Monday, 28 January 2013

that ridiculously showy Bonaparte's Gull whose name shall now be Napoleon!

He's a small, agressive foreigner who's conquered the hearts and minds of the natives. And he eats bread on a boating lake in the middle of Eastbourne! This is Napoleon, and allow me to tell you the story of how we became acquainted.

It begins several days ago, when I discovered school had a staff training day, and I'd have a day off for some birding! I originally planned to patch the Cuckmere, but upon talking to Jake Gearty, we decided to take advantage of the day off by catching a train into some underwatched areas of East Sussex, Horse Eye Level and Combe Haven. Short-eared Owl, Water Pipit, Bittern and Hen Harrier were all targets. It was a good plan, but a spanner came into the works yesterday, when a BONAPARTE'S GULL was reported from Princes Park, Eastbourne! A great find for John and David Cooper, who put so much effort into their gulling that it's about time they found something rarer than the Casps and Yellow-legs!

This obviously became our main target, we realised Horse Eye from a train would not be doable, and planned to connect with this early on, check Shinewater for Bittern and Bearded Tit, and then get the train to Combe Haven. So, up I was at 7, on the 07:58 train to Lewes, where I met Jake and changed for a train to Eastbourne. We eventually arrived on site at about 09:30, but there was no sign of the bird! Roger and Liz Charlwood were on site, and suggested the bird may not come in until high tide. All I saw were Black-headed GullsHerring Gulls and Coots!
for a bridge camera, I quite liked this Coot photo

in Eastbourne- a well-named cafe!

Swans are scary creatures!
We checked the beach for the Boney's, and had a brief seawatch in which we recorded 2 Red-throated Divers and 3 Razorbill W, 2 Great Crested Grebes o/s, 200 Wigeon flying out to roost on the sea and 6 Ringed Plover on the beach. We now decided to crack on to Shinewater. What felt likes hours later, having traversed the busiest road and scummiest estates in Eastbourne, we were there! Now, if you've never walked round Shinewater before in the winter, here's my advice... Don't! it was muddy, depressing and almost impassable with boots in some places, and I slipped and got my entire side muddy, to which Jake snickered like a child. And for a long time it seemed the birds wouldn't even be worth it! There were about 300 Wigeon, 200 Shoveler, 150 Teal, 100 Gadwall, 200 Tufted Duck and 2 Pochard on the lake, while a Chiffchaff was heard from a small patch of reeds, and we saw about 30 Snipe around the margins. I was mighty relieved when our risk paid off though, as Jake did rather well to spot a distant BITTERN flying over the reedbeds on the opposite side of the lake! It was only on view for about 10 seconds, but this was the first Bittern I had seen in about two years and made the day!
a typical Shinewater path!

dog vs Mute Swan at Shinewater. Dog doesn't win!

I hardly got a great view, but you could see the classic, elongated shape, with neck and legs dangling out to give a slightly distended profile, enhanced by the pot-belliedness of the bird. The beautiful patterning was also visible even rom this range, subtle, reedy brown with thick black streaks running down the back, wings and belly.
leucistic female Mallard, she should really get together with the altogether more striking leucy male at the Ouse Estuary!

Of course, the day was still young, and Jake's birdnet twitter rang through not too long after this. The Boney's was back at Princes Park! We had planned to catch a train to St Leonards, and check out Combe Haven, but as this was a lifer for Jake it took priority. and what a good decision that was!

my own photographic attempts

fleshy legs!!! 

We had to cross the scum-filled, post apocalyptic nightmare that is Hampden Park to get to the nearest station, and it was a half hour walk from Eastbourne station back to Princes Park, by which point I was both starving and exhausted from about 10 miles of walking! But we could see the Bonaparte's Gull being fed from the other side of the lake, and upon getting there plonked down to eat, rest and lounge about enjoying a great, great bird! The views were often distant at this point, but it could often be tempted a  bit closer in, much to the delight of the surrounding throng. 

superior photography with Jake's DSLR
It was a pleasure to see various locals, including Dick Gilmore, Chris Lowmass (who I haven't seen in at least two years, nice to meet you again!), Ron Knight and Les Bird. I even managed to bump into Dad, who had dropped in on his way back from work! 

