Italian Sparrow split by the IOC

For Western Palearctic birders the news that Italian Sparrow (Passer italiae) has been split as a seperate species by the IOC will doubtless prove a nice late Christmas present. The reason given is that this species is 'increasingly recognized as an example of hybrid speciation' having previously been regarded as a hybrid between House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow. 
It remains to be seen who else will follow their lead and for WP listers this obviously includes Netfugl!
Personally I'm lucky enough to have seen Italian Sparrow at Milan airport in northern Italy and also on Corsica where the photograph below was taken.
See the trip reports
here and here 

Boxing Day Seals, Horsey, 26 December 2012

This year we had our traditional Boxing Day out at Horsey and how this place has changed, sadly for the worse. Horsey Gap carpark is now a pay and display and maybe I'm being a snob but the breeding colony of Atlantic Grey Seals have become so popular with day trippers that it now has a zoo vibe to the whole experience. Being a sunny Boxing Day obviously didn't help but carparking today (both at Horsey Gap and the Nelson's Head track) was a nightmare and there was a constant stream of hundreds of people making their way to the beach from every direction. I never thought I'd have to queue to get along the Nelson's Head track!
Needless to say we got some great close-up views of loads of seals and witnessed a very violent and bloody scrap bewteen 2 bulls.
To escape the crowds we had a late afternoon stroll on Caister beach where c40 Snow Buntings were just north of the end of Second Avenue and 300+ Great Cormorants flew in off the sea in groups, all heading inland. I've never seen so many doing this.


Twitching down to 'The Smoke', 23 December 2012

A week ago I was supposed to be going down to Queen Mother Reservoir, near Slough with Justin but I contracted food poisoning after a Saturday night party (I blame the paella!) so had to abort. A week later I made the trip solo and after making us wait the American Buff-bellied Pipit duly obliged near to the south east corner of the reservoir. And oblige it really did with views down to an amazing 4 feet despite the constant noise of camera shutters! It was a great opportunity to study the species in detail and obviously to seriously 'happy-slap' it with the camera! A handful of Ring-necked Parakeets (still a novelty for us Norfolk boys!), 4 Goldeneye and a few Redwings and Fieldfares completed the picture.

Afterwards I had a look on Staines Reservoir where I had another rarity - drake Ruddy Duck (!), a pair of Scaup, redhead Smew and c30 Goldeneye.

Upton Court Park near Slough revealed Green Woodpecker, loads of Redwings and 10 more Ring-necked Parakeets.   

The Lovebirds in the South of France

Back in 2010 I did a quick and dirty weekend trip to the Nice area in the South of France to get 2 category C species on my WP list - namely Fischer's Lovebird and Reeves Pheasant. The Lovebirds proved very easy to find in both the villages of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Beaulieu-sur-Mer but I believe these birds may not all be what they are supposed to be!

Studying the photographs I took at the time and looking through literature reveals that many of these birds look like hybrids. Clearly there are pure (at least pure-looking) Fischer's Lovebirds there but they appear to be outnumbered by hybrids which begs the question whether these feral populations are really viable.

Interestingly, the hybrid birds look like Fischer's x Hooded (see the copy of the plate out of the Helm Guide to Parrots of the World below) which are also known to hybridise in Africa. On my visit to France however I didn't manage to photograph any pure looking Hooded Lovebirds although there were some present.

Some of my photographs are shown below. Not great quality as it was in my old digi-scoping days!

Anyone who has been to see these birds or is contemplating a trip should bear this in mind and (while they remain on the WP list) make sure they see the right birds!

Fischer's Lovebird

hybrid Lovebird

Plate from Parrots of the World

Bombycilla fest, Beccles, Suffolk, 21 Dcember 2012

The world may not have ended but with the black clouds around Beccles you could be forgiven for thinking it was about to!
I was tempted out by some more Waxwings and found 22 at the entrance to St Paul's Close on the south edge of the town. Sadly, despite moving around a bit they wouldn't come down out of the trees so I had to photograph them looking up and in pretty dull conditions.
One bird turned out to be ringed (red ring left leg, green on right) shown in the 1st picture below. I'm currently trying to suss out it's origins... 

