My first ever shorebird research program

I was excitedly reading a recent e-mail received from the Head of the Bird Ringing Centre of BirdLife Hungary who confirmed that my application to study the migration of Little Ringed Plovers in Hungary was accepted and permitted. Now I can start to work on my first ever shorebird research program in detail as there is a lot to do. The breeding season is at the corner and we have to be in a hurry to get everything sorted by April.

The Little Ringed Plover is one of the commonest breeding shorebird species in Hungary. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The Little Ringed Plover is one of the commonest breeding shorebird species in Hungary. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The program is about studying the migration of Little Ringed Plovers and learning more about the demography of the Hungarian (Central European) population. It is still not confirmed whether Serbia will join the program, but very likely they do. Resident and migratory Little Ringed Plovers will be ringed by inscribed colour-rings what is relatively easy to read in the field. By the rather extensive observation network in Europe higher number of recoveries are expected than by the usage of a single metal ring.

This study is now a part of the WorldWaders Research Program Series what is going to support the New Shorebirds Handbook Project. It sounds complicated, but in fact, I have worked long hours on it to make this integration simple.

A long staying Bucks rarity

I had tried to find a Western Cattle Egret a couple weeks back without any luck but today I got it. Thanks to the long stay of this local rarity, I could give it a second try today. It has been reported multiple times a day since it was found in early December 2013.

Western Cattle Egret. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Western Cattle Egret. © Gyorgy Szimuly

At the entrance road of the Briarhill Farm off Steeple Claydon (Buckinghamshire) another bird photographer/birder was waiting for having a closer view of the egret. It was a bit distant for a decent shot. During my one hour stay it flew a few times, allowing better views. While following the movement of the egret I witnessed  nice bird activity around. A mixed flock of Redwings and Fieldfares feed on the adjacent field which apparently attracted the birds of prey. At my arrival a male Eurasian Sparrowhawk patrolled over the fields. Shortly after a male adult Peregrine Falcon flew just over us. The photographer managed to take a few frames of it. At the end of my stay a huge female Eurasian Sparrowhawk bombed into the flock of thrushes.

Northern Lapwings were flying from different directions and Eurasian Jackdaws calls filled the whole farm.

Birds seen at the farm:

Western Cattle Egret 1
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 2
Red Kite 1
Common Buzzard 1
Northern Lapwing 113
European Herring Gull 4
Lesser Black-backed Gull 6
Peregrine Falcon 1 adult male
Eurasian Magpie 2
Eurasian Jackdaw 48
Rook 4
Carrion Crow 14
European Robin 1
Fieldfare 39
Redwing 75
European Starling 13
Dunnock 1

P.S.: Sometimes it is hard to adopt changes in the bird taxonomy. As falcons thought to be a sister family to parrots they have been placed before parrots. It’s a bit strange seeing them separated from hawks and eagles.

Impressions on the Zeiss Conquest HD binoculars

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I made a short visit to the RSPB Shop in Sandy this afternoon to try some of the Zeiss binoculars. The shop displays both the Zeiss Conquest HD 8x and 10×42 models which I have not held in my hands.
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I don’t want to set a complete review of my short hands on with these superb optics but it is worth to mention a few things. First of all about its price. Both the 8x and the 10×42 model priced at about half the price of flagship Zeiss Victory HT binoculars. The 8×42 is available for £679 ($969.99 at Amazon) while the 10×42 for £699 ($999.00 at Amazon). Yet the quality of the Conquest is far not half the quality of the Victory.

The instant impression is the quality. Without doubt Zeiss made a beautifully designed and perfectly manufactured optics. The armouring is elegant and the binoculars fit comfortably in my relatively large hands. The biggest joy comes with turning the focus wheel. It is like it’s running in half melted butter. It was amazingly smooth! I have never ever experienced such an effortless focusing like with the Conquest. The close focus is nice to 2 meters. It is definitely not as impressive as the Swarovski’s 1.4 m but 2 m is still very good and in most of the cases it is more than enough.

The HD optics are stunning. I was watching birds at the feeders through the window and the image was tack sharp in the whole field. The chromatic aberration was not bad although I could see it. It still is not disturbing the picture and only visible on high contrast subjects. The general picture was superbly bright.

It was a bit of pain to put them back to the display but I hope I can compare the Victory with the Conquest models at the Norfolk Bird Fair in 17-18 May.

Another coastal nature reserve ticked

After leaving the Sherwood Forest NNR with all the excitements by the new life bird I drove to the Lincolnshire coast to find some cool birds. Again Mandy West gave directions for a Black-throated Loon, the Horned Larks and Snow Buntings at the coast line.

