Member’s Trip Reports 2020

Scilly Memories ( Not strictly 2020 but a lovely nostalgic item) By David Knight.

Some sixteen years ago – Thursday 30th September 2004 to be precise – Val and I were spending another holiday on the Isles of Scilly, staying on St.Mary’s. We were on our last full day before heading back to Penzance. The weather was fine and bright, and we had decided to go to St. Martin’s. The noticeboard at the Pilot Gig reported a Cream-coloured Courser was about, but we had no plans to go chasing birds; we wanted a quiet day strolling around St. Martin’s. However, when we went to catch our boat it was obvious something big was going on, as our boat was full of birders, and we only just found a couple of seats. All the talk was about the Courser, which had now been seen again, this time on St. Martin’s. One group of birders coming down from the Midlands the day before, when it was first reported, had turned back for home when they heard the bird hadn’t be seen for some time, only to turn back for Scilly as they reached Exeter to hear the news that it was now showing again! We learnt that this bird was an extremely rare vagrant to the UK from the Middle East. The bird would be the highlight of many a birder’s year, and it had performed extraordinarily well on St Mary’s golf course earlier before, flying off only to be relocated on St Martin’s. It was the first to be recorded in the UK for 20 years, so when our boat landed at Lower Town we got caught up with the enthusiastic crowd and my pace quickened as I stepped ashore. Val, with a shrug of the shoulders, followed in my wake. We didn’t need to know exactly where the bird was, we just followed the crowd. It turned out the bird was reported to be in a sheep field near Turfy Hill towards Higher Town. After nearly half an hour of rapid walking we reached the spot where a wall of birders where all looking over a stone perimeter wall to the said field – and there it was. My, and I guess many of the watcher’s, first view of a Cream-coloured Courser. We joined the crowd where we could find a gap and enjoyed great views as this completely sandy coloured plover-like bird strutted around the field. Only when it flew into an adjoining field did it reveal its black underwings and black fingertips to the upperwings. What a great tick!

I tried to digiscope it but the perimeter wall was just that bit too high, so I had to be content with some poor record shots with my old Canon Powershot A570is. The two pictures below show some of the crowd (with Val in the foreground). After taking our fill we continued with our planned quiet walk heading towards Chapel Down and back to our boat at Higher Town Bay. On arriving back at St. Mary’s we heard that a Death’s Head Hawkmoth had been trapped the previous night and was on view at Longstones -but that’s another story.

 

Bird Count 2020 – the casual approach. By Carole & Alwyn Jackson.

 

As we were not able to participate fully in this year’s WVBS Bird Count we decided that we would take a casual approach by doing some counting whilst motoring around the local lanes during the morning.
We made a late start at 9.30am but just before we departed Carole noticed that there was a Kestrel perched in one of our garden Birch trees. Through the bins we could see that it was devouring what we thought was a small bird. This was a first for the garden in 42 years so got us off to a promising start.
Our first stop was around the corner at Elsing Bridge. We managed to find the male Stonechat that had been present for a few weeks but didn’t see the Kingfisher which is seen fairly regularly. Next stop Bylaugh Sewage Works and churchyard. We failed to find a Grey Wagtail or Chiffchaff but as a consolation Carole spotted a Treecreeper in the churchyard.
Our next stop was Slad Lane at Billingford where we could get a reasonable view of the Swanton Morley fishing pits. We added Great Crested Grebe, Little Egret, Tufted Duck and Egyptian Goose to our list. On the adjacent field there was small flock of Bullfinches in the hedgerow and seven Stock Doves feeding on the ground.
Worthing Mill was our next stop and to our delight we enjoyed excellent views of 25 Redwing searching for food on the river meadow. Another bonus was the distinctive song of a Mistle Thrush perched in the tree top nearby.
We decided to make our leisurely way along the Broom Green to Great Ryburgh road pausing for a coffee and a bite to eat at the old Raptor Watchpoint. No new species were added here so we moved on to the Gateley Road near Great Ryburgh. From this view point we noticed a flock of 200+ Linnets flying over and around a field in the Great Ryburgh direction so we decided to move nearer to get a better look. Here we met up with two other teams and together we enjoyed the spectacle of an estimated 1000 Linnets forming dark avian clouds over the roadside field.

We were told that there was a flock of Fieldfare near Gateley so decided to go and find them. We failed to locate the flock but did find a Green Sandpiper on a wet muddy area near a muck heap just a few metres away from our car. It must have spotted us as it soon took flight and was lost from sight as it headed in the direction of Bintree Mill. Nearby was a flock of c200 Lapwing.
At this juncture it was time to return home for a bite of lunch and a rest before making our way to the log call at Great Witchingham Village Hall. We enjoyed a cup of tea and a piece of cake in convivial surroundings, a pleasant way to round off the day.

