Monday, 30 December 2013

The 'Cowboys' hottest 3 birds of 2013

Salma Hayek, Katy Perry, Megan Fox - I jest!

As the end of 2013 fast approaches, it's time to look back over my birding year and decide which three birds stood out for me personally. In a year splattered with major rarities and blockers un-blocked it wasn't an easy decision - but as I missed most of these birds, my choices are made that little bit easier.

In deciding on my top three, they didn't necessarily have to be especially rare locally or nationally, or even a tick, it's more about the whole birding package - i.e views, location, plumage and the experience.

And first up, and taking this years 'Bronzed Bird's Eye Chili' was the well watched and photographed Thetford Black-bellied Dipper - a bird which spent a good part of the start of the year entertaining the crowds along the river Thet. Not only was this a super looking bird, the views were stunning and it was a real performer for the camera - expertly catching and feeding on caddisfly larvae just a matter of metres away. Those of you who were also fortunate enough to see the family of Otters along the same stretch of river must have been pinching yourselves.

Thetford, Norfolk
3rd - Bronzed Bird's Eye Chili winner

In second place and collecting the 'Silver Scotch Bonnet Pepper' was the super-confident West Canvey Marsh Red-backed Shrike. Not especially rare and a bird I've enjoyed watching many times over the years, but this juvenile was exceptionally inquisitive, with no inhibitions. This bold youngster had been around for a few days prior to me turning up, so when I arrived late Sunday afternoon between rain showers there was only one other birder on site and they soon left, so for a brief spell I had the bird to myself - and what a performer and almost within touching distance.

Juvenile, Canvey Island, Essex
2nd - Silver Scotch Bonnet Pepper winner

So, to this years winner, drum roll please…

First place and the winner of 'The Cowboy Birder's hottest bird of the Year 2013' and picking up the coveted 'Golden Trinidad Scorpion Pepper' goes to...

The Yarmouth summer plumage female Wilson's Phalarope.

The views were not especially close, but what a plumage! This was a much wanted Phalarope I was keen to add to my insignificant UK list, so to finally catch up with one in such fine attire was especially pleasing - watching any species of Phalarope is always a special experience, but seeing one wearing its summer Sunday best only adds to the occasion. This birding jaunt was made that little bit extra special, when last minute I decided to take the family with me on the trip to the Isle of Wight, an experience we all enjoyed so much, we ended up staying for the weekend - giving me a double helping of views of this Tricolor beauty!

Female, Summer plumage, Isle of Wight
1st - Golden Trinidad Scorpion Pepper Winner
As a footnote and merited - but ineligible for a medal, was the 'Fall' of spring migrants which hit London on Monday 15th April. The cold start to the spring initially held back many migrants into the UK but a brief change in the weather opened the flood gates, and when alerted to the news I dashed to Wanstead Flats - I wouldn't be disappointed. The sight of over twenty-five Northern Wheatears bouncing around a small area of grassland, along with Whinchat, several Common Redstarts, a Ring Ouzel and a healthy covering of Sylvia and Phylloscupus Warblers (these numbers were mirrored across several sites in the Capital) made those two hours of London based patch birding very special, and a morning to remember.

Which just leaves me to wish you all a very happy and healthy New Year 2014 and many thanks for reading and commenting on this blog over the year - with special thanks to my Ukrainian fan base!

So whether you're a big listing rare chaser, dedicated patch worker, camo wearing prime lens carrier or even just a plain old garden birdwatcher and feeder - let's all enjoy our two-legged feathered friends while we still can...

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Mealy Redpoll (flammea - more splits than Nadia Comanceci)

My last visit this year to Wanstead Flats turned out to be a rather productive one, firstly adding Little Owl to the patch list and then picking up a second patch tick in the form of a rather smart Mealy Redpoll (flammea) - amongst a small flock of a dozen Lesser Redpolls (cabaret) feeding on the Birch trees in the SSSI area.

This bird was noticeably cold and paler in appearance, with the light grey head accentuating the redness on the fore-crown, generally lacking in any warmer brown tones throughout the body, an unmarked pale chest with white underparts, slightly larger and more robust in size when compared to the Lesser Redpolls (cabaret). Not shown in these images was the strong white-tips to the greater coverts - creating a noticeable wing-bar.




I know one particular person who's going to be very pleased to see these images...

