Friday 27 September 2019

Late September in Northumberland

Having left it too late to book into Spurn for a few days this autumn, myself and Dave Craven hatched a plan to head somewhere else on the east coast; Northumberland seemed like a good, under-birded option, but unfortunately Dave tore a ligament in his shoulder so had to bail. I decided to go anyway, as winds from the SE looked promising... So I booked two nights in the bunkhouse at Beal - just a few minutes drive from Lindisfarne.

Heading up the A1 early on Tuesday I got snarled up in traffic around Newcastle and was worried I was going to miss the window in the tides to cross over to Lindisfarne, so I headed to Low Newton instead, an area I knew a bit from a visit last spring. I spent two hours at the tree belt by the tin church, eventually hearing and then briefly seeing the mega elusive Red-breasted Flycatcher that had been found two days earlier. Single Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Warbler were more co-operative.

The tin church at Low Newton
Pied Fly
Spotted Fly

Heading down into the village and the dunes beyond, another YBW was in the trees of a back garden adjacent to the rear of the pub, but I didn't see much else of note - a couple of Spotted Redshanks and a Med Gull on the flash. 

I continued on to Bamburgh, birding the dunes east of the castle. There are a couple of willow clumps here, and I worked my way through their tangled midsts, with 2 YBW in the first clump and a third in the second clump (along with a Redstart). These aren't the birds they used to be, but still great to come across. By now it it was p*ssing it down and I was fairly wet, so I called it a day just before 6pm.

Dune scrub at Bamburgh
Tangled willows
The following day I was out onto Lindisfarne - my first time birding on the island. Beginning at the Snook, I bumped into two local birders, who were welcoming and gave me some good advice. There were two YBW and two Redstarts in the plantation here, with a Garden Warbler at the house (but I failed to see the Barred Warbler). Further into the Snook, at Half-moon Slack, the willows held another YBW, plus Redstart and Tree Pipit, but I couldn't find much else in this area, although 3 Redwing flew over heading inland and a Merlin dashed through.

Snook House
Half-moon Slack
Tree Pipit

Onward, I walked up Chare Ends (seeing another YBW and a Wheatear) into the north dunes and across to the Excavations. A Lapland Bunting flew over calling, and I also came across a very late a juvenile Cuckoo. Walking down Straight Lonnen and back out to the coast on Crooked Lonnen I didn't see much else until I got to the Lough, where there were 4 Whinchats, with 3 more Wheatears near the castle. Ending up in the village, there were 2 Pied Flys in the Vicar's Garden. News then came on of a Wryneck back at the end of Straight Lonnen in the dunes. 

Juv Cuckoo
Straight Lonnen

Heading back to the car to top up my water, I decided to go back to Snook House and plantation (which was very quiet - still no Barred Warbler), before going to look at the Wryneck. Bumping into the finder, one of the aforementioned locals, he gave me directions. I eventually located the broken green plastic chair which marked the area the bird had been favouring, but I couldn't find the bird itself. Annoyingly, the area was one I had walked through 3 or 4 earlier - I still need Wryneck for my self-found list! Neverthless, it had been a good day, and my personal totals were 1 Lapland Bunting, 4 YBW, 3 Redstart, 2 Pied Fly, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Blackcap, 2 Willow Warbler, 3 Chiffchaff, 2 Goldcrest, 4 Wheatear, 4 Whinchat, 3 Redwing, 27 Song Thrush, 1 Tree Pipit and 1 Cuckoo - so not bad. 

The next day I had another wander on the island, deciding to bypass the Snook and instead walking up Chare Ends. I again couldn't locate the Wryneck, but the juv Cuckoo was still present; however, there was nothing of note in the Vicar's Garden. Time was ticking on, and with the window to cross back to the mainland fast approaching, I decided not to visit the Snook - which proved to be a mistake, with another Wryneck found by the other of yesterday's locals in the scrub by the carpark! Hey ho. 

The Vicar's Garden

I headed back towards Bamburgh via Budle Bay, where a Spoonbill was asleep - this came as a surprise, but had apparently been present for a few days. There were also hundreds of geese - Pale-bellied Brents, Pink-feet and Barnacles.


At Bamburgh, I worked through the first willow clump where one of the YBW's was still present along with a Redstart, then seeing a tweet about a 'small white goose' which had gone south-east over Lindisfarne. Guessing this may have been headed to Budle Bay I dashed back there, but all I could find was a Bar-headed Goose, looking pale at range, in with the Barnies. However, photos suggested the original culprit was a white Barnacle. 

