Glaucous Gull, Blue Anchor

Just one day after the glossy ibis, my Somerset list got back on level terms with Avon. Not only that, it contributed to my English list. Two juvenile glaucous gulls had been at this western extremity of the county for nearly a month, so it was time to go see. Especially as I’d only ever logged the species in Britain twice – at Peterhead and Arbroath, the latter seven years ago.

The Blue Anchor birds were reported as distant at sea and I parked the scope and scanned the one flock of gulls I could find out there. No joy. I didn’t know how white winged a juvenile would be, so I returned to the car to consult Collins.

I didn’t get that far. Something made me look up and there, ten metres overhead, was the palest winged gull you could want. Just drifting on the breeze, the bird filled my binoculars. Its black-tipped pinkish bill was clear and it even passed a herring gull for comparison. The glaucous shaded it as bigger.

That pushed the year list up to 125 (cf last year’s 114 at the same stage) on a day that hadn’t added anything else. I’d stopped at Holford Combe on the way down but it was much too early for incoming warblers or flycatchers. One stonechat was about it.

On Wednesday evening a climb up another combe, Goblin this time, only brought siskins and nuthatches. This valley is Avon‘s semi-equivalent to the bigger Quantocks examples. It’s also the county’s largest patch of woodland. Even so, one can work it in a couple of hours.

Look at the OS map for Bristol & Bath (number 172). It is of course dominated by Bristol but the only splashes of tree green cluster in the southwest corner. This is shameful and rather tips the concept of a Forest of Avon into the bucket of fanciful thinking. There’s a lot of that around these days.

I could have been excused of fanciful thinking by visiting Theale in Berkshire a couple of afternoons back. How is that a worthwhile site? After driving lanes south of the village, I had to settle on the one parking spot by a canal picnic area. This adjoined scrub and the lake.

OK, a willow warbler did show and, like everywhere, blackcaps and chiffchaffs were bountiful. A couple of mistle thrushes flew up and a green woodpecker. Still, it wasn’t worth 70 miles of motorway, when a jarring call caught my attention.

Was it? I listened.

Again. Unmistakable. A nightingale had to be just metres in front of me, in a tangle of brambles and bushes. It kept singing and I manoeuvred without success to catch a glimpse.

The song took on an eery harmonic quality. I’d not heard that before – very weird. It happened again. Wait…

There were two birds! Then a third started up from another direction. I was surrounded by nightingales.

In their jousting they began to show with cracking views of rather a plain bird but definitely a gorgeous rust brown tail. It was marvellous: Theale was actually fine; these birds had beaten my previous early sighting by eight days; the year list was moving again, to 128, as it happened, with additional muted sedge warbler and distant house martins. Perhaps a big English year is beckoning.

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  • Glossy Ibis, Weston STW

    Where STW stands for sewage treatment works. An acronym that birders know well but is more lost on the general public. After all, the latter don’t flock to such places for their leisure whereas the former know them as honeypots. (Oh, and Weston is Weston-super-Mare.)

    So the bird became my 193rd Avon species, which puts the county as numero uno British county above Somerset. I hadn’t realised that more…

    2014 Year List?

    Sneyd Park Cottage, Bristol

    Sneyd Park Cottage

    The big month in March has rather fizzled into an attempt at a big year in 2014. For which on the 22nd, local visits to Leigh Woods and Marshfield netted treecreeper (my first since 2012 though!), marsh tit, linnet and a solitary corn bunting. Slimbridge, a week later, added three cranes, five avocets and a flock of black-tailed godwits. Then a late afternoon shift over the Severn in the Forest of Dean gave me mandarin duck and a brief flash of a goshawk.

    Which made 112 for the year. Could that be a platform for attacking my record of more…

    Orkney, 1998

    I made a solid start to my biggest month of May 1998 with 40 species at Upton Warren. Devil’s Spittleful, an interesting sandy heath by Kidderminster, added 8 more before a return to Upton boosted the total to 60 in the first week.

    However, Scotland unlocked the bulk of the species. Yup, I went on holiday. In Angus, Auchmithie alone was good for another 20, with great birds like more…

    England Month List

    Pennington Marsh, Hampshire

    Pennington Marsh, Hampshire

    How’s this big month going?

    Not well. I may have pooh-poohed my record effort of 135 in May 1998 but three weeks now have brought me a mere 94 species. It’s taken the aforementioned walk through Bristol and visits to the Severn Estuary, Chew, Ibsley, Pennington Marsh and the New Forest. I could complain that more…

    Blue Grosbeak, 2001

    On May 13 I added two more species to my Santa Clara county list on my first visit to the largest of its parks – Joseph D Grant. This nestles under the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton in the county’s more arid north-east. Make no mistake: Hamilton is a mountain, higher than Cairn Gorm, but on the scale of California it’s still a baby. I wrote:

    “A short hike from the park entrance at about 1500 feet produced some 50 species more…

    Bristol Day List

    Clifton Suspension Bridge & Avon Gorge, Bristol

    Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

    I figured to kick off my big month with a solid foundation – to see how many species were possible on a walk through Bristol. The answer was 44, which surprised me.

    It was helped by a semi-surprising common sandpiper in the New Cut, then a jaw-dropping more…

    Flooded RSPB Greylake

    RSPB Greylake

    RSPB Greylake, Somerset Levels

    The oddest thing about this inundation of the reserve is that, restricted to the small car park, I picked up nearly 30 species in half an hour. Two previous visits to Greylake hadn’t yielded half as many, although 2012 did provide spotted crake.

    Can we infer that floods are good for birds? Buzzards were plentiful and I guess they’ll have plenty of carrion when (if!) more…

    Red-flanked Bluetail, Wiltshire

    Red-flanked Bluetail

    Red-flanked Bluetail, Stiffkey © Dave Curtis

    I’d like to say this was in Marshfield, as notified on BirdGuides, and hence in Avon. However, the river that runs through Shire Valley defines the boundary with Wiltshire and in the brief window between gouts of rain, this red-flanked bluetail stayed resolutely in the latter county. I exaggerate a little on the rain description; compared with recent downpours, yesterday was meek.

    The bird was reported five days ago, five working days so it’s been fingers crossed that it would stay into the weekend. more…