A nice finish to the year but tantalisingly leaving me one short of a hundred species in Wanstead in 2013 (time for a recount or another visit - I've still got two days). I added a healthy twelve new patch ticks this year, but I'm still some way off the leading Wanstead pack but a gallant effort considering my commitment in running the London Marathon and failing to visit the patch during the summer months.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Season's Greetings to one and all...

Have a Merry Christmas 
and wonderful bird-filled New Year 2014

Christmas, New Year, 2013, Birding, Birds

Best wishes

The Cowboy Birder

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

I do love a Redhead (Smew)

Taking advantage of a brief interlude between jobs (it's a long story) I popped to Connaught Water hoping the recently reported Redhead Smew was still knocking about, and within a few minutes of arriving I picked her out distantly between two of the Islands - no chance of any decent photographs I thought as I fired off a couple of record shots. Moving on around the lake I tried to get a slightly better angle of the bird and sat low-down on the perimeter path, partly obscured by some fencing - I'd only been in this position for a few minutes when the bird slowly started to move in my direction after being cajoled and harassed by the local Gull population.

So with a little bit of patience, a fair bit of luck and some good old fashioned field-skills, I pleasingly ended up with some great views and half-decent images of this rather smart winter visiting duck.

Redhead, Ducks, Epping Forest, Connaught Water, London

Redhead, Ducks, Epping Forest, Connaught Water, London

Redhead, Ducks, Epping Forest, Connaught Water, London

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Colour-ringed Gulls


Some people love 'em, some people loathe them - I probably edge into the latter category, but see a colour-ringed Gull and this takes on a whole new dimension.

The 1st-winter Mediterranean Gull below was one of two birds which briefly joined the Gull flock on Wanstead Flats recently (far rarer sight in London than you would imagine) but with this bird bearing a green coloured-ring on its left leg with the letters ACJY this sighting took on a slightly greater significance. A quick search on cr-birding and then a follow up email to the assigned coordinator in Germany and confirmation was quickly received that this bird had indeed been ringed this summer in Germany - some 600km away (although I still await full recovery details).

Further proof if needed of the late autumn/early winter movement of central European fledged Mediterranean Gulls heading in a westerly direction and into the UK.

1st-winter, Gulls, colour-ringing

1st-winter, Gulls, colour-ringing

1st-winter, Gulls, colour-ringing

Another colour-ringed Gull seen recently on the Flats was this Lesser Black-backed Gull with a red-ring and the letters UL2T slightly less exciting than than the Mediterranean Gull but just as important - confirmation from the North Thames Gull Group that this bird was ringed as a second calendar year bird on the 11th December 2010 just 11km away on Rainham Tip.

Gulls, colour-ringing

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Treecreeper with an odd sounding call

Just a few images of the odd calling Treecreeper which has currently taken up residency in Bush Wood, Wanstead.

Along with the a-typical Treecreeper call, I only heard the bird call oddly the once - this has been described as a short, softer Falcon like call, and on hearing it - I'll have to agree. Although it wasn't dissimilar to a quieter, slowed down version of Wryneck - intriguing to say the least.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Round 1: Turnstone v Crab

There was only ever going to be one winner of that contest!

The natural world never ceases to amaze me. Watching a Turnstone feed on the exposed mud of a lowering tide may not sound that exciting, but add a feisty little Shorecrab into the equation and you have a wildlife encounter worth witnessing.

Once the Turnstone had located its food source - it wasn't long before this Crab had met its match. Despite the Crabs valiant attempt to fight of the aggressor, the Turnstone managed to avoid the flailing pincers and flipped the Crab onto its back exposing the soft underbelly, where a couple of direct blows with that sharp stubby bill and this short contest was over.

OK - It might not have the same drama as watching a Lion take down a Water Buffalo or even a Peregrine chase and take out a Pigeon, but observing natures fight for survival as part of the natural food chain on any level is truly fascinating.

Feeding, Crustaceans, Molluscs, Crab

Feeding, Crustaceans, Molluscs, Crab

Feeding, Crustaceans, Molluscs, Crab

Feeding, Crustaceans, Molluscs, Crab

Feeding, Crustaceans, Molluscs, Crab

Feeding, Crustaceans, Molluscs, Crab

Feeding, Crustaceans, Molluscs, Crab

Monday, 4 November 2013

Winter plumage Sanderling

Is there a better looking wader at this time of year?

