The 2013 List…

In my recent blog ‘301 – and still counting’ I promised to publish the list of all the birds I’d seen in the UK in 2013, providing basic details for all scarce and rare species. To do this I’m using a recently created web-based programme which allows you to compile, keep and share your numerous bird lists quickly and simply – just like filling in a traditional ‘pencil and paper’ check list. But BirdLists does much more – using ‘authorised lists’ for each country/region/continent, it helps you build your various local, county and country sightings into a single interactive database. It lets you make notes beside each of your records, keeps count for you and let’s you share your lists – if you choose to do so – with friends, clubs or the general public. Future developments include adding a photo gallery and the ability to compile ‘grip lists’. Try it for free, whilst it’s still being developed, by creating an account at www.birdlists.me An ideal way to start off your 2014 birding year!

You can see my BirdLists 2013 Year List at http://www.birdlists.me/l/9765ac5c

We’re off tomorrow for a winter break, visiting family and friends in Australia and Thailand, so a very happy and prosperous New Year to all of you out there and make sure you ‘stay tuned’ for some more exciting travel adventures and accompanying eclectic mix of pics!

Wessex Trio provide fabulous finale

Just when I thought it was all over for another birding year and began to slide inexorably into a post-Christmas stupor, an unmissable trio of winter sea birds appeared on the Devon/Dorset coast. With the added bonus of a ‘life tick‘ and the possibility of bringing Jane up to the magic 300, we set off late on Friday night, towards our final ‘targets’ of 2013. An overnight stop at Newbury meant that by nine o’clock we were driving across the causeway to Portland, where two of our three quarry had already been located by the large crowd of eager birders. The distant Black Guillemot was quickly picked out amongst the various boats moored in the harbour, before it’s much rarer cousin and visitor to these shores from Iceland and the high Arctic, Brunnich’s Guillemot appeared, happily swimming and diving just off shore. Next stop was at Radipole Lake for the ‘escaped’ male Hooded Merganser – whatever it’s origins, still a very cute duck indeed! Finally, after a two hour torturous drive along the coast of Dorset and Devon we arrived at Brixham, where the White-billed Diver was seen almost immediately in the outer harbour, along with several Black-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver and a Red-necked Grebe for company. A magic moment for Jane – a ‘lifer’ and her 300th for the year!

Part of the assembled crowd of eager birders enjoying seeing Brunnich’s Guillemot.

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With only a handful of accepted records since 2000, this was an unexpected but very welcome addition to my ‘life list’

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Some people will go to extremes to get a closer look!

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With it’s distinctive head and bill profile, it’s dark head and smokey face, this species does stand out from our regular Guillemot

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Not such good views of the White-billed Diver in Brixham harbour, but it was a ‘lifer’ for Jane and it brought up her 300th species in the UK in 2013!

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This Hooded Merganser at Radipole may not make it to the list because of it’s unknown origins but it was a cute little thing, nonetheless!

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Arctic ‘pigeon’

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Ivory Gull, Patrington Haven 

The ‘supply’ of scarce and rare birds in 2013 has indeed been plentiful and has continued, right to the year end. In mid December there was an unprecedented influx of Ivory Gull into the UK. As per usual, most of the handful of sightings came from Scotland and the North East, but one individual made it as far south as the Humber estuary, where we caught up with it, just before Christmas. During it’s 10 day stay it was fed by local residents and visiting birders on fish scraps – presumably an acceptable temporary substitute for the carcasses of Whale and Seal  – it’s more usual food source up in the high Arctic, where they originate. To some, these rather unusual larids, have a passing resemblance to pigeons – but to me they have much more of an air of nobility about them, with their distinctive ermine-like plumage.

A couple more shots of this lovely bird – contender for ‘bird of the year’:

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Three Card Trick

Having missed, by a matter of minutes, the relatively obliging Grey Phalarope at Salthouse, which first appeared whilst we were away in Scotland, the chance of catching up with one today in Suffolk and completing ‘the set’, was irresistible. Norfolk was cloaked in fog all day but luckily for us the sun was shinning on the Suffolk coast when we arrived at Walberswick. The beach car park was more a waterlogged field when we pulled up but conveniently the Grey Phalarope was busily feeding in a puddle close-by. The photographs speak for themselves:

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There are only three Phalarope species on the world list – today’s Grey made up the full set, all seen this year! This was one, if not the cutest bird, seen all year.