First I wanted to see the Black-throated Loon which had been present at the Cleethorpes Country Park for a while. I arrived to that little and quite disturbed lake early in the afternoon. The loon was swimming in the middle of the lake being watched by other birdwatchers as well. I sat down on a bench and enjoyed watching it. Honestly I don’t understand why it has been staying so long on this little pond as it seemed quite stressed by the close appearence of the walking and loudly playing people.

Black-throated Loon. Image taken in Hungary. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Black-throated Loon. Image taken in Hungary. © Gyorgy Szimuly

On the way to the Horned Larks I saw 18 Pink-footed Geese landing on a field between the coast and Skidbrooke North End. While driving to the car park of the Saltfeetby – Theddlethorpe Dunes National Nature Reserve (NNR) I stopped by a large wheat field at Theddlethorpe All Saints where 253 European Golden Plovers, 112 Northern Lapwings, 26 European Herring Gulls, a Stock Dove and 37 European Starlings were feeding.

The damaged sand dunes of the nature reserve. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The damaged sand dunes of the nature reserve. © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Some part of the dune seemed to be untouched despite being fully flooded by the tidal surge in the end of last year. © Gyorgy Szimuly

I parked at the Churchill Lane of Theddlethorpe St Helen and made a walk along the coastline. I wans’t sure which direction was good for the larks. I looked to the north to find birdwatchers. No luck. Then I looked to the south where I saw a couple scoping, so I decided to go that way. It was a low tide, by the way. A kindly smiling birder then informed me that he just had seen the larks and about 50 Snow Buntings on the dunes. “He had just seen” means he had seen them two minutes ago. There was another birdwatcher-looking chap at the place but as I approached him he just kept the distance. I knew he was after the birds, but the fact he walked by the same speed as I had, made me worry a bit. Finally he slowed down and I asked him about the birds. “Aaammmuuuuhhhmmmmyeeah, the birds were here but I don’t know why and where they disappeared. I don’t know where they are now.” – he answered. He had a larger lens and a camera and apparently for some frames he chased the birds away. He quickly left the place then.

Despite I was quite disappointed by his apparently unethical behaviour, I kept walking another mile and a half to try to find the flock. Just before I returned back to the car park 8 Horned Larks appeared from nowhere and dropped towards the dune next to me. Just before landing, they took off again and flew further south. They were too far away to follow them as the Sun was going down quickly. There was no sign of the big flock of Snow Buntings though, but on the way back, I found 3 Twites landed just in front of me. They were calling in flight.

A Horned Lark from possibly the same flock I have seen today. © Mandy West

A Horned Lark from possibly the same flock I have seen today. © Mandy West

Flying Twites at the east coast. © Mandy West

Flying Twites at the east coast. © Mandy West

On the way home at Theddlethorpe, Mablethorpe 15 Eurasian Curlew were feeding on the fields.

My year list grew to 93 and I have submitted 55 checklists so far this year. Thanks again to Mandy West for all her help including these images. Great to have such nice friends around!

Lifer on Robin Hood’s footsteps

The Sherwood Forest is probably the forest what everybody heard about. If not about its picturesque landscape then in relation its famous historical ‘citizen’, the Robin Hood. I anyway wanted to visit this site with the Girls but today I travelled to this pristine area to find a long staying rarity, the Parrot Crossbill.

As I was on my own I decided to depart early to arrive with the first lights to avoid wasting time with driving in the anyway short daylight period. I arrived the forest still in the dark and immediately was greeted by a Tawny Owl. About 15 minutes later the twilight soothed the owl bringing the absolute Sunday silence to the forest. I was pondering about what was the birdlife in the Sherwood Forest in Robin Hood’s time.

It was -2°C and but somehow I felt it colder. Soon a kind local birdwatcher couple arrived. I joined them as they have already seen these crossbills at the end of last year.

Luckily it was a stunning weather with perfect lights. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Luckily it was a stunning weather with perfect lights. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Gorgeous sunset over the frosted heathland. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Gorgeous sunset over the frosted heathland. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Only the ‘early birds’ can see the beauty of the sunrise. © Gyorgy Szimuly

After a just short walk I found myself in a beautiful heathland what was even more special by the frost. Heathlands are one of my favourite habitat types. This area is just north of the Sherwood Forest but still part of the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve.

