Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Big things a'come!

Well today it finally happened. After a long day yesterday watching the news services going mad, it was with relief and excitement that a Grey Phalarope was found just off the South end of Inner Farne, where it showed very well as it fed in the swell not far offshore. These delightful little birds are always a thrill to see, and the Hove bird last year is and always will be one of my most memorable birds. As I was without my camera today, I'll include a picture of said Hove bird.

Lovely lovely lovely

After that things went pretty quiet, until mid afternoon when a call from Brownsman alerted us to the presence of an Olive-back Pipit. The boat was quickly in the water and we crossed. It didn't take long to find and it showed wonderfully in the afternoon sun. It's always nice to get a lifer, and this was a cracker. This medium sized Pipit breeds in Asia and North-eastern Europe and winters in South-east Asia, and the arrival of this bird marks the the 5th consecutive year one has arrived on the Farnes; quite a record.

Very smart Olive-backed Pipit

Monday, 13 October 2014

Big things a'coming!

It's blowing a gale outside as I write this entry, an EASTERLY GALE!! Excitement is rife on the islands this evening as the next few days look rather special in birding terms. With Norfolk already reaping some rewards (RF Bluetail), hopefully we will be recalling some magical birds come the weekend. There have been a few goings on the past week though, perhaps the most notable of which is the arrival of our first Grey Seal pup. Excuse me for getting a bit mushy, but these little guys really are adorable; cute and extremely fluffy. With one of the largest Grey Seal colonies in the UK, we can expect to see around 1500 pups before the season is out, although by that time Lana and I will be chasing birds somewhere in Argentina! The pup below is only a few days old, and it will take around 3 weeks before he is weaned and ready to fend for himself. During this time it will put on a whopping 2 kg a day.

Grey Seal pup.

While we have been welcoming new life every day, we have also been saving lives as well. A Gannet was reported on a small outcrop off Staple Island, appearing to have fishing line wrapped around it. Rangers were instantly dispatched, and before long the Gannet was caught and the net removed. It was an off-cut of what would have been a much larger net, and for such a tiny amount of rubbish to bin, a Gannet (this one at least 5 years old) would have been lost. Putting rubbish in a bin really is a simple process, and it baffles me why human beings continue to struggle with the concept. Needless to say that if I were in charge, the penalty for such a heinous crime would be very severe.

Simply stunning adult Gannet with net

On a lighter note, Lana and I were out early on Sunday ringing. Birds were numerous and there were a few highlights, including 5 Tree Sparrows, and even better I was lucky enough to ring one. They are gorgeous birds, and in the hand even more so. I would be so bold as to say they easily make it into my top 5 favourite British Passerines. I was extremely happy afterwards, and the lovely coffee and home-made cake afterwards rounded things off nicely.

Absolute cracker of a Tree Sparrow

And finally, today we were treated to an amazing wildlife spectacle on the islands, the sort that makes you appreciate how lucky one is to be working and living in this special place (especially when we have the islands to ourselves). A pre-lunch bird round burst into action when a Merlin shot in front of us, and immediately started chasing a Rock Pipit. For 15 seconds the two birds put on a most impressive acrobatic display. Shearing, diving, banking and all manor of other flight related manoeuvres occurred, before the Merlin finally caught its prey. It then proceeded to find a spot on the boardwalk, no more than 25 metres away from us and devour its quarry. We watched for half an hour as the Rock Pipit was meticulously plucked and eaten, before the Merlin walked off into the Orache to digest its meal. It was quite something to be able to witness.

The Merlin keeping a look out

And firstly plucking its prey....

Before devouring it!


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Fea-tastic return!

So the eternal optimism was partially rewarded when we returned to the Farnes yesterday. There was a big clear out overnight, but still lingering were some nice migrants including a long-overdue addition to my life list; Red-breasted Flycatcher. It was supported by a single Yellow-browed Warbler, numerous Goldcrests, and 2 Lesser and Common Whitethroat. Not quite the mega haul present on the islands the day before, but a lovely selection of birds none-the-less.

Red-Breasted Flycatcher from the living room window!

