with great birds! Living quite far inland, I don’t regularly get the chance to see good numbers of waders. However, at Shoveler hide I had the best views of waders I have had for a very long time! There was a small area of exposed mud right in front of the hide where there were several Greenshanks and Ruffs. Unfortunately the Greenshanks were obscured most of the time by reeds. However the Ruffs moved further away and into the open water where I could watch them clearly. There were also 2 or 3 Black-tailed Godwits feeding, one of the larger wading birds with very long straight bills. About 15 metres away from the hide was the first scrape. There were an impressive number of Green Sandpipers: a group of 5 were sheltering from the wind behind two small metal tanks. Further to the left someone spotted a Wood Sandpiper, one of the species I really wanted to see.

Wood Sandpipers are mainly passage migrants to Britain, meaning that they pass through on migration. A handful of pairs do breed here, however only in the Scottish Highlands. One of the conservation practices taking place to try and boost the breeding population of this bird in Scotland is the re-flooding of previously drained marshes. Wood Sandpipers are very similar to Green Sandpipers although there are several features that can tell them apart. In Green Sandpipers, the brown neck and upper breast ends abruptly and becomes white whereas in the Wood Sandpiper the brown slowly dissipates into the white belly. Also, Wood Sandpipers show many more white spots on the back than Green Sandpiper. The main feature that I use to separate the two species is the eyestripe. The eyestripe in the Wood Sandpiper clearly projects past the eye, however in the Green Sandpiper the white eyestripe is only visible between the bill and the eye.

Below are a few photos I was able to take of the waders at Shoveler hide, again I am quite pleased with them as this time they were only taken through my binoculars!

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A trio of Ruff feeding.

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Wood Sandpiper. In this photo the eyestripe behind the eye is obvious.

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Black-tailed Godwit

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A single Ruff

Once we had made sure there weren’t any real rarities hiding among the waders near to the hide, we switched our attention to the birds beyond the first scrape. There was a plethora of wildfowl: Mallard, Teal, Gadwall, Canada Geese, Greylag Geese and even a pair of Egyptian Geese sat on a metal tank. Amazingly, one of the other young birders managed to spot a distant Marsh Harrier floating above the reeds on the other side of the lagoon before dropping down. It was chocolaty-brown with a cream-coloured cap, meaning that it was a female or a juvenile. Rutland Water has a breeding population of these beautiful birds and some birds also pass through in autumn. It was hard to tell whether this bird was a Rutland Water breeder or a passage migrant because at this stage many different bird species have begun their southward migration although some are still raising their second brood.

Also well-spotted was a group of 4 Red-crested Pochards far out into the lagoon which quickly moved out of sight behind the reeds. Unlike the Marsh Harrier, we couldn’t sex the birds as males resemble females very closely at this time of year as they are moulting. This plumage is called eclipse plumage and can cause identification problems for many birders as males usually look completely different to what they look like for most of the year. These Red-crested Pochards were a new species for me, although I can’t wait to see more again as I would really like to see the males in breeding plumage.

That sums up my account of the young birders walk at BirdFair 2016, I can’t wait for next BirdFair!

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Some of the Young Birders. From left to right – Sophie, Me, Noah, Toby, Eleanor, Ben, Zach, Fin, Ellis, Luke, Harry, Frank, Sam and Jacob.

Underground Birds’ Nests!

This afternoon I was very lucky to be able to fit in a short trip to an undisclosed site in Ashdown Forest to see a very rare plant: the Bird’s-nest Orchid. I have been asked to keep the precise location a secret as there are only two individual plants flowering at the moment and I believe there might be some collectors keen to get their hands on them. Luckily Ashdown Forest is a huge place and these orchids are incredibly easy to miss.

I first learnt about these orchids being present at Ashdown Forest – one of the largest areas of woodland and more importantly open heathland in the South East – on the Sussex Botanical Recording Society website. There is a new ‘Latest Sightings’ feature on the website and I have been lucky enough to post a ‘Latest Sighting’ on there already, on the Krauss’s Clubmoss. You can read the orchid latest sighting here and my clubmoss latest sighting here.

The beech woodland where the plant was growing was very nice except there was very little diversity of ground flora. I think this may be due to the very large population of deer, particularly the Fallow Deer, which have over-grazed the area. However, there were some nice patches of late-flowering Bluebells as well as Ground Ivy, Germander Speedwell and not-yet-flowering Wood-Sorrel. In fact I saw a couple of female Fallow Deer while we were there, although they were very shy and were gone before I could see more than their heads with their sensitive ears standing up rigidly, on high alert. Deer were hunted in Ashdown Forest in the past so they must have learnt to be very wary of humans even now when deer-hunting has been discontinued.

