Tuesday, 6 December 2011


I went to Lackford Lakes last Sunday and enjoyed quite nice views of a 500-strong flock of Lapwing.  A mixture of adults and juveniles, very edgy and nervous for no apparent reason it seemed.  I've seen them nervous like this before - why?  The 100+ Teal and the other wildfowl and few large gulls nearby were quite relaxed by comparison.  The light was excellent, just wish I could have painted faster.  The picture below took about 1hr - 1hr15.  It was straight in with the brush, there are no pencil lines in here.  I was quite on edge a lot of the time, trying to really focus on the birds, and desperately trying to ignore other birders in the hide who are just not giving me enough space.  I need to find somewhere comfortable to work where I am not disturbed.

Western Sand

Just one spread of the Western Sandpiper at Cley.  I really could have gone all-out with this one and compiled a highly detailed composition, but I would have needed all day.  At least I had reasonable views, although I'd like to go back and have another look at it and to study it at leisure...
An interesting bird, it sure looks like a Western Sandpiper to me (based on my broad field experience, sample size of one!, the Brownsea Island bird in 2004).  This individual is a 1st winter moulting to adult winter.  I guess most British birders will be unfamiliar with this plumage unless they happen to have been in the States at this time of year.  That said, Western Sand moults earlier than Semi-p, so maybe it's not impossible to see birds like this in say in August, perhaps?  I was really stuck by its long-billed appearance and the head pattern too, both when I first saw the photos and when I saw it in the field.  I'm not familar with any images of the longer-billed form of Semi-palmated Sandpiper - well apart from the famous Felixstowe stint of 1982 that I've read about: I think that was later decided to be a long-billed Semi-p (again, must read the paper by the late Peter Grant in BB dealing with the ID of that individual - it will be educational).  The patterning of the retained juvenile scaps and tertials are different too to juv. Semi-p.  Photos show the bird having rufous in the retained juvenile upper scapulars which I don't think semi-p would have. I wasn't able to discern this colour in the field however.  I really must have a look in Chandler's amazing photographic guide  to Shorebirds of the Northern Hemisphere... 
It's all very well for me to say it's a Western Sandpiper: actually being confronted with it in the field would have been a whole different experience with all kinds of uncertainty and doubt, and lots of patience to get the views and photos to conclusively identify it.  It's hardly surprising it took several days for the identification to be firmly nailed.

Fifteen minutes of fame

The October issue of British Birds magazine featured the annual Report on Rare Birds in Great Britain, for 2010.  It included my record of a Black Stork that I found whilst out doing some Upland Breeding Bird Survey squares on Exmoor.  BB have printed the actual field sketches I made at the time - it's always nice to see one's work in print, and it doesn't happen very often, so have to enjoy it while it's there.  My pic is printed alongside a nice sketch of a different Black Stork at Kyle of Lochalsh by youngster George Love-Jones.  Enjoy!
Here is the actual fieldsketch from the book if you want to see a bit more detail:
I also produced a more detailed composition to capture the occasion which BB didn't use:
It was also satisfying to have some recognition for identifying the Chipping Norton Oriental Turtle Dove from dodgy photos last December.  The rarest bird I've ever (not) found!  At least it got re-discovered and everyone got to see it - the race orientalis was a tick for most birders...

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Lackford, 29 Nov.

I have just spent half an hour typing out a post and then the webpage crashed.  I don't have time to waste typing it out all over again, so the sketches below will suffice.  Thanks to Pete Wilson and Dawn Balmer for identifying these geese at the weekend.  I count myself lucky they stayed long enough for me to get to see them!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Early November

I went to the coast last week to have a look at the 1st year male Desert Wheatear at Thornham Point.  Thankfully it was still there when I arrived.  As always a stunning bird.  But it was incredibly active - constantly active and feeding - sallying for insects and invertebrates along the strandline, which at high tide here covers a very wide area.  I stayed around for about 4 hours but only on a couple of occasions did it come close enough to get reasonable scope views.  This distance, combined with the continual south-easterly winds combined to stop me doing any paintings of it in the field.  Well that's my excuse anyway.  I also had a 38x56cm sheet of watercolour paper in a board with me, which just become a massive hindrance, catching the wind at my every turn.  I  had high expectations of being able to sit down in nice light, with few people around, the bird at close range and be able to produce a good series of paintings... how wrong was I?!  I know next time not to burden myself with such excesses - I'd be better off just taking one small pad to convey immediate quick impressions, and not have the hope of creating a perfect portrait in the field.  I'm always saying this - I should practice more of what I preach.  Anyway, below are a few sketches of the bird.  As well as the wheatear, there was also a small group of Snow Bunting, and a group of eleven Whooper Swans flew in off the North Sea - quite spectacular!
Stopped to buy some nice organic apples from a farm shop just near Holme on the way back.  Also, a dead Hare I passed on the way to Thornham finally stopped me.  The poor animal had been killed by road traffic 1-2 days earlier.  It's not often I find a dead Hare in relatively good condition but I decided to collect it to study and paint back home.  I kept it a further two days, in the porch at the back before finally laying it to rest in the back garden.  The results of my efforts are below - they are ok, but I still feel I could do better than this: were it not decomposing so fast I could have taken more time over it.  I have used some artitic licence here and carefully not painted any blood into the picture.  There's a question: should I have painted it as it was, truthful to reality, or censored it out like this? 

