HOLA Staines

Not many admirers for such a rarity

I had to visit my Mother and Sister in Maidenhead on Saturday 27th Jan which gave me the chance to pay a brief visit Staines Reservoir in Surrey to see an American Horned Lark which was found in late November, disappeared after a few days, but re-emerged in the early part of the previous week.  Staines lies pretty much at one end of Heathrow’s runways and is essentially an enormous water-filled concrete bowl bisected by a raised causeway whose weedy slopes have provided food and shelter for this vagrant lark.  I arrived mid-morning, parked the car by the ramp to the causeway, settled my doggie travelling companion in the back seat and set off.  The bird was feeding on the south slope below the furthest viewing bay separated from its observers by a 1.5m barred metal fence that made photography challenging, but not impossible and with patience it was possible to get some decent images.

North American Horned Lark, Staines, January 2018

Horned Lark, (aka Shore Lark)  is a species that is widely distributed across the Northern Hemisphere with some forty different races described on the basis of variations in plumage and biometrics.  It has been proposed that the  Old World forms should be treated as five different species and the North American forms, of which there are >20, as a sixth   There is useful summary and discussion of this work on the Birding Frontiers site.  The main question for anybody going to see the Staines bird are whether on the basis of plumage it can be assigned to one of the of the North American forms rather than the familiar yellow faced form Eremophila alpestris flava which winters in small numbers around the UK coast and currently the only one on the British List. A secondary issue, is whether in he fullness of time the North American forms might be split as a separate species and allow our British and WP lists to advance by one!

Shore Lark (E. a. flava), East Norfolk, October 2013

All Horned larks share the same basic facial pattern of a black mask and choker with supercillium, forehead, cheeks and chin being yellow and/or white depending on race. Clues from the plumage to the Staines bird having a Nearctic origin come from the heavily streaked mantle,  pinky-rufous flanks that contrast with the white belly, the heavy striking on the lower breast and the strong pinkish component to the shawl (rear nape, upper mantle – this coloration should extend onto the lesser and median coverts, but this was hard to see on as the bird stayed hunched as it shuffled around in the strong breeze and never stood upright and alert. These pinkish tones are even more pronounced  in some other North American races for instance Eremophila alpestris leucolaema; the non migratory race of the interior West that I know from my time in Colorado

Horned lark of the central interior subspecies E. a. leucolaema; Pawnee National Grasslands CO, USA April 2008
Horned lark of the central interior subspecies E. a. leucolaema; Pawnee National Grasslands CO, USA April 2008

Candidate Horned Larks in  the Western Palearctic have previously been reported in Iceland (Birding World (1999) 12: 375-376.), in Northern Ireland (Birding World (1999 ) 12: 152-154) and on Scilly in Oct 2001 (Birding World (2002) 15: 111-119 and Surfbirds).  All of these were tentatively attributed to the large, long-winged, migratory NE race E. a. alpestris  and images of the Iceland and Ulster birds in the BW articles suggest that the yellow parts of the head to be deeper in tone that flava as indicated by Nils van Duivendijk in his Advanced Bird ID Guide.  The images of the Scilly bird are less compelling in that regard; that bird having a white rear supercilium and pale ear coverts.  Needless to say that whilst writing this I am regretting not making the effort to go over to St Agnes and see it for myself when I had the opportunity during a Scilly long weekend in October 2001!  Nevertheless, for what it is worth, the yellow in the face of the St Agnes bird the is more intense and extensive than on the Staines individual.

So where does this leave us?  In his comprehensive Birding World and Surfbirds articles Brian Small discusses another large and highly migratory race known as Hoyt’s Lark (E. a. hoyti) that breeds in the high arctic to the West of  E. a. alpestris. Brian’s description and painting suggests that hoyti is quite similar to alpestris with the major difference being he intensity of streaking on the lower breast.  It was therefore with some considerable interest that I came across this short article by John Ruddy on his Eastern Ontario Birding website with some images of a candidate Hoyt’s that he had seen among wintering alpestris  and some comparative images of museum skins of the three forms that occur in Eastern Ontario;  alpestris, hoyti and praticola plus an additional reference to an article written by Ron Pittaway in Ontario Birds from 1994.

North American Horned Lark, Staines, January 2018
North American Horned Lark, Staines, January 2018

These Canadian articles suggest that hoyti is a rather distinctive pale race with a white supercillium and just a daffodil blush on the throat – very much in keeping the facial pattern of the Staines bird.  But neither  article mentions the extensive lower breast streaking that the Staines individual clearly exhibits.