There were some very large and beautiful Beech trees in the woodland that seemed to support a plethora of life. In one tiny patch of about 3 square centimetres there were no less than 5 adult Athous haemorrhoidalis, a common beetle whose larvae feed on tree roots. I also watched my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year flycatching from the mighty limbs of a particularly grand Beech tree.

We carried on down the road, checking every beech clump on the left side of the road to see if we could spot the easily-missed orchids. Surely we were supposed to be looking on the left side of the road? My dad agreed and we continued, starting to lose hope. We soon reached a point which was surely much farther than the directions had intended. Where were they? We must have missed them. We gloomily trod back up to the car, disappointed that we hadn’t seen these special plants. My eyes drifted over to the side of the road we hadn’t been looking at, where I stopped suddenly. I stood staring at two beige plants with disbelief. We had found the two Bird’s-nest Orchids! They were looking exactly as they had in the photo on the latest sightings page on the SBRS website which was taken 8 days before. Here are some photos and a very short mini-documentary:

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The Redpoll Stake-out

Before 2016, Lesser Redpolls (Acanthis cabaret) had not been seen in my garden since 2013, when seven would commute between a Quince bush at the back of the garden, some bare ground beneath a large oak tree and our small two-port nyger feeder in January and February. There would be loads of scuffles between the Redpolls as there were seven of them but only two ports. Sadly our nyger feeder got stolen by a Grey Squirrel and we still haven’t found it. We did buy a new nyger feeder though, with four instead of two ports.

It took a while for the Redpolls or the Goldfinches to find the nyger. Both species are very timid, but once they discover a food source they visit very regularly. The first time I saw a Redpoll in our garden for 3 years since 2013 was on New Year’s Day. Tony Davis, my bird ringing trainer, and I were ringing in my garden and by about 10am we had caught a fair amount of tits, Goldcrests and other passerines (perching birds). However, when Tony was extracting birds from the (safe) nets and I was getting my gloves he came back with two species of birds, both finches, that I hadn’t ringed yet this morning. The first was a female Chaffinch. The second was a Lesser Redpoll ! It was a stunning adult male:

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Despite the Redpoll having visited our garden, it was another week before one came to our nyger feeders. Two came one Saturday afternoon, one normal adult male (but not the one I’d caught a week earlier as it had no ring) and one intriguing female with an orange crown. A closer look revealed an almost white rump, very pale wing bars and less streaking on the breast: a Mealy Redpoll (Acanthis flammea flammea), a subspecies of the Common Redpoll, which is uncommon in the UK! Even stranger was the orange crown  which is rarely encountered in Redpolls of any species, let alone a county rarity! The orange colour instead of the red is caused by the bird’s diet: carotenoids are likely to be the cause of the orange colouration and they can be present in some plants. Apparently a third species, the Arctic Redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni), has this orange cap more often than Lesser or Mealy Redpolls. Perhaps the plant that causes the increased number of carotenoids in Redpolls is more common up north? Here is a bad photo of it taken with my Camcorder, showing the orange crown. Unfortunately the camcorder makes it look darker than it actually is:

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And here is a photo showing the pale rump:

Common Redpoll Screengrab

This morning I planned to get a better photograph of a Lesser Redpoll. The only photographs I had obtained so far were from my Camcorder, which were really poor quality as it is obviously designed for videos rather than photos. My small camera hadn’t a zoom large enough to get a good photo of the Redpolls either. What I planned to do was sit near the feeder with my camera on a tripod until the very shy Redpolls came down to feed. Unlikely to happen any time soon.

I wrapped up very warmly and settled down just after 8am. It was fifteen minutes until I heard the Redpolls and then spotted them, high up in the huge oak tree the Redpolls fed under 3 years ago. There were six of them at first, but only 3 flew to the Holly bush next to the feeder. After they saw me, however, they flew away again.

It was 8.45 until they returned. 3 of them again, in the Holly bush. 1 was braver than others and came within 30cm of the feeder but then flew away again, irritatingly. The same thing happened five times until eventually, at 9.08, a brave male made its way first to a branch adjacent to the one on which the feeder is hanging, then to one just below it, the finally to the feeder! I was over the moon! Here are a few photos I managed to take: