25 Sept 2018

25 Sep 18 - The UK Wildlife Sighting Of The Year

It had been a fairly quiet morning visit to St Aldhelms, an old patch that I'm spending a lot of time at this Autumn following last year's Two-barred Greenish Warbler. There were only a few migrants with singles of Wheatear & Whinchat, along with a scattering of Chiffchaffs & Blackcaps. A lone Golden Plover flew over calling as I was about to leave.
Golden Plover: This Golden Plover flying South was the highlight of a quiet morning at St Aldhelms
I had just got back home & was enjoying a cuppa of tea, whilst adding my sightings to my Birding database. When I finished that, I checked RBA & saw a message of a Beluga Whale in the Thames from Coalhouse Fort on the Essex shoreline: a message that was equally incredible & unlikely. A quick look on twitter found a shaky video of a Beluga Whale surfacing several times. I didn't know the finder, Dave Andrews (@ipterodroma), but he seemed to be a serious Birder & naturalist, rather than a hoaxer. Sadly, there are strange individuals who seem to get a kick out of posting hoaxes e.g. a recent claim of a potential ringtail Harrier in Dorset, with a photo attached of one of the recent claimed Pallid Harriers from Norfolk. Fortunately, I was away at the time & didn't waste time looking for that hoax.
Beluga Whale:A shot of the head & the front half of the body
Anyway, back to the Beluga Whale. By this time, people were already responding to the original tweet. Some comments were genuine & congratulatory or checking directions. But there was also the sort of crap I would have expected from Birdforum querying the identification e.g. it being a hybrid (but no suggestion of what kind of hybrid it was) & also it was an albino Minke Whale. I have no problem with people querying the identification, but if you are going to do that it's better to ensure you know what you are talking about first, in case it dissuades other people who think you know what you are talking about. Although the video was shaky & not close, it could be see blowing briefly as it surfaced: therefore, it was surfacing normally & all the visible body was white. Additionally, there was no visible dorsal fin. The colouration & more importantly the lack of a visible dorsal fin pretty much rules out any of the other North Atlantic Cetaceans. Seeing it blowing mean it wasn't showing a paler underside as it surfaced. The The only other potential Cetacean without a dorsal fin would be a Narwhal, but the colouration was ruling that out. Therefore, it was clearly a Beluga Whale & off Essex. I decided I was going to be leaving soon, but I had time to made some lunch while I was waiting for an update to confirm it was still showing. By the time I had finished my lunch, there had been an update to confirm it was still showing & even better, the directions looked like it would be visible just to the East of Gravesend & from the Kent shoreline. This would knock thirty minutes time of my journey & also reduce the walk once I got there. The only thing left was to phone a couple of mates who might also be interested in looking for it. They weren't interested in heading off. One was Marcus Lawson, who knew the finder & added the final confirmation that he was a sound observer. It was time to head off to Kent about thirty minutes after seeing the initial messages. It was a straight-forward journey, although the Sat Nat failed me & reported I was there despite being in the wrong location. A quick check on the mobile gave me another road to try & that time the Sat Nat got the right location. Fortunately, it was only a 1/4 mile walk along the riverbank before I reached the first group of observers.
Beluga Whale: A slightly better view of the front half of the body
Within about five minutes, it surfaced, blew briefly & dipped down again. After resurfacing a few times, it dived deeper & was gone for another five minutes. These seemed to be the pattern of it surfacing every five minutes or so, with around five or six brief appearances, before diving deeply again. It probably didn't move about twenty or thirty metres from where I first saw it over the next two hours. It was diving frequently & hopefully it was finding food during its dives. Apparently, it had been on the Kent side of the river about an hour earlier, but was now appearing on the Essex side of the deep-water channel. Therefore, it was probably 3/4 of the way across the river. There wasn't anything I could do about that. It would have been a slow journey back to the Dartford river crossing & back East to the far bank & a longer walk. Given the traffic it would have been well over an hour before I was on the opposite shoreline. While it would have been closer, the light would also have been a lot worse by the time I got there. Given my dislike for Essex having been born & brought up in Kent, then I wasn't heading to the wrong side of the river.
Beluga Whale: Again, no view of any dorsal fin & when properly exposed the colouration appeared pale greyish white, rather than white: which would suggest it was an immature Beluga Whale
There have been just under twenty previous records in the UK with the most recent sighting being a few years ago of two off the North East English coast. This is the most Southerly UK record. At the time of writing this Post on 1 Oct 18, the Beluga Whale has been present in the same area of the River Thames for a week & still appears to be feeding OK. Looking at the Marine Mammals of the World Edition II, Beluga Whales have a varied diet of Fish, Squid, Octopus, Shrimps & Crabs. They often occur in estuaries when the water depth can be only a few metres deep, although they also can dive up to 300 metres deep. If it is able to find enough food, then it might be able to survive for some time in the River Thames, but it is worrying that it is feeding in a busy deep-water channel. In the two hours I was there, two large ships passed close to where it was feeding. I can't believe that noise will be good for it.
Beluga Whale: There was no sign of a dorsal fin, thus ruling out all the other potential Cetacean species in the North Atlantic, other than a female Narwhal which can be ruled out on colouration & size
This surprise Cetacean is my 40th species seen, out of a total of 90 species. It is my 30th species that I have seen this year. I really can't see how any Bird turning up in the UK will top this Beluga Whale, unless it self-found Pallas's Sandgrouse at St Aldhelms late this autumn. I had been thinking of signing up to rejoin the Plancius for a trip to Spitsbergen this Summer, but decided against it on cost grounds & to allow me the time to investigation the best time of year for a trip. Beluga Whales would have been one of the targets for that trip. I will still be going to Spitsbergen at some point in the future as it does look to be a great trip.

13 Sept 2018

13 Sep 18 - A Lucky Encounter At Littlesea

I recently went down to Littlesea to the look for the Purple Heron (which now looks like it has moved on as I've not seen it since 1 Sep on three subsequent visits to the Little Egret roost). Due to the limited visibility from the high hide these days due to vegetation that has built up over the years, I view the Egret roost from next to the hide. I could hear people talking quietly in the high hide, but wasn't sure if they were birdwatchers or not. I decided to focus on the Little Egret roost & give them a shout if the Purple Heron arrived. The Little Egrets were arriving, but weren't settling down in the roost. This wouldn't be down to me as I'm over 100 metres from the roost. As the light dropped, suddenly two guys appeared in front of the hide & were as surprised to see me in the low light, as I was to see them. One guy disappeared to talk to his mates in the hide & the other, Nige, started chatting. It turned out they were part of a team working for the Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bat project & were around for one night of Bat trapping & ringing. Obviously, this was fully approved & licenced by Natural England, the Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bat project & with approval from the National Trust & they were all accredited to handle Bats. Other members of the project were out at Radipole that evening. They had been setting up a couple of their specialist Bat traps at the water's edge which is why the Little Egrets were unsettled. Although they didn't have visibility of the roost, the Egrets could presumably hear them as they moved around in the lakeside trees & bushes. Anyway, they didn't seem to have had any lasting impact on the Little Egrets. There was a no show by the Purple Heron, but think that was down to it having moved on. As the last of the Little Egrets were arriving I carried on chatting to Nige, who as well as being into Bats, was a Birder from the Blagdon area near Bristol. I asked if it would be alright to hang around & was told that would be OK. It was getting dark so we joined the other three in the hide. At regular intervals in the evening, one or two members of the team walked down to check the two Bat traps & bring back their catches in bags. All the Bats that came up to the high hide were identified, measured & weighed & the Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bats were also ringed. I was told it was OK to take a few photos with the Iphone (using the light of their torches).
Soprano Pipistrelle Bat: The photo isn't great, but I didn't want to do more than grab some quick photos. Albeit the time taken to get the photo was short, compared to the time the Bats were being identified, aged & sexed, measured & weighed
Common Pipistrelle Bat
I have a reasonable knowledge of how to identify the UK mammals, except for Bats. I haven't ever got around to getting a Bat detector due to their expense & not got as far as finding a mate who knows a lot about Bats to get me started on the basic identification features of Bats. To date, it's been one of those things to do in the future when I've got the time & opportunity. As a result, my UK Bat List was limited to Brown Long-eared Bat (having trapped one pre-dawn in my pre university ringing days in Kent), Greater Horseshoe Bat (at a private Purbeck site I was allowed to visit) & Noctule Bat (pointed out by Richard Webb at Middlebere). I learnt as much about UK Bats that evening as I had learnt in all the years I've been Birding. When I started Birding, my mates always said the small Bats you saw at dusk were Pipistrelle Bats as that was the small common Bat. Those statements were never good enough to me to add them to my Mammal List as I didn't know how to separate them from any of the scarcer small Bats. Then a few years ago, I discovered that Pipistrelle Bats were actually two species: Common Pipistrelle Bat & Soprano Pipistrelle Bat. They were both common & widespread across the UK & in similar habitats. They could be separated based on their calls as Common Pipistrelle Bat echo locate at 45 kHz & the Soprano Pipistrelle Bat at 55 kHz. But that isn't much use without a Bat detector & still doesn't help me separate them from the other small less common Bats. I also discovered at the same time, there was a third species, Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bat, which is a scarce visitor to the UK from Eastern Europe. Presumably, the extreme wing of the Tory Party will want to stop them arriving in the near future, so that will reduce the identification problems post Brexit. One of the Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bat project's goals in to help understand the arrival & movements of this species in the UK & Europe.
Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bat: It is believed that Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bats arrive in the autumn from Eastern Europe & then disperse in Southern England. They are still a scarce species compared to the two common UK species
Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bat: The ring goes on the forewing & thus is a C shape, rather than a closed ring as with Bird rings
The identification of the three Pipistrelle Bat species in the hand looked tricky compared to most Bird & Macro Moth identification & I won't go into the identification features as my photos don't show the features anyway. Ageing & sexing was slightly easier. In the end, the group trapped three Nathusius' Pipistrelle Bats, three Common Pipistrelle Bats (although the first wasn't brought up to the hide) & one Soprano Pipistrelle Bat. They also trapped a Whiskered Bat. They were disappointed in the numbers caught, but I was really pleased to be allowed to hang around & learn a lot more than I knew about Bats. However, I wasn't too worried when they decided around 02:00 to knock it on the head. I had only popped out to count the Little Egret roost & had expected to be back soon after dusk. The skies had cleared a couple of hours ago & the temperature plummeted, so perhaps that hadn't helped Bat activity.
Whiskered Bat: This was the final Bat caught that evening. Slightly larger in the hand than the three Pipistrelle Bats & with a paler breast
Whiskered Bat: While I could see it wasn't one of the Pipistrelle Bat species, separation from the very similar Brandt's Bat that might also occur at Studland seemed even harder & included a detailed check of the teeth shape
My thanks to Nige & the other three lads for letting me stay & watch them. It had been a great evening.

6 Sept 2018

6 Sep 18 - Local Ortolan

After another early Autumn of Birding around my local patches & not finding anything, a couple of days ago I went to the Northern end of Portland to look for a couple of Ortolans. It was a very pleasant afternoon & evening of looking in one of the quieter ends of Portland. But, there had been no sightings of the Ortolans since the late morning on that day, frustratingly followed by another brief couple of sightings the following morning. Well you can't see all the Birds you look for. It has been many years since I last saw an Ortolan in Dorset, as I have only made one other equally unsuccessful attempt to chase them on Portland in the last twenty years. However, I did see quite a few in Israel at Beit Yatir, Yotvata & Kfar Ruppin Kibbutz in 2014, so I've not been particularly worried about chasing them in the UK.
Whinchat: It is always a good start to see something interesting by the Renscombe car park
This morning I was out Birding again to St Aldhelms. I park at the Renscombe car park & generally walk down the main track to St Aldhelms Head. I always spend some time Birding in the weedy rough ground & checking the trees by Trev Haysom's quarry, now known to many national Birders as the Two-barred Greenish Warbler trees. Then I move onto St Aldhelms Head to check the quarry ledges & bushes at the Head. However, on the earlier trips this Autumn, the Head has been fairly quiet & the best Birding has been the rough ground by Trev's quarry. This morning I decided I was going to focus my time exploring & waiting in that area. This area is the top of a South Westerly facing valley which seems to act as a funnel for Birds to follow to the rough ground. There was a scattering of the usual suspects throughout the morning in low numbers: Whinchat, Wheatear, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit & Redstart, as well as, some of the commoner Warblers. This morning it was clear watching the top of the valley that migrants were moving up the valley, with some feeding in the area before moving on. I was glad to confirm my feelings for this being a good spot to focus on. Then I picked up what looked like a Bunting grovelling at the base of some Brambles. It was just a bit too far for the binoculars & I had left the scope at home. I couldn't get closer from where I was standing. So, I picked up the camera to get some photos. Looking at the photos on the back of the camera, I was really pleased to see a pale yellow eyering & yellow moustachial stripe: Ortolan.
Ortolan: The pale yellow eyering, long pale yellow moustachial & streaky breast are spot on for an Ortolan
Ortolan: To give an idea why I turned to the camera for help. This is the uncropped photo with the effective 13x magnification that the Canon 7D & 100 - 400 mm lens produced. The Ortolan is clearly visible (not) just to the right of pale stone in the centre of the photo. I am happy to go out Birding without the scope, but I am rarely seen without the camera. It is fairly heavy to carry, but I've got used to its weight & today it proved its worth
I looked again & couldn't see it on the ground. But the ground was uneven & it was likely to have just moved out of view. I decided to walk back to the gate where I could walk into the field (as there is a public footpath through the field). I walked to the Brambles, but all I saw fly up were the group of Linnets & another group of House Sparrows. I don't think it went up with either group & it clearly wasn't by the Brambles. All I can assume was it had moved while I was walking back to the field entrance. After twenty minutes of unsuccessfully looking, I saw another Birder. He was a visiting Essex Birder, James. We spent another couple of hours looking for the Ortolan, but still drew a blank. All very frustrating, but I'm pleased to have found a local Ortolan & at least get some presentable photos to submit the record.