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Shetland, October 2011

I spent much of the day of Thurs 20th October ruminating on what to do: the lure of a male Siberian Rubythroat on Shetland was huge.  Should I go to Scilly instead; I might have a relaxing week, and there's a Scarlet Tanager on the way too!  But the journey to Shetland is just so far.  The risk of dipping is enormous, and how agonising would that be?  To arrive there only to miss the bird by a day perhaps?  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve missed a good bird on the Northern Isles, so I’m understandably feeling apprehensive.
Anyway I packed my gear on stand-by and, then positive news came through on Friday 21st, so I finally cracked and set off on the long journey northwards.  Feeling under a lot of pressure – it is a ten hour drive to make Aberdeen for the 19.00 hrs ferry... frustratingly I missed the boat by ten minutes.  I then drove to the airport: there is no airline check-in desk to buy tickets there with FlyBe or LoganAir: you can only buy tickets on-line.  I discovered there was one flight available at 09.45 the next morning, a single ticket for £190.  After various complications I decided to wait for positive news the next day (Saturday 22nd) and catch the 17.00 ferry if the bird was still there.  Amazingly it was still there and I was on that ferry!  It was good to meet some other like-minded birders to share the journey with - Andrew James, Wayne and Dave BarnesParticularly after leaving Kirkwall, Orkney, it seemed to be one of the roughest crossings I have been on, there seemed to be an enormous swell and there was a loud bang every time the bows smashed into the waves.  The whole ship shuddered and flexed every time it hit the water.  Thoughts passed through my mind that the boat could break in two.  I asked one of the bar staff on the boat ‘is it always this rough?’.  So it was a relief to be told ‘this isn’t rough’!  The rest of the journey was awful, with many people being sick on-board, I felt a bit queasy.  I’d been in such a rush to travel north I’d forgotten to bring any sea-sickness tablets with me.  I took to lying down on a long couch in one of the bars after closing, and remaining stock-still, trying to sleep for the remainder of the journey.  I was fine. 

It was a relief to finally arrive in Lerwick at 07.00 on Sunday 23 October.  My friend Howard met me at the ferry terminal and we were soon at Gulberwick.  After a tense 40-minute wait, there it was, a stonking male Siberian Rubythroat!!!  The first views of it were in very poor light, at the top of the drive to the house.  At one point the Rubythroat was involved in a skirmish with a defensive Robin, and the Robin was seen standing on the Rubythroat!  The wind was gusting south-easterly force 6-7 so it was tricky to keep my scope steady at times.  Over the course of the day the bird performed many times, never especially close but quite adequate through the telescope.  The light also improved, and on one occasion it appeared underneath a trailer parked in the front garden at about ?50m range.  There were quite a few other birds in the vicinity too – Goldcrest, several small flocks of Redwing, 2 Blackcaps and I heard a Yellow-browed Warbler calling several times from the valley below.  In the afternoon two different Sparrowhawks were in the area, and a female even perched up in the trees bordering the bird’s favourite track.  Dave managed to get some great shots of the bird as you'll see from his website.  My sketches are ok, but I could have done better were conditions not so testing.  At least I have some good material to work up when I get home!