Yellow-browed Warbler showing well

And again showing faint crown stripe

Pair of Goldcrest trapped and ringed in the afternoon

This morning it was even quieter, but there was much excitement when news broke of a Fea's Type Petrel heading north from Flamborough at 8.25. We knew it would be a while before it hit the Farnes, but we kept an eye all day and saw 33 Manx Shearwater,  49 Sooty Shearwater and 9 Arctic Skua. As news broke of the Fea's passing Newbiggin we all took our seats and waited. And boy was it worth it!!
Almost exactly two hours later, it was picked up going through Staple Sound, and we were able to watch it for a good minute as it passed, banking heavily and showing its dark underwing contrasting with light belly in near perfect light. What a bird, and what a view! Needless to say we were very very happy afterwards. That was the bird that we really wanted!  

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Troubles of Being a Birder

When I find myself cursing about being on the Farnes (a very very rare occasion), it quickly turns into a sense of being totally unreasonable and I tell myself that I should be ashamed for it is the highest privilege to work and live in such an incredible place. However, on this occasion I found it somewhat more justifiable. The story begins with a broken zodiac engine, happening at a risky time of year. It rendered us boatless for a few days, and clearly the "weather gods" got wind of this (no pun intended) and the winds promptly swung easterly. With no rain, it means that the Outer group is perfectly placed to attract rares, and the Inner group perfectly placed to allow jealous observation. And this is what happened, and within a two day period on Brownsman the team had been joined by two Red Breasted Flys, a Red Backed Shrike, Little and Rustic Bunting and a host of other lovely migrants, while we were blessed with some Scandinavian Robins.... A Corncrake on the West Wides offered some light relief, but it was with some anxiety that we waited for a visitor boat to get out and catch a glimpse of what was a lovely Rustic Bunting on Tuesday. These lovely buntings breed in Northern Europe and Asia and winter down in South East Asia, and this represents the second Farnes record in two years.

Rustic Bunting (Thanks to David Kinchen-Smith for the photo)

I should also mention that on Inner Farne we did have some nice highlights, including a Pied Flycatcher that needed some hair-dryer treatment and a young Redstart trapped and ringed during the day. 

Soggy Pied Fly. Really perked up after a warming blow dry

Look at that tail!! Juvenile Redstart

So feeling very satisfied Lana and I headed for the West coast of Scotland for some lovely family time. Knowing that easterlies were still a-blowing but with things looking like they would be calming down, we thought the risk was minimal... We were wrong. News broke this afternoon of two new arrivals, one a Common Rosefinch, but the other... a Golden Oriole. Now I have seen a few in the UK but to see one on the Farnes would be an amazing experience. And to share a tiny island with a RB Shrike, Little Bunting, Rustic Bunting, Common Rosefinch and Golden Oriole... Need I say more. 

However, this is the way of birding, and something that we all need to learn to deal with at some point. So as I sit here having soaked up some lovely Scottish Sun. with my newly acquired Yellow Fever vaccination certificate for Argentina sitting next to me, looking forward to two more days of luxury running water, I feel very happy, for myself and also for the team enjoying some wonderful birds. I must also add that my eternal optimism (be it good or bad) allows me to believe that when we return on Saturday, all those lovely birds will be there waiting with open arms (or wings)!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A Barred Surprise!

After rain overnight on Friday, there was an air of expectation yesterday morning that something tasty might have arrived. It didn't take much to find it either, as Lana and I walked up the boardwalk there it was, sat in the sticks in full view, a BARRED WARBLER! It didn't stay there for long unfortunately and went crashing off into the dock where it spent most of the day, occasionally visiting the Elders in the veg patch where I managed to grab a distant picture! These large Sylvia warblers breed right across Central Europe and Central Asia and turn up in fairly good numbers in the East Coast around this time of year. Records are almost always first winter birds migrating south to Eastern Africa for the winter; spring records and adults are extremely rare. The bird gets its name from the heavy barring that adult males have across the breast, somewhat similar to a Sparrowhawk or Peregrine. There was some very faint barring visible on this bird (perhaps not in this poor photo though).

Skulking, always skulking! Typical Barred Warbler behaviour

Later that evening there was some sad news, a Barred Warbler had been found dead by the sticks where we had first seen our bird this morning. However, 30 minutes later another one was found, alive and well. It seems then that two came in overnight and unfortunately, one didn't make it.

Also around was this lovely Whinchat, although it was the only one remaining. The Pied Flycatcher was still around, as were the other common migrants.

Gorgeous bird! Whinchat.

