Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Suomi - Out of season

Obviously, to have any chance of seeing lots of birds in Finland you need to go in June and hire a guide. I was aware of this but when my wife found fairly cheap ticket to Helsinki at the end of April I decided to go.

Being a regular visitor to Scotland, it was interesting that the Finnish couple next to me on the plane were just returning from there, it being their favourite country. I told them I intended firstly to go to the Aland Islands and they thought it was rather an exotic location for me to be traveling and then I said I will visit Parikkala and they made some remark about they may have noticed it on the train, but didn't seem very impressed with the place.

Arriving at Helsinki airport at 11:30 at night I then caught a bus to Turku, grabbing some sleep on the way and arrived there at 3 in the morning, of course at this time of the year it was dark in the middle of the night here. Turku is a pleasant enough town, very quiet, in fact at night time pretty desolate, especially as I walked the miles of industrial sites along the railroad towards my intended location,  Ruissalo Island. There was the sound of Fieldfares everywhere singing and alarm calling in the dark and huge Brown Hares feeding on the grass in front of buildings, they looked bigger in the artificial lighting cast from the street lights. After crossing the bridge that leads out of the docklands and industrial centre and onto Ruissalo, the air was full of singing Redwings, incredible sound at 4am when it was just about to get light. Then walking away from the artifical  lights of the industrial area into darkness on the island, a nice experience. I liked this place. I got some sleep on a bench in the woods and woke later to the sound of many woodland birds, including a flyover Hawfinch. I walked to a nearby bay with the air full of the sound of Barnacle Geese, a calling Wryneck next to a calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Tree Pipits singing nearby. I walked back to the docklands later in the morning, catching Whinchat, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Goosanders, a nice male Pied Flycatcher on the way.

I then spent the night in an expensive but pleasant hotel near the ferry port and the next day I was off to Mariehamn on the Aland Islands, in the Baltic and edge of Gulf of Bothnia between Finland and Sweden. There were a good number of sea duck on the trip, including several thousand Eider, hundreds of Long-tailed Duck, small numbers of Velvet Scoter and a few Razorbill and Black Guillemots. Also, strangely my only sighting of Black throated Diver and Arctic Skua on the trip. A pair of Common Cranes over the ferry and a distant White-tailed Eagle.

As I waited to get off the ferry there were a gathering of extremely drunk teenagers falling about near the exit, ah, brings back memories, they seemed to be having a great time. Once off the ship I looked back and noticed I was the only one who got off at Mariehamn, all the other passengers had either gone on to Stockholm or done the round trip, duty free booze cruise back to Turku. When I entered the town it seemed as though I was in Sweden, all the signs were in Swedish and it looked very stylish, like an episode of Wallander - well without the nasty bits. Apparently it is still part of Finland but it is a kind of Swedish speaking, autonomous state.

My next idea was to walk over to the other side of the bay, because there looked as though there were some nice rocky areas with forest. On the way there was a small park full of singing Bramblings with a few other migrants including Willow Warblers and an unidentified Bunting type singer, I was convinced of Ortolan at first, but now not so sure and I forgot to record it. I walked a few miles until I found a turning and walked down hoping it would lead to the amazing looking place I could see from the town, unfortunately it turned out to be a cul-de-sac, but Scandinavian style, basically new homes carved out of the forest. So I returned back to Mariehamn, noticed even more Bramblings in the same area - but only in that area.  Not feeling to well, a nasty cold coming on and a mysteriously painful ankle which would plague me the whole trip I decided to spend the night at an even more expensive hotel, which then turned in to 2 nights at an even more expensive hotel. I had about 20 euros left when I limped to Jarso south of Mariehamn and finally got out the tent and put it up at a paradise beach where I saw no one, well that is until 9pm when I heard shooting and a couple of wildfowlers came by on a speedboat then got off at an island, but then it was quiet and what a lovely place!

The weather this whole time was amazing, warmer than I'd felt in England and I was getting browner and browner! In fact, apart from the first morning and the ferry trip where it was literally 'Baltic' I had had sunny weather, if a little windy. Cool at night though, where I needed my 3 season sleeping bag. I had a nice close encounter with a Grey-headed Woodpecker near the tent, a few Wheatears, Redstart and Pied Fly's and 4 male Blackcap feeding on invertebrates above the beach as though they had just arrived. Plus some nice butterflies including Camberwell Beauty.

There were quite a few duck on the sea, Long-tailed, Velvet Scoter, Common Eider, Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders I also had a flyby Caspian Tern, a few Arctic Terns, 3 White-tailed Eagles and a nice Red-necked Grebe. I spent a very pleasant night in the tent here and in the morning walked back via the track around a small lake through the forest where I saw my first ever Beech Martin, which I later found out was actually a North American Mink, doh! On the road on the way back I saw a flyover Nutcracker and at least 5 singing  Wryneck.

