Sunday, December 28, 2008

Birding Review Of The Year 2008

One thing's for sure - when I spotted my first bird of 2008, a Robin in my garden at 7:54am, I couldn't have imagined that I would end up with so many birds on the year list and so many new species under my belt.

I set out this year with the aim of focusing on quality, not quantity, but once I came back from Scotland in May with 199 birds, it seemed reasonable to try to keep the momentum going and post a good total for the year. I definitely aim to try to beat this total at some point in the future, but not next year, as I'll explain later.

Anyway, here's how the year panned out:

January, February & March

The first month of the year saw me add 76 species to the year list, but no lifers were to be had. My Dad and I had a full and enjoyable day at Upton Warren on 5 January, where we lucky enough to see Jack Snipe, Bittern and Little Egret. A visit to Draycote Water a couple of weeks later meant we were able to add Lesser Scaup to the year list, along with Smew and Great Northern Diver. The remainder of the month's ticks were pretty standard fair.

The Firecrests at Alvecote Pools ensured the first life tick of the year in February, and what beauties they were. The Mealy Redpoll at Upton Warren a little over a week later was also another nice one to clap eyes on.

Later in the month, I went to Devon with my Dad, Dave Lyons and Dave Thomas. We had an unbelievable amount of good fortune here and I bagged seven more lifers in the process, most notable being the Long-Billed Dowitcher that brought both mine and my Dad's life lists up to the 200 mark. Managing to see five species of grebe during our stay was also a highlight, as was what might well be my earliest Swallow for many years to come. Many thanks to Dave Thomas for putting us up for a couple of nights.

In March I unpicked my first bogey bird of the year, when I spotted Mandarins in the Wyre Forest. Later that morning, I had a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker there too. I paid several visits to the Wyre during the year and it has firmly established itself as a favourite place of mine. I will definitely be back in 2009, although I suspect I might be paying as much attention to the butterflies as the birds this time!

The Black Redstart at Grimley almost eluded us on 23 March, but we heaved a sigh of relief when we bagged it at the eleventh hour. The Scandinavian Rock Pipit was also there that morning. I don't tick subspecies, but even so, what a great little bird to see.

On 30 March we spent a day in the Forest of Dean and added Goshawk to the life list, though I hope to get better views at some point in the future. Later that day we visited Frampton On Severn and had an unexpected double in the shape of Garganey and Green-Winged Teal, the latter being another lifer.

The tally had reached 140 as the month drew to a close.

April, May & June

On 4 April I had a day to myself and set out on what was to be one of the greatest birding days of the year. After returning to the Forest of Dean to see Hawfinch, I had a go for my second Great Grey Shrike of the year and was treated to crippling views. My favourite bird of the year? Quite possibly. Two more Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were seen later that day when I popped into Bittell Reservoirs on the way home. Magic!

Another bogey was unpicked when some fine gen from Pete Walkden got me my first ever Little Owl. Two days later, I was on holiday in East Anglia where another four lifers fell, including Bearded Tit and Nightingale, although my glimpse of the latter was brief in the extreme! Solid year ticks in the shape of Woodcock, Woodlark, Tree Pipit and Twite were also on offer, leaving the total for the year at an impressive 177 at the end of the month.

On a negative note, Grasshopper Warbler was heard at Holkham, but not seen - the first of several elusive birds this year. Also, we dipped on Golden Pheasant at Wolferton, despite hearing them call.

My first ever Yellow Wagtail at Draycote Water was another memorable and beautiful bird. Also at the end of the month I had a great morning's birding, life-ticking Little Gull at Upton Warren and adding Lesser Whitethroat to the year list, before a quick visit to Shenstone resulted in the first of many Cuckoos that I saw this year.

May saw me visit the Wyre Forest again with Max, Kay, Dave Lyons and my Dad. We had a good morning despite a couple of soakings. Kay life-ticked Wood Warbler and we also saw Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Redstart and Tree Pipit.

After a couple of failed attempts, I finally bagged Black Tern for the year at Upton Warren. Another elusive Grasshopper Warbler was heard that morning too.

Next up was the great big Scotland trip and a week's worth of intensive birding. We knew there would be lifers, we knew there would be year ticks, but I still get emotional when I think about the quality of some of the birding we did up there. Seeing Velvet Scoters at Gullane Bay sticks in the mind, as does the Long-Tailed Duck at Gosford later the same day. Just when we thought things couldn't get any better, we stumbled upon Temminck's Stint at Musselburgh.

One of the funniest moments of the year was when a Spotted Flycatcher popped up whilst we were enjoying drinks on the balcony at our hotel one evening. Birding at its best!

Other memorable spots during our stay were Hen Harrier, Hooded Crow, Black Grouse and Black-Throated Diver. Seeing Ptarmigan up on Lochnagar was also a special moment, probably my second favourite spot of the year, all things considered.

