'DID YOU SEE THE LUMP IN THAT FIELD? I think it was a mammal, maybe a marmot. I'm just going back to check' was the conversation somewhere between Rifle and Hayden on my recent Colorado tour. Well, to our delight, the lump turned out to be a badger, which was digging in the middle of a grassy field surrounded by Wyoming Ground Squirrels. Before too long it sat up with a ground squirrel in its jaws, which it then proceeded to shake violently for several minutes. Even though it is fairly common and widespread, it is rare enough to see a badger in the USA let alone some action like this. We hadn't seen one on our Colorado tour for over 12 years prior to this for instance. Needless to say, things did not end well for the poor ground squirrel, which forms the majority of the badger's diet in grassland areas.
WHAT A WELCOME HOME THAT WAS! I got into WIFI range again yesterday in Houston Airport in Texas and was stunned to read news of a Pallid Harrier on my home patch in Bowland. After a relatively quiet month in the UK while I have been away in the US I was pleased not to have missed much until I read this. However, after a nervous flight home, happily I was watching it this evening with my Bowland birding friend Mark Varley. It is a bird we have often talked about as a possibility for the local fells, particularly with the increase in records in the UK/Western Europe in recent years but it still came as a shock. Even better that it is a male holding territory! It is a sign of the times that there was only one other person watching it this evening with me and Mark and we enjoyed some very nice views, although a little out of DSLR range as it quartered the hillside below the stone man in Whitendale. It even did a couple of sky dancing loops, upside down at the top of the loop while giving a high pitched chattering call. It also harassed a buzzard, which ventured within its air space, the cumbersome buzzard was quickly seen off by this tiny but aggressive ball of feathers. Interesting that it has chosen the same hillside that the Eagle Owls first used as a nest site and this was also a traditional nest site for Hen Harriers for many years previously. It must be an attractive situation. Dunsop Valley and Whitendale were alive this evening with Ring Ouzel, Common Cuckoo, Common Stonechat and Willow Warblers on the hillsides and White-throated Dipper and Common Sandpiper along the stream. A curlew sang its wonderful bubbling song in the background as the harrier graced the valley. Wonderful stuff! Massive thanks to the RSPB for deciding that the news of such a rare bird should to be broadcast as it may yet breed (even as a mixed pair with a Hen Harrier is a possibility). They would have been justified to keep it quiet and special thanks to the finder James Bray. He's already on the shortlist for my hero of the year award! Here's hoping that many folks will be able to enjoy the harrier over the coming days just like the eagle owls [the hike to the 'watchpoint' takes around one hour at a reasonable pace but is mostly on the flat].
A DAY OUT ON THE NORTHUMBERLAND COAST with Mark Varley resulted in another UK lifer, the long overdue Black Scoter off the dunes at Cheswick Shiel. It took over 5.5 hours to find it in tricky conditions at times but mostly because it was probably not where we were looking at the time. We checked hundreds of Common Scoter bills until Mark eventually picked it out more or less right in front of us. Its bill like an yellow-orange light bulb. I'd been saving this one until later and I guess now it's later. There were plenty of other birds along Cheswick Sands today, including: Great Northern (two), Black-throated (one) and Red-throated (c.20) Divers; Slavonian Grebe (one); Long-tailed Duck (c.30); Common Eider; Red-breasted Merganser; Northern Fulmar (one); Razorbills and Common Guillemots; European Shags and a female Merlin, which bombed down the beach with a crow in hot pursuit. The scoter flocks were being harassed constantly by large gulls and moved around quite a lot. The day started off bright and sunny but we got rained on about half way through before the Black Scoter materialised, which did not leave much time for the Pacific Loon at East Chevington. It was surprisingly elusive, diving frequently but it did give us one nice fly past. That's all five loon species in a couple of weeks. Not such an incredible record bearing in mind we passed the site of the first one near Knaresborough on the way there and back. I wonder how many other records are lurking in the photo archives waiting to be identified? Also here of note were: kingfisher and Pink-footed Geese.
ALREADY SURE TO BE ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF 2017 and presumably pushed into the Wash by the big northerlies and the tidal surge on the weekend of 12/13 January this magnificent bird has sought refuge, twenty miles inland on a sheltered stretch of the River Witham near Woodhall Spa. I often wonder about the reason large divers turn up inland. Maybe they are sick or emaciated after a battering by bad weather at sea, or maybe they are just smart and there is an easier living to be had on inland waters full of fish? The loon spent almost as much time under the water as on it and at first I was worried it had swallowed some fishing line but this transpired to be strands of weed getting stuck in its bill, presumably as it fished underwater. The weed was sometimes there, sometimes not when it surfaced.
Of course my main objective was to get some photos of it. It is easy to find yourself with thousands of side-on ‘field guide’ poses as the loon doesn’t change its posture much. It sometimes holds its bill more upright, it flapped its wings once in four hours and stuck its leg out a couple of times but mostly it was diving actively, sometimes for up to 100 metres along the river and then pausing between each dive for a while. So I tried for some lower angle shots including against the light trying to get the sun shining through its bill. When the early morning sun’s rays first hit the water there were some nice reflective patterns and the loon was also occasionally illuminated against dark shadows, something I am always looking for behind subjects. Against the light was also quite good at times and although you lose the red iris colour and catch-light, the sun shining through the yellow bill tip is quite a nice effect.
By the way, I got some stick on twitter for calling it ‘Yellow-billed Loon’, going American or summat. The word ‘loon’, is derived from the Norse word ‘lom’, which is what Scandinavians have always called divers and this was adapted by American ornithologists. I originally bought Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Sea and Coast in 1980 in Norway…’Fugler I Naturen Hav og kyst’ in Norwegian (‘Birds in Nature Sea and coast’) and the name ‘Gulnebblom’ is simply ‘Yellow-beaked Loon’. The Collins Guide has also adopted the name ‘loon’ so why not? Got to try and keep up with all these new names!