Monday 24th October dawned dark and stormy with the wind at SE force 7. 
I went back to Gulberwick and was there until 13.30 hours before giving up.  By this time the wind had picked up to force 8, and it was getting too windy to even hold my binoculars steady.  Also the wind meant I was getting  chilled too, even though I was wearing seven layers of clothing!  Met three birders from Northamptonshire at Gulberwick this morning.  They left around midday, relieved to have seen the Rubythroat albeit in windy conditions.  They were day-tripping it: their return journey can’t have been much fun in such stormy weather: the ferry was unable to dock at Aberdeen due to conditions at the harbour mouth, so was diverted to Rosyth, Fife, the 12 hour journey taking 26 hours.  They then would have had to get from Rosyth back to Aberdeen to collect their car before enduring the mammoth journey back south.
Tuesday 24th October: trip around the Ness in force 7/8 gales.  Dry all day but very challenging birding conditions with many birds keeping low.  Tonight’s ferry sailing was cancelled.
Wednesday 25th October: force 9 gale all day today, and continual light rain which became heavier as the day went on.  Got a bus from Lerwick down to Sumburgh Hotel and Jarlshof area.  I just took my bins with me – nice to be free of a scope which was useless in such windy conditions.  There had clearly been a large fall of birds with hundreds of thrushes - Blackbirds, Redwing, Fieldfares and Song Thrush in this order of abundance - present in every field.  Every scrap of cover whether a stone wall, cliff or garden alcove was harbouring sheltering birds.  I was careful to minimise disturbance to them.  I scoured the area of Grutness, Sumburgh Head Quarries, Sumburgh Farm, and finally Sumburgh Hotel Gardens and the Jarlshof, before giving up and catching the bus back to Lerwick at 13.15.  By then the rain and dampness was seeping in despite my waterproofs.  It was also getting frustrating having to continually wipe salt spray and rain from my glasses and binoculars.  Nevertheless it was a very exciting morning’s birding, and I didn’t see a single other observer in the whole time.  Other than thrushes, birds noted included Goldcrest, Blackcap, Reed Bunting, 30 Lapwing, and resident Twite, Rock Dove and Raven.  So I didn’t find a Dusky Thrush, but the potential was certainly there!
Thursday 26th October:  Today dawned bright and clear, the wind having dropped to southerly force 5, it felt quite pleasant.  Howard had to do a seal pup count along cliffs at Dale of Walls, so I birded the Dale of Walls Burn which supports quite good patches of cover for migrants.  Again there were hundreds of Redwing, Fieldfare and Blackbirds.  Other birds noted were 3 Brambling, 2 Woodcock and 2 Chiffchaff.  Later, saw the 1st winter Mediterranean Gull at Norby beach, and found a Black Redstart next to Sandness Church.  More stunning views of Raven – amazingly high densities of them on Shetland, more even than on Dartmoor. 
Early afternoon went back to Gulberwick and saw the Siberian Rubythroat again shortly after arrival at 13.30.  After this the bird went to ground and I did not see it again until 1.30, and then again briefly at 17.00 just as it was going dark.  Left Shteland on 19.00 hrs ferry.  Crossing quite rough initially but becoming calmer as the night went on.  Finally back to Norfolk late the following day.  Amazingly the Rubythroat is still there now, presumably waiting for calmer conditions and clear skies to depart.  However the conditions that are holding it there make it difficult for birders to get there, with autumnal storms making for rough crossings, and the risk of being stranded on Shetland.  I’d been thinking what if a Dark-sided Flycatcher or a Siberian Accentor gets found on Fair Isle?  Even if you could fly there by plane you’d be at risk of being stranded there, not to mention the risk of it crashing.  It sure felt risky leaving Shetland – I was wondering what might get found after I left; thankfully nothing too amazing, a Pallas’s Warbler was the highlight.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Fri 14 Oct: Gutted...

The weather yesterday was suddenly looking so good for the east coast of southern Britain.  Light easterly/ENE winds, completely overcast, and even some light rain.  Things were happening on the coast - about FIVE Red-flanked Bluetails turned up between Newcastle and Suffolk; there was a relatively big (for these days) arrival of birds it seemed, including, apparently 50 Short-eared Owls at Titchwell - could that be possible?!  I couldn't be on the coast yesterday, but in a brief trip out locally there were Redwings moving, and it just had that wonderful autumnal feel of falling leaves and grey skies.  I longed for the coast.  I thought about going to see the Minsmere bluetail, but the thought just felt dull; I remember all the stress of trying to see one there last year (or was it the year before?), a skulky bird and too many people not using much fieldcraft making it difficult.  I decided to head to Burnham Overy dunes instead and try and find something.  After the longish drive (1hr 20 mins) and a 40 min walk I finally got there at 08.50.  Shamefully long after first light.  During the walk it was evident there were lots of birds around.  I really took my time and checked all the cover I could.  Plenty of Meadow Pipits, large flocks of Starling on the move,  4 Redwing, a Crossbill going west and then a Lapland Bunting.  The morning had dawned bright and clear with only a little cloud.  The fields held fifty or so Skylark.  A group of ten Bearded Tit seemingly dropped into a narrow fringe of reeds following a dyke.  Amazingly I did not see a single other birder until 11am - I had the place to myself.  Other birds included Redpoll, Linnets, Golden Plover, two more Lap Bunts, 3 Wheatear.  Found an earthstar sp. that had gone over.  But I hadn't found a single really rare bird despite all the movement I was seeing and hearing. Are my expectations just too high?...  Should I be settling for less?

