Friday 24 August 2018

Two visits to Kent this week

On Tuesday morning, I set out with Dante on my first coastal mission of the autumn. There wasn't really a specific weather related reason why Tuesday was the day, more to do with other commitments for the rest of the week. But it turned out pleasantly satisfying in a low key kind of way. After all it's still August so it's the warm up before the big autumn event kicks off. We headed to the White Cliffs area, parked in the NT car park and then walked east towards Langdon Hole and Fan Bay. It was a nice, foggy morning which felt later in the autumn than it actually was. To cut it short though, the birds were decent enough with highlights being a Black Redstart in the bottom bushes at Langdon Hole and a Pied Flycatcher briefly in the gully at Fan Bay. Add to that a Tree Pipit, a Wheatear, 40 Willow Warblers, 15 Lesser Whitethroats and a couple of Reed Warblers, for a landlocked London birder it wasn't too shabby.
Black Redstart Langdon Hole, Kent 22nd August 2018
However, by 11.30am the fog had started to lift and the birding quietened down in the Dover area. And so with that, we headed off back up the A2 and felt it was rude not to make the now annual pilgrimage to see the returning Bonaparte's Gull at Oare Marshes. On arrival, we checked East Flood where highlights were adult Curlew Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank among the copious amounts of Black-tailed Godwits. And then we headed to the Swale where on the first scan of the mud, the Bonaparte's Gull was found - much to the relief of some old boy who'd been looking since 9am! I headed out to it, chucking bread in the process - but, as I've found on my travels, Bonaparte's don't seem too fond of bread and this bird was no exception. It did walk a bit closer to investigate the excitement though: -
adult Bonaparte's Gull Oare Marshes, Kent 22nd August 2018
Once this was done, we headed back to Rotherhithe where there was a distant juvenile Mediterranean Gull and four Yellow-legged Gulls on the mud by the Hilton Hotel. There was also a dog briefly, but my aggressive stance towards the owner meant that it (and the owner) weren't there for long. I think those who have been with me in the past, be it Rotherhithe or Dungeness, have felt uncomfortable about how I deal with dog walkers but it does seem to work. If you don't shout or throw your wait around, then they just continue to do as they please. My hobby doesn't infringe on them, so why should their mongrels disturb my gulls!

Anyway, the next day (Wednesday) I'd calmed down and after going into school to get the GCSE results (a day earlier than the kids as always), I woke the lad up from his slumber and we headed off back down to Kent. This time, to see a juvenile American Black Tern at Dungeness that had been nicely found by Stephen M the evening before. After a few minutes wait, the bird showed up hawking over the water from Makepiece Hide, along with 20+ Black Terns (the largest number of these I'd seen for a good while).
American Black Tern Dungeness, Kent 23rd August 2018
It was a thoroughly satisfying bird because despite being generally distant, it was nice to have a bit of a memory jog as I'd seen only two previously, the first for Britain in Somerset in October 1999 and then one in Oxfordshire in August 2009. This bird was obviously smaller than the Black Terns, something I'd not remembered from previous experiences. The lack of contrast/greyness on the underwing was great too as well as the obvious grey flanks. There were a couple of Great White Egrets on the Burrowes Pit too, that a decade ago would have deserved more than just the cursory glance I gave them. And we rounded the trip out with a couple of loaves at the fishing boats - with this brute of a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull being the highlight: -
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Dungeness, Kent 23rd August 2018
And that was that. Bring on the autumn.

Thursday 23 August 2018

mid-August back in London

I've been back in London now for just over a week, and bar a fair bit of time spent in school sorting bits out, I've been enjoying the gull action pretty intensely.

