Saturday, 30 November 2013

Uncropped Casp

It's been a long time coming, and with my first November Friday night sleep in my own bed (instead of the car or Lisbon airport), I was feeling fighting fresh this morning. It was relatively mild, and as I headed onto the tip for my first winter larid session, a lot of the gulls were just chilling out. Typical behaviour for mild weather, as they don't have to feed so no intense or desperate feeding frenzies today.

After half an hour or so, a nice adult Caspian Gull was picked out from the masses, and with good views I reached for the camera... just as a dust cart decided to drive through all the gulls. Needless to say, it wasn't to be seen again. And it took another three or so hours for another Caspian Gull to appear; just as I was heading back to my car, one of the last birds on the edge of the flock (as is so often the case): -

1st-winter Caspian Gull 30th November 2013
This first-winter was absolutely stunning, and at times came too close to be able to fit into my camera view finder. Certainly the closest ever experience I've had of the species in Britain, and an absolute highlight of the year. Honestly, it really was brilliant (I can hear you gull haters groan).

Also on the tip were a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls (adult and 1st-winter), at least three Med Gulls and a number of ringed birds - a Belgian Herring Gull, that I'd seen in March, was back while there was a Norwegian Great Black-backed Gull that had been ringed as a chick in Lindesnes, on the Norwegian coast, last summer.
adult Yellow-legged Gull 30th November 2013
On the way home, I checked in at Crossness. Another four ringed birds - all NTGG ringed - including two that had remarkably been ringed this morning nearby! There were also two Yellow-legged Gulls (adult and 1st-winter) on the foreshore along with 500 or so Dunlin, a couple of hundred Teal and twenty or so Wigeon.

Genuinely a good feeling sitting in my flat writing this mid-evening, instead of gallivanting about the place. Then again, it's a long old winter so certainly no regrets in terms of making the most of this autumn.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Azorean Gulls and something else?

It's looking like this weekend will be the first one for a long while where I'm going to be able to go birding locally in London. So get ready for some gulls fingers crossed. In the meantime, what with work being totally manic, it's only been tonight where I've had some time to sort out some shots from the Azores. So, as is always the case when I'm out there, I papped a load of true atlantis Yellow-legged Gulls (Azorean Gulls). All the shots below were taken on Sao Miguel at Vila Franca do Campo on 26th October 2013.




And on the Sunday evening in Ponta Delgada, with Lee Gregory (whose photo is below - thanks!), this really interesting bird was observed which to my eye is a standard 1st-winter michahellis: -
It looks rather slight in appearance compared to the Atlantic Gulls, with much more overall paler plumage especially on its underparts, a lack of those extensive chocolate brown bases to the greater-coverts while interestingly the legs are more bubblegum pink and lack those obvious 'shin pads' that all first cycle Azorean Gulls show.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Caspian Stonechat on Scilly

A Siberian Stonechat that had been present on St.Agnes during the week turned itself into something altogether more interesting, when Ashley Fisher saw the bird and noticed the rather Pied Wheatear-like tail, with extensive white in the basal half of the majority of its tail feathers. This feature indicated that this was a Caspian Stonechat, of the race formerly known as variegatus but now hemprichii. I wasn't going to go initially, much of this due to work fatigue, but after I'd manned myself up, I'm pretty glad I went as yesterday, Saturday, was a really enjoyable day out.

Leaving London at 1.30am, the journey down with Stuart P was straightforward and we arrived in Penzance just after 7am. Naturally, the first port of call was our stomaches, so we headed first to the new Sainsbury's (built on the site of the former heliport) before going to McDonald's for a quick breakfast. Unbelievably, we dipped Dan P - though we were later to find out that he'd called in at the one in Hayle so our gen wasn't too out...

Everything went as planned from then on - a shuttle bus up from Penzance to Land's End aerodrome (as we were coming back on The Scillonian), decent flight and then arrival on St.Mary's, punctuated by a Black Redstart by the terminal, where we were then immediately taken to the quay in Hugh Town, where Joe Pender took us over to St.Agnes in ten minutes on one of the Bryher boats. Thanks to the Don of Scilly, Mr H, for sorting out all the logistics and making things seamless.

A quick walk through St.Agnes was the next manoevre, and having turned off by the coastguards, before we'd even got to St.Warna's Cove the 1st-winter male Caspian Stonechat showed itself - flying past us, almost Wheatear-like - before perching up in the garden of a nearby house. After a short while, it headed back down to the beach where it spent the next couple of hours - flycatching and feeding on the abundant insects by the rotting seaweed. A real cracker of a bird, as indeed chats tend to be anyway. And with the uncertainty of its taxonomic status putting the stonewall tickers off, just seven of us and a couple of Scilly locals made the experience even more pleasant. As did a Siberian Chiffchaff feeding alongside a couple of nominate birds in the same area.