Time to start on the Holkham dunes.  Song Thrush, more Blackbirds, two more Crossbill.  I passed a small patch of bushes that three other birders walked past minutes earlier.  I waited a while and picked up a movement, bins up, yes, a Yellow-browed Warbler!  But completely silent.  Well only a Yellow-browed, not even a BB-rarity, but it made my day so far.  Nice to find my own rather than chasing other people's all the time.  Tiny and hard to keep track of, you just see why rare birds are just SO hard to find.  You have to look SO hard.  It would be so amazing to find a really huge rarity but these things don't come along very often.  One needs to spend time in the field, and be constantly 'in the zone' of razor-sharp alertness and focus, and have that other crucial ingredient, luck.

By 15.30 I'm starting to flag with all the walking, as I'm carrying too much stuff with watercolour painting kit, etc.  The best bird finders go out with a scope and bins or even just bins alone (and maybe the camera for recording crucial evidence of the bird that might get away).  Birds were also really thinning out, and I'm not picking up much more so I decided maybe it's time to head off?  The weather is bright and sunny, the wind is forecast to turn southerly and will go round to SW on Sunday, so not much more will turn up, well not in Norfolk anyway... the wind today has been south-easterly, hence more rarities hitting the Suffolk coast rather than the Norfolk coast.  An Isabelline Shrike is found in Suffolk this afternoon - more proof.  Then, whilst driving to Fakenham, text messages chime on my mobile, and someone tries to ring me.  When I got to Fakenham garage, I stopped, and checked my phone, Tony Disley (who's been at Spurn all day) has left me a message to tell me about a Rufous-tailed Robin... at Wells-next-the-Sea!!!   WHAT?!!!  Is that possible??!  I can scarcely take in the news and the words go round in my mind, I filter out thoughts of Rufous Bush Robin before it sinks in he means Rufous-tailed Robin Luscinia sibilans, only the fourth for the Western Palearctic!  This is an absolutely huge bird!  I remember the first turned up, only as recently as 2004 whilst I was on Scilly. 

My adrenalin was pumping, I just had to get there.  I set to immediately.  The time was 17.22, the news had broken at 17.14, there was plenty of daylight if I could get there quickly.  Luscinias can show well at dusk, so there was still hope.  Being in such a rush, I hadn't checked the other messages and assumed the bird must be in Wells Woods... big mistake.  I arrived at Wells coastguards car park to find no birders or other birders cars.  Checked the mobile messages - further texts said the bird was at EAST HILLS!  Well that's it then, no chance, as you can only walk out at low tide when it's safe, which I've done a few times before.  No bird is worth dying for.  Anyway as I drove on toward Warham Greens, a plan hatched in my mind: if the tides were right and I could get there this evening, today, which might well be possible, then I'd be in with a chance of seeing it!  I had a large plastic sheet for emergencies in the back of the car - that would be an ideal groundsheet, and I had a fleecy blanket too, and a couple of apples, if I could only get there today and see it then I'd definitely survive until the morning, and I'd have seen it by then! 

Eventually I arrived at the concrete pad along the track around 17.45, to discover that the bird was NOT at East Hills but on the mainland, along the track down to Warham Greens! Why could the directions not have been clearer?  ...but at least still enough light, and time to get to the point in the track to where the bird had last been seen.  It was clear that a lot of people had not seen the bird.  I reckon there must have been maybe 60-80 birders there by that stage, and given that the news had broken so recently I don't suppose many but the lucky few had connected with it.  The bird was apparently in the canopy, yes IN THE CANOPY and flitting between oak trees.  I don't remember them doing this in Laos, where I only saw 2-3 birds in several months.  It would sit motionless for long periods so it was impossible to detect unless it was seen to move.  Unfortunately no-one knew precisely where it was perched.  A good 20 minutes must have passed before it did eventually move, before settling, again unseen in the canopy.  There was then another long gap where it just vanished amid the ivy and branches and leaves.  Then suddenly it became very active and flitted several times.  I managed to keep track of it for a brief while, but it never perched long enough to get my bins onto it.  Unfortunately too, that there was quite a bit of noise (breaking dead branches) whilst people tried to move quickly to where the bird was, although to be fair the bird was too quick.  However had circumstances been different, it is possible that everyone may have seen it.  In flight it had an elegant shape that was somehow very different to European Robin, and it certainly seemed to have a shorter tail too.  But unquestionably absolutely untickable views - naked eye flight views only and not counatble in my book - just utterly galling.  I have seen this restless behaviour in migrants at dusk before - often this sudden restless activity is a sign that they're getting ready to move off as night falls.  It is still clear skies, and a full moon rises over the North Sea.  With the stars obvious, birds will easily be able to navigate, so there's no way that this bird will be here in the morning.  I decide that getting here for first light will be utterly pointless, so I will wait for positive news.  Indeed as I write, there's been no further sightings of this bird, it's gone.