Ortolan: After grabbed the first quick photos (above), I scanned again with the bins & saw the Bunting had popped up from a small rut. I then grabbed a few more photos, now I could definitely see the Bunting through the camera
Ortolan: To encourage me to Bird locally after moving to Dorset in 1996, I started a Ten Mile from the house list which includes all of Poole Harbour, Wareham Forest & the Purbeck coast from Tyneham to Durlston. This brings the Ten Mile list up to 283. There are still a handful of scarce but near annual migrants to Durlston that I could pick up if I spent more time on the coast, rather than in my Poole Harbour patches
Ortolan: There have been several records of Ortolans at St Aldhelms Head in the 1980s & 1990s when the Head was regularly watched by local Birders, Peter Williams & ex-local Steve Morrison. Steve believes this might be the first record for St Aldhelms for about 20 years
Ortolan: This was the final decent photo. In the next photo it was partly obscured as it dropped back into the small rut. I will be back at St Aldhelms tomorrow just in case it hasn't moved far
Ortolans have had an interesting status in Dorset in the last few years. They used to be regular from the end of Aug to early Sep at Portland in the 1980s & 1990s, but were always scarce elsewhere in the county. Since that they appear to have become scarcer. There was only one record for Poole Harbour seen by Nick Hopper at Ballard Down in Sep 07. Then a few years ago, local Poole Birders Nick Hopper & then Paul Morton, started night recordings at Portland & Poole Harbour, respectively. What followed was one of the more surprising Birding discoveries in Dorset for many years. Nick & Paul were regularly recording Ortolans at every site they left their recorders running overnight. Nick generally has sessions of leaving his recorder running overnight at Portland & has regularly recorded Ortolans calling at night as detailed, including sound recordings, on the Portland Bird Obs website every Autumn in recent years. Paul then tried recording at a number of locations including Lytchett Matravers, central Poole & occasionally at other locations in Poole Harbour. In 2016, Paul identified thirteen individuals calling at night over central Poole as detailed including sound recordings on the Birds of Poole Harbour website. He also had a brief morning sighting of one he flushed at Soldiers Road that year. Paul has had smaller numbers recorded in the last couple of Autumns which are detailed on the Birds of Poole Harbour sightings pages. The overall discovery by Nick & Paul, assisted by analysis by well-known sound recordist Marcus Robb has been written up on the Sound Approach website in a couple of articles here & here. To me their results are excellent & I totally believe their records. Given how skulky Ortolans are then it is no surprise that despite Nick & Paul recording these Ortolans at night, that few get seen the next morning. Their best nights have only had two or three individuals often in the middle of the night. So, it is not surprising that they aren't found the following morning, as they have probably travelled a long distance since they were recorded. There are many evenings where I've heard Redwings calling in the evening & gone out the following morning & not found any Redwings. But, those Redwings I heard calling at nine or ten at night have have flown on for another eight hours or more before dawn.

2 Sept 2018

2 Sep 18 - Painted Lady

Given how few Painted Ladies there seems to have been around this Summer & Autumn, it was good to bump into three today, including this freshly emerged individual. This must have breed locally. I only saw the other two in flight, but presume they had also recently emerged.
Painted Lady