This left me wondering to what extent appearance is is related to age and/or sex.  The ID  Guide to North American Passerines by Pyle an others suggest that it is a female (white admixed with black in the mask, no black forehead) but it would have completed its annual moult by Sept if a first calendar year bird and earlier if an adult.  It is hard to see that heavy streaking just disappearing by feather wear.  So whilst there is no doubt of a North American origin for the Staines Horned Lark assigning it to race, even with biometrics, may not be possible.  I suspect that obtaining a DNA sample may not help given that one of the commentators on Ruddy’s article  reports seeing many intergrades between alpestris and hoyti in the Hudson Bay area of Central Canada. Hopefully with ever more observers going to see this smart little bird there will be further discussion and perhaps more information will come to light.

As a footnote this was only my second ever visit to Staines Reservoir.  The first 35 years ago was to see my first Baird’s Sandpiper that had overwintered on the muddy edges to one of the drained basins. Like Horned Lark Baird’s Sandpiper is a species that I would got to know well when I lived in Colorado where it is by far and away the commonest Calidrid during autumn migration.

Baird’s Sandpiper, SE Colorado, April 2008




After a difficult couple of weeks it was nice to have a morning out with Graham. Given our time constraints  and Graham’s love of chats there was only ever going to be one destination; Sheringham where a lovely confiding male Black Redstart has been frequenting the seafront RNLI carpark.  We arrived at the car park, a bit of waste ground next to the a block of flat prophetically named Upcher Court where the gaggle of birders/toggers suggested the was not that far away  In order to photograph it at eye level against a clean background we cut the height of the tripods and lay on the floor – for as long as we could stay in contact with the bitterly cold ground before having to get up and walk around.

Graham demonstrating exemplary technique

The approach worked well as the bird  dropped to a favoured area of grass no doubt encouraged by the meal worms scattered by a benevolent local photographer.

Black Redstart, Sheringham, Norfolk, January 2018

Ironically whilst we were there a bit of furore broke out on Twitter in response to news that the long staying Desert Wheatear near Whitby had been predated with some posters quick to blame supplementary feeding by photographers for its untimely demise. So should we resort to supplementary feeding in order to get good images?  Many must think it is OK as since I first encountered this practice at another Desert Wheatear , at Horsey in November 2008, and it is something that has become increasingly commonplace in the UK.

Eastern Black Redstart, Skinningrove, Cleveland, December 2016

I must admit to not being entirely convinced. Given enough time, space and cautious movements by their observers small chats quickly get used to humans and are also quite adept at finding their own food sources.  For example the long-staying Eastern Black Redstart in Cleveland last winter found plenty of insects in its favourite patch of wrack strewn boulders and was very tolerant of a steady stream of admirers during its four month stay.  And another Desert Wheatear, this time at Lowestoft in November 2014 would with patience walk up to you!

Desert Wheatear, Lowestoft, Suffolk, November 2014

On the other hand supplementary feeding raises awareness of birds and their conservation as well as supporting vulnerable populations during hard weather. Where such activities exist photographers are more than happy to take advantage.  For instance how many world birders would have Antpittas on their lists and good photos if it was not for the ground breaking efforts of Angel Paz in Ecuador? And we all love feeding stations whether it is for Willow Tits in Northern England, Hummingbirds in the Neotropics or Rosy Finches in Colorado we are all more than happy to turn up with our cameras and click away. Speaking of Rosy Finches – one appeared at a feeder in front of a hide on the Nosappu Penninsular on Hokkaido last winter even before my Japanese companions had emptied a tub if sunflower seeds on the feeding station!

Asian Rosy Finch, Hokkaido, December 2016

Like many aspects of birding it comes down to common sense and above everything else the welfare of the bird.  If it is possible to supplement a bird’s normal food supply in a way that does not make it dependent and susceptible to predation fair enough.  However  that is no reason to suspend the principles of good field craft and behave in a way that prevents the bird from attending the food supply and deprives others the opportunity to observe/photograph/enjoy it in their own way.

Meanwhile back in Sheringham after an hour or so of enjoying the Black Redstart Graham and I were frozen to the bone and went in search of a cafe.  Failing miserably in Sheringham we drove along the coast to Cromer and eventually found refuge and a warm welcome in the excellent Crab Pot Cafe where we enjoyed some supplementary feeding of the Full English variety.

