Saturday, 2 December 2017

White-crowned Black Wheatear and a lovely Red-necked Phalarope

It was going to be a normal day today, doing the gulls. That is until early evening yesterday, when news started to surface about a White-crowned Black Wheatear in North Lincolnshire - the second for Britain and the first since 1982. The location eventually firmed up, and there were photos of the bird so it was an easy decision to be able to go. Obviously December on northwesterlies isn't an ideal time of year, and so there was the acknowledgement that it may not be a wild bird; especially considering birds in Germany/The Netherlands in recent years had been deemed escapes from captivity. But, with nothing else planned, then why the heck not head up despite any misgivings...

And there we were just after dawn, walking about a typically Scunthorpe-like area of Scunthorpe in a typically fringe of society way, just like the pursuit of twitching tends to dictate! No sign of the target bird first thing, but the finder was about and was lapping up the 100 or so birders and showing us all his photos from the day before. Certainly no rings, so that was a good thing. The urban environment wasn't perhaps ideal, but the snow could have forced it in and that said, I've seen the species regularly in Moroccan settlements. As people spread out more and more, it seemed as though locals had been seeing the bird for a couple of weeks, had taken photos and... the keeper, who had lost the bird, had come to try and catch it. So case closed?
escaped adult White-crowned Black Wheatear Scunthorpe, Lincs 2nd December 2017
I'm afraid it was. Although a bit sketchy and being 80 years old, the owner did confess that he'd lost a White-crowned Black Wheatear. A short while after the chain of conversations had been connected, the target bird did appear - on a house window sill, where it sat nodding itself to sleep rather forlornly. We left shortly afterwards, but it didn't take much longer for the bird to be recaptured and return for its rightful(?) owner.

So what have I learnt from this experience? Not much I already didn't know - all sorts of nonsense species are kept in captivity and the good old adage 'if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is'.

And so that was that. Time for a real bird, and with Dante S in tow, we headed to Covenham Reservoir and its extremely late juvenile Red-necked Phalarope. It had been 22 years since I'd last been here, a day in November 1995 when my mum drove me and Tom Lowe there on the way back from Spurn to see a Grey Phalarope and Great Northern Diver. Like the previous visit, this time was a success too: -

juvenile Red-necked Phalarope Covenham Reservoir, Lincs 2nd December 2017
It is ridiculous to think this bird hasn't moulted into first-winter plumage!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Northern Treecreeper in Shetland last month

I'll confess to not knowing much more than anyone else on Northern Treecreepers on Sunday 22nd October, when I stumbled upon one in the plantation near the cemetery at Vidlin, Shetland. Out of the corner of my eye, when scanning up to the foliage for a Yellow-browed Warbler I'd just located, a movement quickly darted in the darkness low down. In the poor light, this movement is etched as being really pale grey - cold toned. And of course it transpired that this was a treecreeper, which in itself is a pretty rare bird on Shetland. So knowing that there'd been a Northern Treecreeper nearby on Out Skerries, it was not exactly a bold call to assume this was going to be a non-native treecreeper...
Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017
What struck me straight away were two things: -
1. How this bird was pecking away low down, on moss clad trees, and moving fairly rapidly within a small area. It was the most showy treecreeper I'd ever seen!
2. It was mega cold in appearance, more so than the photos suggest. It did give a bit of a Black-and-White Warbler feel... honestly.

Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017 - note the cold tone to the underparts and upperparts, and especially the broad white supercilium that broadens behind the eye and almost hits the upperparts; little of evidence of rufous/warmth in any of the plumage including the uppertail and rump.
Most of us will be aware of Northern Treecreepers, potentially from commentary from the late Martin Garner on his Flamborough bird here and here and also in his Birding Frontiers Challenge Series: Autumn. Anyway, Northern Treecreeper refers to the nominate race familiaris, with the warmer toned British birds being aptly named the britannica subspecies. Nominate birds are apparently clinal, with the further east you go the colder and greyer they become - so the BBRC says. And why are the BBRC interested? Because it is a description species, although there is a bit of conflicting info in terms of its actual status: -
- 'Nominate familiaris is also on the British List but its published status in the literature is somewhat contradictory. Witherby et al. (1940) listed only four records but it is described in the BOU 8th Checklist and in Kehoe (2006) as a scarce migrant. Cramp et al. (1993) described it as a rare vagrant in Britain and also noted its rarity in the Netherlands and on Heligoland, Germany. It appears to be a genuinely rare late autumn (and sometimes wintering) vagrant, occurring as part of occasional irruptions out of Scandinavia and with very few confirmed records from east coast migration ‘hotspots’. Only on Shetland are more occurrences documented but even here it is rare.' BBRC website.
 - '39 records in Shetland up to 2004, where British birds assumed not to occur. 78 Lanceolated Warblers and 128 Subalpine Warblers in the same period in Shetland. Exceptionally, two were trapped at Spurn in autumn 2013 but otherwise 3 previous confirmed records of Northern Treecreeper. In Norfolk there are 3 records indicted with one trapped bird with biometrics outside of the range for brittanicaOn the Farne Islands (Northumberland) one accepted record on 20th October 2004  out of 22 records of Treecreeper in total per David Steele. Conclusion: It's a rare bird.' Birding Frontiers.

Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017 - in the top two of these three photos, the cold centred scapulars and mantle feathers are really apparent giving an overall grey tone to the bird. The bottom photo here illustrates the coldness of the underparts.
So despite a little contradiction in its status, what should we be looking out for? Note that much of this comes from previous Birding Frontiers pointers: -
- a white supercilium that flares and broadens behind the eye
- underparts cold white with any colour confined to rear flanks; vent and undertail-coverts are wholly white too
- mantle and scapulars greyish in overall tone, with white centres giving a spotted, cold effect
- pale secondary panel lacking any warmth

Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017
Anyway, I really enjoyed this bird and thought it was worth highlighting these northern birds once again.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Crisp Casp at Thames Barrier Park

It was one of those crisp early winter days today. Non-stop sunshine from early on right through until it got dark. Never ideal for gulls, but it turned out not to be all that bad. It started off with three BTO metal ringed Black-headed Gulls on Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe - a recent thing of mine, when times are quiet, is to get the codes of birds with just metal rings! That's five for the weekend now - three British, one Belgian and one German.

After a quick look at the beach by the Hilton hotel where a regular Norwegian Black-headed Gull was present, I headed over to the other side of the river and to Thames Barrier Park. I decided to just pay for the hour's parking initially, given how poor it has been recently and the omens didn't look good again - the park gates were locked! And so I just decided to chuck the bread out by the barrier itself and, after a couple of minutes, this lovely (unringed) 1st-winter Caspian Gull came in: -

1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 19th November 2017
A decent looking bird, that perhaps comes from further east than the German swarm - pure speculation I know, but this bird felt good in all respects. This was the first Caspian Gull here for almost a month, and number ten for the season (July to June) for me, Jamie and Dante, and to be honest it was a bit of a surprise as there were probably no more than 50 large gulls present. Josh J has been bemoaning the lack of numbers in West London too, and I presume that London has lost its gulls due to the lack of easterlies and no cold weather so far this autumn/winter. So I'll count my lucky stars that this crisp beaut came into the loaves this morning.

Meanwhile, I had another check this afternoon of Burgess Park for the returning Med Gull - still no sign, but loads of Black-headed Gulls and a Little Grebe was nice too. It often doesn't come back until December so all hope isn't lost yet.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The (presumed) Italian Job

It was a pretty hard, gritty day yesterday - more than the usual antics after school. And so, what could be better than a calm early morning drive to East Devon? Probably a calm early morning drive to East Devon for something other than a presumed Italian Sparrow...

But beggars can't be choosers, and in the game of twitching it is about the numbers. A marathon and not a sprint. So when you've got a precarious species, a bird that looks like that precarious species and a drive of just under four hours each way - you just have to do it. I wasn't wholly adverse to it, as London birding has been terrible recently (no Caspian Gull since before my Shetland trip!). And so I went to East Budleigh, arriving just after 9am this morning. Within a few minutes, the male Italian-type Sparrow turned up at the feeders for a minute or two, did its thing and then flew off. It looked no different to the ones I'd seen hopping about among the ruins of Pompeii last May, bar the slightly larger than usual upper mandible on this Devon bird.
male presumed Italian Sparrow East Budleigh, Devon 18th November 2017
And so that was that. I briefly stopped off in the little village shop, purchased some local cheese and a coffee, reminded myself once again what life is like outside London and the southeast... and then returned to London, where in the Rotherhithe gloom I had a couple of metal ringed Black-headed Gulls, one Belgian and a regular German bird.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Weekend of London gulls

The furthest I ventured from home this weekend was just a few miles. Winter is here for sure, and the birding in London continues to be hard work. That's the summary. And with no easterlies, so no fresh wave of Caspian Gulls, it was a relatively quiet time. Which was a shame considering Niall K was back in London town, and a couple of young birders Samuel and Elliot joined the Thames Barrier Park late afternoon Saturday party.