1st-winter male Caspian Stonechat St.Agnes, Scilly 23rd November 2013
With the Scillonian setting off at 2.30pm, we had just enough time to grab a pasty in Hugh Town before heading back towards Cornwall. I managed to grab an hour's sleep before heading up to the deck, where a handful of Balearic Shearwaters, a massive blow from a whale sp. and lots of Gannets and Kittiwakes made the crossing pretty enjoyable. Getting back to Penzance a bit after 5 was much less anti-social than the usual routine, so this meant that I was back in southeast London for 11pm happy yet totally shattered.

Isles of Scilly scenery - remarkably this was my first visit to the islands since December 2007
Highlight of today's action was the return of the adult Mediterranean Gull at Burgess Park - otherwise, few birds seen in Rotherhithe and plenty of time spent looking around bathroom shops.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A grey bird on a grey day

Old school twitches, where you drive overnight and do the Saturday dawn raid, are largely a thing of the past for me. However, with an Orphean Warbler having turned up in deepest, darkest Pembrokeshire on Thursday I joined a team of London's finest - David B, Bob W, Josh J and James L. After an uneventful drive (I don't remember any of it from Reading onwards), expertly skippered by David B, we arrived in Haverfordwest in the pitch black. After the usual shenanigans at the 24 hour Tesco, we went to the site where the local guys did a thoroughly professional job of parking all of us jokers, herding us together and escorting us to the house where the bird was favouring.
Orphean Warbler - St. Brides, Pembrokeshire 16th November 2013. Grey day... grey bird.
Within minutes of the dark turning to semi-light, the Orphean Warbler appeared and then for the next hour or so got amongst the apples in typically lethargic, rather uncharismatic fashion. Adding to the greyness of the bird was the day itself, so although you could see the obvious white leading up the outermost tail feathers and what appeared to be unmarked undertail coverts, the bird felt pretty cold in its appearance. It's still an art rather than a science when it comes to firmly concluding whether this bird is a Western (hortensis) or Eastern (crassirostris), and having never seen either species in the autumn, my hunch that it's a Western comes solely from the rather contradictory literature/web-base dialogue. You could say this is a shame as I'd have preferred an Eastern, on the basis I'd seen the Western at Hartlepool last year, but c'est la vie. And to be honest, though I fully agree that the populations and breeding/migration routes are completely different, I do still smell a whiff of bullshit when it comes to determining with surefire certainty lone vagrants like this...

While soaking up a nice 1st-winter Med Gull on the nearby Gann Estuary, news of a large flock of Two-barred Crossbills in the Forest of Dean tempted us back east. Spending the afternoon around Speech House was rather pleasant except for two things - we didn't see any Two-barred Crossbills and probably the loudest birder Gloucestershire has produced decided to detail out aloud everything he had seen this autumn before answering his phone, raising the decibels even further - God alone knows why he wore camouflage gear, his noise scared things off before he was even seen. This aside, I saw a nice Great Grey Shrike, 2 Hawfinches, 2 Bramblings, 3 Crossbills and loads of Redpolls and Siskins. All very nice, and I was home for mid-evening.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Purple chicken in Lisbon

Probably once a year, my WP listing urge kicks in when a top drawer rare turns up outside of Britain and Ireland. It's been a decent autumn, with three 'dream' yank wood warblers seen (Wilson's, Cape May and Black-throated Green) and a few nice finds thrown in too. So with news of an American Purple Gallinule filtering out on Friday, and within easy reach of Lisbon airport, my weekend plans changed a bit (sorry Mum, Dad and Grandma!). And so, for the third successive Saturday (!!!) I found myself in the environs of Lisbon airport...

Here I was met by David Monticelli, who had been instrumental in whacking the news out and confirming the bird's identification. Going beyond the call of duty, David picked Gordon B and I up from the airport and we headed the 15 minutes or so to Parque Florestal de Monsanto - an area of woods and parkland within the city boundary, where the gallinule was favouring a small pool in a private, fenced off area. No sweat though, as this Belgian who is conversant in Portuguese had sorted out some access.

1st-winter American Purple Gallinule, Monsanto, Lisbon 9th November 2013

Given that temperatures were near to freezing at Heathrow early on in the morning, it was a pleasant feeling to be walking about in the 20 degree Lisbon heat and sun mid-morning and, immediately on arrival, the 1st-winter American Purple Gallinule was located sitting motionless having apparently just digested a large frog. Once finished doing this, the bird generally skulked slowly through the edges of the pond, either picking at the long grass or feasting on more frogs and even a dragonfly during the five or so hours I was present. The views were astounding at times, with it being fearless towards the 20 or so birders that passed through the site. This really was a quality bird and the experience was great - yes, it may turn up in Britain and Ireland again but history suggests it won't be about for long. With this bird though, it had found perfect lily-filled habitat, a plentiful food supply and it looked nice and healthy too.
David M and PAC watching the American Purple Gallinule on its favoured pool

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Second White-throated Sparrow for the Azores

I really was so reluctant to come off Corvo on Wednesday. Despite Flores' westerly location, it was only on Thursday of this trip that I started to realise its potential. Albeit with 'just' a Bobolink and a couple of quality yank waders.