I (rather selflessly may I add!), sacrificed a succulent ham sandwich for the sake of the gulls, but it was worth it, with the Boney's coming in, swooping down for a bit of bread and giving some fantastic, almost point-blank views! However, after each raid it tended to fly into the middle of the lake to devour its quarry, perhaps sensible given the bullying tendencies of its black-headed cousins and it's respective size in comparison. This seemed to satisfy a lot of the others, who rather sensibly left, having obtained truly fantastic views of a truly fantastic bird! We waited around though, as George Kinnard and Luke Dray had only just arrived!

The gull was currently in the centre of the lake, giving reasonable views through the scope, but not as good as we had obtained previously. Wanting to put on a show for two other young birders who had travelled all the way from Chichester, we sent Luke on a scouting mission to get some bread. We expected him to bring back a little roll, we didn't think he'd come back with a whole loaf! 
excellent flight shot by Jake, showing the diagnostic underwing pattern

As it turned out, the loaf proved very useful, bringing all the gulls in! We now got the very best views yet of the Bonaparte's Gull, as it sat on the water no more than 5 metres away, and could fly up onto the bank at a distance of no more than two metres occasionally, hovering above the throng of Black-heads and occasionally swooping down to steal a piece from under their noses! Small and plucky is how I'd describe Napoleons charisma, but his tactics worked well and I can only imagine he felt gorged! 

A competition soon emerged- could anyone feed the Bonaparte's Gull out of their hand? I managed to get a swan to eat out of mine (and nab my finger too, they'e not gentle with food!), and we gave ourselves endless entertainment watching Black-headed Gulls swoop to catch pieces of bread in mid-air, showing truly remarkable agility and reflexes. Our game was so close to working! we had several flybys of less than a metre, by both the Bonaparte's and surrounding Black-headed Gulls, but none wanted to bite the hand that feeds them! 

With such incredible views, for at least two hours, I managed to get a quite extensive set of notes about the bird! These include;

  • a black bill, shorter and thinner than that of the surrounding Black-heads, giving it a far more delicate expression. The bill was also sharper than those of the black-heads, tapering to a fine point and not looking remotely hooked.
  • a square-ish shaped black patch on the ear coverts, different to the slightly arched, more rectangular pattern of a black-headed gull. It also had very little in the way of dark markings around the eyes
  • slightly greyish wash to the nape, only visible from close range or through the scope, contrasting with whiter colour to breast, flanks and face
  • darker mantle than the surrounding Black-headed Gulls, approaching a Common Gull. 
  • white on the underside of the primaries, where you would find a darker grey on a black-head and almost black on a Little Gull
  • an extensive white flash on the outer primaries visible in flight, with clean black wingtips to all the primaries. when perched, this manifests as a black wingtip and a slightly less noticeable white flash. 
  • orangey-pink, almost salmon-coloured legs, very distinctive in flight! 
  • a buoyant, tern like flight similar to a little gull
  • when perched, it was very noticably smaller and longer-winged than the surrounding black-heads, with a smaller head and far cuter expression. 
  • in flight, it was much more delicate than the Black-headed Gulls, being more easily blown back by a strong gust of wind, and with less powerful wingbeats. 
  • when seen on the deck, it had a short-legged, deep-breasted, long winged and small headed appearance that reminded me of a kittiwake
even the feet look smaller, and more dainty!

Eventually Luke and George had to leave, and Jake and I waited it out for Peter Denyer, who was rushing over after work. We tried feebly to attract the gull closer in, as it had now given up and flown back into the middle of the lake, its appetite presumably sated. We managed to briefly coax it closer, but it then flew off right to the western side of the little lake! We were terrified for a moment that it would leave for good, presumably to roost on the sea, and were relieved when it dropped down and, not 30 seconds later, Peter walked across from the road, standing on the lakeside to practically 10 metres from where it had put down! 