Of course, if the weather is good and the sun is out and you're a snake, the best place to soak up the sun is in the middle of the road and in spite of there only being about 6 cars every half hour I found first a dead Grass Snake then about 200 metres further down the road a squashed Adder, I found a dead Common Frog too but didn't take a pic of that as I was too hot, it was a baking 17 degrees C!

That evening I took a long walk to Gottby, spending most of the time taking the wrong road, but a pleasant enough walk through some very stylish Farmland (sounds odd, but that's what it was), there were some Common Cranes in the fields and a territorial Green Sandpiper at the edge of a small field between a plantation. On a small lake outside Mariehamn I had some extremely close views of a pair of flying Caspian Terns. As it got later I had trouble finding the beach until I bumped into a nice guy called Bjorn who told me to follow the track behind his house and gave me some firelighters which came in very handy later on.

Now, the ferry back was packed - holiday season had started it seemed and as I walked in there were a couple of very scary looking, absolutely pissed up, meatheads standing near the deck drinking Finlandia vodka - I spent most of the time on the deck until I met a French traveller called Phillippe who had hitched his way from North Sweden and was now heading to Helsinki then into Russia and was planning on hitching to Mongolia - well that's a much more exciting story I'm sure!

I didn't go to this gig
Once back at Turku I headed back to Ruissalo where I camped in the woods. During the night there I was startled by a close barking Roe deer and I could hear on several occasions the calls of some small owls, Pygmy or Tengmalm's but couldn't tell which but certainly some strange sounds! I awoke to the sounds of Hawfinch above the tent - this was the life.

I travelled the next day back to Helsinki where I asked about the price of trains to Oulu, which were expensive, so I decided to go to Parikkala and leave Oulu for another time. The return fares turn out to be exactly the same as paying for two singles and you can't buy an open return here, but to be honest, I don't think the trains are much more expensive than in the UK. On the journey, I noticed how much of the countryside was similar, forest, lakes, bogs, small curiously smoothed rocky hillocks, more forest, plantations, man against tree, tree trying to take over from man, man defending himself against tree to make garden and more plantations where man controls tree. But I really got to like this quiet, peaceful place.

At Parikkala, a sleepy town with 3 supermarkets, a medical centre, a railway cafe/bar and a huge lake I quickly made my way to the Siikalahti nature reserve down a quiet road. When I got there I found you were allowed to camp there - bonus! There was a toilet, great! There was an excellent visitor centre and a boardwalk with two tower hides.

I spent about 5 nights here and met some great people including a group who cooked me breakfast one morning and when I came back from birding they had left the leftover sausages in the front of my tent wrapped nicely in paper knapkins - that was part of my dinner of the next few days - there was a a fantastic, sheltered wood stove on the site.

Even at this time of year the place really came alive during the evening and at night. Even in early May there was a short period of darkness, more of a dusk than dark really. The air was full of the sound of calling Spotted Crakes, Water Rails, Bitterns, Common Snipe and one Jack Snipe displaying, Whooper Swans, Cranes, displaying Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes. During the day Ospreys, Marsh Harriers, Wood Sandpipers, Ruff, Spotted Redshank, Little Gulls, Whinchat, Pied Flycatchers etc and then the arrival of Thrush Nightingales and an incredibly early Savi's Warbler that attracted a few local birders one evening.
Also this is a known breeding site for White-backed Woodpecker. In the summer the place is very good for Blyth's Reed Warblers, however no hope of an early one of those.

I took a couple of trips, still limping along on my bad ankle for miles - one where I got lost and found myself next to the frontier zone by the Russian border, wandering along tracks through vast areas of plantations trying to find another nature reserve with no success - enjoyable walk though - got back in the early hours of the morning, thinking back this was a fantastic walk, not many other birds but plenty of roding Woodcock, a few Crossbills and I can claim Osprey and Marsh Harrier on the Russian side of the border I think.

I also took a long walk to Oronmylly forest and was given a lift some of the way by a really nice old man who spoke no English at all but we got on just fine grinning at each other and I said things like 'nice place' and he nodded his head, then he suddenly said 'Oronmoolooo' and dropped me off at the car park and we waved at each other as he drove off.

A birder I had met on the reserve said there is a slim chance of Siberian Jay here - he knew a birder who was 'friends' with the Jays and they knew when he was coming and would come out - whereas if anyone else came along they would hide, and that's obviously exactly what happened, even when I took out some biscuits and began crunching them as loudly as possible, there was nothing. However, I was startled by two male Capercaillie 'bursting' into flight from near the path and I kept getting glimpses of mysterious grouse sized birds or bird flitting across the path which turned out to be Hazel Grouse, I also found the remains of a dead one on one of the paths. The forest consisted mostly of plantation, which was relatively quiet. There were about 5 Waxwings in the pines near a lean-to shelter I was planning on staying at for the night, however this started filling with mosquitoes and I decided to walk back to Siikalahti which took all night, but a really nice walk it was.

