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Friday, 28 April 2017

Friday Morning on the Chase

A nice walk around Seven Springs today with Steve Hill, loads of activity going on as you would expect at the time of year but nothing of huge significance.

We checked out some of the older sites on the Chase for Pied Flycatcher and Wood Warbler but nothing in at any of them yet. Star birds were probably an obliging Garden Warbler at Seven Springs and a good showing by singing Tree Pipits there.

Lots of common stuff about although I am concerned about Redstart Numbers. Normally that part of the Chase is alive with them but today we heard one, perhaps two birds but didn't see any.

Big thanks to Steve for a nice morning though, some days you get the birds and some days ... - Chaz

Biggest Blockers - First feedback

Well I am glad that someone is reading yesterdays introductory posting about Staffordshire blockers, but I have to confess that my first response has given me something of a quandary!

Late last night I received a one word text message from Gareth Clements:


No, he wasn't being abusive or discussing the height of the stiles on Ryders Mere, he was suggesting that perhaps this species would be an appropriate addition to the Staffs Blocker list. I really can understand where he is coming from with that.
The Staffs Nutcracker

In October 1991 a Nutcracker was discovered in a North Staffordshire Woodland and remained for several weeks being enjoyed on multiple occasions by myself and many other birders.

And perhaps this is the problem, the bird was so obliging and is from a species that is allegedly supposed to undergo large scale migrations to western Europe when conditions are right, so surely it has potential to occur in Staffs again?

On the other hand, although there have been a couple of claims of Nutcracker in the intervening years, none of them seem to have amounted to anything as far as I can remember so that means it has been over twenty-five years since a genuinely twitchable bird has occurred so how long before another one in Staffs?

I have to agree with Gareth that Nutcracker probably does deserve to be on the Staffs blocker list but the question is where? My initial feeling is that rather then increase the twelve to thirteen, Nutcracker possibly deserves to be with Marsh Sandpiper and Guillemot as a species that could occur in Staffs again eventually. On the other hand, I look at the recent occurrences of the bird and think, perhaps it will never happen again?

Anyone have an opinion? - Chaz

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Staffordshire's Biggest Blockers - An Introduction

Staffordshires last twitchable Night Heron - Photo Chaz Mason (Honest)!
Warning: This one is an epic and is something for more serious birders, so be prepared to 'give up the will to live' if you are only casually interested in birds and birdwatching.

If you are still with me - lets begin...

As I am 'getting-on' a bit these days I am tending to lose the plot with a lot of things. Once upon a time if I heard a bird call or song I would pretty much know what it was immediately (and if I didn't know what it was, I knew that too - which was a lot more exciting). These days the information is still downloaded, it just takes a few more seconds for the software to access it than it used to. Which is very frustrating!

I find that I am also getting a lot more nostalgic about things that I was once quite pragmatic about and that includes birding. There are some things about the hobby that I miss and one of them is the special language that birders used to use which has gone out of fashion these days. I must have been doing the blog for about ten years now (?) and over that period I have introduced you to a fair few of those terms, so you should all know about; twitching, gripping-off, stringing (Don't do it!), padders, and dudes. Even this week I have exposed you to a 'Crippler' but I cant remember if we have ever talked about 'Blockers'?

A blocker is a bird that is difficult to put on a particular list, whether its a life-list, local patch list, garden list, county list etc (if you don't know by now, being an anally retentive lister is a prerequisite of serious bird watching). It is usually a bird which for some reason is rare or infrequent in occurrence or in a worst case an out and out unexpected rarity (A good example of this would be the Belted Kingfisher at Shugborough - a species so unlikely to occur in Staffordshire that it could easily be a hundred or even two or three hundred years before there is another). It must be noted that birds that have never previously occurred in a particular area are not blockers. If that were not the case then you could say that flightless Steamer Duck would be a Blocker in Staffs. No, the bird has to have occurred in a particular area at least once for it to be deemed a blocker (literally something you have been blocked from putting on your list by it failure to occur with any frequency).

These days my most important lists are my Staffordshire List and my Chasewater List. I was born in Staffordshire, in Walsall! Yes younger readers, Walsall used to be in Staffordshire! Until 1974 in fact when we were all forcibly deported into an artificial administrative area called the West Midlands County. Some people deported into 'new' counties such as Humberside and Avon have been allowed to go home but it is now doubtful that Walsall and its citizens will be allowed back (after nearly fifty years I suspect such a decision would be as divisive as brexit these days). At first sight this may not seem to be a relevant issue but it has caused a dichotomy of opinion about what constitutes Staffordshire for some birders.

