Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of 2011

So after the final a'noon of the year, discovering that the Rotherhithe Egyptian Goose had grown to 4, getting a Greylag Goose ring and recording my 2011 high for Shoveler (24), as well as completing my species accounts for the 2009 LBR - perhaps it's time to look back at what has been a really excellent, bird-filled year. I've seen a lot of good birds, found some nice stuff too and had a damn good time on my travels lapping up as much as I can. Hope everyone reading this has enjoyed the year as much as I have. Best wishes to all for 2012.

After spending the New Year in a 'dry' country, I spent the first couple of days of 2011 birding in Kuwait with the Belgians (Vincent L, David M and Fred V), where Ashy Drongo, Indian Roller and some of the usual Kuwait specials were gladly seen.
Ashy Drongo
Locally, the 4 Scaup that I'd found in December lingered throughout on the dock just outside my flat.

I eventually managed to catch up with what may or may not get accepted as Britain's first Slaty-backed Gull mid-month, and just a few days later I was packing my bags again and off to those magical islands in the mid-Atlantic with Josh J. We had an excellent time, spending it on Terceira, Sao Miguel, Faial and Pico where a whole host of yankage was seen with a bit found too - Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, 2 Pied-billed Grebes, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, American Coot, 7 Blue-winged Teal, 3 American Wigeons, 4 Ring-necked Ducks, Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, two Lesser Yellowlegs, two Bonaparte's Gulls, American Herring Gull and 28 Ring-billed Gulls. I rounded the month off with a visit to Chipping Norton, enjoying the Oriental Turtle Dove.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron

While I headed back to school after the Azores, JJ went over to Ireland with Staines and found a first. This made me pay a visit to the glorious coast of County Kerry where the drake Stejneger's Scoter was seen in all its glory, as well as a couple of wingers nearby (in what was again a poor year for them in Ireland). Locally things were very quiet.
Stejneger's Scoter

Iceland Gull
I was off again - with JJ and Staines - and had a quality few days birding in Portugal and Spain early in the month. The Ruppell's Vulture at Vila Velha played ball while birding the Spanish steppes near Trujillo took me back to an area where I'd been to with my parents back in the day. Great and Little Bustards, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Eagle Owl plus many, many more made for a really enjoyable trip.
Little Bustard

Ruppell's Vulture
With a bonus day of holiday for the Royal Wedding, I made the most of this and had a quick trip over to Santiago, Cape Verdes - with Mick F and Rick M - where there was a treble of WP herons for me. They all showed themselves (three Intermediate Egrets, two Black Herons and a single Black-headed Heron) at Barragem de Poilao, while it was really good to get in on a few of the island's endemics again. Red-billed Tropicbirds on the cliffs at Praia were memorable, and the close views of Fea's Petrels at sea, just before night fell and they come inland, were decent too.

Black Heron

Red-billed Tropicbird

Black-headed Heron
All was quiet locally, with Sand Martins and Common Terns having returned to breed on the patch. Late in the month, I headed off with Peter A et al to the Azores again, where we were to spend some time on boats off Graciosa. When we eventually got it right, views of Monteiro's and Wilson's Storm-petrels were fantastic, as was the usual bit of wader action in the quarry on Terceira, while the skuas we saw left us scratching our heads albeit with the opinion they may just be immature Bonxies.
Wilson's Storm-petrel

Monteiro's Storm-petrel

Semipalmated Plover

White-winged Black Tern
As soon as I got back from my Azores trip, I made a quick trip up to Hartlepool for a proper, old school British mega - a White-throated Robin.
White-throated Robin
Local birding was predictably slow, just with breeders, although I did manage to find a singing Black Redstart. In the middle of the month, I made the long trek up north to Aberdeenshire and had remarkably decent views, albeit in dire weather, of an immature drake American White-winged Scoter, as well as a nice King Eider on the Ythan Estuary.

The month started off with a very pleasant day in Provence with JJ, where we had point blank views of the Red-footed Booby.

Red-footed Booby
With it being holidays at the month's end, and news that the mythical WP bird, Brown Fish Owl, had finally been tracked down, I headed off to Turkey with JJ, Chris B and Andy H where we had lovely views of 2 adults and 2 juveniles. A memory that'll last a lifetime for sure, and we made the most of our trip with a visit to Birecik where Striated Scops Owl and Iraq Babbler were highlights, while Nemrut Dagi was excellent for Red-tailed Wheatear and Cinereous Bunting amongst a host of other decent eastern fare.
Brown Fish Owl

Striated Scops Owl
I enjoyed a fantastic three weeks in Asia, starting off in Hong Kong where I spent a few days birding before Karen joined me for the rest of the trip. Birding was tough in the heat, but I managed to see Black-faced Spoonbill, record an array of waders and also marvel at the Chinese Pond Herons.
Chinese Pond Heron
Then I headed off to Indonesia, where the first stop was eastern Java to see Mount Bromo as well as a few birds too for sure. The time then spent on Bali was brilliant, both as an all round holiday but also for seeing some excellent birds - particularly one of the last truly wild Bali Starlings, Java Sparrows, Javan Banded Pitta, Javan Plover, Rufous-backed Kingfisher and many, many more.