Bar-headed Goose (heavy crop!)

I returned to Bamburgh, but the only other bird of note was another Redstart. By now it was getting on for later in the afternoon, and having promised not to be back late, I headed home; however, I had also missed a Pacific Golden Plover which had been found in fields to the east of Straight Lonnen over high tide!

Bamburgh Castle - and plenty of habitat!

All in all a good trip, even with the dips and lack of any notable finds. I'll be back...

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Kicking off autumn

The first of what will hopefully be several trips to the east coast this autumn saw me head to the scrubby dunes at Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe on Monday. It was to be a roasting hot day, which somehow never feels like it is going to be productive, but with plenty of Pied Flys around the day before and an Icky at Flamborough, and winds still set in the south-east, it was worth a shot. 

So, starting off at Rimac, I birded my way south. There were plenty of warblers around - mainly Chiffchaffs, but a Grasshopper Warbler showed quite well, with another calling nearby (presumably local breeders?). A few Yellow Wags and hirundines moved south, and a Turtle Dove flew across, however, I hadn't seen anything of further note by the time I got to the next carpark at Churchill Lane, 3 hours after setting off. 


After a chat with the former site manager, John, I set off into the grazing compartment to the south, pausing in a patch of shade for some water. As I did so, a twangy call had me spin round - and there on a patch of bramble was a Common Rosefinch - great! The first British bird I've find outside of Scotland... It looked like a youngster, with slightly olivey tones particularly on the fringes to the primaries. 

Initial views of the Rosefinch

I rattled off some shots, before it did the right thing and flew into a hawthorn immediately opposite me - I got some more shots, and it then flew south, and I lost it to view behind some scrub. I had a hunt for it, but couldn't relocate it, although another Turtle Dove was nice. 

Common Rosefinch

Returning north, I tracked down a Pied Fly on the path at the back of the dunes, and then relocated to Sea View Farm, where I spent some time around the sycamores by the carpark, where there were there were two more Pied Flys. I then called it a day. 

Pied Fly

Sunday 2 June 2019

Finland 2019

Back in January, I was at a christening along with Lincs birder, Andy Chick. Needless to say we talked birds, and lo and behold, four days later we had a spring birding trip to Finland booked… (one of the more productive christenings I've been to). This was to be a fairly flying visit, as (a) I could only negotiate a few days away from the family, and (b) it was already shaping up to be an expensive trip (albeit much less than a trip with a tour company).

May rolled round, and we were off, flying out on Wednesday 15th, returning on Saturday 18th. Our itinerary was to arrive Wednesday night, have a morning's birding with Finnature around Oulu on the Thursday before driving over the Kuusamo, where we would have another a morning's birding with Finnature on the Friday before returning back to Oulu that evening, and then flying home on Saturday morning.

All in all it was a pretty successful trip - we had a tight connection in Oulu, which we made (although this wasn't helped by our Helsinki flight being delayed - we had to run through the terminal), and our accommodation in (or rather, just south of) Oulo was... interesting (think 1970s motel). We also had one big dip, but we were always going to be lucky to get a clean sweep. This is how things panned out:


We arrived into Oulu (which is at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia, Finland's fifth largest city, and self-titled 'Capital of Northern Scandinavia') in the late afternoon. After picking up the hire car, we drove a short distance to the Finlandia Hotel Airport, which was to be our meeting point the following morning.

Flying from Helsinki to Oulu

This was found without any difficulties, and would have been a very pleasant place to stay had we not been on a budget... There is also a viewing platform and trails on the shoreline behind the hotel, and of course we couldn't resist a quick look, which a range of wildfowl (including a pair of Garganey) and waders (including displaying Snipe and Green Sandpiper), and a selection of other bits and pieces, including a Crane over, singing Redwing, Fieldfare, Swallow and House Martin, White Wagtail, Willow Warbler, and plenty of Little Gulls

Our first bit of birding

It was then off to our hotel for a very unsatisfactory night's sleep before out early start the following morning….


With alarms set for 2.30am, it felt like I’d barely closed my eyes before it was time to get up; we arrived back at the Finlandia Hotel Airport just before 3am, meeting our Finnature guide for the day and the rest of our group – three fellow Brits, a Dutchman and a Californian.