Another part of the Sherwood Forest heathland reserve. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Another part of the Sherwood Forest heathland reserve. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Pine trees offering excellent food source for the crossbills. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Pine trees offering excellent food source for the crossbills. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The sunshine on the frost made the lights very special. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The sunshine on the frost made the lights very special. © Gyorgy Szimuly

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The extensive network of footpaths supports detailed wildlife watching. © Gyorgy Szimuly

In the middle of the heathland I spotted the first calling Common Crossbill. It was a promising sign, however the Parrot Crossbills appeared only after three hours of searching. By that time lots of birders and twitchers patrolled the area. While slowly walking across the large heathland we were watching Goldcrests, Great Tits, Eurasian Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Eurasian Wrens, Meadow Pipits, overflying Fieldfares and Redwings, Chaffiches and European Goldfinches. With the first lights, Common Wood Pigeons were flying out from their roosting site. Green Woodpeckers were frequently calling. At the north of the site a flock of 16 Pink-footed Goose were flying west which was a kind of surprise for me.

Birdwatchers enjoyed the cracking view of the flock. © Gyorgy.Szimuly

Birdwatchers enjoyed the cracking view of the flock. © Gyorgy.Szimuly

At about 10AM a homogenous PARROT CROSSBILL flock landed on a single pine tree next to the place where all the birders waited, and where they have previously been seen. They actively stared feeding on the cones, but soon they were bathing and drinking in an ice free corner of a little pool. The kind couple let me enjoy the view through their Swarovski scope. These were such perfect birds with that massive bill and huge squared head. They are not much different in colouration from the Common Crossbills though. Again, I was lucky to get cracking views on the birds, even through the binoculars.

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Adult male Parrot Crossbill in the Budby Common heathland. © Mandy West

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A pair of Parrot Crossbill photographed in the same area earlier. © Mandy West

From the observation spot I counted 8 birds, but then later 14 birds were confirmed by longer staying bird watchers. There has been a Great Grey Shrike in the same area, but despite the plenty of birdwatchers it was found quite late in the morning.

Species list of the area:

Pink-footed Goose 16
Graylag Goose 2
Black-headed Gull 4
European Herring Gull 24
Stock Dove 3
Common Wood-Pigeon 74
Green Woodpecker 2
Eurasian Jay 1
Eurasian Magpie 4
Rook 14
Carrion Crow 23
Coal Tit (British) 12
Great Tit 17
Eurasian Blue Tit 28
Long-tailed Tit 4
Eurasian Wren 6
Goldcrest 4
Eurasian Blackbird 3
Fieldfare 9
Redwing 6
Mistle Thrush 1
Dunnock 2
White Wagtail (M. a. yarellii 2
Meadow Pipit 28
Common Chaffinch 19
European Greenfinch 4
Parrot Crossbill 8 (14)
Red Crossbill 1
Eurasian Siskin 2
European Goldfinch 18

The Parrot Crossbill became my 2.177th life birds, according to the IOC list. Since I moved to England it’s been the 4th life birds in the country following the Buff-bellied Pipit, the Ivory Gull and the Pink-footed Goose.

Special thanks to amazing Mandy West for both the Parrot Crossbill photographs and providing directions.

Coastal waders with a non-wader lifer

I should have prepared more carefully my moving to England. I still cannot explain myself why I did move to an almost wader neutral area of the United Kingdom. After dropping my daughter off at the airport I decided to visit the closest coastline to treat myself with wader watching.

Map showing a part of the Colne Estuary Natinal Nature Reserve. Copyright Google

Map showing a part of the Colne Estuary Natinal Nature Reserve. Copyright Google

Following Chris Baines, local birder’s recommendation, I first drove to East MerSea. This island is located south of the River Colne estuary which seems to be a perfect place both for waders and other waterbirds. As predicted the weather wasn’t really pleasant. When I climbed the seawall, in twilight, I faced the incredibly strong wind and rain. I tried not to be a pussycat and continued walking and enjoying what the site offered to me.

This grassland isn't only offering a feeding site for waders but functions as a roosting site at high tide. © Gyorgy Szimuly

This grassland isn’t only offering a feeding site for waders but functions as a roosting site at high tide. © Gyorgy Szimuly

This flooded grassland is a very nice part of the complex habitat. © Gyorgy Szimuly

This flooded grassland is a very nice part of the complex habitat. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The other side of the sea dyke shows the damaged sand dunes. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The other side of the sea dyke shows the damaged sand dunes. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Tidal surge eroded coastline. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Tidal surge eroded coastline. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Damaged sea wall by the tidal surge hit the east coast in December. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Damaged sea wall by the tidal surge hit the east coast in December. © Gyorgy Szimuly