We strolled over to join Peter on the lakeside, and, with just four slices of our loaf left, coaxed the gull off the water a few times so that yet another happy camper could leave with brilliant views! Not quite as amazing as mine, Jakes, Lukes and Georges from earlier, which does trump any views of a rarity, and probably any bird, that I have ever managed, but they were still pretty darn good, and Peter seemed delighted! He very kindly offered us a lift home, saving me the £1.20 bus fare, and the gull flew off to the far side, where a women was feeding the swans, presumably wanting one last feed before it retired for the night. I have a feeling this bird, should it stick around and show like this all the time, will prove incredibly popular!

ad for the record, myself and Peter agree this bird should be called Napoleon. Therefore it would make us very happy if everyone adopted this moniker for him/her!
I think this says it all- I try to photograph a Mute Swan and it's photobombed by a Bonaparte's Gull!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Cuckmere 27 January

Before I start this post, don't get me wrong, I love my patch! It's just sometimes it has the ability to irk, irritate and infuriate in equal measures, and today was one of those days. It's being confined to my 'Room 101', and it is my fondest desire that I never speak of it again after this day...

small amount of flooding
It began badly, when my alarm woke me up at seven, only for my pre-conscious self to decide sleep was more important. Probably a wise move, but by the time I woke of my own will at nine I was kicking myself! It was then half-past ten by the time I made it to Cuckmere Haven, by which time I'd realised I had the scope, but had left the tripod at home! Walking down the footpath opposite the A259, my spirits were lifted a little bit by the sight of a large gull roost in the third field north of exceat!
'SO... F*@#!£G... BRIGHT!

My first port of call was these fields. In the first two were about 400 Canada Geese, 100 Wigeon, 40 Curlew, 50 Rook and 11 Shelduck, but nothing out of the ordinary. 30 Teal flew over heading south. The riverbank path was, as usual, a mudbath, it was like walking through treacle! I was almost at the third field, where god knows how I would have even checked the gulls without a tripod, when, to my enormous chagrin, they were put up! Most flew off south to the west side of the Cuckmere, were I could have scanned them if I wanted to, but this day was already frustrating me. I did a brief survey of the 400 or so gulls as they flew over, most were Great Black-backs, with a decent number of Lesser Black-backs and a few Herrings, and probably a Yellow-leg or Casp mixed in somewhere! Three Lesser Black-backs dropped closer into one of the fields, where I picked out that at least one of them was an intermedius.
intermedius (left) and graelsii (right). you'll have to take my word for it!

The one good thing about this area was that it was at least in the lee of the wind, protected by the downs! The same couldn't be said once I walked down the riverbank the the southern side of the A259, where the SW wind was relentless and miserable! to compound matters, the sun was now almost at it's peak, and I was being forced by the bank to walk south-east, facing directly into it. The path was also a mud-bath, and there really weren't many birds around at all! 15 Pintail on the Meanders with about 200 Wigeon were a good count, but I couldn't find the hoped for Gadwall, Tufted Duck or Pochard (all potential patch yearticks when I'm trying to do a big year for the Cuckmere!)
3 Pintail (drakes) and 3 Wigeon (2 drakes 1 duck)- light was dodgy and they were fairly distant
so I went home, feeling dejected, and having seen very little with my hour! May the birding gods bless anyone reading this with substantially better luck!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Grey Days

"Dawn massing in the east her army
                   Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey" - Wilfred Owen; Exposure

In a cruel parody today, the birding was about as dull as the weather! With all the snow melted on the coast, a band of freezing fog coming in and an ENE wind to boot, it wasn't really a pleasant day to be out at all! Still, Wednesday is the only day myself and Jake Gearty (one of the very few other young birders in sussex, who also happens to go to College with me!), finish at an early enough time to head out birding, and so, after a train, a McDonalds (I ordered Tropicana in a vain attempt to appear health-conscious) and some swearing and cursing, we were birding by about 1.15.

We were birding an area around Newhaven, East Sussex. Now, I hope this'll work, if not blame blogger, but below this line of text should be a map showing the area!

View Ouse Estuary project and Newhaven Tide Mills in a larger map
The snow that had previously covered the whole area had melted completely overnight, but Thrushes were still everywhere! The fields opposite the A259 contained about 100 Fieldfare, a few Redwing, 20 Lapwing and 4 Curlew. There must have then been about 400 Fieldfare and 200 Redwing as we walked down along the cycle path, but at this point it was spitting rain from the NE at a ferocious speed, and we were both rather miserable! A gorgeous male Stonechat offered brief relief, and I got a yeartick in the form of a drake Gadwall that did a lap of honour over the marshes around Denton Corner. This was also my first record of the species here!