These small energetic, shore hugging birds are a firm favourite of mine - I really enjoy watching them skip quickly along the coastline as they chase marine invertebrates exposed by the washing in and out of the tide.

I took these photographs on the beach at Brancaster whilst on a family trip to the north Norfolk coast, and even on the dullest of days these small ghost like waders in their brilliant white winter plumage can brighten up any winters day - it's no surprise why they have the latin name Calidris alba.

Winter plumage, Norfolk, Wader

Winter plumage, Norfolk, Wader

Winter plumage, Norfolk, Wader

Winter plumage, Norfolk, Wader

Winter plumage, Norfolk, Wader

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bowers Marsh RSPB - first impressions

I was keen to have a look at what the RSPB had been up to on Bowers Marsh, a place I knew well from my youth - and in the short time I had on this recently opened South Essex reserve, I was impressed with the changes.

Although the track down the hill and past St. Margaret's church and onto the new car park, next to the old cowshed (this use to be great spot the Little Owl) was riddled with potholes, the rest of the reserve had a freshly laid footpath, which weaved and followed the hedgerows and circumnavigated the marsh. The newly created network of flooded freshwater grasslands looked particularly impressive and already held small numbers of WigeonTeal and Shoveler. Four Spoonbills had also taken up residency on the largest body of water on the marsh, along with Little and Great Crested Grebe - in time this area should see larger numbers of winter wildfowl and hopefully a few waders pushed of the tidal creeks at high-tide. 

I didn't have time to cover the whole reserve on my short walk, but what I did see I was impressed with, Cetti's Warblers called from the reed ditches, and the hedgerows were attracting small party's of finches and I'm sure Short-eared Owls are going to be a regular feature throughout the winter months as they always use to be, but the highlight on my visit were three Corn Buntings - a bird I regularly use to see on my childhood visits to Bowers Marsh. 

Everyone is aware of the huge decline in our traditional farm land bird species, so to see these Corn Buntings still here and taking advantage of this new RSPB reserve was a great fillip, and with the RSPB now carefully managing these arable fields and wetland marshes - l hope to see there numbers increase on Bowers Marsh in the coming years.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

No Fire-crest, but a Super-cilium

It's a great time of year for catching up with Firecrest - although they do breed in small numbers in the south-east in the UK, many birds have only recently arrived from the continent alongside the more numerous Goldcrest, to spend a slightly warmer winter in one of our woodlands or actually any small evergreen copse with a good concentration of Holly bushes - that spiky, dense and dark foliage is a particular favourite.

Close to where I live in Woodford Green not far from the edge of Epping Forest there are several good areas where you can find these cracking little birds during the winter months; Bush Wood in Wanstead, Eagle Pond Wood near Snaresbrook Crown Court and Knighton Wood in Buckhurst Hill, and it was here where today I saw at least two birds possible more frantically working their way through the Holly.

Knighton Woods, Buckhurst Hill, Essex, London

Knighton Woods, Buckhurst Hill, Essex, London

Never the easiest of subjects to photograph due to their constant movement in the darkest areas of the wood, this male did stand still just long enough for me to capture him, although due to the angle, that brilliant flame red crest isn't visible - I'll just have to go back for another go!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Med Gull on Wanstead Flats

Searching through the growing number of Gulls which are starting to gather on the football pitches, It was nice to discover an adult winter Mediterranean Gull (patch tick) amongst the Black-headed Gulls, not visible on these images but the bird is also ringed - with a shiny piece of bling on its left leg.

If the bird sticks around, it would be good to get a clear and close image of the ring and read the unique BTO number - It's always fascinating to find out a little history about where these birds have travelled from - even if that's only a short distance from one of the Thameside landfill tips, but with recoveries recorded as far away as southern Spain - you just never know!

Adult Winter, Wanstead Flats, London

Adult Winter, Wanstead Flats, London

Adult Winter, Wanstead Flats, London

There is also an outside chance that this bird could be the well known Ilford individual 'Valentino' just briefly stopping at Wanstead before returning and over wintering in Valentines Park for the 14th (thanks Gideon) consecutive year - anybody know if 'Valentino' is ringed?

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Late, late Tree Pipit!

This bird got my heart rate up on a wet and miserable morning on Wanstead Flats!