Aldeburgh, Suffolk, 14 December 2012

I've been itching to get down to Aldeburgh all week but have been tied up with work until today. Cue a change in the weather (for the worse!) but luckily the 'snowball' hung on for me and I managed to get a dry couple of hours this morning before the heavy rain set in.
The Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll was soon found on the beach just south of the town and proved to be SO tame! It fed on sea poppy seeds in one small patch of weeds allowing approach down to an amazing 6 feet. The only problem was trying to keep the camera still in the blustery conditions but laying down on the shingle did the trick.
I'm not sure I'll bother with any 'exilipes' birds in the future because this race really is big and stunning!
The only other species of note was a Rock Pipit on the beach briefly before the weather had me racing back to my flask in the car!



Some Waxwings at last! 9 December 2012

Having only managed to hear Waxwing in Taverham on Wednesday I finally managed to catch up with 27 of these beauties on the edge of Norwich today. They showed amazingly well in small saplings right in the middle of the carpark at Longwater Business Park and seemed completely unfazed by the passing hordes of sad Christmas shoppers! I never tire of these birds, however many times I've seen and photographed them they always have me coming back for more.
The only other thing of note was a large female Sparrowhawk low over the main A47 near the Bowthorpe roundabout.    

Southwold, Suffolk, 2 December 2012

A lovely crisp but freezing afternoon in Southwold.
It wasn't a birding trip but a Little Egret near Harleston on the way kicked things off A walk along the seawall and beside the boating lakes going north towards Easton Bavents then produced a large circling flock of the local feral Barnacle Geese and then a great dashing Merlin over the paddocks.
A stroll along the prom towards the town (and coffee!) was interrupted by some really close views of a single Purple Sandpiper on the rocks. Despite getting really close I only had my iPhone with me so the photos are pretty rubbish. At least I managed to avoid the crashing waves and returned dry from my clamber on the rocks!

Purple Sandpiper, Southwold

Trying to photograph said Purple Sandpiper!

Bridgham area, near Thetford, 12 November 2012

A few bits and pieces seen whilst out walking on the eastern edge of the Brecks today:

Nuthatch in East Harling
Kingfisher along the River Thet near Bridgham (sadly the Black-bellied Dipper didn't fly past but I was few miles east of Thetford!)
50+ Bramblings in weedy field with 200+ Chaffinches just south of the railway line at Bridgham.

Shikra - some useful ID features

Shikra is a relatively poorly known Western Palearctic species which can only reliably be seen within the region in Kuwait. Here it is a scarce passage migrant and also a scarce winter visitor. The following tips to aid successful identification are based on my own personal observations on several trips to Kuwait (and sightings in India and The Gambia) and many discussions with Pekka Fagel who lives in the state and has become a dab hand at picking out these tricky accipters. It is not designed to be the definitive id article but merely a pointer in the right direction.

Field guides consistently add to the id problem by getting things wrong and not mentioning what we consider to be the best features to look for. These are:

1) At all ages Shikra has 5, sometimes 6 distinct bands on the underside of the tail. This can be difficult to see in the field but is easily seen on photos. A tip here is to try to get a photo of any suspect bird because that can be the key to identification is many cases.

2) Shikra has a flight silhouette that is somewhere between Sparrowhawk and Levant Sparrowhawk in that it has 5 distinct primary 'fingers' on a soaring bird. Sparrowhawk has 6 whilst Levant Sparrowhawk has only 4 which gives it a very falcon like silhouette.

3) At all ages and in both sexes Shikra shows a distinct dark gular stripe which is absent in Sparrowhawk.

Juvenile Shikra, Kuwait. Showing tail bars, dark wingtip and gular stripe. Copyright Pekka Fagel 

Juvenile Shikra, Kuwait. Showing gular stripe and pale eye ruling out Levant Sparrowhawk which always has a dark eye. Copyright Pekka Fagel

Adult Shikra, India. Showing gular stripe and undertail bars

Adult Shikra, The Gambia. Although a washed out photo the gular stripe and tail barring are still there (honestly!) 

Juvenile Shikra, Kuwait. Note the 5 primary fingers and also the gular stripe even visible on this distant shot. Copyright Pekka Fagel.

Finding Orchids in Kent

This is a copy of an article I wrote way back in 2005 for the Great Yarmouth Bird Club quarterly bulletin. It's all still valid today so I hope it helps with any forays planned for 2013!



Kent is widely known as The Garden of England and during the months of early summer it certainly lives up to that name with its abundance of wild and in many cases rare orchids. 

This short article is intended as one to whet the appetite of any birders who would like to venture out in search of orchids. Not only in Kent but maybe even more locally. It is based on 2 day trips to Kent in consecutive summers (2004 & 2005). Both trips were made on Sundays with the long daylight hours and easy run down to Kent making these lengthy but easily do-able days.   

