THE ACCELERATING TRILL OF A WOOD WARBLER is one of the most evocative sounds of spring in East Lancs woodlands but it is sadly all too rare these days with usually only a maximum of 2 or 3 per year. Punctuated occasionally by 'teeoo-teeoo' calls similar to a bullfinch, a hissing trill reverberated through a small patch of birch woodland as I opened the car door at Stocks Reservoir early on Sunday morning. Bam! I was hoping for an interesting shorebird last weekend but this will do nicely instead. Wood Warbler's song is very familiar, having listened to it many times in Clockburn Dene near my home in Gateshead as a child. I've also heard it all over Eastern Europe, where it is happily still very common. It is even on my cumulative garden list, if you can have such a thing, with one singing from a railway embankment behind my flat in Hitchin, Hertfordshire in the early 90s. I have found a few in East Lancs since I moved here in 2005 but I don't see it every year as they have become very scarce across much of their range in England so every one of them is a real delight. Sadly this bird was gone by late morning so maybe just a migrant passing through? Just in case anyone is interested, particularly bearing in mind the attention the Olympus 4/3 set-up is getting, the file info for the photo above is: Canon 1DX, 700mm, ISO3200, f/6.3, 1/200 sec. (handheld).
ROLLING UP TO THE IBRCE on 20 April, an interesting raptor was soaring over the Jordan border crossing. Binos through the windscreen, it immediately looked like a Crested Honey Buzzard, so we came to an abrupt halt and piled out of the van in time to get some nice views of it almost overhead before it spiraled out of sight into the midday haze.
The most striking feature was the relative proportion of the wings and tail, obvious immediately, with the tail length shorter than the breadth of the wing base and the hands as broad as the arms. Described as eagle-like by Dick Forsman. Added to this, the long 5th primary (which forms a step in the wing tip with the shorter 4th primary), grey head, dark gorget, lack of dark carpal patches, sparse underwing barring with a broad dark trailing edge and distinctive undertail barring meant we were looking at an adult male Crested Honey Buzzard. Get in!
However, the possibility of a hybrid with European Honey Buzzard needs to be ruled out as Dick Forman writes about claims of Crested Honey Buzzards in the Middle East ‘photographs of alleged Cresteds have revealed that a considerable number of the claimed birds actually show a combination of features from both species’. Looking closely at my photos the iris appears dark, which is a feature of adult and there is a suggestion of a dark bill tip, which also fits this ID. In male Crested HB the flight feather barring crosses all the primary bases as on this bird but to me does not meet the body clear of the secondary coverts as Dick states is diagnostic. However, I’m not sure how variable or important this feature is, as it seems to be the only thing I can find that does not fit perfectly with this bird being an adult Crested HB. The following is a series of images of the bird soaring from several angles.
IT WAS MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS since I last had a close encounter with a Hooded Wheatear. Apart from one brief look in Oman, my last meeting with this amazing bird was in the vast canyon of Metzoke Dragot in Israel’s Dead Sea region, with friends David Hind, (the late) Keith Regan and Nick Watmough. This was a time when I was very much into birding in Israel and I made several visits in my early twenties before the intifada really got going and I turned my attentions elsewhere. Wheatears are some of my favourite birds and with its extra long legs and bill, this one in particular literally stands out among them. It was also one of the first new birds I saw in Eilat on my first visit there. I had just dropped my bag at the notorious Max’s Hostel and headed out towards the north fields and there it was, a fantastic male Hooded Wheatear, almost at my feet and right on the edge of town. I can remember it like it was yesterday. This was a time when there were no hotels on the North Beach and tamarisk scrub stretched all the way from there to the saltpans. As time has gone by (and I have also got more into bird photography) I have hoped for another close encounter and with no luck in Oman, where they are quite scarce, Israel represented my best chance. It was therefore a very exciting moment to call one on the April 2018 Birdquest tour there, out on the desolate Ovda Plain, just looking over my shoulder in case anything had sneaked in behind us, like so often happens in wide open places.
Hooded Wheatear has a wide range from Egypt to western Pakistan but there are not many countries within this area that are still relatively safe for visiting western birdwatchers so consequently there are not too many opportunities to see one. Something else has struck me about them that adds to their appeal. They are often inhabitants of remote wild desert canyons, met with briefly before they make long flights across chasms to become simply a black-and-white dot on a distant rock face. However, an encounter with one on a desert plain is often a different prospect. The Ovda Plain bird appeared to approach and investigate us. ‘How did you know it would not just fly off when we approached it?’ said André. I guess this might be a difference between a breeding bird and a simply curious wandering one?
A TOTAL OF 58 WAS MY SECOND HIGHEST COUNT so far on my local bird walk and included an adult Mediterranean Gull and the wintering Little Egret as well as some other interesting local birds like Green Woodpecker and Raven. A total of 14 curlews and 24 lapwings flew upstream as they return to their breeding grounds and oystercatchers numbered 27. A pair of lapwings has already returned to the field below Parsonage Farm, which I think is pretty early. A flock of 10 Skylarks flew west but there were also still plenty of winter visitors around like the two Little Grebes on the river at Red Bank, 90 Fieldfares, 9 Redwings and 520 starlings. However, the most notable sight was the large landslip that has occurred on Red Bank, where a large patch of woodland has slumped, with an even larger area around it showing disturbing cracks in the ground and presumably soon to follow. I've noticed quite a few landslips this winter. Margaret Breaks commented that 'it hasn't rained like this for eight months before'. We have got more water than we need and the land is literally slipping away, taking some nice trees with it along the riverbank.