It all started on Monday 13th August when Josh, Dante and I headed to Rainham Marshes where on the incoming tide there were a couple of 1st-summer Caspian Gulls - the first one was German muck, but the second one at Coldharbour Point was this rather handsome chap: -
1st-summer Caspian Gull Rainham Marshes, London 13th August 2018
Dante and I then headed to Crossness, where at the outfall this juvenile Little Gull was parading itself if a little distant. This bird was essentially in full juvenile plumage: -
juvenile Little Gull Crossness, London 13th August 2018
Tuesday 14th August was quiet, with very little at Crossness while Rainham too the next day was hard work, except for the expected good numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls. But all birds there are frustratingly distant, which can't be said for this juvenile Yellow-legged Gull that turned up on Greenland Dock on the evening of 15th August: -
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe 15th August 2018
I headed to the Bird Fair on Friday 17th August, but was in a particularly unsociable mood once I entered the place. There are so many people there who are pseudo birders, and so many of the good guys from back in the day have had to sell out to eek a living. The amount of what I call 'false friendships', founded on social media whoring and selfies, beggars belief. But I always enjoy the Art Marquee, so I bought a nice original Red-rumped Swallow painting from Stephen Message. As well, I saw two juvenile Caspian Gulls on the way there with Josh, at his Tanholt site near Peterborough. One of the birds was a German ringed individual X525, having been seen previously in Cromer, while the other was this rather beautiful tea coloured lad: -
juvenile Caspian Gull Tanholt, Cambs 17th August 2018
Saturday was hard work, with a Common Sandpiper at Greenland Pier, Rotherhithe starting things off well and the six juvenile Arctic Terns that headed upriver at Rainham Marshes mid-morning weren't bad either - but the gulls were disappointing there, with no sniff of a Caspian, and so I headed to a pleasant barbecue in Epping for the rest of the day. On Sunday 19th August, I stayed nice and local with leisurely views of at least six juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls on the mud by the O2 in Greenwich: -

juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls Greenwich, London 19th August 2018
Dante joined me at the O2 on Monday 20th August, and we had a juvenile Mediterranean Gull flying upriver as I arrived, four Yellow-legged Gulls as well as this 2nd-summer Caspian Gull (which has previously been seen by Josh and Dante at Thames Barrier Park in July): -

2nd-summer Caspian Gull Greenwich, London 20th August 2018
A relatively subtle looking thing, with a slightly too beady eye for my liking, so perhaps some German influence in there somewhere! But the neck streaking and the retained P10 feather showing a decent mirror both are pro-Caspian features. Two Yellow-legged Gulls at Rotherhithe that afternoon, a 2nd-summer and a near adult, were particularly showy: -

Yellow-legged Gulls Rotherhithe, London 20th August 2018
So all in all, it has been a fairly pleasant ease back into London birding. I'm ready for the autumn now and whatever that has to throw at us...

Monday 20 August 2018

Saint Paul Island - Alaskan birding at its best

Alaska’s a massively wildlife rich place, but for the last few years there has been one place that has been the aim above any other. Remote, lying midway in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, St. Paul Island was essentially the reason for my trip here. Probably best known to most for being one of the main harbours in the TV show The Deadliest Catch (and its associated King Crabs), it is also one of the real jewels when it comes to seabirds. Spring and autumn time, it functions (along with Gambell) as North America’s equivalent to Corvo where Asian mega vagrants are what the hardcore ABA listers go there for. St. Paul is essentially a rock of 22 square miles with just a couple of flights a week from Anchorage that are weather dependent, one hotel that is attached to the airport (or is the airport attached to the hotel?), meals served in the canteen of the Trident Fish Factory… you get the idea.

However, my main aim of this summer's trip to Alaska was to see Red-legged Kittiwake on St. Paul Island and that I certainly did. It is probably the most accessible place to reliably see this species, and so due to flight schedules I was able to spend four fantastic days on this rock. Though still outnumbered by Black-legged Kittiwakes quite considerably, there are good breeding populations on the cliffs and they come into the harbour at times, sitting nicely on the jetties. I saw them in several spots, often flying by among the Black-legged Kittiwakes, but also in the town harbour and cliffs at Ridge Wall and Reef Point. Proper quality birds, with that big eye allowing them to feed nocturnally (similar to Swallow-tailed Gulls!): -

Red-legged Kittwake St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
Shortly behind Red-legged Kittiwake, St Paul is a mecca for some crippling alcids. And they show exceptionally well too. Most of the cliffs are loaded mostly with Brunnich’s Guillemots and lesser numbers of Guillemot (nice to write these Anglicised having had to call them Thick-billed and Common Murres out in the field!). Plus the two clowns of the Pacific in abundance too, Horned and Tufted Puffins: -

Tufted Puffin St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018

Horned Puffin St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
Brunnich's Guillemot St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
One of the reasons a lot of birders come to St. Paul though is the views of breeding auklets, where elsewhere they’re often distant lumps on the sea, here they are up close and in your face. Parakeet Auklets and the much scarcer Crested Auklets chill out on rock ledges before heading into their nests in deep rock crevices, while the gremlinesque Least Auklets seemed to prefer the boulder beaches to breed. All such good birds, and a massive thrill to see in such good numbers: -
Parakeet Auklet St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018

Crested Auklet St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018

Least Auklet St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
Red-faced Cormorants were the commonest breeding cormorant on the cliffs, and having only seen them at relative distance in Japan previously, the views on St. Paul of this range restricted species were rather better: -