Footnote: It was interesting to learn about one member who had participated in the Count by walking and cycling round his local patch. He is to be congratulated on finding a “greener” form of transport than we did. It is food for thought for future years.

Mopping up in East Norfolk  February 2nd 2020 by Paul Riley.

We were birding the Brecks on the Saturday as our usual Sunday birding day was forecast for heavy rain until early afternoon at least. Although we were complaining, some of the Breckland specialities were found despite the hard going. “Perhaps we should’ve done east Norfolk instead” I said and started writing a list of sites and exact details of where the best birds had been seen. The list looked quite impressive and with a few year ticks to be had. “Sod it, lets go out Sunday as well, I’m driving”, Chris said. Between the four of us we added more sites and birds with Chris at the end of the day saying he would work out a tour by the time we met up in the morning. At 07.30 Chris was driving Ian, Richard and I in the pouring rain to our first stop for Ring-necked Parakeets. We parked at the ring road end of Hellesdon road in the city to check the tall trees by the Wensum. A party of Long-tailed Tits trickled by. “They’re not in the trees where we saw them last year”, Richard said. We split up with Richard and Chris following the river towards the city while Ian and I went the opposite way towards the Marl Pit. Their call soon gave them up, seven of them, Ian picking them up first, we called the others over. It was then a 200m sprint in the still pouring rain back to the car. Chris soon got us up to Wroxham broad. Two carloads of birders were already scanning the broad and we didn’t need to speak to them to realise the Slavonian Grebe hadn’t been seen. It was still raining hard and we were reluctant to get out of the car. “When is it going to stop?” Ian moaned. The car was steaming up quickly and we wound down the windows just enough to peer over the lead-grey broad. I could see Mute Swan, Great Crested Grebe, Coot, Mallard on the broad, then Coal Tit, Great Tit and Blue Tit on the feeders. “I think I’ve got it!” Ian shouted. He was sitting in the front of the car and desperately craning over Chris’s shoulder and peering through the three-inch gap above the steamed up driver’s window. We all jumped out of the car with the other birders asking directions. Ian commandeered one of their scopes and confirmed it was there, on the far side of the broad against the bank. Despite its frequent diving we all managed to see it. The other birders soon left, they were already soaked, and we quickly followed. Next stop was Billockby near Acle bridge. Chis pulled up in front of the barn letting us out while he turned the car around. It was muddy underfoot. Richard and Ian went one side of the barn while I squelched along the other. I immediately saw three Cranes nearby and rushed back to see Richard holding up three fingers confirming the sighting. Still raining too hard to use the camera or get the scopes out, we all got back into the car. Several Common Gulls were in the field opposite as we drove out. Ludham airfield is generally best viewed from the road that runs behind the bottled gas compound. We were reminiscing the possible Smithonianus type Herring Gull and big female Peregrine we found while looking for the swans on our last visit. This time the swans were distant, 25 Egyptian Geese, Stock Dove, 2 Mute Swans and Buzzard were closer. Chris took us around the back roads where we had better views of 70 mixed swans. We didn’t bother getting out of the car because of the rain and to say there were probably more Whoopers than Bewicks was a better option than trying to count them. Not far away was Potter Heigham and its little grey Robin with the red tail. Chris parked the car at Lathams. We sat in the car not wanting to get out because of the rain. “When’s it gonna stop Paul?” Richard said. I looked at my phone and said, “Well it says we’re due 84% rain but should then get better”. We put on our already wet coats and crossed the road to the boatyard. 50 Cormorants flew overhead, and two or three Grey Herons were flying close by between the moored boats, a Herring Gull was worm charming on the lawn. We split up and searched but still couldn’t find it. Other birders joined the search in the 84% rain. A Kingfisher flashed across the moorings with a small fish in its bill and was chased by a posse of gulls. Pied Wagtails were flitting around the carpark, next a call went up “Black Redstart!”. It flew past me and settled on a wooden flower tub by the boatyard sales office. We all got to see it well. “Time to get out of the rain, time for breakfast” Chris said. It was a lovely breakfast from the café next to Lathams and we chipped in to pay for Chris’s. By the time we had finished the rain had stopped. Time to have another quick look at the Black Redstart and maybe take a couple of photos, we agreed. We were told by other birders that two Barn Owls had been seen from a nearby bridge. We investigated but could not find them. A Kestrel and a very bright male Marsh Harrier were seen. I said to the others “Check out the Egret by the cows in the distance”. It was then joined by another. “Bet they’re Cattle Egrets” claimed Ian. Another birder photographed them, blew up the pictures and confirmed it. A nice bonus I thought. We scanned Hickling Broad from the Pleasureboat Inn. “I can see clearly now the rain has gone” Richard sang and immediately found the pair of Scaup we had hoped for. Pochard and another Marsh Harrier were seen also. Chris had planned the day so we would be walking out to Horsey dunes after the rain and he was right. While he was parking the car, we were pocketing our sandwiches for the walk out. I traded a plum for one of Richards Wagon Wheels (good deal I thought) he also offered a swig of his blackcurrant drink. We set out along the Nelson Head track to the dunes. On the way out we saw Pinkfeet, Lapwing, Stonechat, GBB Gull, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Once at the dunes we walked south to the second beach ramp to view the fields. We heard bugling of Cranes and Chris soon had two of them located by the barns in the distance. 8 Bewick Swans flew over and a fox was seen before Chis picked up the Hooded Crow and then the Raven. It took time, but they were now in the bag. The Hoodie put in a later appearance flying close overhead. Golden Plover were seen on the walk back to the car. As Winterton was only down the road it seemed rude not to have a peek for the Eagle Owl. I picked it up right out in the open, in the now bare trees approx. 100m west of the church by a white poly tunnel. It even called several times for us. It was now late afternoon and time for one last site on the way home. We were now birding the marshes between Halvergate and the old Stracey Arms pub for Short-eared Owl. We couldn’t find one but knew two were seen in this area in the morning. We kept looking, scoped a Merlin low down in a bush and watched it fly off. Saw 3 Grey Herons, 3 Buzzards, 3 Kestrels, 3 Marsh Harriers and 3 Barn Owls but no Short-eared Owl. Chinese Water Deer were everywhere. Richard picked up another Merlin flying to a gate, we all had good views as it flew off. It was now getting dark and time to go home. Chris made one last stop midway along Branch road. “Got a Shortie!” I screamed out. It was perched on a gate quite close and on my side of the car. Chris had already packed his camera away and was scrambling to the boot to fetch it. Richard was straining to see it over my shoulder as I was trying to photograph it. We were too scared to get out of the car in case we flushed it. My camera couldn’t focus on the bird because it was so dark, and I think Chris had the same problem. Well, it’s not every day you go out and see everything you set out for. We had been to nine sites and seen everything I had listed the previous day. Cattle Egrets and Merlins were unexpected bonuses. We were lucky. We thank all birders for sharing their information to enable us a superb winter’s day birding. “You could say we mopped up”, Chris said.