The reserve is a mix of different habitat types divided by a dyke. The intertidal zone with extensive mud flats, the sand dunes and salt marsh together provide feeding areas and roosting sites for the birds. Apparently, at least this time of the year, the Eurasian Wigeon looked to be the most abundant wildfowl in the area. About 700 birds fed on the grassland behind the dyke with a few Eurasian Teals, Tufted Ducks and Northern ShovelersBrant Geese were continuously flying towards their western coastal feeding sites. I also spotted six Anser geese flying over the area. I suppose they were PINK-FOOTED GEESE. The head was quite dark and small, the bill was short (definitely not greylagish), the wing covers were greyish but not Greylag Goose-like light grey and wasn’t strikingly paneled. The underwing was dark without any markings and the they looked ‘white-tailed’, apparently by the broad white band on the tip of the tail. The Bean Goose group has darker tail. They were silent and flew in a southwest direction. This species I have wanted to see for such a long time. I still want to see them feeding on the ground or swimming but I liked what I saw today. When it comes to a lifer I’m always careful. As heard from Chris this is a good record for Essex as the Pink-footed Goose is scarce despite thousands winter in Norfolk. My life list is still under revision but at the very moment the Pink-footed Goose is the 2.176th lifers.

Northern Lapwings feed on the grassland but roosted on the mud. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Northern Lapwings feed on the grassland but roosted on the mud. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Large European Golden Plover flock against the dark clouds. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Large European Golden Plover flock against the dark clouds. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Sometimes taking a photo of a large bird flock is the best way to count them more precisely. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Sometimes taking a photo of a large bird flock is the best way to count them more precisely. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Nicely illustrated information board for the visitors. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Nicely illustrated information board for the visitors. © Gyorgy Szimuly

As the high tide approached, and the Sun was shining more and more European Golden Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits and Northern Lapwings arrived to the grassland and actively fed. In the last phase of the tide Dunlins and Northern Curlews joined the large flocks. By this time the high tide pushed the birds closer to the shoreline. Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Ploverss, Red Knots, Common Redshanks and Ruddy Turnstones provided very nice views. The feeding and obviously roosting waders on the grassland was suddenly disturbed by a juvenile Merlin but hunting was unsuccessful. As a result all the Dunlins flew away towards the sea.

Eurasian Oystercatcher is a loud member of the feeding bird community on the  of the mud. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Eurasian Oystercatcher is a loud member of the feeding bird community on the of the mud. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Dogs unleashed obviously disturbed the swimming Eurasian Wigeons. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Dogs unleashed obviously disturbed the swimming Eurasian Wigeons. © Gyorgy Szimuly

At the end of the 3 and half hours birding larger Red Knot flocks flew to the southwest. It was interesting to see how perfectly shaped they are for migrating. A flock including a Bar-tailed Godwit took off at the same time from the mudflat and in just about 10 seconds the Red Knots made a gap of about 10 meters ahead of the Bar-tailed Godwit. The Godwit visibly struggled with the strong facing wind while the knots have built up an even larger gap in an additional 30 seconds.

By the unfortunate incident with my boots I had to leave for home as my socks got completely soaked. The whole area is definitely worth a second visit including other parts of the estuary. The salt marsh and tidal flats around the bridge of The Strood looked to be very promising as well.

After eleven years of service my HanWag boots have retired. © Gyorgy Szimuly

After eleven years of service my HanWag boots have retired. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Birds counted:

Pink-footed Goose 6
Brant Goose 142
Mute Swan 2
Common Shelduck 18
Eurasian Wigeon 720
Mallard 24
Northern Shoveler 4
Eurasian Teal 105
Tufted Duck 4
Great Cormorant 8
Little Egret 2
Eurasian Moorhen 7
Eurasian Oystercatcher 73
European Golden Plover 250
Black-bellied Plover 6
Northern Lapwing 156
Common Redshank 65
Eurasian Curlew 31
Black-tailed Godwit 260
Bar-tailed Godwit 1
Ruddy Turnstone 9
Red Knot 340
Dunlin 480
Black-headed Gull 8
Mew Gull 1
European Herring Gull 18
Lesser Black-backed Gull 3
Great Black-backed Gull 1
Sandwich Tern 1
Merlin 1
Rook 6
Carrion Crow 6
Eurasian Skylark 6
Eurasian Wren 1
Eurasian Blackbird 2
European Starling 190
White Wagtail (British) 1
Meadow Pipit 10

Just after leaving the reserve I found a large Brant Goose flock flying over the fields. I counted 650 birds.

Speeding up with a rarity

I was desperate to go out birding today. The weather was just perfect. The girls had not much choice this time as Kea got chicken pox yesterday. I started my eBird year at the Mount Farm Lake where the regular birds were present. I didn’t see many songbirds though. Most of the berries have been gone and birds possibly moved to new places.