Friday 1st November dawned at Santa Cruz, this being my last day for this year's trip. I headed out for a couple of hours early on with Janne, Potu and the irrepressible Ilkka. With just a bit of time to play with, we stayed local and I was introduced to the rather daunting site of Fajã do Conde. Having had Hermit Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a couple of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks it has form although it was bloody massive. In fact, as I started to walk down and into the fajã it felt as if I was pissing into the wind a bit.

Janne, Potu and Ilkka had walked on while I decided to stop and check out a load of the usual suspects - Canary, check, Chaffinch, check, House Sparrow, check, Blackcap, check and then White-throated Sparrow, check. What the fuck man, there on a rock in amongst the feeding frenzy was a White-throated Sparrow - second ever record for the Azores and a tick for a couple of the Finns! I was a right dick and flapped, failing to get any photo in the couple of seconds that I had before it headed off into the abyss. These days, the skeptic that I am, I really do swear by the rule 'no photo, no bird' and given that I'm usually papping everything in sight, I wasn't best pleased. So after a text was sent to Janne, and the troops rounded up, we had a bit of a search of the area before the Finns widened the search a short way down the road. Still no sign, and I was cursing at my ineptitude rather than punching the air.

White-throated Sparrow at Faja do Conde, Flores 1st November 2013 - second for the Azores
However, after 20 minutes or so, I heard a strange call (well, a familiar American sparrow-type call) on the other side of the field so I started scanning. Then the relief set in, as I'd relocated the bird but once again, as soon as I'd done this, it flew - fortunately this time towards me and so, primed with the lens, started papping and shouted to the guys that I'd got the bird again. It wasn't long before everyone was having their fill of this pretty smart looking vagrant. Remarkably, the first for the Azores was on Corvo just a couple of weeks ago and this, the second, was a different bird.
Anyway, I'm now safely back in London after a torrid night's sleep in Lisbon airport (the local tramps had nailed their asses to my usual sleeping bench) and, thanks to Janne and especially Potu, I have contracted the flu/cold thing that nearly every birder on Corvo has had this year. It was a real pleasure to spend time on Flores with Janne and Potu, and we birded it hard, while Ilkka's fitness and determination shows that no stone wall is too high or too tough for a 71 year old to conquer!

Friday, 1 November 2013

Way out west update

It has been a topsy turvy couple of days to be honest. I am writing this from a hotel in Santa Cruz on Flores because with the dreaded northerly winds predicted for tomorrow (Friday), they said it would be touch and go whether the flight from Corvo will leave. And reluctantly, yesterday, I made the decision to bust a move and take the five minute flight (yes, five minutes) to the neighbouring island of Flores - where the runway is much less susceptible to cross winds. Before I left Corvo though, with the two Glossy Ibises still chilling out on the airfield, Ilkka somehow managed to find this Black-and-white Warbler in Da Ponte: -
Black-and-white Warbler Ribeira da Ponte, Corvo 30th October 2013
So I've tagged on to a Finnish team here on Flores - exceptionally good company and really enjoying things with Janne, Potu and Ilkka. It was mad windy when we awoke this morning, but bright. So we headed up to the old soccer field at Ponta Delgada where the shit really did start to hit the fan from the word go. A small wader feeding unobtrusively was quickly nailed as a Least Sandpiper - a bird I'd never found before - while also there were some leftovers from the last week or two with an American Buff-bellied Pipit, Semipalmated Plover and a couple of White-rumped Sandpipers still present.
Least Sandpiper, Ponta Delgada, Flores 31st October 2013

American Buff-bellied Pipit, Ponta Delgada, Flores 31st October 2013
Then, as if it were like a leaf being blown off a tree, a wader tumbled out of the sky from the west and looked as though it was heading into the harbour. Rushing through the fields, and then down the steps, we found this fresh bad boy Greater Yellowlegs looking up at us: -
Greater Yellowlegs, Ponta Delgada, Flores 31st October 2013
It was evidently new in the area, as it flew about a bit not really having a clue where to feed, before it departed high to the south towards the hillside to the south of Ponta Delgada. I was well pumped with this, and as we headed back up towards the soccer field, Janne had a bird fly over him that he thought was either a Bobolink or Dickcissel. With reference to the literature, having heard it call (a rather electric buzz), he initially favoured the latter (because the literature described the calls poorly!) but after probably an hour or so I located the bird and firmed it up as a Bobolink. It was extremely flightly, but remarkably, all four of us managed to see it pretty quickly before it flew out of sight behind a hillside. We then headed off to the lighthouse at Ponta do Albarnaz where all the birds had been blown away, and so were we...nearly.

Faja Grande was crap, but nevertheless provided a nice afternoon stroll as I checked the area from Ponta da Faja southwards, but a Spotted Sandpiper in the harbour at Santa Cruz rounded off a pretty decent day, especially considering Flores for me is always second choice out of the two westerly islands.