Finnature are obviously keen not to have the locations of breeding owls etc.. published on the internet (and to be honest, I didn’t really know where we were going anyway), so ‘Stop 1’ was somewhere north of Oulu, and produced a singing Pygmy Owl, brought in by a quick bit of playback. Only my second ever, following my first in Slovakia back in 2007. This patch of forest also held Black Grouse (bubbling somewhere in the distance), Waxwing and displaying Greenshank. A female Moose was the first of three we saw during the trip, and both Brown and Mountain Hares the first of many.

Our group and guide at our first stop
Pygmy Owl
Pygmy Owl
Moose - big beasts!

A short distance further on, our second stop produced my Most Wanted – a Great Grey Owl, initially spotted in a roadside tree by the Dutchman who was riding shotgun. It moved further away as the minibus was backed up, but we had satisfactory views of it before it melted away into the forest. Excellent! I was surprised that it wasn't in some pristine bit of forest, but on the edge of a small settlement (lots of rodent prey I guess). This area also produced Goshawk, 2 Parrot Crossbills and trumpeting Northern Bullfinch.

The track through the forest

Slightly further on, in the same area, we were then taken to a Great Grey Owl nest. This is what Finnature do (under controlled conditions), and it’s what you pay an eye-watering sum of money for 8 hours guiding for. The female was clearly used to visitors, looking at us for a couple of minutes, before losing interest. She was sat on a huge old Goshawk next, and the whole experience was fairly mind-blowing, made even more so when the male appeared with some prey. What fantastic birds.

Heading towards the nest
And what a nest it was...
Looking on
Views of the male
The male Great Grey Owl

After a bit of a drive off somewhere to the east, seeing thunbergi Yellow Wagtail, Wood Sand, Whooper Swan and Raven on the way, we were taken to location 3 for another owl nesting site – this time Ural Owl. This was a bit unsatisfactory, requiring a mirror to see into the nest box, and raised a philosophical dilemma – can you tick a bird if you’ve only seen its reflection? I have... This productive piece of forest and adjacent mire also held singing Pied Fly, Redstart and Tree Pipit, borealis Willow Tit (very smart and frosty), Cuckoo, Hazel and Black Grouse and Crane.

Wood Sand on a roadside pool
Viewing the Ural Owl nest box...
She was visible in real life!
Female Black Grouse
Birding in the forest
The forest is commercially managed, but still pretty nice
Prancing Cranes

Stop 4, back towards Oulu, was for Tengmalm’s Owl – another bird in a nest box, but this time bird did at least stick it’s head out to see what was going on; we enjoyed its permanent state of surprise for a few minutes before backing off. 

Tengmalm's Owl
Better at least than the Ural Owl...

Our fifth and final stop was back on the coast at Oulu – a small and unprepossessing tidal pond next to an industrial area, but one of just of a handful of sites were Terek Sandpiper still breed in Finland – and we were rewarded with a bird flying in and giving a quick burst of song. An LRP and two displaying Common Sands were also present here. And that completed our first session with Finnature – and very good it was too. 

Terek Sandpiper
We then started our nearly 3 hour journey north-east to Kuusamo, breaking at a couple of places along the way. First up was a huge mire site called Hirvisuo, although we didn’t see that much here – thunbergi Yellow Wags, Siskin, Common Redpoll, Tree Pipit, 2 Whinchats, and Cranes. Just short of Kuusamo we stopped by a lake just south of Kuolio, which yielded an adult White-tailed Eagle, several Little Gulls, our first singing Brambling, and a male Smew. Birds seen on the drive included familiar fare, such as Whooper Swan (not quite present on every lake and wetland).

Top notch mire habitat at Hirvisuo
Viewing tower
thunbergi Yellow Wagtail
An icy lake at Kuolio

Arriving into Kuusamo (a small town c.60km south of the Arctic circle and c.35km from the Russian border), we checked into our hotel - a great improvement on the one in Oulu. Grabbing an early supper, we then headed out for some more birding, visiting an area of forest about 15km to the north which looked promising based on its eBird list. We couldn’t find much here, but did have a couple of Hazel Grouse, 3 borealis Willow Tits, and a few each of the widespread breeders (Brambling, Chaffinch, Siskin etc.).