When the county boundaries were changed, the body responsible for recording the counties birdlife (The West Midland Bird Club) had to make a decision. Do we opt for using the new counties or do we stick to the old vice-counties that had traditionally been used to define where wildlife occurred. They made a decision (wrong in my opinion) to go with the new counties which meant that records of species from some parts of historic Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire suddenly found themselves transferred to a county that previously didn't exist and all subsequent species records for those transferred areas were now attributed to the West Midlands.

I try to be a good lad and still use the WMBC guidelines as a yardstick to run my list by so my Staffordshire list only features birds that have been accepted as having occurred in a wild state in the county as defined in 1974. This even means that there are a number of birds that I have seen in Staffordshire which are not on my official county list because the administrative body does not accept that they were genuinely wild.

I believe that if you decide to have a framework for doing something then you work within that structure and not pick the bits you like and ignore the bits that aren't comfortable (some religions should look at that approach perhaps)? However, some renegade birders refuse to accept this level of control and run their list on their own opinions and on the basis of the pre 1974 boundary so what is a blocker for one Staffs birder is not necessarily a blocker for another.

The photo at the top of the posting was a juvenile Night Heron at Rollaston on Dove, just within the Staffordshire County boundary (31/03/2000) and (as far as I know) the last twitchable Staffordshire Bird according to the WMBC. If I were an 'Old Staffs' lister, I would now have seen at least three of these in the county because I once saw an adult at Hayhead Wood (16/04/1990) and another juvenile at Sheepwash Urban Park (08/08/2004), both places previously having been in Staffordshire (Good grief -birders seem to do everything in as complicated a way as possible don't they - what next, standing up in a hammock)?

Anyway - you should now have a good idea of what a birder means when he says that something is a blocker. When a bird that has previously been a blocker finally turns up it is deemed to have been unblocked - at last something straightforward and logical. 

Staffordshires Most Blocked?

So what are Staffordshires biggest blockers. On a personal level for me it is Honey Buzzard, the commonest species that I need for the county but this is actually a regular passage bird through the county and one that could turn up in a couple of weeks for someone fortunate enough to be there at the right time. So its not a Blocker in the true sense of the term.

No - what are the REAL blockers that effect all Staffordshire listers and not just me?

My opinion is there are just twelve super-Blockers most of which are unlikely to ever occur again and another two which may remain Blockers for some time but which could conceivably be pulled back. These latter birds are Marsh Sandpiper (last recorded in the county in 1974) and Guillemot (last recorded in the county in 1920). There is no real reason why Marsh Sandpiper has not occurred in recent years, it is still a more or less annual vagrant to the U.K. and statistically it is only a matter of time before one turns up again. As to the potential for Guillemot, that's a different matter. Despite pelagic birds occasionally finding their way to inland counties, the most common auk species Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin are always single figure occurrences on the lists for those counties as they depend on specific and unusual weather conditions at the right time of year in order to be significantly displaced, and those two factors only seem to come together one or twice a century.

So what are the Staffordshire Super-Blockers?

These are the species that in my opinion, you as an individual reading this today will be damn lucky to put onto your county list should you be that way inclined. I have listed the species that I deem to be the 'Super Blockers' in alphabetical order rather than to try and justify which is more or less likely to occur than another (such an approach would be subjective and very open to disagreement so why bother)?

Belted Kingfisher 2005
This was always my dream bird for Britain and when a Belted Kingfisher turned up in my favoured county on April First I took some persuading to go for it. It is still (I believe) a single figure species on the British List so the chances of a second bird finding its way to such an inland county has to be very small. Not impossible but then very little in birding ever is! However, I suspect that you would get very good odds from Ladbrookes on there being another one in our lifetimes?

Belted Kingfisher - Photo Copyright: Audobon
Cirl Bunting 1951
I don't think that this was ever an established species in Staffordshire? I know they reportedly bred on Hartlebury Common (Worcestershire) within recent history (1960/1970s ?) but I am not sure if the Staffordshire record relates to a genuine extra-limital occurrence by a British specimen or possibly a vagrant bird from Europe? Either way the decline of this species has resulted in a successful reintroduction scheme in Cornwall and I suspect that it would require an extension of such a scheme into more northern counties for this species to get on to any contemporary Staffordshire birders list?

Cory's Shearwater 1971
Chasewaters rarest ever bird? This rates alongside Auks as unlikely to occur at an inland site and again would seem to require a very infrequent set of circumstances in order to penetrate so far inland. The bird in question was picked up exhausted and nursed back to health before sadly being killed on release. Not impossible but put it this way, I have seen probably approaching a thousand Cory's Shearwaters abroad but still need to see one for my British list, and that's in coastal waters. So statistically what would you rate the chances of another one occurring on a lake or reservoir in Staffordshire?