Another first came soon after with two fine female Shovelers, among a loose group of 20 Teal on the flooded basin opposite the cycle path. Maybe these aren't everyone's favourite bird, they certainly aren't as gaudy and beautiful as the males, but they, like all female ducks, always present a bit of an ID challenge and a feeling of self-satisfaction that you just don't get from the males! In this case though, those bills make them pretty hard to mistake, no matter what!
leucistic drake Mallard- © Jake Gearty
 There were still Thrushes everywhere, more Teal were found as we moved on down the cycle path, along with a second male Stonechat. A ratther incongruous surprise was a leucistic drake Mallard being chased and harangued by a decidedly more regular-plumaged male, but the days highlight was just about to come. After I was almost caught out by a Moorhen in flight, Jake spotted a bird feeding at the edge of the reedy channel where the path to the viewing screen forks off from the cycle path to Newhaven. It disappeared back in rather too quickly, but in profile it was clearly a Water Rail! Mercifully, it re-appeared, giving some of the best and most prolongued views either of us had had of the species in some time. I hear them on almost every winter visit here (though surprisingly not today!), but unsurprisingly, I'm not often lucky enough to see one.

© Jake Gearty

Eventually it disappeared again, and we checked the arable fields to our left. These have been doing fairly well for birds recently, with Caspian Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, White-fronted Goose and Brent Goose all being reported in the last moth. There were very few gulls, and the White-fronts clearly weren't around today, but four Brent Geese did show well, presumably the same as those I saw  from the train to school today, and the two yesterday. On one of the flooded flashed were 150 or so Dunlin, an excellent  count for this site, and they were joined by numerous Lapwing, Redshank and 3 Golden Plover, a first record for the area for me.

We followed this up by walking to Newhaven Tide Mills. In short, bad move!! For starters, it meant taking a shortcut through the badlands of Newhaven Docklands, a place that makes Baltimore in The Wire seem like a suitable place to take your family to. Secondly, you could really feel the breeze here, not being in the lee of the South Downs quite so much. Thirdly, we saw jack-all! a handful of Redshank were on the Mill Creek, 40 Fieldfare flew over and there were about 20-30 Song Thrush trying to eke a living from the vegetated shingle, having presumably forgotten far more fertile spots have now thawed out! Feeling rather dejected, we went out separate ways, me the 20-minute walk back to my house and Jake back along the cycle path towards the Ouse Estuary. He told me later he saw the Water Rail, but I was so cold, bitter and tired by the end of such a draining walk that I really didn't regret missing seconds on the bird an awful much!

fyi- for anyone interested, myself and a few other young birders have formed a team blog which I hope will be of interest! There'll hopefully be new stuff on there everyday, with updates from all over the country and all walks of birding! take a look on to have a look, though avoid the current top post unless you want to re-read this(I know, I know, double-posting is a deadly sin, tut tut)! thanks to all readers, whoever you are and whatever tragic reason means you've somehow ended up on this blog :-) 

Thursday, 3 January 2013

3 Jan- Cuckmere and Ouse Estuary

The Cuckmere was lifeless by any normal standards. The six waxwing and possible Scaup reported yesterday (per SOS), failed to materialise, and nothing of note could be found among the gulls today. Only birds of note were 800+ Common Gull, 2 Kingfisher, 1 Rock Pipit, 17 Little Grebe and the Canada x Bar-headed Goose Hybrid. Numbers of most birds seem generally low, there were very few passerines about, bar Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails, and of ducks, I recorded just 5 Shelduck, 15 Teal and 21 Wigeon. I also saw 4 new species for the patch this year, Woodpigeon, Moorhen, Kestrel and Kingfisher, bringing me up to 52 species from two visits.

We then checked the Ouse Estuary Project, in the hope of a decent gull. I did find one interesting Argentatus type, in almost every respect looking typical for a classic, apart from it's argenteus like primary spots when perched. I didn't see the full wing pattern, as it never flew or even stretched out, but I've heard that intergrades between the two races occur along the North Sea  coast of Europe, from France-Denmark. Perhaps these birds account for some Herring Gulls, like this, that are difficult to assign to either race?