In Norfolk we are blessed with our own special orchids with these being mainly marshland species due to the predominance of that habitat. Kent however has an abundance of riches of woodland and downland species.

To see most of what Kent has to offer it’s necessary to make 2 visits, one in mid May for the early flowering species and another in mid June for the later species. These timings also have the advantage of coinciding with the flight times of 2 butterfly species which we can’t see in Norfolk (Duke of Burgundy in May and Heath Fritillary in June) and the sites for these can easily be taken in.


The May Trip

This trip was made on 16 May 2004 starting with a mid morning visit to Denge Wood which is located about 7 miles SW of Canterbury near the village of Sole Street.

Parking at the roadside pull-in at TR099501 and walking NNE along the track into the wood the small reserve of Bonsai Bank was reached on the left-hand side of the track at TR105511. This small scrubby clearing contained good numbers of Duke of Burgundys, 200+ Lady Orchids, 50+ Early Purple Orchids and a single White Helleborine which was unfortunately still in bud. Common Twayblade was also present further into the woods.

Next on the agenda was the small woodland site of Yocklett’s Bank which is only about 3 miles through the lanes going SE from Denge Wood. This narrow strip of woodland on a scarp slope is named on the Ordnance Survey map. We parked (with difficulty) on the narrow road that bisects the wood and followed the obvious path into the northern section. Pretty soon we were enjoying the tiny but enigmatic Fly Orchid with 20+ specimens in full flower right beside the path. Also present on a short walk through the wood were small numbers of Lady Orchid, Common Twayblade and frustratingly 2 Butterfly Orchid sp which were not going to flower for another week or two. You’ll have realised by now that this is an occupational hazzard with wild flowers. Trying to time things to get all species in flower is nigh on impossible!

The third site of the day was probably what is the richest small patch of downland in the North Downs – Park Gate Down. This steeply sloped grassland site consists of 3 meadows separated by fences and can be found at TR168458 about 2 miles E of the village of Stelling Minnis.  The main attraction here on this visit was the rare Monkey Orchid which is known from only this site and one in the Chilterns. About 20 of these amazingly beautiful orchids were found relatively easily in the first meadow. The flowers of this species really are aptly named and some were starting to flower nicely. A visit at the end of May would probably have seen many more in full flower. A stroll though the other meadows produced c250 Early Purple Orchids, several Green-winged Orchids and Common Twayblades.
By now the afternoon was getting hot so we felt we’d deserved a rest and a cream tea before a bit of a drive to the last site of the day. Highly recommended tearooms were found right beside the wooden windmill in Stelling Minnis. So good in the sun that we almost decided to stay there for the rest of the day!

The very last visit of the day was to the curious man-made site of Samphire Hoe just off the A20 between Dover and Folkestone. The site is a designated country park below the white cliffs and was created from the spoil dug out of the Channel Tunnel. In the last few years an amazingly large colony of Early Spider Orchids has developed and these could not be easier to see. We ‘counted’ at least 3000 plants but were told that in 2004 there were in fact over 9000!


The June Trip

Our second trip to Kent was made on 19 June 2005 with the aim being similar to the first trip – to clean up on all the orchids in flower at the time. And this we pretty much did!

First port of call was the conveniently located Stockbury Hill Wood. This Kent Wildlife Trust reserve can be found just off the M2/A249 junction between Sittingbourne and Maidstone. Access is by turning off the M2 at junction onto the A249, taking the first exit right (signed to ‘South Street’), following the loop road round to the right and parking in the one space just as the road gets back to the dual carriageway at TQ839605. Then walk back up the wooded hill you’ve just driven down. This is a site for Lesser Butterfly Orchid that is supposed to occur in the first small clearing in the wood as you walk up from the car. We failed to find any though, despite them reportedy having been in flower just days before. We did however find 7 Birdsnest Orchids right beside the road under a yew tree by the obvious right hand bend at the top of the hill. Although they had gone over and died off there were the remains at least 20 Lady Orchids in the woods too meaning the site could be visited on a May trip. Common Twayblades were numerous.

Next we drove on into the North Downs to Wye Downs which is situated approx. 4 miles NE of Ashford. Here we visited 2 different locations. The first was the more westerly of the 2 and a short walk onto the downs north of the Wye to Stowting road revealed c20 Man Orchids, 3 Bee Orchids, and many Pyramidal and Common Spotted Orchids. This site too is the only UK site for the day-flying Black-veined Moth and we saw at least 10 of these in the long grass.