I ticked Scottish Crossbill too, but there is always that sense of lingering doubt as to whether it was or it wasn't. I am happy to keep it on the list based upon what I saw, although I appreciate that identification is difficult without analysing calls.

Either way, the year list took in 199 species once we had returned.

Apart from the birds, it was great to see Red Squirrels and Arctic Hares during our visit.

Onto June, where a Turtle Dove at Throckmorton became the 200th tick of the year. A great milestone and a super bird to see relatively close to home.

Whinchat, Chough, Puffin and Black Guillemot were all nice ticks in Wales, but the highlight of the month was seeing the Nightjars on Cannock Chase. Thanks to Richard and his friends, Pete, Kay and Max for a memorable evening. We had another Woodcock that evening too, plus a few Cuckoos and a Hobby. A great night.

Halfway through the year and the list stood at an impressive 206 birds.

June also saw the birth of Worcestershire Source. Many thanks to everyone who contributed news to the site in 2008. Please continue to support us and help the site to grow. Thanks also to Kay who has done a fantastic job keeping the news flowing over the last six months.

July, August & September

A Great Skua on Criccieth beach was an unexpected bonus. It took some sorting out mind! My first experience of skuas of any kind. Hopefully I might get more in 2009.

A Tawny Owl spotted from my garden at the end of the month was equally surprising and equally as welcome. Another bogey bit the dust.

Two lifers in the shape of Red-Necked Phalarope and Yellow-Legged Gull ensured that the year list kept ticking over, although doubts were cast over the identity of the latter.

The highlight was perhaps seeing the Silver-Washed Fritillaries in the Wyre Forest in July. This kick-started my interest in butterflies and dragonflies, so in many ways may have been one of the most important moments of the year.

At the end of September, I was fortunate enough to see my very first Badger, during our holiday in Devon.

October, November & December

A few enjoyable twitches to Buckinghamshire resulted in two life ticks, Ferruginous Duck on 12 October, and Ring-Necked Duck on 26 October. Both were great little birds. The Shore Lark at Upton Warren was an unexpected year tick and a smashing bird for the Midlands, taking the total to 216.

A bona fide Yellow-Legged Gull at Stubber's Green in November was nice to see, meaning no more sleepless nights regarding the potentially dodgy tick earlier in the year!

There were still a few birds to be spotted as proven by the Whooper Swan, Purple Sandpiper and Merlin in Wales, but there was also disappointment when we failed to find Snow Buntings at Pensarn.

A fine Smew on 1 December at Bittell Reservoir was a good tick on a local patch. Five days later, we had a second stab at Caspian Gull at Stubber's Green. The debate continues to rage as to whether we saw a second-winter Caspian Gull or not. I have elected not to tick the species for the time being.

Then, just as it seemed the birding year had drawn to a close, there was the small matter of seeing my first Waxwing near Upton Warren. A fitting way to finish.

Final tally, 220 birds on the year list, including 38 lifers.


So, onto my plans for the coming year. As I stated in an earlier entry, the focus is very much going to be on patch birding. At least once a month, I intend to walk the lanes of Wythall and the surrounding area compiling a list of all the species I can see. I've set myself a target of 75 species, but bear in mind this will take in at least a couple of excursions to Earlswood Lakes. Basically, if I'm birding on foot and I see something, it will make the list.

Aside from this change of direction, I have some other personal goals that I would like to achieve. They are:

To find a Pied Flycatcher in the Wyre Forest.
To photograph Silver-Washed Fritillaries in the Wyre Forest.
To see a Corn Crake in Islay.
To see pure Rock Doves on Islay.
To photograph a Kingfisher to a reasonable standard.
To see Golden Oriole and Montagu's Harrier in Norfolk.
To add at least 5 butterfly species to my life list.
To photograph the Little Owl in Hopwood properly.
To photograph an adult drake Smew.
To walk my patch at least once a month.
To see Tree Sparrows at Shustoke Reservoir.
To see Nightingales at Paxton Pits.

No doubt at some point I will feel inspired to have a pop at my own record of 220 species in a year. I'm sure this could be easily beaten if I put my mind to it, but I will probably wait until I can get back to the highlands of Scotland before I do so. The birding up there is just in a different league.

Until then, the emphasis is firmly on quality, not quantity, and I am really keen to devote more time to butterflies and dragonflies next year.

Whatever your goals are, or even if you don't have any, have a great New Year and enjoy your birding. Because when all's said and done, that's what it's all about.

This is Reg The Birder logging off until 2009.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Waxing Lyrical

Just when I thought the binoculars had been hung up until the New Year, what should happen? A sizeable flock of Waxwings take up residence at Webb's garden centre, just a short hop down the M5 for yours truly.

I'd been optimistic about my chances of seeing this bird during the winter and was happy to wait until they paid a visit to one of my local patches before dashing off to see them.