Red-faced Cormorant St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
St. Paul though has other birds too, and where the four most common species are Grey-crowned Rosy Finch, Rock Sandpiper, Lapland Bunting and Snow Bunting then you know you’re in for a decent haul. Habitat wise, a lot of the island was grassland with nearly fledged Rock Sandpipers hopping about pretty regularly – so you get a bit blasé given elsewhere they’re a target bird: -
young Rock Sandpiper St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018

Grey-crowned Rosy Finch St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018

juvenile Snow Bunting St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018

Lapland Bunting St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
A lot of the Rock Sandpipers could be found foraging in flocks at Salt Lagoon just outside of town while walking around other lagoons such as Antone Lake and Pumphouse Lagoon provided some pretty mega views too: -
Rock Sandpiper St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
Dreamland if you’re into your Arctic waders. There were several Wandering Tattlers seen along the coast – probably about a dozen in total – while Semipalmated Plovers and Red-necked Phalaropes evidently bred on the islands: -
Red-necked Phalarope St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
I also located a flock of seven Pacific Golden Plovers at High Bluffs, on the west side of the island, one afternoon while a Grey Phalarope flew in off the sea there too (as well as there being a big flock of them out to sea from Reef Point too one morning).
adult Pacific Golden Plover St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
There were lots of Harlequin Ducks around the coast, as well as Long-tailed Ducks as well as a couple of White-winged Scoters from Northeast Point one afternoon. Across the island, I saw about 15 King Eiders – including twelve together at Northeast Point – while this one in town on Salt Lagoon was the showiest of the crew: -
King Eider St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
I spotted a couple of Vega Gulls during the trip, a third-summer and first-summer, but both birds were a bit distant among the Glaucous-winged Gulls. An Arctic Skua ditched down on Antone Lake on my last morning, a handful of Short-tailed Shearwaters cruised by offshore while this Short-eared Owl quartered the grassland on the first evening on the island: -
Short-eared Owl St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
Other than the birds, the island is packed full of Northern Fur Seal rookeries which meant a good number of the beaches were off limits during my trip. But they showed nice enough, and it was obvious too it was pupping season, particularly at Zapatni Bay. There were also some Harbour Seals and one afternoon while seawatching from Webster, in the northeast of the island, a couple of Fin Whales breached a few times albeit distantly.
Northern Fur Seal St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
The only land mammal that was about, and quite abundant, were the Arctic Foxes. It’s a blue morph that occurs on St. Paul, and there were quite a few family groups about during the trip, particularly in the town as well as a den near our hotel at the airport.

Arctic Fox St. Paul Island, Alaska July 2018
Doing St. Paul as an independent traveller is tricky, and you do have to go through St. Paul Island Tours. It’s not cheap but, as with everything in life, you get what you pay for. I lucked out with a decent group of five of us (two Belgians and two Americans), all of us happy to just keep on going and lap up as much as possible on the island during our four days and three nights. Much appreciation too to the two resident guides there, Claudia and Sulli, who were chilled out, accommodating and showed us the place nicely. It’ll be a trip I remember for as long as I live – such a decent place, and full of birds and remoteness. Thoroughly recommend it above most of the places I’ve ever visited.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Alaska's Kenai Fjords - glacial birding in the rain

On Monday night, I’d stayed just a few miles north of Seward overnight, ready for a full day on the Kenai Fjords on the Tuesday. I’m not usually one for planning things in advance, but I booked this boat trip a month or so back. But one thing I didn’t book was the weather, and so it actually rained pretty much continually throughout the day…

In typical American fashion, everything was laid on for you and hyped up. But it was more than a pleasant day out despite the weather. I imagine that you’d be blown away by the scenery in blue sky days, but I am still left imagining. I’d opted for the nine hour trip, which took in Northwest Glacier – reason for me doing this was that Kittlitz’s Murrelets favour the glacial waters, and shorter trips wouldn’t have given me access to this habitat. And it was a success, with two birds seen relatively well with potentially a couple of others a little bit more distant. This was just one of eight species of alcid that I saw during the day – with the highlight for me being my first Horned Puffins, some of which showed fairly decently in the gloom: -
Horned Puffin Kenai Fjords, Alaska 24th July 2018
I also saw my first Parakeet Auklets, with 15-20 seen in total including a small raft. Tufted Puffins, just like Horned, were really numerous particularly around the Chiswell Islands. Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon and Common Guillemots were present in good numbers too, while there were a few Rhinoceros Auklets around too. If the light had been better, I may have taken a few shots that were worth keeping but, you can’t have everything.