Bali Starling

Rufous-backed Kingfisher

Javan Plover

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater
I returned back to London - and then, shortly after, went on my annual trip to the Bridges of Ross. The seabirds were quiet but waders were already on the move, and I managed to see an adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Shannon Airport and a nice juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper on the beach at Doonbeg that was found by Alan C.
Semipalmated Sandpiper
I returned home and found my first Redstart in Rotherhithe on the last day of the month.
With rapid low pressure systems tracking across the Atlantic, I spent a couple of weekends in Ireland. I managed to see a couple of Buff-breasted Sandpipers in Kerry the first trip, but the following weekend the weather was bang on the money and way out west in windswept Mayo, I managed to find a couple of juvenile Baird's Sandpipers on Achill Island and just hours later, an adult White-rumped Sandpiper at Roonagh Lough. Chuffed to bits with those. The following day, I saw over 35 Sabine's Gulls before breakfast at the Bridges of Ross, as well as a flock of 9 Buff-breasted Sandpipers nearby, a Common Rosefinch too and then a Blue-winged Teal back at Shannon Airport.
Baird's Sandpipers

White-rumped Sandpiper
An after work sojourn to Weir Wood Reservoir, East Sussex, midweek gave me some decent views of my only British/Irish lifer of the autumn - a Long-toed Stint. Disgruntled about not being in Ireland, the following weekend was spent closer to home searching for rares. It paid off, as John A and I were on fire and found Kent's 2nd ever Semipalmated Sandpiper (the first was in 1984) at Cliffe Pools on 25th (then being seen regularly on the other side of the Thames in Essex a week later), and returning to London we found 2 Roseate Terns at Crossness, gross birds in the capital indeed. 

A Sandhill Crane at Boyton Marshes was a nice way to start the month, while the following weekend was spent in Ireland again where, along with a longstaying Semipalmated Plover, I managed a couple of juvenile American Golden Plovers in County Kerry but that was all sadly.
Sandhill Crane
And with little going on nationally, local birding mid month was nice but unproductive. And then it was onto the main event, with the final week of October spent on the Azores. I had an incredible time, with probably my birding highlight of the year being when I found a White-tailed Tropicbird on Corvo, having previously dipped it on the neighbouring island of Flores for a couple of days. Arthur G had never heard so many English swear words, as I clapped eyes on it.
White-tailed Tropicbird
And if this wasn't enough, a Summer Tanager was fantastic value too, while I managed to find my first Nearctic landbirds in the WP in the form of an Indigo Bunting and a Common Yellowthroat. The trip was padded up with Buff-bellied Pipit, Chimney Swift and a drake Wood Duck with decent credentials on Flores. There were only four of us on Corvo late in the month, and we needed more eyes, so if you want to join the late October fun here in 2012 just let me know.
Indigo Bunting

Summer Tanager
The highlight was undoubtedly a cracking male Eastern Black Redstart found by Barry Hunt on Thanet, Kent.
Eastern Black Redstart
A morning out the next weekend in Somerset was excellent value, with a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 2 Long-billed Dowitchers and a Spotted Sandpiper all within a 360 spin at Chew Valley Lake. Locally though, the Mediterranean Gull arrived back at Burgess Park and a Long-tailed Duck showed really well near Bromley.

It wasn't quite as relaxing as I thought it would be, especially as a brief trip to Fuerteventura was in order when an Allen's Gallinule was found early in the month. Lee G and I had a quality time, enjoying good views of the target bird as well as re-acquainting myself with Canary Islands' Chat, Berthelot's Pipits as well as more vagrants such as a Blue-winged Teal, a Bittern and a Spotted Crake.
Allen's Gallinule
Pre-Christmas week was spent as far away from Oxford Street as I could, so I went to Canada with Karen and enjoyed a stunning week of good birds and company. Thanks to Jean and Willie especially for being so helpful, and of course Karen for being so ever tolerant. Highlights in Toronto and Niagara were loads of gulls (Thayer's, Kumlien's, American Herring, Ring-billed and Bonaparte's) so I was more than happy, as well as huge numbers of wildfowl and breathtaking views of a Snowy Owl.
Snowy Owl

Ring-billed Gull

Long-tailed Ducks
I rounded the year off with a day out in Norfolk with John A and Graeme S, enjoying views of the Western Sandpiper, Lesser White-fronted Goose and a slightly interesting Great Grey Shrike.