Golden Eagle N/K
No longer breeding anywhere in England and suffering continuing persecution in Scotland. I don't know anything about this record. It is certainly not impossible for a vagrant bird from Scotland or even Europe to occur but it is still highly unlikely. Having said that this is one that could eventually unblock for some lucky birder.

Gyr Falcon 1844
HA! I wish! Unless you are affluent enough to go to the Scottish Islands or are in a position to twitch the odd coastal vagrant that sometimes occurs, this is a very difficult bird to get on your list. Any legitimate bird occurring in Staffordshire these days would have to run the gauntlet of the rarities committees to decide if it was genuine or a falconers escape or even a hybrid? Good luck with getting this one on your staffs list.

Little Bittern 1906
Please, please, please!  This is my personal Bogey Bird, if you have one of these anywhere come and get me - I genuinely am coming to believe that I will never see one of these, I have even missed seeing them at sites abroad (the little buggers keep dodging me)! From a county point of view though, this does have some potential for breaking the block. Little Bittern may not have occurred for over a hundred years in the county but in recent years there have been a number of breeding records in Britain. If this trend continues there has to be hope of a Little Bittern eventually crossing into Staffordshire airspace (if one does, COME AND GET ME - PLEASE)!

Little Bustard 1891
Never going to happen. Despite being highly migratory, this species has undergone such a dramatic decline in its favoured breeding areas the potential for vagrancy to such an inland county in the UK has to be very small verging on impossible in my opinion. When the next one turns up on the south coast go and chase it, I suspect thats the closest that this species will ever get to Staffordshire again!

A Little Bustard. Never again? photo copyright: Animalia
Great Snipe 1954
To the delight of 'Old Staffs' listers this one is on their lists thanks to a highly unlikely but well watched bird at Sandwell Valley a few years ago (22/08/1995). This one could get onto the Staffordshire lists if more birders were prepared to learn the species and apply what they have learned to the large numbers of wintering Snipe that occur in Britain. I suspect that Great Snipe is a much under-recorded vagrant but how many of you reading this would be prepared to put their reputations on the block and claim one if you believed you have found one. That's the destructive effect of competitive birding for you!

Pallas's Sandgrouse 1908
For what is now such a rare species, it is hardly possible to believe that it was once a regular irruptive migrant with huge falls of birds being recorded in the 19th century. These days such things must be consigned to history and even if this bird were to occur, it is far more likely to be on a distant Scottish island rather than anywhere in Staffordshire. This is one of the few species on my 'dream list' so I would like to hope, but I don't really think its ever likely to happen again, do you?

Sooty Tern 1852
Its not very often that a legend is totally true but the story of the Staffordshire Sooty Tern is! The bird was seen on the River Trent near Burton and a local landowner paid a local boy with a catapult to bring the bird down - which he did with one shot! The bird was subsequently collected, stuffed and then put on Display (Does Yoxall Hall sound right?) where its existence was a matter of record for many years. Unfortunately at some point the specimen was lost but there is no doubt of its existence and the story is recounted in a very rare book called; "The Birds of Staffordshire" (McAldowie 1893).

Fortunately if you are interested in knowing more, a copy of this fascinating book is in possession of the Local Studies Room at Essex Street in Walsall. Not sure how accessible it is these days but I once sat and read it cover to cover one afternoon.

White Tailed Eagle 1905
What do I need to say about this species. The successful return of this magnificent birds to British Skies is a matter of common knowledge. Surely at some point one of these reintroduced birds or even perhaps a genuine vagrant from Norway must one day grace the sky over Staffordshire. However this would probably have been much more likely had the proposal to reintroduce White Tailed Eagle to East Anglia been allowed to go ahead. Sadly not to be though, so its a case of wait, hope and twitch!

Photo copyright: Alan Saunders
White throated Needletail 1991
A much envied bird from within my lifetime, and a totally unexpected vagrant to the UK let alone Staffordshire! The possibility of one of these occurring anywhere must be quite small and I suspect it is a bird that the current and future generations of Staffordshire listers will have to continue to envy those lucky enough to have found it? - Likelihood of another? In my opinion astronomical!

There you are then - something for you to ponder on. It is now three hours since I started to write this and I haven't had my breakfast yet. Sorry for those who may have found it boring but sometimes I want to write stuff that interests me and which I hope will be of interest to like-minded birders.