New Year’s Day – Now and Then

For birdwatchers across the world New Year’s Day is a day of anticipation and renewal, the day when year lists are reset to zero, plans laid for the coming twelve months and attempts are made to see as many species in a day in a defined area. Except in 1988 when on NYD most of the UK birding community descended on the Dorset/Hampshire border with the sole intention of adding Little Bustard to their British List and this was one New Year party that my good friend, the late and much missed, Keith Regan and I did not want to miss out on.

The snag was that New Year’s Eve is a big deal in the North East of England so some delicate negotiations were required in order to excuse ourselves from from the planned first footing and other alcohol fuelled celebrations and drive through the night to rendezvous with Mike Watson and Stuart Warren in Letchworth before going on to Dorset.  Stuart who had recently returned from his African honeymoon was the ideal person to drive the second leg as not only did he clock up significant miles in his day job, but he had also piloted Mike and myself around Turkey two years previously. Ominously when we piled into Stuart’s car to head South-west it was already raining!

When we arrived round dawn we knew we were in the right place as it was hard to navigate the narrow lanes because of number of cars that had not so much been parked as carefully abandoned on verges;  no polite messages from Birdguides asking you to park nicely in those days!  And as we joined the throng at the edge of the field in which the bustard had been seen at dusk on NYE it was still raining, heavily and persistently.  As is the custom on these occasions, there was much anxious and good natured chat as we got progressively wetter waiting to the bird to appear. Stuart was on particularly good form telling anyone who was interested about the various species of bustard he had recently seen in Africa and in doing so made the schoolboy error of leaving his binoculars uncovered.  Consequently when it was agreed that a couple of locals would put us out of our misery and entered the field to coax the bird into view his eye-cups were full of water and as the bird was flushed he didn’t see it.  It is never comfortable driving back from a twitch when one person in the car does not see the bird, but when it is your driver….  Needless to say we drove back to Letchworth in near silence uncomfortably damp in a car that was starting to reek of wet Barbour jackets in a way that was going to provide Stu with a painful reminder for days to come.

My NYD count area in West Norwich is a 3km circle centred on our house

In recent years my NYDs have been more sedate and spent birding close to home. In 2007 my daughter Kat, then aged 9, and I decided to see how many species we could see within 3km of our house in West Norwich. We managed just 40 but until last year (2017) when Kat and I were in Japan I had repeated the count every year with a best total of 51 in 2011 and a cumulative total of 75. So when, after the recent heavy rains, NYD 2018 dawned with clear skies I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with the circle. Species are listed in order of addition (#1) with those seen on two or fewer of the previous ten counts in blue text.

Adding the first species is always easy.  I drive to the end of our cul-de-sac, turn right down the hill and park at the estate entrance where there is a colony of House Sparrows (#1).  Next, in time honoured fashion, I cruised slowly along Bluebell Road and the fringes of Eaton Park  clocking up the expected suburban species; Carrion Crow (#2), Wood Pigeon (#3), Blackbird (#4), Collared Dove (#5), Magpie (#6), Starling (#7) and Robin (#8).  A quick stop by Eaton Park boating lake added Black-headed (#9) and Common Gull (#10) along with Chaffinch (#11) and Goldfinch (#12). The list was further incremented by Feral Pigeon (#13) on the short drive to West Earlham Marsh.

Song Thrush is by no means a certainty on these NYD counts

Arriving in Bevan Close I found the marsh full to the brim and pretty much birdless apart from a few Mallard (#14) on the water and  a couple of Wrens (#15) chasing each other in the rank margins.  Moreover the path leading from St Mary’s Church, Earlham, to the bund next to the River Yare was impassible.  So after adding Song Thrush (#16), Dunnock (#17) and Blue Tit (#18) in the thicket by the kissing gate I drove the the Northern entrance and re-parked.

Despite the  extensive flooding the bund was still accessible here and as soon on reaching the river I added Moorhen (#19) whilst Pied Wagtails (#20) and Meadow Pipits (#21) flew overhead. The mass of open water meant that the flock of dabbling duck had dissipated, but it did not take long to find a few Eurasian Teal (#22) and the expected Jackdaws (#23) feeding on the margins as a Great Cormorant (#24) flew high over the estate.  Herring Gull (#25) and Grey Heron (#26) were soon added. Green Woodpecker (#27) was another flyover whilst a Grey Wagtail (#28) briefly joined its Pied cousins on the soaking grass. Further examination of the floodplain did not uncover the expected Snipe, but it did give me  Little Grebe (#29 ), Little Egret (#30), not seen before 2013 but now annual, and Lesser-black Backed Gull (#31).  Best of all it was only 10.30hrs and I had not seen a slew of common woodland species. Surely the record of 51 was there for the taking!