The other location on Wye Downs is further east along the same road and the access is quite hidden so needs some explaining. Between telepgraph poles 10 & 11 (they’re all numbered luckily) on the north side of the road there is a gap in the hedge and a stile over barbed wire. Over this stile is a bowl shaped grassy valley and by venturing halfway up to the left side of the bowl and behind some hawthorne bushes Late Spider Orchids protected by cages can easily be found. We saw some 65 of this highly variable but nonetheless very rare species.

Our next stop was a return visit to Park Gate Down and in the middle of June the meadows there have to be seen to be believed. In under an hour we’d notched up tens of thousands of Fragrant Orchids (including 10+ white specimens), 6 Greater Butterfly Orchids, 21 Musk Orchids, 1 lingering Monkey Orchid and 1 Late Spider Orchid plus Common Spotted Orchids and Common Twayblades. The Musk Orchids here are to be found right beside the middle path in the 3rd meadow from the road but even with detailed directions we took ages to find this tiny and inconspicuous species. Into the bargain we also saw 2 Adonis Blue butterflies (brought to us in the hand!) and a Clouded Yellow.            

The second leg of the day involved a drive to east Kent and initially the area around St Margarets where a member of the party was keen to see the rarest of our native broomrapes – Oxtongue Broomrape. Walking north along the clifftops we eventually found 3 pretty dried up specimens but boredom pretty quickly set in and we headed quickly for Sandwich our next orchid site.

Here Lizard Orchids grow in very large numbers on the edge of Royal St Georges Golf Course but also on roadside verges and memorably all over the front lawn of one house! In addition, the member of our party who shall remain unnamed (OK, it was Justin!) wanted to locate yet another broomrape, this time Clove-scented Broomrape. Luckily we found 5 very close to some Lizard Orchids near the toilet block on the edge of the GC. 5 minutes of the rest of us yawning at yet more dried up flowers saw him take the hint and we headed for our last port of call while there was still some strength left in the sun.

This was East Blean Wood between Herne Bay and Canterbury, which is a well known site for Heath Fritillary. These rare butterflies used to occur right around the carpark but the mosiac of coppiced woodland habitat changes over the years so this time we needed to walk further into the wood before we found a sunny clearing and c15 of these beautiful fritillaries.

Back to the car and a burst of song from a Nightingale brought an excellent day to an end.

Monkey Orchid
Lady Orchid 

Late Spider Orchid

Fly Orchid

Orchid Finding in the Chilterns

I intend to post some orchid finding details in these pages over the coming weeks and months. Although these will be mainly Norfolk and Suffolk sites I thought I'd start with this direct copy of a Beds, Bucks, Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust leaflet on where to see which species on their reserves. 
Asham Meads - Green winged May-Jul SP590146 Oxford OXON

Avery's Pightle Broad Leaved Helleborine Jul-Sep SU435651 Newbury BERKS

Bernwood Meadows - Green winged May-Jul SP606111 Oxford OXON

Cowcroft - Bee Orchid Jun-Jul SP986018 Chesham BUCKS

Dancersend - Bee Orchid SP900095 Wendover BUCKS

Dry Sandford Pit  - Common Spotted, Early marsh May-Jul, Marsh helleborine Jul-AugSU467997 Oxford OXON

Foxholes - Early purple Apr-Jun SP254206 Burford OXON

Gomm Valley  - Common Spotted SU896921 High Wycombe BUCKS

Hartslock - Lady, Monkey May-Jun SU616796 Goring OXON

Homefield Wood - Bee Orchid,  Fly Orchid, Military Orchid May-Jun, SU814867 Marlow BUCKS
Hurley Chalk Pit - Bee Orchid, Fragrant Orchid, Pyramidal Orchid Jun-Aug, White Helleborine May-Jul SU813822 Henley OXON

Moor Copse - Early purple SU633738 Reading BERKS

Oakly Hill Common Spotted,  White Helleborine SU753994 Chinnor BUCKS

Parsonage Moor   Narrow-leaved marsh orchid - May-Jun Southern marsh orchid Jun-Aug SU462998 Oxford OXON

Pilch Field Bee Orchid, Early marsh, Green wingedSP749321 Buckingham BUCKS

Sydlings Copse Bee Orchid, Early purple, Lizard, Marsh helleborineSP559096 Oxford OXON

Warburg Bird's nest orchid May-Jun, Broad Leaved Helleborine, Fly orchid, Narrow lipped helleborine Jul-Aug

Pyramidal Orchid,  Violet Helleborine Aug-Sep SU720879 Henley OXON

Warren Bank  - Bee Orchid SU653859 Wallingford OXON

Watts - Fragrant Orchid SU331772 Lambourn BERKS

Weston Turville Early marsh SP859095 Aylesbury BUCKS

Westwell Gorge Pyramidal Orchid, Early purple, SP221113 Burford OXON

Woodsides Meadow Southern marsh orchid SP556177 Oxford OXON

Hushed Up 1st for the WP in Dorset on Monday!