I am sure that not everyone will agree with my analysis and that's fine, I have told you before opinion's are like Ar**holes (everybody has one) but as I do this blog and presumably you choose to read it, you have to put up with mine. If anyone wants to give any relevant feedback or alternative opinions I will be happy to report them. Its much easier to make up your mind about something if you have more than one viewpoint to consider, so if your views differ to mine let me know - it would be interesting!

If you made it this far - thanks for persevering, I hope you found it worthwhile - Chaz


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Tuesday Evening

Kev Clements was over late afternoon and was unable to locate the Garganey although he did find a Common Sandpiper on the edges of Ryders Mere. Kev also heard the Grasshopper Warbler singing on the set-aside field.

Chris and Susan were visiting tonight so at dusk we set out to find the Groppers for ourselves. Unfortunately the wind was quite sharp and I suspect that the majority of the territorial reeling had already been done before we arrived. We did hear one bird briefly on the set-aside field but more interestingly, I am convinced I also heard a very distant bird reeling somewhere in the region of the Sewage Farm (possibly within the actual compound).

The only other news today is that the House Martin appear to have returned to their favoured nesting areas in the village. One bird was hawking around the houses near the Coop this morning and late afternoon there were at least three birds over Church Street.

Right! Bring on the Swifts - Chaz

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

There is a well know saying often applied to Bird Watching.

"Absence of Evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence"

Having seen this bird at its most elusive yesterday, I secretly harboured hopes that Kev Clements not seeing it at lunchtime did not necessarily mean that the Garganey had definitely gone, but with my old mate Dave Glover making one of his occasional birding visits and with a pretty poor weather prognosis, instead of putting time in on the off-chance of relocating the Garganey, we decided instead to chase a fall of migrants at Chasewater.

A report from lunchtime indicated that there were five Common Swift, several Common Tern and a Black Tern up the pool but by late afternoon the Black Tern and Swift had apparently moved on. Three Common Tern were still present however and provided a year-tick for both Dave and myself.
The wind across Chasewater was particularly blustery and our original plan was to move on to Park Lime Pits to hopefully get Dave a view of the parakeets there but then I received a text.

Jim and Sue Miles had just got home from a visit to the marsh where they had managed to get views of the Garganey, still present on the main swag. I immediately texted Kev Clements with the good news. Kev himself was apparently not convinced that the bird had gone and already intended to pay another visit late afternoon to make sure, so the text confirmed both his plans and ours.

Kev, Dave and I must all have arrived on the Marsh around the same time,just in time in fact to shelter from a deluge of hail and sleet! We managed to meet up once this had passed over at the top of the mineral line.

Our outward walk from the Ford Brook provided no sign of the elusive duck but it did not take Kev very long to locate it this time, initially breaking cover to fly down to the east end of the swag (the duck that is, not Kev).

Despite being a gorgeously marked bird the Garganey is demonstrating an impressive ability to conceal itself in the emergent Marestail at the fringes of the swag pool. That was where I relocated it yesterday and where Kev relocated it today so perhaps a good place to start looking if you go in search of the bird tomorrow.

A final treat for Dave and I was a singing Grasshopper Warbler on the set aside which briefly showed itself as it flew from one clump of Bramble to another - an unexpected bonus for us both.

The only other birds of interest were a single Snipe which flew into cover and a single House Martin with Swallow on Ryders Mere.

If you want to see the Garganey, my money would be on it still being present tomorrow although clear sky's tonight could possibly scupper that. I have found that it never pays to make predictions in bird watching, so if you do go tomorrow and don't find it, its not my fault, OK? - Chaz

Tuesday Update

Juvenile Cormorant on Mere 23-04-2017 Photo: Sindy Weals
First the biggish one - regrettably no sign of the Garganey today. I suspect it may have flown out before the weather set-in last night but as the species goes it was a particularly flighty example.

Big thanks to Mr Clements who wins the award of being the first person (as far as I know) to have all three hirundine on site this year (50+ Swallow, House Martin and Sand Martin). He did have a very late Jack Snipe along with five Common Snipe, two Little Grebe, and a Cormorant (the photo is last Sundays bird courtesy of Sindy).

I hope to be out birding later, in which case I may well do another update tonight - Chaz

More Garganey Photos

I don't know if it's still going to be present today? It was a clear night last night so it may have gone out but I did wake-up to SNOW on the lawn this morning and I am pretty sure if I was a migratory duck I would not want to fly through that so perhaps there is hope.

Regardless of this, Derek has sent me another couple of shots of yesterday's bird which was (in birding parlance) a 'Crippler'! So I thought that I had to share them with you. For the best effect I would suggest that you click on the photo and zoom-in. You will then get the benefit of all the vermiculation on the birds flanks - Beautiful! - Chaz