More of the same in 2012 please!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Day Out in Norfolk

I headed out this morning with John and Graeme, deciding to spend the day a couple of hours away in Norfolk. Remarkably, it's the first time I headed up here since the empidonax action in September 2010. We had a nice roadside Barn Owl on the way up, before the first stop at Cley NWT. The 1st-winter Western Sandpiper was on show immediately on Pat's Pool. I could give you a lowdown of the features that I should have seen if it was a little bit closer and it wasn't such a lousy autumn. But I won't as everybody's probably well-versed in winter plumaged Western/Semi-p Sand. I certainly am, and all I have to say is subjective, scapulars and suite of features.

It was good to see a few old faces in the hide, and one of these Mike S, picked out a first-winter Tundra Bean Goose distantly from Daukes Hide. Again, lousy for photography. Stuff like Golden Plovers, Avocets, Dark-bellied Brents and a Water Rail were all nice to see too.

We had a quick search for a Ross' Goose near Holt but struggled to find many Pinkfeet, so it was on with the wild goose chase to the other side of Norwich. And at Buckenham Marshes, the adult Lesser White-fronted Goose was seen immediately in amongst the wintering Taiga Bean Geese. Pretty dark and diminutive, with a nice white blaze, it was a little bit distant to make out the minutae in the strong breeze. Perhaps last winter I'd been a bit too quick to judge, but according to my companions back in the day the Yare Valley was up there with Slimbridge for going to see your gen LWFGs. And as a carrier species - with both being taiga geese - you could perhaps argue a case. Mind, there have been feral birds locally and The Netherlands for sure will have a few less than wild (as well as wild) ones roaming around too.

Right then, the weather had been poor all day so the late afternoon shift in the hail and rain wasn't going to get great photographic results. But with news of a potential homeyeri Great Grey Shrike near Fakenham, we headed there from East Norfolk and arrived at its chosen, windswept field. After a bit, it showed in the gloom. There'll be plenty more on this elsewhere, and fair play to the guys who flagged this first-winter bird up. Apart from having the prior knowledge of them 'being paler, more white in the wing and tail' than nominate birds, I had no further wisdom when I viewed the bird: -

Initial impression reminiscent of a Lesser Grey Shrike, presumably due a slight peach hue to the underparts in the poor light, and the extensive white bases to the primaries that were about half the length of the exposed secondaries

Appeared to perhaps be pale mantled, though the light was pretty changeable. Lores appeared pale, with bill base pale too. Note the obvious white rump here and the appearance of a 2nd wing patch on the greater coverts.
In the gloom, I couldn't make out much on the amount of white in its tail (though observers earlier in the day state that the two pairs of outermost feathers were white) but for sure you can see a clean, extensive white scapular patch here.
Interestingly, despite a fair few claims of this subspecies, the Finnish Rarities committee has only accepted three homeyeri Great Grey Shrikes - all of them trapped. In the north and west of their range, they do apparently overlap with nominate excubitor too so perhaps we shouldn't get too hasty in being definitive on this bird just yet, interesting though it may be. Another educational experience, perhaps.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

More Rings

More rings, but not on the bills this time. Patchwork was slow this morning, so I resorted to doing a few slow donuts around the roosting BHGs in Tesco car park as I spotted a couple of ringed individuals. Since getting my DSLR earlier this year, one of its main uses is looking at detail you just can't pick up in the field. And for metal ringed BHGs, it comes into its own.
The bad boy above shows a nice piece of bling on its right ankle. So, in the past, I'd have put in my notebook something such as 'including an individual metal ringed on its lower right tarsus'. Well, with a bit of papping at all angles it's now possible to get these sly old dogs nailed. The tell tale 'SW7' tells you that it's a British-ringed bird (the British Natural History Museum is located in Kensington SW7). I managed to get the full ring number off it too.
However, one of the other BHGs has had me head scratching. Again a metal ringed bird, this time on its lower left tarsus. I've got its complete ring number and after a bit of sleuthing, think it's a Belgian-ringed bird (check out this one for a comparison).
you can just make out 'SSELS'; presumably the BRU are just out of show

And I did break things up a bit on the gull front, well sort of. There was no sign of the Med Gull at Burgess Park and, on the way to Cross Ness, I took in a drake Mandarin en-route at Brookmill Park, Lewisham. Cross Ness was dead, apart from the usuals including a load of Teal and Dunlin. And there were few gulls at Crayford.
Mandarin with no bling
So I turned back to Rotherhithe and spent the last couple of hours mooching around Russia Dock Woodland, where I recorded my first Kingfisher of the winter on the patch. Normally there is just one around so I was pretty made up with a 2nd bird at Norway Dock late afternoon. Little else apart from a couple of Goldcrests and a flock of c.50 House Sparrows.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Local Bully Boys