I noticed a scope and tripod had been left behind at dusk after most people had left.  Someone asked if it was mine; I replied no, and they said they'd put a message out on the pager network so that the owner could claim.  Actually I think they got the wrong end of the stick - the owner had clearly abandoned the scope having decided to give up birding after missing such a huge rarity ;-)

You can read the finder's account at Punkbirder.  Total credit to him for nailing such an amazing bird!  What an absolute mega - far more stunning looking than the Fair Isle individual I'd say.  For me it has become the new Holy Grail  rarity that I somehow need to see one day!  It would have been just so amazing to have seen it.  It is just a pity that events could not have unfolded slightly differently and a few more of us could have seen it. 
But that's birding, you can't see everything, there will always be ones that got away.  Also, I should not complain, I have had a superb run of fortune this year, and I was spared an ill-equipped night under the stars on East Hills as I was expecting! 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Oct 4: Sandhill Crane second helpings!

Well it'll probably be the rarest bird I see this autumn, and given the astonishing fact that it's still there, and not migrated, I decided to go back to Boyton Marshes for a second look!  Cranes are always superb and few birds match their grace and elegance.  Their calls are superb too - often you hear them long before you see them.
So today I was up at 05.00, went back, studied and watched the crane from my arrival at 07.50 until it finally flew off to roost on Orfordness, a shadowy shape in the half-light at 18.45.  On Sunday I was feeling that I hadn't really got to grips with the bird, so it was really satisfying to have the chance to come back and spend all day in the field just grilling it.  Although it was always wary, and never particularly close, views were generally quite adequate with my telescope (Kowa, 30x wide angle).
Why, you might ask, bother posting pictures of apparent scribble as in the first two images, above?  Well, I believe that these 'scribbles' are an essential part of the learning process in getting to grips with the shape, and that it's not possible to produce pictures of greater depth without this preliminary work.  The first two spreads were done within an hour of seeing the bird, and then the first one below shortly after.

I think I finally got the head pattern in the last painting.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Sunday 2nd October 2011: Sandhill Crane!!!

Much more to write on this, but incredibly I saw the Sandhill Crane in Suffolk today, along with 100-150? other people I guess.  I wouldn't have seen it if friend and colleague Neil Calbrade hadn't called me.  I just dropped everything, we went and picked up Dave Leech, then went for the bird.  By some miracle, and despite it having landed in three different Suffolk locations today, we actually managed to connect with this magnificent bird, which is also a mega-rarity!  I really didn't expect to see it, and assumed that it would have flown off long before, or moments before we arrived, to continue its journey into France or Spain.   We are very lucky. Below are the sketches from the time spent.  Somehow although I've caught the colours in the paint sketch, I felt the head shape just wasn't quite right.

St Marys, Mon. 26 Sept 2011.

The morning was spent studying the Lesser Yellowlegs and the Solitary Sandpiper again at Higgo's Pool.  No sign of the waterthrush today though - the first day in six consecutive days that I've not seen the waterthrush!  But at the time of writing (2nd October), it is still present. 

I spent much of the rest of the morning looking for a Red-eyed Vireo in the dump clump, and also a Wryneck in Old Town cemetery - no sign of either, a bit disappointing.
The return crossing on the Scillonian was one of the best - very calm, so I wasn't feeling seasick, and there was plenty to look at: at least 3 Storm Petrel, 2+ Balearic, 1 Sooty Shearwater, 3 Great Skua, 2 Arctic Skua, nice views of 3+ Common Dolphin in the Scillonian's wake.  Best of all just off the Cornish coast, 3 Harbour Porpoises, and also a Minke Whale between us and the coastline with the Minack Theatre!  The whale surfaced three times, and wasn't in view for long, but was still an impressive sight; it's been a few years since I last saw one.

St Marys, Sun. 25 Sept 2011.

A really exhausting day today, spent traipsing around St Marys, trying to catch up with the Bee-eater again, but failing.  Later, news came through of the discovery of a Lesser Yellowlegs on Porthloo duck pond.  As it turns out, this bird was found by Robin and Ken - they had gone there on the strength of a reported Solitary Sandpiper, but when they arrived the bird they saw was a Lesser Yellowlegs!  It had clearly just arrived, and was obviously completely exhausted. 