No Mistle Thrushes but a nice view of “Tatlin’s Tower” installed as part of the Sainsbury Centre’s Russian Season

Or maybe not! My next stop by the Spire Hospital only added Great Tit (#32). Then  in a moment of inspiration (or hunger) I decided on a short diversion to the new McDonalds on the Thickthorn roundabout.  This required me to drive a route that always has feeding Rooks (#35) and some rough ground that usually has a hunting Kestrel (#36) and as I pulled into the car park by Cringleford Wood with my coffee and breakfast wrap  a Common Buzzard (#37) soared over the UEA campus.  Whilst the wood itself did not deliver the expected Goldcrest, Long-tailed Tit (#38) , Coal Tit (#39) and GS Woodpecker (#40) were all seen in quick succession and I did not hang around. Continuing across to the West end of UEA Broad I found a pair of GC Grebes (#41) with beaks full of weed dancing like a pair of “Strictly” finalists with a single Coot (#42), the first count record since 2011, for an audience.   No Mistle Thrushs at the back of the Sainsbury Centre,  but a Mute Swan (# 43) on the river by the playing fields and a Jay (#44) kept the total ticking over Walking back to the car gave via Lusty Hills gave me a bonus Bullfinch (#45) and I was able to persuade a solitary Goldcrest (#46) out of the New Plantation before deciding on my next move.

These Long-tailed Tits seemed to be enjoying the floods

Which was to drive to Intwood at the southern limit of the circle where there is a patchwork of small brooks and wet fields that have always looked good for a wintering Green Sandpiper or Jack Snipe.  Back on Planet Earth Egyptian Goose (#47 ) and Mistle Thrush (#48 ) were a good return, but still no gamebirds.  In past years the arable fields viewed from the back road that leads from the B1113 to the Hartford Park and Ride have been a reliable spot for Red-legged Partridge. Not today but they did deliver a few Stock Dove (#49) mixed in with a sizeable flock of Fieldfare (#50 ) and a Pheasant (#51 ) that was prepared to risk the NYD shoots. Before pausing for lunch I had one last attempt for Red-leg at the back of Keswick Mill that ended in failure, but even that was OK when I broke my record with a Reed Bunting (#52) that popped up in a low hedge.

The River Yare washing over the boardwalk at the East end of UEA Broad with the University buildings in the background

It was now 13.30hrs and even allowing for tea and toast there was two hours in which to target gaps and add to the total  First stop was the boardwalk that runs along the Yare at the east end of UEA Broad which was under water where there were none of the hoped for Carduelis finches, but two Kingfishers (#53) flashed their sapphire butts as they played tag in the lakeside vegetation.  Next stop was Earlham Park where a  Nuthatch (#54) was calling atop a big tree.  After a quick and unproductive walk around the park I returned to West Earlham Marsh to see what might turn up at dusk. After 20 minutes of seeing nothing new and getting ever colder in fading light a Sparrowhawk (#55) appearedout of nowhere and raced low over the marsh.  Content I started back to the car and was almost there when a Water Rail (#56) jumped out of a patch of riverside scrub and back.  As I thawed out and headed for home I reflected on an excellent day where everything had gone to plan and once again my mind wandered back to NYD 1988.

After saying our rather awkward farewells to Stuart,  Mike, Keith and I headed over to Salthouse in North Norfolk to stay in the bunkhouse that Steve and Liz Harris (now of BIRDscapes Gallery in Glandford) ran at the time with a view to seeing two rare geese; Red-breasted Goose and Black Brant.   These were scored the following day with Keith memorably taking his bacon and egg to a telescope set up by an upstairs window so that he could tick RBG whilst eating a full English. Those two days 30 years ago, in which everything went to plan (well at least for three of us) were the start of  an annus mirabilis.  This included a memorable early spring trip to Israel, a string of outstanding British and Irish rares including Caspian Plover and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that ended with a Boxing Day American Robin in Scotland (after yet more negotiation).  Along the way I submitted my PhD thesis and found a new job in Colorado.  After such a a positive start to 2018 I wonder what the rest of the birding year will bring?

Not a British American Robin I’m afraid, but one that I photographed in May 2012 in Cherry Creek State Park on the outskirts of Denver Colorado. Cherry Creek was my local patch between March 1989 and November 1990.