After this I went back to Helsinki and stayed at an even more expensive hotel, Hotel Arthur, it was called. However whilst there I had a great morning walk the following day around the parks in Helsinki, passing the famous Sibelius academy on the way. The previous evening I had flushed a Nightjar from one of the stately houses near one of the parks and there were a few warblers coming in. On this morning I counted 12 Thrush Nightingales, with 3 birds in a dispute out on one of the paths a few feet from me. There were a few common things comming in, Spotted Flycatchers, Lesser Whitethroats, Garden Warblers etc.

Something wicked this way comes!

On the day before I left I went and camped near the airport in Vantaa. This turned out to be a great place too, even by the airport - the morning before I left I heard a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing in a cargo area and climbed a fence to go and see it only to find it was an immature male. I had a Black Woodpecker over the tent which had flown off by the time I got out to see it, plenty of common stuff, Wryneck calling, a Wood Warbler singing - a nice way to end a great trip!

I didn't drink this beer

Sunday, 23 June 2013

(Alexander) Wilson's Phalarope


One of the very few left on my list to see and sod the cost (well almost), a summer plumaged female Wilson's Phalarope had taken a liking to a small pond behind the quaint town of Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight and had lingered for the weekend.  I'll have some of that.

Now I've done a bit of research on the man whose name graces this rather smart bird, and I wish to share it with you.  When I say "research", I googled his name and stole this whole piece from Wikepdia. That said I've always been a bit interested in birds that carry a persons name, Stella for example, not only the author of the wife beater lager so favoured by me in my youth but also in his more lucid moments the describer of an eagle and an eider to name but two.

So Alexander Wilson, seen his snipe: smart bird, but his plover and warbler remain a mystery to me.  His Phalarope though is phwoar.

"Alexander Wilson (July 6, 1766 – August 23, 1813) was a Scottish-American poet, ornithologist, naturalist, and illustrator. Identified by George Ord as the "Father of American Ornithology," Wilson is now regarded as the greatest American ornithologist before Audubon

Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland. In 1779 he was apprenticed as a weaver. Inspired by the dialect verse of Robert Burns, who was only seven years older, Wilson soon became seriously interested in poetry, writing ballads, pastoral pieces, and satirical commentary on the conditions of weavers in the mills. One such poem, and Wilson's clumsy attempt at extortion of a mill owner, resulted in his arrest and, eventually, emigration to America.

Wilson turned to teaching in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, eventually settling into a position at Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania and taking up residence in nearby Kingsessing. Here Wilson met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson's interest in ornithology and painting. Resolving to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America, Wilson travelled widely, collecting, painting, and securing subscriptions for his work, the nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814). Of the 268 species of birds illustrated there, 26 had not previously been described. Wilson died during the preparation of the ninth volume, which was completed and published by George Ord." Source Wikepedia

A Scot, but aren't the best people? I like the fact he "clumsily" tried a bit of extortion, makes him a bit of chump and OK the birds were named in honour of him rather than based on his descriptions, but I may even want to find out more about the man.

A sluggish ferry across a windy Solent and within 10 minutes I am looking at beauty, happily feeding away with, not the largest twitch I've ever been on, four others; two from London Jay Ward and Paul Hackett (who a few years back tried to teach me how to digiscope while watching my Wryneck on the flats).  Later Mr Bagnell turned up with a small entourage, but mainly it was just the three of us enjoying Wilson's wonder.

Having filled my boots I bid adieu and walked back to the ferry catching this smart creature crossing my path.

Another windy crossing trying to snap the Common Tern following the boat and on the look out for some Poms that had been seen just west of us a few hours earlier.  Just a couple of Gannet, though I did pick up what was probably a Nightjar flying along the tree line!

I had planned for a quick look round Pennington before ambling off to Cambridge for some family fun, but was too knackered, and that's why I probably left my tripod on the train. Arse!

Trains, fuck em.  Sunday and all the trains to Liverpool Street have been cancelled so I have to walk to Cambridge to get one to Kings Cross. Not such a bad thing as it turns out.  Just south of the City a new country park is in the process of being made.  A few lagoons, a large lake and meadows.  Where once I used to see Yellow Wagtails breeding it's now Skylark central.  The main lake had a Little Ringed Plover and a couple of Common Terns who followed me down the path screaming their disapproval, and I can see potential here, when it all settles down a bit come the autumn... 