Later it flew onto a nearby beach, and then to Porthmellon Beach.  Just before dusk I went to Higgo's Pool again to check on the waterthrush, and sure enough that was there along with the Lesser Yellowlegs and the Solitary Sandpiper too - a hat-trick of American birds in the same binocular view - unbelievable!  The Yellowlegs was looking far more contented now at having found much more pleasant habitat, cleaner water, more food, no disturbance and shelter to roost.  Quite a relief as it was looking at death's door earlier.

Incidentally, I heard that someone pishing in the dump clump earlier this evening attracted the Northern Waterthrush, and then pished again to lure in a Red-eyed Vireo!  Not bad!!

St Marys, Sat. 24 Sept 2011.

Today might be my last day on Scilly so I made a special effort to be up well before dawn and get down to Higgo's Pool before first light.  This I did, and was again rewarded with more fine views of the Northern Waterthrush.  I find I'm still capturing new angles and gaining new insights into the nuances of this bird.  Note the rain drops appearing in the paintwork on the right hand page below. 
Soon the heavy rain was setting in for the morning, so I retreated to the shelter of the ISBG hide at Lower Moors to sit out the deluge and try to add some more paint to the drawings.  Amazingly around 10pm, while I was busy painting, I suddenly heard the waterthrush call - I looked up and sure enough there it was just 15 ft away from the hide!!!  There were only two other people, Ken Croft and Robin Sandham in the hide at this point, and I whispered to them that the bird had just flown in and they were quickly onto it.  They managed to get some good photos of it while it was really close.  Robin also texted out the news of the bird, but it had already flicked over a bank of reeds by the time other birders arrived some 10-15 minutes later.
I spent the afternoon at Porth Hellick studying one of two Pectoral Sandpipers from a hide there.

Scilly: Fri. 23rd Sept. 2011.

Today I woke up early and thought about going back for yet another look at the waterthrush, but couldn't quite face it, and also, I thought given that I had already had such amazing views, it'd be good to leave the space to others who still want good views, so I stayed away this morning.  I was up at 05.30, and when I stepped out of the tent was blown away by the amazing skyscape that greeted me, so I ended up painting this instead.  To be honest, I could easily spend my whole time just painting landscapes on Scilly, there's always a good view around every corner.  But if there's a bird around, then I always want to paint that first! 

Later, after a walk around the Garrison, not seeing a lot, just a few Meadow Pipit and Chaffinch, I went to Tresco for the day for a change of scene.  I trekked around Castle Down, then Old Grimsby, Borough Farm, and finally the Great Pool.  All favoured old haunts where I've seen so many great birds in the past...  But today nothing of any note.  Only 15 or so birders came over today and I saw virtually no-one for most of the day, but also no notable birds either.  I have been contemplating staying on Bryher to try and look for un-discovered birds.  One has to look so incredibly hard to find birds (most birders don't even look properly and don't use their ears either - I see it time and time again).  You have to spend time in the field, and also have that other crucial element - luck.  It seems very hard to believe that all the Nearctic passerines that arrived on Scilly after Hurricane Katia all arrived within a 500m radius of one point on St Marys.  Where the hell were all the others?  Yet people were out searching - there were other birders scouring other parts of St Marys, and people looking on St Martins, Bryher, and Graham Gordon and Doug Page searching on St Agnes.  So where were the birds here?  Who knows...  Maybe they were overlooked?  Maybe there just weren't any?  Or maybe they all just homed in on the largest island, yet that seems so implausible given that we all know birds do turn up on the off-islands.
I decided that given how much I've spent on getting here, I don't want to come away empty-handed; I want to leave with sketches of something, rather than potentially nothing!  So I have decided to spend the rest of the time looking at birds already present on St Marys, as well as looking for new birds here too (there are always places where people have not looked, and there is always a chance that something has turned up in a place since the last person looked).
Anyway, my haul from Tresco today has amounted to six Pectoral Sandpipers, all from the Swarovski Hide at the Great pool - OK, someone else found them, but I am very chuffed to see a multiple count of an American wader.  I can now say I saw a flock of Pec Sands in that vintage autumn of 2011 when record numbers of American waders crossed the Atlantic! 
Back on St Marys, I thought about returning to Higgo's Pool again, but then thought better of it when I noticed there were already a few people looking there.  Amazingly though just as I paused along the dump clump track to scan the waiting birders, I saw then all look up - the bird must have just flown, and sure enough I picked up the Northern Waterthrush as it flew toward me and dived into the cover of some sallows in the dump clump.  I continued on up to the airport where I was joined by Kris, and eventually had quite good scope views of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, after the airport had closed for the day.  I was a bit concerned that we might get arrested for trespassing onto the airfield.  These days they're paranoid about airport security and terrorism.  Kris reckoned it'd be a good spot to pitch my tent!

St Marys, Thurs. 22 Sept 2011.