As it happens, I didn't have the fortune to see the flock of 20 birds or so that has been present for a couple of days, but whether you see one bird or one thousand, you still only get one tick for your list, so I was happy to have the pleasure of watching a single Waxwing feeding on the berries at the entrance to Webb's for half an hour or so this morning [lifer 231!] [year tick 220!].

Waxwing at Webb's Garden Centre

Waxwings are such beautiful birds that even Mrs Reg was happy to tag along. Also present were my Mum and Dad, and birding friends Cat and Chippy. Fellow Bird Forum regulars Pam, Emma and Matt were also there and it was nice to meet them for the first time. Special thanks to Pam for allowing me to take the above picture through her scope. It was your scope, wasn't it Pam?

I took the scenic route back home, mainly to avoid the heavy traffic in and around Bromsgrove. This meant passing the home of the Little Owl that I like to see when I can. My luck was in today. See if you can spot him in the following picture:

Spot the owl competition

So, the binoculars have been hung up once more. I really can't see myself doing any more birding now until 1 January 2009, so I've got a whole four days off before another year list begins!

Before that, however, there's the small matter of my review of the birding year, which will be published in the next few days.

Monday, December 15, 2008

To Be Or Not To Be ...

That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the Lapwings and Sparrows of outrageous fortune, or to stand in the freezing cold on a Saturday afternoon at Stubber's Green trying to sort out a Caspian Gull, with only a flask of coffee and a scotch egg to keep you going.

If Shakespeare had been a birder, perhaps this is how Hamlet's soliloquy would have turned out?

Anyway, as promised, I made the return journey to Stubber's Green this weekend with my father, and Kay and Max to see if we could strike gull gold and locate the Caspian Gull that had eluded us at the beginning of November.

For Kay's take on events, please pay a visit to her blog.

Despite the rain and the freezing cold, we managed to stick it out from about 10:45am until about 1:15pm, but failed to spot anything other than the normal Black-Headed Gulls, Common Gulls, Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-Backed Gulls and Great Black-Backed Gulls. Although Common Gulls are not always easy to spot in the Midlands, these are essentially your classic five gulls that you expect to see without having to put too much effort in.

Other birds present were Lapwing, Pied Wagtail, Little Grebe, Canada Goose, Mallard, Tufted Duck and Starling. Again, all par for the course. A Red-Breasted Merganser was around early on, but had flown by the time Kay and Max joined us. Also, four Goosander flew overhead during the morning.

That was about as good as it got, until just as we were turning our thoughts to leaving, Kay spotted a dark-eyed, clean-headed gull on the water's edge. On closer inspection we agreed that it showed enough features of a Caspian Gull to be worth photographing and I reeled off a few record shots before the bird took off and headed north, possibly to nearby Chasewater.

The suspicious gull

We were optimistic that we might have found our target bird, although we felt this was a second-winter individual and we were aware that the Caspian Gulls seen at Stubber's Green recently were older birds. For those that are interested, there has been some lively debate around the bird's identification here.

The general consensus seems to suggest that it is not a Caspian Gull, but a Herring Gull. Definitely worth a shout, however, and credit to Kay for spotting the bird.

After Stubber's Green, Kay and Max were off to look for Waxwings in Codsall, but with feet like blocks of ice, I decided to head home instead.

And so my birding for 2008 is at an end. I had planned to include my review of the year in this blog entry, but I think I will hold that back now for a couple of weeks.

Therefore, can I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very merry Christmas. Have a good one, and don't eat too many mince pies!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Have I Got Smews For You?

Just a quick blog entry to bring you up to date with events. On Monday I paid a visit to Bittell Reservoirs. I'd decided upon this location a few days earlier, but news of a Smew at Lower Bittell Reservoir on Sunday added a little spice to proceedings.

There is a good collection of wildfowl at the site now that winter is here. The first-winter drake Smew showed on Shrub Mill Pool after a short while, and there were good numbers of Goosander present, mainly drakes. I also noted a drake Pintail on the other side of the causeway, but I couldn't locate the Common Scoter that has been around for a week or so.

I managed to get a picture of the Smew. At best, it was disappointing. At worst, it was frickin' awful!

Smew at Bittell

I took a walk up to the upper reservoir, but was disappointed by the fact that the path through the woods was extremely quiet. Things improved once I reached the end of the path, as there were good numbers of Redwing about, then I spotted a further five Pintails on the reservoir.

Redwing at Bittell

What I'd really been hoping for was to find my own Waxwing. A pair of these elusive winter visitors turned up in Stourbridge last week. Surely it's only a matter of time before more come our way? I don't really want to twitch them unless I have to. I'd much rather see them on a local patch if I can. Here's hoping.

Next Saturday, I'm off to Stubber's Green again to see if I can spot the Caspian Gull that evaded me a few weeks back. That, I think, is probably going to be my last birding excursion of 2008.

I'll report back on that in due course, at which time I think I will also be reviewing the birding year and declaring my goals and objectives for 2009.

Until then, happy birding!