News has belatedly broken of an absolute mega in a garden in Southwell on Portland on Monday afternoon - the 1st WP record of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler!
Found by the house owners in their garden (incidently the same garden that hosted the recent Collared Flycatcher) and seen by a few locals only during the afternoon. Initially ID'd as an Eastern Crowned Warbler until the last observer of the day pointed out it didn't have a crown stripe!
Sadly kept quiet due to access problems which would have meant large crowds were a real no no. It was gone the next morning so most of us wouldn't have seen it anyway.

See the Portland Bird Obs website here

Apparant Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Portland (copyright Portland Bird Obs)

Late Autumn Rush, North Norfolk Coast, 24 October 2012

With just an afternoon off and an impending birding-free weekend in Bath I dashed up to the North Norfolk coast in the fog and gloom for a birding fix.

Heading through the lanes to Stiffkey a Common Redstart flew across the road at Cockthorpe before I joined the other cars at The Greenway in Stiffkey and made my way east through the woods. 300 yards RBA had said but was much further than that before I came across the small group of birders and within 5 minutes I was enjoying some crippling views of the Red-flanked Bluetail around some logs and brush piles. The woods were absolutely alive with migrants - Robins, Song Thrushes, Fieldfares, Blackbirds and Redwings all in huge numbers plus a single Ring Ouzel and a late Swallow

With more news from RBA my 2nd port of call was Brancaster Staithe (via an impromptu stop at Burnham Overy Staithe because yours truly obviously can't read properly!). En-route the thrush theme continued with flocks seemingly bursting out of every roadside hedge!

At Brancaster Staithe a walk for half a mile west to a row of willows and the Arctic Warbler was showing on arrival. It's so long since I've seen one of these beauties I'd forgotten how good they are! Another Common Redstart, Chiffchaff, Bramblings and more thrushes and Robins later I had to give up on the afternoon in the gathering gloom and head back to south Norfolk.


Amazing Rediscovery of Sillem's Mountain Finch

A fascinating story - the rediscovery of a species thought to have been extinct since 1929!

This link click here tells the amazing chance rediscovery in a remote area of Karakorum range earlier this year.

One of the most inspiring things I've read for some while. Huge congratulations to all involved!

male Sillem's Mountain Finch

Lowestoft, 13 October 2012

I managed to persuade Belinda that our trip to the coast today should be to Lowestoft so I could do a little birding. Arriving at Kensington Gardens in Kirkley the Yellow-browed Warbler found this morning was effectively missing. After wandering around the lovely gardens checking all the trees for about 30 minutes I got onto the bird calling high in a big pine and got some brief bins views before it started to tree hop for a few minutes only to be lost again. Despite the cold both Red Admiral and Small White were out in the gardens too but no other migrants at all.

On the way home 2 Common Buzzards were seen - 1 near Beccles and the other perched in a tree in the Waveney Valley near Alburgh which looked very pale so may be worth another look soon.     

Kelling area, 8 October 2012

A mornings birding up on the coast for the 1st time in ages.
The Pectoral Sandpiper of the last few days was quickly found in the NE corner of Kelling Water Meadows and watched at length. It never did come as close as I wanted but I did manage a few record shots. Whilst there a female Hen Harrier and a single Sparrowhawk flew west whilst 15 Jays moving east hinted at the huge and rather strange movements of the species over the previous few days.
A wander on Kelling Heath afterwards produced a very welcome male Dartford Warbler in lengthy sub-song. Very pleasing to note the species is hanging on here and this one was within a few yards of where I first saw the species here about 6 or 7 years ago! A flock of c12 Goldcrests contained 1 Chiffchaff and 2 late Swallows were seen at Baconsthorpe.

Pectoral Sandpiper, Kelling

Pectoral Sandpiper, Kelling

Pectoral Sandpiper, Kelling

Hen Harrier, Kelling