Another great day on Scilly!  Up early again this morning and around the Garrison, not much happening.  So, around 08.00 head back to Higgo's project pool on Lower Moors again to see if the waterthrush is around still.  I still feel I haven't properly got to grips with the bird's precise structure, shape and markings.  Not long after arriving, another old friend and top illustrator, Ren Hathway turned up.  We spent over an hour there waiting but no sign of the waterthrush.  Amazingly we heard the long-staying Bee-eater fly over us whilst waiting at the pool, and later still Ren suddenly spotted a Wryneck perched up in the nearest adjacent Willow which I barely got onto before it flew across the pool and perched up in an Elm where I managed to scope it and get a quick sketch before it disappeared from view.  Later we decided to go and have a look for the Black-and-white Warbler on the other side of Lower Moors.  Just as we reached the allotments by the town dump, I suddenly heard the Northern Waterthrush calling at very close range about 8-10 ft up in some Elms - it's never been heard of here before!  Despite scanning we just couldn't see it perched, but then suddenly it flew out giving naked eye views only as it attempted to cross the mound of the tip walls, before returning and seeming to perch up in the line of elms between the footpath and the tip.  After several anxious minutes of hearing it call a couple of times it went silent.  Was it still there?  Had it gone?  We then decided to head back to the pool, several minutes walk away.  While we were approaching the pool, we met another birder who'd just seen it there 5 minutes earlier - it had clearly flown here straight from the tip.  We failed to see it again and went back to the old plan of looking for the Black-and-white Warbler.  More time passes, and no joy with that.  Decided to head toward the airfield when I suddenly heard the Bee-eater calling at 12.58.  I franticly scan the sky, and bingo, finally see it this time, such an elegant shape, long-winged, and I can even see the tail streamers.

Ren had headed off to the north end of St Marys by this time, while I was still looking for the Black-and-white Warbler.  So I was amazed when he called me on his mobile just ten minutes later to say he was watching the Bee-eater perched up in elms just opposite Watermill House, near Borough Farm, Maypole.  So ensued another epic Scilly route march all the way to Higher Moors, then Holy Vale, and finally to Maypole. I'd forgotten how much sweat and toil Scilly can be at times. Would it still be here?  Would it fly off two minutes before I arrived?  Thankfully it was still there when I arrived, and afforded stunning views - the best views of Bee-eater I've ever had in Britain, and the painting below doesn't really do justice to this stunning bird - I will have to do another painting of it.  I spent a couple of hours watching it and also venturing to Newford duck pond in the vain hope of seeing the Blue-winged Teal that was still here yesterday - alas it was not to be.  I returned to Watermill House where the Bee-eater was still performing, catching wasps and Bumblebees, and switching its direction of perch by 180 degrees in a split-second!  Whilst here, a visiting birder who'd hired a bicycle had managed to lean it against a stone wall oblivious to the wasp's nest within.  The wasps were soon swarming all over the bicycle.  I think the hire company had to wait until dark before retrieving the bike.  It's certainly good security against bike theft.

Late afternoon, I shared a taxi back toward Hugh Town and then wandered back to Higgo's pool, where yet again after a patient wait the Northern Waterthrush performed amazingly well until dusk.  I spent the time feverishly sketching the bird, getting all the crucial lines onto paper as fast as possible.  Finally I felt I've captured the essence of this bird.  These sketches will do to make some new compositions when I get home.  With a rapidly moving bird there is no time to turn the page, just have to get the next outline in before it leaves my memory.  Hence multiple images tend to accumulate on the page...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

St Marys, Wed. 21 Sept 2011.

After yesterday's deluge, today was quite the opposite - bright sunshine and brilliant clear blue skies!  I made my way back to the pool behind the Dump Clump on Lower Moors, where the Northern Waterthrush re-appeared this morning, being watched by just Bryan Thomas, long-time resident bird photographer on Scilly, and myself.  Just two people watching such a mega in the UK these days, that's hardly believable!  The bird performed superbly in the bright sunshine, even Bryan was pleased with his photos, this being his fifth attempt at photographing it.  Despite the excellent views, I was still struggling with trying to portray the bird; still trying to comes to terms with its shape and structure, always difficult when the subject is constantly on the move. Some of the images below are ok, but the watercolour below right isn't quite right.  While watching the waterthrush, the Solitary Sandpiper flew in and it was possible to see them both in the same field of view through the 'scope!  Around 08.40, we saw the waterthrush perch briefly in an Elm tree - the pencil sketch in the the bottom right is quite accurate.  It then disappeared in the direction of the dump clump: it's morning performance was over. 

