Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

No. 6

Me vs Wheatears of the world, no.6:

Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka), Landguard NR, Suffolk, 3/11/15

Nothing beats a wheatear, especially a new wheatear; after all, they are, in their entirety, little white-arsed harbingers of joy.

This was my first encounter with a Pied Wheatear today - at Landguard Point in Felixstowe.

Pied wheatears are rare enough in the UK and they don't get much better than this fine adult male. Arriving in Suffolk (rather than eastern Africa) yesterday, the bird spent a lot of the time preening and paying some attention to the ring on its leg (it had been trapped at the Obs this morning). But this behaviour allowed good views to be had of its features - its dark, scaly mantle, ample white rump and uneven 'banded' tail. The pinky-buff breast colouration was quite distinct, as it was over the crown. It had a good plump shape to it too...and they say that black is slimming.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Chaffinch Appreciation

Had a hard day? I expect it wasn't as tough as the ones these guys had:

I thought I would share this footage which I saw posted earlier today by the BTO, showing a huge number of migrating birds, predominantly chaffinches and brambling, stopping to rest on a research ship in the Baltic Sea this month. Illuminated by the spotlights it looks like a snowstorm blowing across the deck.

It's an incredible, moving scene, in every sense; the darkness, the noise, the random factor (the passing vessel), above all - the primal instinct to survive at all costs laid bare. Following this crossing, many of these birds may have continued over the North Sea to Britain to make the most of our temperate winter. Maybe they're in your garden right now?

Colourful, chirpy and living dangerously. Ladies and gentlemen, the humble chaffinch.

The graph above shows peak counts of chaffinch numbers per week on my patch so far in 2015 courtsesy of BirdTrack. (I didn't visit between mid-March and late July but numbers would certainly have continued in the form of weeks 8 and 9). The annual spike between weeks 40 and 43 is a result of the arrival into North Kent of birds like those above.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

'Empidonax' Flycatcher, Dungeness, 22/9/15

If you try and text the word 'empidonax' on my phone, the auto correct changes it to 'emptiness'. As in Emptiness Flycatcher.

You can't really blame the program designers for that, it's not often a British birder would have reason to do such a thing. Empidonax flycatchers are a group of birds highly similar in appearance that range throughout North and South America...which makes the discovery of one on the beach (!) initially, at Dungeness on Tuesday morning, ludicrous frankly.

When I first heard the news my mind drifted back to the Caribbean islands I visited in January; there I saw tyrant flycatchers (the family to which 'empids' belong) among lush, humid gardens and forests. It was this jarring realisation that set off the unexpected after work trip to the coast.

Emptiness would definitely not be a word to describe the scene on the Dungeness road that evening, even less so the front garden of a little cottage that the bird eventually sought refuge in for the rest of the day. There it lurked in the dense collection of shrubs, the closest thing it could find to a forest, through the constant drizzle and showers with a few chiffchaffs to keep the masses on their toes. Occasionally it hopped into full view, making use of various garden items as perches from which to dart after tiny insects - water butt, wheelie bin, satellite dish, picnic bench, window sill, scooter handle, old lobster creel and best of all...the doorstep. As the rain passed and the sun hurried home the evening, the bird became more active and for a delightful twenty minutes or so flitted regularly between perches, once or twice darting up to pick out insects from webs under the roof. In the best of the light it was a striking bird, two white wing bars on long wings and a greenish mantle contrasting with distinct yellowish underparts more obvious than I had imagined. Not that my souvenir record shot, replicated here and formally lowering the quality of the web, would suggest:

'Empidonax' Flycatcher (Acadian?) on a scooter, Dungeness, Kent, 22/9/15

So, of these very similar-looking birds, which species it it? Logic (and better photos than this) suggest the bird is likely to be one of five empids that breed on the the eastern coast of North America with consensus pointing towards Acadian Flycatcher which would be a first for Britain (and a second for the Western Palearctic). Being wholly inexperienced with this group I'll make my own mind up when I've read more, but that sits well with what I've seen so far. Plus some of its poo was collected for dna sampling so maybe that'll help solve it - see, isn't birding exciting?!

Dashing off to see things like this isn't for everyone (as this excellent and thoughtful blog describes), but it was a unique encounter that will linger in my memory.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Can you hear the nightingales sing? (Part 3)

It had all gone quiet on the Lodge Hill front recently...until this headline rather came out of nowhere yesterday:

The BBC reported on it here and Miles King provided this interesting blog on the news.

Too early to celebrate? Perhaps, but this is certainly a welcome development in the saga.
"We have recognised a loss of £11.3m due to increased uncertainty over the recoverability of our costs to date following the disappointing decision by the Secretary of State to call in the proposed scheme for public inquiry"
I'm not sure what they've spent £11.3 million on so far but with an experienced developer like Land Securities releasing a quote like this, who would want to step up in their place?