Monday, 17 June 2013

Rainham and Trimley: not a shabby weekend

News of a Wood Sandpiper at Rainham on Friday meant a Pointless London Listing possibility; they have been scarce this spring and the chances are this is a returning bird already! News of Caspian Gulls on the tip also, meant I would have to take another fruitless wander round by the Concrete Barges.  Half an hour of that and I was already well within gull fatigue guidelines, so I gave up. One interesting very pale/white non-adult, probably Herring Gull, was all I could muster before tedium took over.  One summer plumaged Dunlin in the bay held out hope for some wader activity on the shore line so I walked the river path.  Windy.

The Dunlin was a false promise and the wind annoying so as soon as I could I flipped on to the leeward side of the sea wall.  A male Marsh Harrier was hunting over the dragonfly pool but soon disappeared.  Then checking the twitter feed: depression: Pacific Swift Trimley.  That'll go I mused to console myself. I texted Bob and Tim on the off-chance one was interested and had a car.  Neither did, and with my drivers owling it in Finland it would mean getting back into London and then a train out to Ipswich and then Trimley. I estimated about 3-4 hours, no way the Swift would still be there.

When I left the centre the weather turned decidedly shitty and seeking shelter I met up with Howard and his 2 person walk and a group of volunteers all with the same idea.  As the rain ceased news came through of a Spotted Redshank on the flash.  Need that!  I ventured out and arriving at the platform I was guided on to the bird, nearly in it’s summer best, as it fed along the reed fringe. Picked up the Wood Sandpiper minutes later working a channel then the rain came down again.  With it came 3 Avocet also trying to find some shelter from the gusty, wind blown rain. Two good birds for London and my first, almost sum plum Spotshank.  My euphoria only somewhat tarnished by continuing news of the Swift showing well over Trimley  Ah well, if its there tomorrow… ha! As if!

Sunday and I got up decently early to do the patch and be, just incase, in a good position to launch for Trimley on positive news.  The park has been the best bet for good birds of late and when news did come through I was at the Shoulder of Mutton enjoying the lonely Reed Warbler. So not ideally placed to get back to the station, I ummed and aahed but found myself walking back across the flats.  How did that happen?
The journey was a nightmare, being Sunday and news of a Red-necked Phalarope at Vange didn’t make it easier.  I’ll get that on the way back. It flew.

Four hours later and I am off the train at Trimley with the only other passenger to alight, a birder called Helen from Norwich.  Met Dom Mitchell on the way down, and then a little later Marco, both happy with their views of the still present Swift.  On arrival a happy Monkey came wandering down the path.  He had the bird over his head; a good omen.   

It soon became apparent that I should have brought my scope, but I had baulked at the idea of traipsing round Wanstead with the extra bulk just on the slim chance this bird would still be here.  Big bins are fine but with masses of Swift in the sky I couldn’t pick up any colours in the middling light.  My best bet was to get birds flying below the tree line. After about an hour I picked up a white arse on a hurtling Swift.  Then it was gone.  A couple of more times I got people into the general area of this white arse, and amazingly a few got it.  A single House Martin wasn’t helping. By now it felt like I had been doing a work out in the gym.  So I had a look around.  Another sum plum Spotshank feeding on the pools, a Black-tailed Godwit and some feeding Avocet (no sign of chicks).  A lone male Pintail was on another pool and a couple of Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds towards the distant woods. 

Scanning the rising Swift multitude I picked up a Common Buzzard thermaling over the water tower and then a much paler smaller raptor above it.  Thin winged and obviously a male Harrier I called it out in the hope one of my colleagues could scope it.  Looked good for a Montagu, strangely all were pre-occupied.  I later got confirmation from one of the locals that it was a Monty.  Sweet!

Back to the Swift then.  Long periods of scanning with nothing.  Then a guy picked it up over the water tower and called out its movements.  I got on it, but again I could get no colour of it.  Great.  Finally the sun broke through and the birds began to take on colour.  Again someone spotted it over a lone Oak and finally I got unbroken views for about a minute.  That was a as good as it got.  So after five hours of weight lifting I decided to go ad take some pictures of static birds and then head for the station.
On the way back met up with some birders from Yorkshire who had been standing by me in the line.  Nice bunch of lads we chatted about patches on the way back, picking up a singing Nightingale and a rather smart Yellow Wagtail on the way.  

All the time a steady stream of hopefuls came towards us.  The main gripe – Father’s Day.  Their day to do what they want and yet having to what had been organized for them.  One poor guy in the line had to leave before seeing the bird because of these family commitments.

The bird was not reported after I left so a lot of disappointed people I would guess. Lee GRE estimated a turnout of 2,500 + people and since I know of only 3 people who came by train, a huge amount of carbon released by friends of the environment.  Smug, moi?