The Ouse Estuary did have a lot more birds than the Cuckmere though. the gulls included about 300 Common, 200 Black-headed, and double-figure counts of Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed. about 200 Lapwing in the flooded fields were accompanied by 20 Dunlin, while a wisp of 20 Snipe also did a brief flyby. two Water Rails were heard squealing from the reeds, but the most exceptional record was of 2-3 Bearded Tits, heard only, but only my second record for the local area, after finding the lovely long-staying group here in 2007/08.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

a caspy new year

I'm not generally one for serious listing, but I made an exception this year! Myself and a few other young birders, living in Norfolk, Durham, Northumberland, Lancashire, Aberdeenshire and various other areas decided a few months ago to have a Patch Battle- see who can see the most species in a year on their local. If any of you are reading this, here's how I got on on day 1! 

I started in great form, not 15 minutes after getting off the bus at Cuckmere Haven, I'd found an absolutely stonking adult CASPIAN GULL amongst the others. Features I noted were;
  • long and parallel-edged bill
  • sloping forehead
  • very small, beady eye
  • fairly pale mantle shade, slightly darker than argenteus herring gull
  • a large amount of white in the primaries
  • long-winged
  • deep-breasted, holding it's chest up very high
  • very pale, fleshy-pink legs
  • very long-winged
  • a somewhat clumsy, waddling gait when walking 
  • long-necked 
  • it was frequently seen 'albatrossing'
I'm not the most confident guy at identifying Caspians, but this one was practically doing a song and dance in front of me! Sadly the only photos I managed were completely unidentifiable! 

Further down the Cuckmere, I eventually found the 16 Barnacle Geese, flying out to sea! I'll take this as a hopeful sign of their origin, and given there was a report of 50 from Lewes on the 1st as well (click here), it seems there may have been a small arrival in sussex. for now then, I'm having them! 

Other than these two, not a great deal to report. a brief seawatch off the Cuckmere revealed 5 Fulmars kicking about offshore, a decent early arrival for them. also, if you want to visit the Cuckmere at the moment, I really would suggest wellies; 80% of the paths are complete quagmires!

I kicked off my patch battle with 48 species, see below;

  1. Mute Swan- c10 in the Cuckmere
  2. Canada Goose- c300 in the Cuckmere
  3. Greylag Goose- 3
  4. Barnacle Goose- 16 (ex)
  5. Shelduck- 15
  6. Mallard-6
  7. Wigeon-150 in the Cuckmere. 40 offshore at Hope Gap, 22W at Splash Point presumably part of this group
  8. Teal-30
  9. Pheasant- 3
  10. Little Grebe-5
  11. Fulmar-5 o/s
  12. Cormorant- 7
  13. Grey Heron-2
  14. Little Egret-4
  15. Sparrowhawk-1
  16. Oystercatcher-2 at Cuckmere, 20 at Hope Gap
  17. Curlew-40+
  18. Redshank-15 roosting on an island in the scrape
  19. Black-headed Gull- c700 overall
  20. Common Gull-c75 overall
  21. Herring Gull-c400 overall, argentatus; one at Exceat, one at Hope Gap, two at Splash Point
  22. CASPIAN GULL- 1 adult north of Exceat (ex)
  23. Lesser-black back- c250 overall, about 10% intermedius
  24. Great Black-back- c150 overall
  25. Feral Pigeon -16 at Seaford Head
  26. Green Woodpecker- 1 at Harry's Bush
  27. Skylark-c10, a few singing
  28. Pied Wagtail- c20
  29. Meadow Pipit- c10
  30. Rock Pipit- 3 in Cuckmere, 2 near Splash Point
  31. Wren- 1 Cuckmere, 2 Seaford Head
  32. Dunnock- a few
  33. Robin- widespread, a few singing
  34. Blackbird- 1 each at Cuckmere and Hope Gap
  35. Song Thrush- 1 singing at Exceat
  36. Blue Tit- c5 in Hope Gap
  37. Great Tit- 1 singing at Exceat
  38. Long-tailed Tit- c5 at Exceat
  39. Magpie- widespread
  40. Rook- widespread
  41. Jackdaw- widespread
  42. Carrion crow- widespread
  43. Starling- widespread
  44. House Sparrow- flocks at Golden Galleon and north of Exceat
  45. Chaffinch- widespread
  46. Greenfinch- one by the scrape
  47. Yellowhammer- one by the scrape
  48. Reed Bunting- 1 near the Horse Paddocks, Cuckmere
Happy New Year everyone!