Lodge Hill has been shown time and again to be a site of unique value for wildlife on a local and national scale. It's time that the MOD ceased this reckless pursuit and perhaps took a look at the positive steps taken by the German government with regards former military bases. Similarly, Medway Council needs to take this opportunity to re-evaluate their planning strategy. Chattenden is not the place for a development on this scale, it's time to move on.

Thursday, 16 July 2015


(When is a butterfly not a butterfly?)

I've seen some wonderful sights in recent months - including some great birds. One that I hadn't necessarily expected to encounter in spring or summer on Cyprus is Honey Buzzard. Spring passage tends to be rather fleeting with birds generally scarce, it's autumn when the classic spectacle of birds massing on migration occurs.

Surveying near Amiandos, up in the hills, on Saturday, I caught sight of a large bird of prey cruising way up over the forest. Watching for a moment, I expected the form to become a Long-legged Buzzard, the most commonly encountered Buteo here, but it wasn't happening - too dark and as it drifted closer, the shape was off. Then as I turned my mind to other buzzards it accelerated, moving with carpals thrust forward, its head up and cruised was a Honey Buzzard.

I watched it move over the valley, always at height and made a note for the 'other species' part of the survey sheet.

It was an unexpected encounter, but it got better. As I watched it started folding its wings and plummeting short distances in the air while making rapid, fluttering wing-beats. I have read this described as its territorial or pairing 'butterfly display' but this was the first time I've seen it. Beautiful, it has great agility for a large bird. Honey buzzard doesn't breed in Cyprus (does it?), so perhaps this was an immature bird 'rehearsing' for the future.

From top, some butterflies of Cyprus: Southern White Admiral, Long-tailed Blue, Grayling sp.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

City of Swifts

It’s a strange feeling to walk through the old town of Nicosia and find streets and buildings cut in half. Running across the city, from East to West, is a wall that looks like it was thrown together in places with oil drums, salvaged wood and chainlink fencing; barbed wire is the thread holding it all together. The blue and white striped pedestrian border crossing at the end of Ledra Street feels more like an interactive museum piece the first time I see it. In other places bored teenage soldiers eyeball passersby while listening to the radio. A sign at the crossing points out that Nicosia is the last divided capital in Europe.

From the balcony of the youth hostel in the furthest corner of the old town, I could throw a stone into no-man’s land. Beyond it is the Turkish occupied territory, the main difference on the skyline being the tall turrets of the stunning Selimiye Mosque, formerly the 13th Century cathedral of Saint Sophie, which the sun drops over every evening. The churches of the town are mostly quite exotic buildings, small and sturdy and shaped so much that I can’t shake the feeling that they look more like sandstone forts. Of course, there may be something to this impression. The history of the city that is told so well at the excellent Leventis Municipal Museum is one of shifting fortunes and political unrest. The city walls, so beautifully planned and realised in the Venetian era as a series of eleven heart-shaped bastions with several discreet access gates, are the stuff of fantasy novels but it’s possible they worked better as a lesson in renaissance architecture than defence.

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the old town. I particularly love the merchant’s quarter and the clues as to the former industries that used to be found here; how each street had a different role to fill, woodworkers, shoemakers and metalworkers among them. Now the area seems to be being adopted by local artists, colourfully filling a void in that way. Many of the old workshops are now boarded up but retain original fa├žades that must have looked fine at the turn of the 20th century. Here and there are odd remnants of the past, dusty signs filled with letters that I cannot understand; Greek is a delightful looking alphabet. Broken windows abound and wooden doors with subtle, ornate features that haven’t been opened for a long time. The streets are mostly quiet but it’s upstairs, up, up, up over the rooftops where the noisiest residents reside.

Nicosia is a city of swifts. You cannot walk a few paces in the old town without their calls drifting down into the shady, winding lanes; it is as if a kettle were constantly rolling to a boil, whistling incessantly. It is most impressive before dusk as hundreds gather in screaming parties, chasing and cavorting over the rooftops. In places they swoop low and then disappear up under the eaves with an effective but graceless scramble. I see it as a breath of life in those old, faded buildings.

Saturday, 27 June 2015


A Scops Owl calling along a forest road during a nocturnal survey last night:

It's not often I have them so close. I had no other means of recording it other than my camera. Riveting footage, yes?

But is it one owl or two?

Cyprus Scops owls have a two-note call so although it sounds like two birds a lot of the time, it's likely to be just the one. It sounds like they're answering themselves. The new Sound Approach book on owls (which is great, as ever) describes the cyprius Scops Owl call, specifically the second 'answering' call or 'bip' being "the rule and very audible" as opposed to it occurring in other scops owl sub-species at 'low incidence' or only being heard quietly or at close range.

So in this audio example, the single bird is easy to record accurately but when there are six or more calling at the same time with the double note, like in Pafos Forest recently, it gets interesting!