List of birds:

Greylag Goose 4
Canada Goose 4
Mute Swan 28
Gadwall 21
Mallard 7
Tufted Duck 18
Great Cormorant 7
Gray Heron 3
Eurasian Moorhen 2
Eurasian Coot 23
Black-headed Gull 164
Mew Gull 8
European Herring Gull 4
Lesser Black-backed Gull 2
Common Wood Pigeon 8
Eurasian Magpie 11
Carrion Crow 4
Great Tit 2
Eurasian Blue Tit 8
Long-tailed Tit 4
Eurasian Wren 2
European Robin 8
Eurasian Blackbird 1
Mistle Thrush 2
Dunnock 2
European Goldfinch 4

From the lake I drove to the Aspley Woods near Bow Brickhill where I have never been before… at least not for birding. It’s a very nice old mixed forest. It is thought to be the oldest forest in Bedfordshire. It was a real living forest. I was surprised by the large bird flocks in the woods. The species composition wasn’t extraordinary but the numbers were unexpected.

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Nice mixed forest with soggy footpath. © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Maroon seed on the grounds. © Gyorgy Szimuly

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These beautiful pine forest was full of British Coal Tits. © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Tit flocks were often feeding in the canopy of these tall pine trees making birding a bit challenging. © Gyorgy Szimuly

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This nice house has a perfect backyard at the edge of the forest. © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Right next to the woods one of the most beautiful golf courses of Buckinghamshire located. © Gyorgy Szimuly

List of species seen in the north west part of the woods:

Common Buzzard 2
Common Wood-Pigeon 11
Great Spotted Woodpecker 1
Eurasian Magpie 1
Eurasian Jackdaw 3
Carrion Crow 2
Coal Tit (British) 32
Great Tit 29
Eurasian Blue Tit 21
Eurasian Nuthatch 3
Eurasian Treecreeper 1
Eurasian Blackbird 3
Common Chaffinch 1
Eurasian Bullfinch 1

The route from the Aspley Woods through the Woburn golf course was fascinating. It is worth to spend a bit more time in the woods. As I arrived to Woburn I saw a huge female Eurasian Sparrowhawk. First I thought it was a Northern Goshawk by its size. Over the sparrowhawk 2 Red Kites were patrolling. This area was the hot spot for the Red Kites most probably by the rich food source in the Woburn Safari Park.

I stopped briefly at the southeast road of the safari park where more Red Kites (5) were soaring. Also Common Buzzard (2), Green Woodpecker (1), Stock Dove (1), Common Wood Pigeon (4), Western Jackdaw (12), Carrion Crow (34) and European Starling (11) was seen.

South end of the Woburn Safari Park. © Gyorgy Szimuly

South end of the Woburn Safari Park. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Common Wood Pigeon. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Common Wood Pigeon. © Gyorgy Szimuly

On the way to the Stewartby Lake I saw a flock of 14 Fieldfares, 65 Eurasian Jackdaw (at Tyrells End of Eversholt), a Red-legged Partridge, a Common Kestrel and a feeding Redwing (on the Eversholt Road near Steppingley) was seen.

The last stop of today was at the Stewartby Lake near Marston Moretaine where a Great Northern Loon has been staying for a while. Before I reached the famous Aston Martin test circuit I saw another Red Kite soaring over the road. After the main entrance of the Millennium Country Park 11 overflying Northern Lapwing coloured my day. I spent about an hour at the southwest corner of the Stweartby Lake with two other local birders and tried to locate the loon. It was feeding close to the north side of the lake. It briefly showed twice. Literally it came up breathing just for a few seconds then dived again.

List of birds:

Mallard 8
Tufted Duck 8
GREAT NORTHERN LOON 1
Great Crested Grebe 36
Great Cormorant 8
Black-headed Gull 250
Mew Gull 6
European Herring Gull 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull 3
Great Black-backed Gull 1
Common Wood Pigeon 13
Rook 1
Carrion Crow 27
European Robin 2
Eurasian Blackbird 1
White Wagtail (British) 1

Wintering Great Northern Diver. Image taken in Hungary. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Wintering Great Northern Loon. Image taken in Hungary. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Unfortunately at home I learned that at least one Siberian Chiffchaff was seen on the same place. Luckily it is also a long staying bird so there is some chance to see it.

Some eBird stats for 2014: 10 total checklists, 50 seen species. Ranking in the Top 100 eBirders in the United Kingdom: #3.