 

Isle aux Aigrettes, March 2020 by Keith Walker

Before the World closed down, Mary & I managed to sneak off to Mauritius for two weeks. I was assured that this was not a birding holiday and given the small number of bird species on the island, it did seem a reasonable prospect.

To be fair we did relax for many of the days, but inevitably there was an endemic crusade that was compulsory.

This was to visit a misnomer, the so-called Ile aux Aigrettes, which translates from the lingua franca Mauritian Creole, as Island with Egrets. Ile aux Aigrettes is a tiny coral island (25 hectares) just off the coast of the town of Mahebourg. The island has been declared a nature conservation site and today is being preserved by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. The island is accessed by boat and is less than five minutes from the mainland.

Ile aux Aigrettes conserves the World’s only remaining piece of “Mauritius Dry Coastal Forest” – a once plentiful vegetation type. It is therefore home to a large number of extremely rare or endangered species of plants and animals.

Over several hundred years, indigenous flora and fauna was devastated by logging and invasive species. In this sense, the islet shared the same fate as the rest of Mauritius. The Dodo and the indigenous species of Giant Tortoise became extinct; as did many species of plant. Dutch & French colonists would take the huge tortoises aboard vessels for fresh meat and rats and other predators were inadvertently imported, which killed off mammals and birds, including the Dodo, Broad-billed Parrot, the Red Rail, and Blue Pigeon which are all now sadly extinct. The Egrets colony was also wiped out!!

The island of Mauritius has one of the highest population densities of wildlife in the world; many of the surviving endemic species are still threatened with extinction, with little protection and great loss of habitat.

Thankfully a Nature Reserve was established on the Isle aux Aigrettes in 1965, and we were fortunate to see endemic plants. including those which had evolved where red veins grow on the leaves until the plants are c 4 metres high as this discourages the past and current Tortoise inhabitants from eating them. The large tortoises now evident are Aldabra, which have been introduced from The Seychelles. Endangered endemic reptiles were also seen on our visit, including Guenthers Gecko (fifth largest in the world), Ornate Day Gecko and Telfair Skink.

Our main hope was to see three species of bird on the island, and we were fortunate to see our endemic targets, which were MAURITIUS FODY, the formerly critically endangered PINK PIGEON which was down to 10 individuals in 1991 and critically endangered MAURITIUS OLIVE WHITE-EYE.

The day out was a fascinating break from the Mauritian Rum and squally rain, which regularly sweeps in to Mauritius from the Indian Ocean.

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