So yesterday, the highlight was an adult winter Mediterranean Gull that was present at Thames Barrier Park briefly mid morning. There were, though, c.10 Yellow-legged Gulls about - evenly split between Thames Barrier Park and the O2. Other interesting bits about were a presumed adult hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull at the O2 (that superficially resembled a Yellow-legged Gull), a 2nd-winter bird possibly emanating from Germany and then an adult and juvenile argentatus. But no Casp...
sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull Greenwich O2, London 11th November 2017
2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 11th November 2017
And today, again there was no Caspian Gull. But that wasn't a surprise given that Dante and I spent most of it looking at small gulls on ponds, away from the Thames. And it did have its rewards, at Wanstead in partcular, where there was a 2nd-winter Mediterranean Gull, three Norwegian colour-ringed Common Gulls (all returnees, including one at least 22 years old) and a German metal-ringed Black-headed Gull.
2nd-winter Mediterranean Gull Wanstead, London 12th November 2017

adult Common Gull J9R5 Wanstead, London 12th November 2017 - ringed as an adult at Byparken, Bergen, Hordaland, Norway on 9.7.1998, with colour ring attached there on 26.7.2011; seen there in Aug 2011, April 2012, June to Aug 2015, July 2016 and then Wanstead Flats 27.12.2016, 29.12.2016 and finally by me on 22.1.2017
adult Common Gull JZ66 Wanstead, London 12th November 2017 - ringed as a 1st-winter at Hovindammen, Valle Hovin, Oslo, Norway on 16.9.2015, seen at Wanstead Flats on 19.3.2016, back at Hovindammen, Oslo, Norway 8.7.2016 to 19.9.2016 (1146km distance from where ringed) and then by me at Wanstead on 22.1.2017

adult Common Gull J8M4 Wanstead, London 12th November 2017 - ringed as an adult at Myrå, Randaberg, Rogaland, Norway on 01.08 2015, seen at Wanstead on 25.10.2015 then back at Myrå, Randaberg, Rogaland, Norway 8.7.2016, 12.7.2016 and 23.7.2016 and again by me at Wanstead on 22.1.2017
Thames Barrier Park was really poor, with just an adult Yellow-legged Gull. So it was back to Rotherhithe where there were actually quite a lot of large gulls, about 150 in total, which included a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls - a 1st-winter and a 2nd-winter.

Last stop of the day was Burgess Park, where the annually returning Med Gull hadn't returned - not too late yet, but one of these years it won't appear.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

My first Slovakian Caspian Gull amongst other things

I started out relatively early from Rotherhithe, in the rancid early November gloom. With a sniff of southeasterly and such a poor autumn here in the east, I thought I'd give it one final push. So headed to the Kent coast, specifically the White Cliffs NT near Dover and then walked down to Langdon Hole. It's a site I always fancy, and never really delivers for me. And it was like that today with a few hours this morning producing a Continental Coal Tit (in Langdon Hole) as the highlight, plus a Bullfinch and a load of Goldcrests. The drizzle kept any viz mig at bay, save a few Redwings that headed west. And that was that, so time to head to Dunge and the gulls for the rest of the day.

Having met up with Mick and Richard at the usual lunch spot for a well deserved bit of stodge, we headed out to the fishing boats early afternoon. There was a bit of a roost, so we started scanning where Mick picked out a suspiciously Caspian-like head in amongst the flock. A great call, and after a bit of re-positioning to get a better angle, I lifted my bins and said rather excitably 'it has got a white ring' (expletives deleted). Now for those not in the know, a white ring on a Caspian Gull is something really special! We're used to red rings (Poland), orange rings (the odd one ringed at Pitsea in the past), yellow rings (German mutants, Ukraine and Poland) and green rings (older German mutants and Poland) but a Caspian Gull with a white ring I knew was going to be a new scheme for me. And I knew that it'd either be from Serbia or Slovakia. And with a code 265:S it was a Slovakian beauty...