Hope that everyone that reads this has had a decent Christmas. Having got back from Toronto late on 23rd, I spent a few hours on Christmas Eve doing the neglected patch before getting amongst it with wrapping the presents. Anyway, I'd promised some of my Canadian friends a few 1st-winter (European) Herring Gull shots so that they'd provide a decent like-for-like on the smithsonianus we saw together at Niagara a couple of days previously. All these shots taken on 24th December.
A particularly advanced pale individual; note the frosting of the greater-coverts straight to the bases. Lacks the often dark bases that you see in smithsonianus

A fairly dark, relatively immature individual perhaps emanating from a more northerly latitude. But plumage wise, a typical bird - note the shelling on the tertials protruding well towards the base.
Dark underwing coverts, but argenteus and argentatus generally lack that velvet smooth texture to the underparts that smithsonianus show. Also note the distinct lack of an all dark tail and palish undertail-coverts.
A near-adult, though the head streaking is just that - it's not blotching. Those legs just don't get close to that bubblegum pink I saw in all the Niagara smithsonianus. In flight, dark area on primary-coverts suggested a 4cy.
Other than these gulls, the patch was really quiet with the lack of cold weather. Just the usual suspects around, and even the Mediterranean Gull did a no show in a brief look on the lake at Burgess Park.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Last Day with the Niagara River Gulls

Thursday was my last day in Canada, as I'm sitting here on my sofa in London having travelled back earlier today (Friday). I must say that, for a brief week long trip on what I would term a 'non-birding holiday', it was brilliant. Toronto and the Niagara area had copious amounts of the stuff I'm really into (such as gulls) backed up with phenomenal numbers of waterfowl that I don't see any old day back here in London.

My final day was spent with a group of Ontario and Buffalo birders who spend much of their time in larid heaven on the Niagara river. I learnt a hell of a lot with them on Thayer's Gulls, Kumlien's and the different populations of American Herring Gulls - much more than what us Europeans can do by just thumbing through the good old identification articles and odd lone individuals. I'll do some more stuff on this sometime soon.
Anyway, my day was spent at a few spots along the Niagara river. Sir Adam Beck (pictured above) is the place for large gulls, and a site where I saw at least two Thayer's Gulls (an adult and a second-winter) and half a dozen Kumlien's Gulls. There was an adult Little Gull just upriver at the Whirlpool in amongst the copious amounts of Bonaparte's Gulls, while the wall at Chippawa is the other decent site for a bit of large larus action - have a look at this bad boy below to get you going...

If I was on the Thames (which obviously I wasn't), I'd be putting this down as a hybrid Herring x LBB; and that's kind of (well, AHG x LBB) what I assume this bird is too with LBB Gull numbers having increased dramatically in Ontario in recent years - I only saw a third-winter bird (looked like a typical graellsii in mantle colour and structure/bulk). So this hybrid bird was evidently darker mantled than all the smickers, its legs a tepid yellow (with a hint of flesh too), pale iris, head streaking like a LBB and a relatively pronounced tertial step.

There literally are 1000s of American Herring Gulls to scan through, and although variable one thing that really did strike me was that the feet were a real rich bubblegum pink in all adults, without exception - much more standardised than the array of leg colour you get through argenteus and argentatus. The birds are distant, but here are a few smickers for now.
Galaxy smooth...

A 'classic' 2nd-winter - look at that all dark tail, retained greater-covert bar and dark secondaries. A monster like this wouldn't have any problems this side of the pond.

They don't all look like this by the way, despite what we're led to believe. This is a very extreme example
It wasn't all gulls, though it nearly was. I managed to see a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos and an American Robin while looking through the gulls. And a quick stop off at some feeders in Chippawa produced White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and American Goldfinch - all good Nearctic fare for me. But if it's one species I'll remember the Niagara river for, it's those tern-like small gulls and I got my fill again.
Finally, I would just like to extend my thanks to the expert knowledge and hospitality that all the birders showed during the trip - Jean Iron was fantastic throughout and along with Willie D'Anna, provided me with plenty of info pre and during my trip; their knowledge of the gulls was immense too, along with Ron Pittaway, Betsy Potter, Declan Troy and Kevin McLaughlin - who I could have talked all day with regarding AHGs. Thank you all, and Karen really appreciated the way you looked after her too.

L to R: Betsy, Jean, Ron, Willie, Declan, me and Kevin