Banks Baikal Bonus

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia. With a surface area of over 12,000 square miles it is only the seventh largest fresh water lake in the world, but it is thought to be the oldest, with an estimated age of 25 million years, and with a depth in excess of a mile, also the deepest. It holds approximately 20% of the worlds unfrozen fresh water and boasts a vast array of wildlife, more than 80% of which is endemic. This is the home of Baikal Teal, an exquisite endangered duck, which is rarely seen outside Russia.

On Monday, a male Baikal Teal was reported on the Lancashire coast, at Banks, near Southport. By Tuesday evening, after some initial discussion about it’s identification and origins, it had been declared ‘the real deal’, so on Wednesday we went for it. We arrived on site at about 10.30, the bird having been seen three quarters of an hour before, but not now on view. Crossens Outer Marsh is a desolate place and with the beginnings of the strong north westerly winds, later causing so much havoc on the east coast, whipping across the raised bank where the small crowd of hopeful birders stood, it wasn’t long before we were absolutely frozen. We’d decided to retreat to the car and find some lunch when, 200 yards away from the dispersing crowd, we heard a muffled cry go out and an arm raised. We hoofed it back and there at some distance across the marsh was the Baikal Teal, tucked up asleep! A quick tactical relocation to the other side of the inlet and we secured good views of this strangely exotic looking Anas – well worth the 350 mile, eight hour round trip!

Our initial views weren’t that great, though good enough for a ‘Life tick’! But then we were able to get considerably closer..

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With only five previously accepted records of this species in the UK since 1900, hopes are riding high on this bird.

To Hume’s it may concern

Playing catch-up after posting news of my minor triumph of achieving 300 birds in the UK in 2013!

On Tuesday afternoon we took a slight detour on our way back to Peterborough and ended up at Gibraltar Point, where a Hume’s Leaf Warbler had been reported earlier in the week. On the greyest afternoon of the year so far we found ourselves traipsing around the ‘Plantation’ looking for this rare vagrant from Central Asia. To be fair though it was calling pretty frequently but still it did take a while to locate it and even longer to get acceptable views. By the time another contingent arrived from Peterborough the bird had fallen silent – probably gone to roost, and unfortunately they went away empty handed.

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Apart from call, this warbler is distinguished from it’s close relative, Yellow-browed Warbler, by duller green upper parts, ‘dirty’ underparts, a less distinct ‘upper’ wing bar and an all dark bill. A ‘tidy’ little bird for my 300th UK ‘tick’ this year.

Amazingly, the last time I was in this plantation was in November 1982 – watching an American Redstart!

301… and still counting!

When Richard Millington published A Twitcher’s Diary in 1981 it took ordinary birders like me completely by surprise. The possibility of seeing 300 species of bird in the UK in a single year was,  until then, an ornithological ‘Boys Own’ fantasy. As Millington asserted in his introduction, to see 200 of our regular breeding or visiting birds in a year is well within the capability of most regular birdwatchers, but to see three hundred requires application, dedication.. and a modicum of luck! The additional one hundred species required being made up of the scarce and rare birds that grace these shores on an infrequent basis – sometimes they are a once in a life-time event. They can turn up at any time, anywhere and may stay for a matter of a few hours or a few days at best.

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Since 1980 the limits of UK year listing have been tested and broken on many occasions and nowadays those in the premier league of year listing regularly exceed 350 – depending on which list you use of course! – see November’s ‘The Listers Dilemma’ blog. In 2011 the excitement and anguish of year listing gained a much wider public appreciation with the release of the The Big Yearthe Hollywood movie, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.

Until this year my own ‘personal best’ was a rather meagre 254, achieved back in the early eighties, but even that sort of total required a steady effort throughout the year, both on my ‘home patch’ and further afield. To get to the magic 300 you have to dedicate considerably more time and resources to the task, and there’s also significant wear and tear on your emotional/ psychological well-being to contend with as well! I certainly didn’t start off 2013 with the intention of doing ‘a Big Year,’ but as winter turned into spring I’d seen a good proportion of the birds that were available and the challenge/opportunity to beat my previous best year began to take hold. However, by late August I’d already matched that total and, with time on my side, I set my sights on the big target of 300.