As I circled the SSSI area, cutting through motorcycle copse a Pipit silently flew up from the grass into a small Hawthorn bush - straight away I instinctively knew this was no Meadow Pipit. Employing my best field-craft skills (i.e not crashing in after the bird) I waited to see what it would do next, and although the bird wasn't visible on the bush, in time it did reappear, dropping to the ground - where it calmly walked and worked its way through the wet grass. I followed its movements for the next ten minutes, before finally losing sight of the bird as it flew up into one of the Oak trees as the rain started to fall even heavier - at no time did the bird call.

Getting better views of the bird I could clearly see my instincts were right and by all accounts I was watching a Tree Pipit - a very late Tree Pipit at that!

This autumn the last record of Tree Pipit on Wanstead Flats was September 21st, with another one at Rainham Marsh on the 29th, and there is only one record in October this year in the LNHS recording area, with a bird at Wormword Scrubs on the 13th.

Wanstead, London
Pipit - looking 'rare'
Wanstead, London
Pipit - still looking 'rare'
Wanstead, London
Pipit - looking less 'rare'
Wanstead, London

Wanstead, London

As you can clearly see all the obvious features you would expect to see on Tree Pipit are there when compared to Meadow Pipit; Harder faced, with a strong looking bill, broad submoustachial stripe, bold streaks on the breast - finer on the flanks, and even the shortened hind claw is visible on the third image. Sadly with a heavily streaked mantle, lacking in any olive tones - my hopes of this being an Olive-backed Pipit were clearly dashed!

So I'm happy that this is just a Tree Pipit - but if anyone thinks differently please let me know? I've always wanted to find a Blyth's Pipit ;-)

Monday, 14 October 2013

Seaside Parrot Crossbills

Southend scored the first autumn arrival in the UK of a potential invasion of these Russian monsters with oversize mandibles!

When news reached me that the four Parrot Crossbills were still at Gunners Park I was eager to check them out, but with the rain continuing to come down in sheets, I patiently held off my visit until the afternoon - thinking these birds are going no where fast in this filthy weather.

My patience was rewarded when arriving early afternoon in the dry, at a much changed Gunners Park - where did that housing estate spring from? All four birds were devouring pine cones in one small evergreen tree close to the seawall, with the two male and two female (one female, one 1st year/Juv - I reviewed all my images again) birds, all oblivious at the ever increasing crowd of birders which continued to grow and encircle the small pine tree in the brightening weather.

With such close and good views of that sizeable bill, for which the upper mandible looked particularly thick and heavy, it was a pleasure to observe the birds feed - making very light work of the fresh green pine cones. Whilst there I also got to hear that deep 'chup' 'chup' call as two of the birds briefly took flight around the pine tree.

Gunners Park, Southend, Essex, Female

Gunners Park, Southend, Essex, Male

Gunners Park, Southend, Essex, Male

Gunners Park, Southend, Essex, Male

I hope it's not the last time I get to see these birds this winter and the predicted 'invasion' comes to fruition, as they truly are value for money.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Interesting Rainham Arco

After a pointless bit of Saturday morning river watching from the balcony at Rainham Marsh, in weather conditions not forecast by the BBC - where the best bird was a Brambling on the nearby feeders. I headed towards the wooded area of the reserve in search of migrants - Redwings, Song Thrushes and Robins were plentiful. As I followed the wooden boardwalk through the scrub I picked up a plain looking Acrocephalus Warbler in one of the small trees...mmm - an Acro at this time of year, away from the reeds is always worth investigating further, so for the next ten minutes I watched the bird busily feeding within the small tree, in which it occasionally came to the outer branches, allowing me to grab a few images.

Whilst watching the bird several features stood out for me:
  • The overall rusty warm toned appearance to the upper parts - best shown in the second image.
  • Short, stubby wings - giving the bird a longer tailed look.
  • Soft looking facial features - more Phylo and less Acro like at times.
  • Cocked/raised tail when perched - shown in image four.
  • Light silvery grey leg colour.





The wing length/primary projection and leg colour would rule out Marsh Warbler and I did hear the bird 'chrrr' a couple of times which does point towards Reed Warbler over Blyth's Reed Warbler but given the time of year and recent weather conditions and the difficulty of separating these two in the field you just never know!

Any thoughts or comments are most welcome.