After a much better night’s sleep, we were up again at 2.30am for a 3am meet with our new Finnature guide. Our group today was comprised of three of yesterday’s party (two of the Brits and the Dutchman), plus a third Brit who was driving up through Scandinavia in his motorhome. Our first stop was just outside town, with a Willow Grouse by the road and two singing Rustic Buntings. Driving on, Capercaillie, Black Grouse and Hazel Grouse were all seen on the roadside, making it a four-grouse day, whilst two Woodcock were feeding in a grassy field.

Willow Grouse

Arriving at our second stop, the singing Red-flanked Bluetail present the day before failed to show, which was a shame – this was something I had been looking forward to. I think we were still slightly early in the season for this species (and seemingly others too, as many areas of forest were very quiet). However, compensation came in the form of a pair of Pine Grosbeaks which flew in and showed well for about 10 minutes – I’d not realised how big these would be (the size of a Redwing), and the colour of the male was something else - superb. Other birds included a pair of Rustic Buntings (I tried to log the call in my memorybank...), breeding Greenshank and Black-throated Diver, a Short-eared Owl and several crossbill sp over.

Snowy forest
Male Pine Grosbeak and an annoying twig
Female Grosbeak
Male Rustic Bunting - very smart
Greenshank habitat
Breeding Greenshank

Our next stop produced Siberian Tit without too much difficulty, and we enjoyed watching these birds over coffee. However, our luck then began to falter – at our fourth stop of the day, within spitting distance of the Russian border, there was no sign of the Hawk Owl which had been seen as recently as the previous day by another group. It was a bit windy, which perhaps didn’t help. A pair of Waxwings, 5 Taiga Bean Geese and a Rough-legged Buzzard provided some interest whilst not seeing the owl.

Siberian Tit
Andy not seeing a Hawk Owl
Taiga Bean Geese in the taiga

Our luck continued to waiver, as we spent ages looking for Siberian Jay in a very nice patch of protected forest at our fifth and final stop  – this was a bird I really didn’t want to dip, as it would have required another trip back! However, they eventually showed up back by the minibus just before we were due to leave, but only because another group had arrived, and their guide had put some bits of sausage out; the Jays took approximately 2 minutes to arrive! We also couldn’t locate any Three-toed Woodpeckers here, despite plenty of fresh field signs – a would-be tick for Andy.

Nice (protected) forest
Waiting for the Siberian Jays to show up

Back in Kuusamo, and having said farewell to our companions, we grabbed a quick bite for lunch before retracing our steps, first to an area just north of Kuusamo airport where our guide said a Hawk Owl had been seen two weeks previously. Needless to say, we couldn’t find it, but did have an immature White-tailed Eagle overhead, plus 3 Whimbrel, and a Golden Plover.

No Hawk Owls here either
Juv White-tailed Eagle - I'm not quite sure of the age of this - looks like a
2cy on plumage (lacking extensive white mottling on the belly), but a 3cy
based on wing moult?

Heading back to the Siberian Jay spot, we saw another Moose and a Rough-legged Buzzard en route, and then enjoyed close and prolonged views of the Siberian Jays, and wondering at their ability to appear out of nowhere, and vanish equally quickly on silent wings. However, once again the Three-toed Woodpeckers didn’t show. In fact, the only woodpeckers we saw or heard during our trip were Great Spots, which was a bit surprising given all the trees! 

Siberian Jays
Siberian Jay
Siberian Jay
Siberian Jay
Siberian Jay

It was then an uneventful drive back to Oulu, for another night in strange (albeit different) accommodation.With a little time to kill before our flight on Saturday morning, we revisited the Terek Sandpiper site, seeing two birds before they were flushed by a photographer, along with 2 Ruff and a Wood SandBack at Finlandia Hotel Airport, the tide was lower than our previous visit, and the exposed mud held at least 12 Temminck’s Stints, lots of Ruff (including a displaying male), and a Black-tailed Godwit.

Coastal habitat looking towards Oulu

And that was it – two flights and we were home by mid-afternoon. We clocked up just over 100 species in our short stay, despite several notable omissions, including Red-flanked Bluetail, Bluethroat, Two-barred Crossbill, Little Bunting and Three-toed Woodpecker. However, I can’t complain having seen 6 of my 7 target species – Great Grey, Ural and Tengmalm’s Owls, Siberian Tit and Jay, and Pine Grosbeak, and a nice selection of other northern species. I’ll have to twitch a Hawk Owl next time there is one within striking distance of the UK (or maybe even in the UK…).