We began to focus on seeing any new bird that showed up within striking distance of our home in Norfolk and planned a few longer excursions to collect some of the regional rarities and catch up on those we’d missed earlier in the year. The annual GPOG trip to Cornwall and a late visit to see my brother in Scotland helped boost the list still further. By mid November, the time when  arrivals of scarce and rare birds traditionally slows to a standstill, I’d reached 290 and was within spitting distance of the prize!

A pre-scheduled trip to the North West, for Jane’s mums 80th birthday, coincided with the arrival of a rare Semipalmated Sandpiper, from North America, at Knott’s End. On our way up we called in at Pennington Flash, one of the few remaining guaranteed locations for the UK’s endangered Willow Tit and during the long wait for the SemiP to show, we added Twite. The return journey, and a rather lengthy detour, brought us Serin at Flamborough. Entertaining friends over the following weekend, we were lucky enough to pass Holt Country Park whilst Parrot Crossbill were on show – 295. Next, a weekend excursion to Hampshire was planned with three new ticks in prospect – frustratingly we came back with just one, Lesser Yellowlegs. In the final week of November a text announced the presence of a very unseasonal juvenile Purple Heron at Holkham, we showed up and ‘ticked up’ – just three to go! On the last day of the month, a 1st winter Iceland Gull, in the roost at Hoveringham sailing pit made it just two more species required. The following morning, after a singularly unsuccessful ‘dry run’ two days before, we managed to find arguably Britain’s rarest resident wild bird – Golden Pheasant, at it’s Norfolk strong-hold. A slight diversion yesterday, on our way back to Peterborough for GPOG Christmas drinks, found us at Gibraltar Point – where the Hume’s Leaf Warbler, a rare vagrant from Central Asia, gave acceptable views and became my 300th species in the UK this year!  And today, just for good measure, we successfully  twitched the Baikal Teal at Southport.

The ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of 2013:

This year’s ‘Lifers’ – Red-flanked Bluetail, Pacific Swift, Bridled Tern, Baikal Teal, Brunnich’s Guillemot & Black-browed Albatross – sadly no photos of the latter though IMG_8837

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Best ‘self-found/identified’ – Wilson’s Phalarope at Cley in September and Baird’s Sandpiper, at Frampton – originally identified as a White-rumped

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Biggest ‘Dip’ – Pied-billed Grebe – 7 hours, over two days, failed to secure the over-wintering individual at Ham Walls.

Most surprising – Sardinian Warbler, a rare Mediterranean warbler, seen in November – in Scotland!

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The most demanding: Pallid Swift – gave us the run-around for the best part of three days in October

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The pretty one: Plenty to choose from but this Rosie Starling at Wells in June was a ‘stonker’!

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The plain one: Booted Warbler -plain it may have been but a welcome addition to my Norfolk list and just reward for flogging up Blakeney Point and back

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The one that never was: this could have been Britain’s first Italian Sparrow, but sadly no DNA evidence has been forthcoming – it certainly looked like one! ( N.B. not included in the total!)

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The ones that got away: Grey Phalarope, Little Auk, Golden Oriole, Dusky Warbler, Dotterel, Red-breasted Goose, Long-billed Dowitcher, Snow Goose, Rustic Bunting, King Eider, Hoopoe, White-winged Black Tern, Black Guillemot, Siberian Stonechat, Pied Wheatear, Common Rosefinch, etc – need I go on. I suppose there’s still time to pull one or two of these back..!

The List. I shall be including a link  to my complete BOU list of the 300+ birds seen in 2013, at the end of the year.

Finally, as Richard Millington acknowledged in ‘A Twitcher’s Diary’, if it weren’t for the generosity and selflessness of birders everywhere, who find and then post the reports of these scarce/rare birds, ordinary birders like me would certainly not be able to see over 300 species in the UK in a single year – my heartfelt thanks to one and all.