Slovakian-ringed sub-adult Caspian Gull (265:S) Dungeness, Kent 4th November 2017
It didn't like the loaves, and resisted being fed throughout our time with it. And so we left it in peace as it roosted up between the fish hut and the fishing boats. A second-winter Yellow-legged Gull joined it, and a different second-winter Yellow-legged Gull was on the beach a bit later too. Along with this guy, a first-winter Caspian Gull: -
1st-winter Caspian Gull Dungeness, Kent 4th November 2017
I might as well post this here too, as I didn't post it up during the week. But I managed to get in on the Hawfinch action on Tuesday (31st October), when three flew over school at 7.10am. It was a good morning for thrushes moving over London, and the Hawfinches headed up a small flock of Redwing heading west. Apparently that is what had also happened in Regent's Park too. So I was pretty chuffed, as you take moments like that being based in central London.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Final day on Shetland... then back to London

It's the last day of half-term and it has been a really poor one. I should, in retrospect, headed out west to Corvo but you shouldn't look back with much anger. Instead, I came off Shetland on Wednesday night due to the onset of westerlies and a bit of work I needed to do back in London.

The last day on Shetland, Wednesday, I decided to head west again to an area I'd not really explored. And it was a delight, with loads of habitat and obviously no birders. And at Dale of Walls, there weren't really any birds! Just a few crests but also loads of thrushes piling through. As well as the odd Brambling. I headed around after this to the small village of Walls, parked by the quayside at Pier Road and had a wander. I was mildly contented to find a Yellow-browed Warbler in one of the gardens, my second of the five days, and fairly welcome considering I saw none this time last year. After they occur in almost abundance in late September and early October, numbers considerably tail off by this time of year!
Yellow-browed Warbler Walls, Shetland 25th October 2017
After having a whack around Walls, where there were three typically interesting looking Chiffchaffs, I headed back east and stopped off at Tresta. I'd done a little bit of research, and all the birds here in the past seemed to be in the gardens by the methodist chapel. And so I stopped here for a gander - another 'eastern-type' Lesser Whitethroat was pecking about on the lawn, and there were a few Chiffchaffs too and a couple of Lesser Redpolls.
Siberian Chiffchaff Geosetter, Shetland 25th October 2017
Goldcrest Geosetter, Shetland 25th October 2017
With a late afternoon flight, I headed south through Scalloway, and picked up my route along the west side where I hit Wester Quarff first - which was very quiet - and then Maywick, where a Chiffchaff was the only bird of note. Geosetter Burn had the usual Brambling flock and a lovely Siberian Chiffchaff, as well as some showy Goldcrests, while the highlight was just north of here where I booted a Richard's Pipit from the roadside ditch, where this large pipit rasped away as it headed west with vitesse. The last bit of Shetland birding was, as usual, in the quarry at Sumburgh where there were a couple of redpolls, including this male Mealy: -
Mealy Redpoll Sumburgh, Shetland 25th October 2017
And that was that. Having got back to Aberdeen for 6pm, I was back in London for 3am and out with the gulls a few hours later. Unfortunately, the last few days in London for gulls have been really poor for some reason and so I couldn't find a Caspian Gull for love nor money! Thursday's highlights included seven Yellow-legged Gulls (five at Thames Barrier Park, a 2nd-winter at the O2 and then a showy adult on Greenland Dock) while Friday was even more of a struggle with a couple of numpties on the beach at Thames Barrier Park, which was a site first for me, meaning no gulls there and just single first-winter Yellow-legged Gulls in Rotherhithe and at Creekmouth. Yesterday wasn't that much better with four Yellow-legged Gulls at Thames Barrier Park and the adult Yellow-legged Gull once again showing nicely on Greenland Dock. However, it was nice to see a returning Norwegian Black-headed Gull JZ35 back in Rotherhithe - ringed as an adult near Oslo in 2016, I saw it last here on 4th March 2017 before it was back in Norway from April to July this year.
adult Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 26th October 2017

Black-headed Gull JZ35 Rotherhithe, London 28th October 2017