Now I was faced with a new dilemma: which North American passerine to go and see next?!  Black-and-white Warbler on the far eastern edge of Lower Moors, or the Northern Oriole on the Garrison?  Having seen two of the former before I chose the latter.  The oriole had been showing well all morning while I'd been at Lower Moors, but by the time I reached the Garrison, it had gone to ground, and I spent some five hours looking for it, during which time old birding pal Kris Webb strolled by and managed to relocate it in the cypresses above Morning Point!  He's just so good at finding needles in haystacks.  It wasn't until much later, at 16.47 that the oriole finally gave itself up to me.  For the next hour-and-a-half I was able to really study the bird through my 'scope and attempt the field paintings below in the evening sunlight.  A fine end to the day.  I felt completely exhausted though with just being on the go the whole time - hours spent looking for the bird, and then when it finally did show, utter concentration in having to completely focus on the bird and to completely ignore all distractions.  Like the birder's dog that crashed into my feet several times while I was trying to study the bird, it's owner completely unconcerned...  Also several birders trying to talk to me while I was trying to paint, sorry if I ignored you, I just have to work sometimes and seize the moment.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

So, should I go to Scilly?: 19/20 Sept 2011

Well what do you do when the weather conditions are looking amazing for yankee passerines to make landfall on the Western Approaches?  My long time birding friend Mark Telfer took the bold decision to go to Ireland to find his own birds - after all, if there are American passerines on the Isles of Scilly, how many more yanks are being overlooked in Ireland?  You can read his tales here. Although I am tempted by the allure of finding my own birds, I also felt a huge draw to Scilly: the newly arrived Northern Waterthrush just held too much appeal for me.  It's a bird I have longed to see since 1996; I'd always bitterly regretted not having left Scilly in October 1996 in order to see the one that turned up at Portland Bill that October.  I always remember seeing the legendary Martin Elliott's fieldsketches of that individual - what stunning drawings!!  That October I notched up the two Black-and-White Warblers, Buff-bellied Pipit and a Bobolink amongst others on Scilly, but I resisted going to Portland, I think mainly because it would have been a lot of stress and expense to have returned to Scilly afterwards - so I stayed put on the islands for a fortnight.  By the time I left, the Portland waterthrush had already departed; just gutting.  However I did have the reward of a Pechora Pipit at St Leven in Cornwall, a truly wonderful bird, and still the only Pechora I've ever seen in Britain. 
So in headless-chicken mode I set off as soon as I was able too, driving through the night to reach Penzance in the small hours of Tuesday 20th September. 
It's always an exciting feeling arriving in the West Country, and there are always birds in the harbour area.  It was good to get straight into drawing mode once at the quay and on board the Scillonian - there were several Turnstone foraging on scraps on the harbour walls.  The seascape was painted from the ship.

The crossing was fairly uneventful, three Storm Petrels being the highlight.  I gave up looking for birds though, as I was feeling so nauseous with the ocean swell.  Quite a strong westerly breeze, so I'm wondering what else could turn up.  Once we arrived on St Marys I went straight to the Garrison campsite and pitched my tent.  Already the slight drizzle had turned to a light but continual rain: the forecasted weather front had already arrived.  I made my way down to Higgo's pool on Lower Moors where the Solitary Sandpiper was still present giving great views.

Meanwhile the rain got heavier, and even though I had a full set of waterproofs on, and and umbrella up, it wasn't long before I could feel the rain seeping into my clothes.  I dared not leave in case the waterthrush showed, but soon other birders were drifting away as it hadn't been seen since mid-morning at least.  So I decided to sit in Higgo's Hide, and paint the above Solitary Sandpiper picture.  While I was painting, at 16.26 hrs I heard a high pitched, distinctive 'pik' call, and looked up to see a, the, Northern Waterthrush in the corner of the pool!!!  Unbelievable - it was still here and I was watching it!  I was stunned!  Earthy grey brown above with distinct lemon wash to the supercilium and the flanks.  The excitement was quite overwhelming and I was thinking, 'I'm the only person here watching in the rain, but there are other people who also really want to see this bird too'.  No mobile reception in the hide so I had to venture into the deluge and try and call people - no reply from anyone.  I rang RBA, and no-one answered so I just left a shaky phone message on their answerphone. I left my number so they could contact me.  I then went back to watching the bird - what if it disappeared never to be seen again?  I'd have been left with a few fleeting images which would be so frustrating.  Anyhow, thankfully the bird was still there, and with my brolly up to protect my scope, I was able to keep tracks on the waterthrush's movements.  I made a few very shaky outline sketches that didn't do justice to the bird (the painting below was completed much later), but the rest of it was done at the time. After what seemed like an eternity (it was only 20 minutes), the first of six birders arrived to see it before darkness fell, thrilled to bits!  Clearly the message had gone out on the pagers.