On the Farnes our information centre is somewhat akin to a giant insect trap, and this handy extra feature means that other species are enticed in as well, and this morning I was kept company by this little chap as he flicked around gorging himself on flies.

Sharing my workplace with a Goldcrest.... Could be worse?

Friday, 5 September 2014

Lightly does it easterlies

It felt like summer had returned for a few days this week. We had a lovely few days on the Farnes, but looking outside now at rain and fog it feels like a long time ago. However, the islands have some nice birds at the moment, and this rain brings with it some hope of a few more treats dropping in overnight.
On our day off this week Lana and I had a whistle-stop tour down our local section of Northumberland coast. Firstly Holy Island causeway, where 5 Greenshank, a Bar-wit and many Curlew and Redshanks were on show.

Greenshank showing wonderfully from the car!


Redshank in lovely light

Then it was onto Budle Bay where a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper showed nicely, and onto Low-Newton scrape which was heaving with birds, in particular a lovely Little Stint. We then decided to try for the long-staying Caspian Gull in Amble, which unfortunately wasn't there. However there was a showy Mediterranean Gull with a ring on (possibly a breeder from Coquet).

Med or Caspian? What's the difference eh?

Back on the islands, and as mentioned some nice migrants grace us with their presence at the moment. Between the islands we have 8 Whinchat, 5 Pied Flycatcher, 1 Spotted Flycatcher, a Little Stint and a sprinkling of Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests and a Whitethroat.

Pied Flycatcher, clearly been messing around in the Dock.

Willow Warbler in the sun

Who is watching who here?

We have also seen the first Song Thrush of the autumn. It won't be long now before thrushes are heading our way in big numbers. This bird, like all the Song Thrushes I have encountered on the islands was very flighty and tricky to photograph. I just managed this shot looking straight into the sun as it paused for a second on a fence.

Flighty Song Thrush

As for our breeding birds, it isn't quite over yet. Possibly the last brood of the year belongs to the Swallows in the chapel on Inner Farne. This is the second brood for these parents, and it won't be long at all before they are flying and winging their way to Africa for the winter!

Begging away.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Last Session

The final seabird ringing session of the year took place this week involving all the Fulmar chicks on Inner Farne. It won't be long until these guys leave the islands and get their first taste of the ocean, potentially their home for the next 60 years!!!! Fulmar chicks are feared by predators thanks to a special defence mechanism; vomit. If another bird is caught in the firing line of this oily mixture, it destroys the waterproofing of its feathers and can render it unable to fly. For us, it just means a revolting smell that is incredibly difficult to get off your clothes, so pouncing on them quickly is a must.

Fulmar and I

Lana, ringing with a view

As for migrant birds... well. A poorly timed day off saw us miss the first excitement of the Autumn, a Citrine Wagtail. With easterlies hitting we knew there was a risk, but didn't expect it to be that bad!! Having seen two before it wasn't the end of the world, but it is now a gaping hole in my Farnes list. Despite a nice sprinkling of Wrynecks, Pied Flys, Greenish and Icterine Warblers along the east coast, the Citrine Wag had only had a supporting cast of Willow Warblers, Wheatears and a single Whinchat (all lovely in their own right may I add).

Wheatear poses nicely.

Rock Pipit catching the light nicely.

The main highlight for us came from the sea (or over the sea) in the form of a Great Shearwater, a good bird for the east coast and only the 13th record for the Farnes. It showed well but fairly distantly as it made its way through the Inner Sound and continued its way northward. Unfortunately it was way too far away for a photo, but to give you an idea, I've borrowed one from Wikipedia to help set the scene.

So here I am seawatching and sheltering from the NW wind......

And this is almost exactly the image I was seeing through my scope a few minutes later......

Now I must confess that it was a little further away than this, but only a little.. OK quite a bit. Anyway, to keep spirits high in the face of  more less-than-useless Westerly winds, an unusual arrival was found today in the form of a male Southern Hawker dragonfly. This beauty is a bit of a rarity on the islands and is still reasonably local this far north. It was also very posy, unusual for a dragonfly...

Southern Hawker, looking confused as to his whereabouts

And that's all for now. Looking to next weekend, we are due more easterlies and with that hopefully more lovely birds. Until next time, here is a little puzzle. Spot the Willow Warbler.