One of the things I did have today though was plenty of Humpback Whale sightings, with five individuals in total. The star performer was this one though, that breached several times in the calm waters coming into Northwest Glacier: -
Humpback Whale Kenai Fjords, Alaska 24th July 2018
There were quite a few Harbour Seals around too, while 10 or so Sea Otters in total including half a dozen dozing about in the harbour as we left first thing: -
Sea Otter Kenai Fjords, Alaska 24th July 2018
Bald Eagles too were fairly common, and included this adult bird as we headed back into the harbour. They were either on beaches or sat up in tall trees like this bird: -
Bald Eagle Kenai Fjords, Alaska 24th July 2018
And so, that was that. Given the pretty inclement weather, I felt I lucked out on the views of the glacier as that area seemed to have a climate all of its own. And while everyone else marvelled at the glacier, I came back from the tour having enjoyed a load of good birds, decent scenery even on a dull day and being given a load of excess chicken wraps (they’d made too many) which meant I didn’t need to buy dinner in the evening. A result all round.
Glaucous-winged Gull Kenai Fjords, Alaska 24th July 2018

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Alaska... escaping the heat

I’ve just finished my first full day here in Alaska, and having arrived to lovely blue skies yesterday, it has been a day of cloudiness and drizzle today. Lovely stuff, given the last month or so of relatively oppressive London heat. Alaska had always felt a long, long way from home and I appreciate it is, but with some Icelandic Air flights (via Iceland), I was surprised how short the journey to Anchorage was – just a 6 hour 50 minute flight from Keflavik airport yesterday.
Anyway, Anchorage as a city itself is pretty average. Mind you, every American city is just that. But when you’ve got the calls of Mew Gulls continually and some nice juvenile Bonaparte’s Gulls too (a plumage I’d never seen) then it wasn’t all that bad. Westchester Lagoon was where I started, and the common grebe there was Red-necked, with several pairs and decently sized young. There were also half a dozen Short-billed Dowitchers too, and on the cutoff lake the other side of the highway a Belted Kingfisher and a showy Lesser Yellowlegs were present (as well as about ten juvenile Bonaparte’s Gulls and lots of Mew Gulls). Not a bad couple of hours post arrival.
juvenile Mew Gull Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage, Alaska 22nd July 2018

juvenile Bonaparte's Gulls Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage, Alaska 22nd July 2018
And it was onto this morning, where typically I woke up before my alarm at 5am. So after trying to get back to sleep, and failing, I headed back out. After briefly revisiting yesterday’s sites, I went south on the Seward Highway a few miles south of Anchorage. Potter’s Marsh was the spot, and it wasn’t too bad. Redpolls and Audubon’s Warbler seemed to be the most numerous passerines, while a group of waders from the boardwalk were made up of c.20 Short-billed Dowitchers and both species of yellowlegs. Nice stuff, with most of the dowitchers being juveniles. Green-winged Teal were present too, while the bird I’d been searching for – Rusty Blackbird – put in a brief appearance, with two birds flying low overhead before plummeting into the thickets. And that was that…
juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher Potter's Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska 23rd July 2018
I headed south along the Cook Inlet, in the direction of Seward which is where I’m staying this evening. Birding en-route was actually quite slow, with not much on the lakes bar the odd Arctic Tern though I did manage to see my first ‘Sooty’ Fox Sparrow of the trip midway between Portage and Seward. Arriving in Seward, first port of call was obviously going to be the harbour, where there were good numbers of Glaucous-winged Gulls – I was actually surprised about the purity of the vast majority of these here, with just a couple of American Herrings and ‘Cook Inlet’ (hybrid American Herring x Glaucous-winged) Gulls present.
The weather wasn’t ideal as I headed south towards Lovell’s Point and the end of the road. Nevertheless, there were still five Harlequins (all female-types) and a few Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots offshore. The rest of the afternoon was spent about town, and particularly along Nash Road – where the feeders produced Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pine Siskin and a Rufous Hummingbird that seemed bizarrely out of place in the cold. The beach at the end was good for some nice looks at Northwestern Crow, a tenuous species if ever there was one, as well as some really dark looking Song Sparrows and a load of Glaucous-winged Gulls and Kittiwakes. A family party of Trumpeter Swans showed well by the roadside too, as did a female Common Merganser and her chicks.
Fox Sparrow Seward highway, Alaska 23rd July 2018

Trumpeter swan Seward, Alaska 23rd July 2018
Back at my accommodation, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s Warblers buzzed about, as did a family group of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. All in all, a relaxed and pleasant day rounded off with some Alaskan Cod and chips.