Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Azores day 5 - shrike it lucky

The fog was still around this morning, but not as bad as yesterday. So I headed up to the far end of the island and went solo into Lighthouse Valley - the theatre of dreams with records of Golden-winged and Prairie Warbler amongst others. There was, alas, nothing there today amongst the Blackcaps, Canaries, Blackbirds and Chaffinches.

The other guys managed to locate the Chimney Swift from the whale watching hut between Lighthouse Valley and Cantinho but by the time I got there, the fog had closed in and there was no joy. So Jerome and I headed down the middle road, stopping at Poco d'Agua for a bit where I was able to see my first Redpoll on the Azores. Looked pretty standard to be honest. And then I headed up to Pico where, despite a fair bit of effort, I saw nothing. Heading out of Pico though, the Germans were trying to radio through something - in the end, I deciphered that there was a Northern Oriole in Poco d'Agua and they confirmed this. So off I went, getting Jerome in the process.

Needless to say, we both arrived by the road and the bird had flown a minute or so previously. So I then asked 'was it a bright individual?' to which Jurgen showed me a shot on his camera... it was not a bloody Northern Oriole, but the Northern Shrike - an absolute crippler of a bird, a species I'd never previously seen in the US and something I thought I'd be going into the caldeirao to see. I hit the roof, with the cock up in communication. A nervous half hour or so, in wind and poor visibility, was testing but in the end, the sun shone through and the bird duly performed.
1st-winter Northern Shrike (race borealis), Poco d'Agua, Corvo 29th October 2014
Despite being a first-winter, the bird was really vocal - singing continually at times, perched low in the hydrangeas. Pale lores, heavy barring and overall dusky tones to the head and nape were really obvious. I watched the bird for an hour or so, before it headed down the valley and into the gloom. Once again, coming late to Corvo had paid off with the best bird of the season still lingering.

Heading back down to the village, I saw a couple of Collared Doves in the higher fields - a new bird for me here, as the species wasn't about on the island until this year. A stroll around the middle fields late on produced a Tree Pipit (a major bird here) courtesy of Jerome and a perplexing falcon that headed fast over late on has meant a later than expected night.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Azores days 3 and 4 - foggy on the rock

Yesterday was largely spent in transit getting from Sao Miguel onto Corvo; I ended up briefly visiting a further two islands (Terceira and Faial) on my way here as for some reason, that's what SATA scheduled for me. Anyway the flights were uneventful, as was the birding arounf the village yesterday afternoon. Since arriving here, the whole of the island is covered in fog so places like the caldeirao (where there should still be a Northern Shrike), the reservoir, the upper fields and the upper parts of the ribeiras have been a total write off.

Luckily though, the end of the lower road - Cantinho and Fojo - were birdable to an extent today, so that's where I headed. And in a lucky break, just as I was leaving Cantinho and heading back along the road, the cloud lifted a bit and there was a Chimney Swift flying low over the trees. In true Corvo style - no photo, no bird - so got a few grainy shots on ISO2000.
Chimney Swift over Cantinho, Corvo 28th October 2014
I then headed up into Fojo from the lower road, and slipping and sliding made my way up beyond the white house where I hung about for a while. Pishing away, wading through the Chaffinches and Blackcaps, along came that sweet 'tsip' that is only ever going to be one thing - a Nearctic wood warbler. And indeed it was, a Black-and-white Warbler. But within 10 seconds or so, there was more movement and amazingly another appeared right beside it. Both looking similar, in that they were 1st-winter males, the whole thing must have lasted 30 seconds or so before they both headed off calling across the clearing. Only on Corvo. There have been sightings of Black-and-white Warbler (one bird) in Fojo up until 20th October, with further sightings this autumn of birds in Cantinho and Da Ponte. All, as far as I'm aware, have been 1st-winter males so difficult to unravel how many birds.
Black-and-white Warbler in Fojo, Corvo 28th October 2014
I managed a couple of Chiffchaffs together at the bottom of Fojo, but apart from a healthy total of 4 Woodcocks flushed in the gloom, the rest of the day was effort for nothing. Interesting to note some rather bizarre responses on other social media sites today about vagrant searching in the Azores - seems like those rocked up in their Norfolk armchairs see it as rather easy. Good luck to anyone who tries it out here, as it's tough. And as always, the rewards are contextual.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Azores day 2 - sunny Sao Miguel

The Azores is a funny old place. Every island is different, and with only three flights a week to Corvo (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), it was another day for me on Sao Miguel today. To be honest, in other years, I'd have been chomping at the bit to get west but with the tiredness of a hectic week still in me it was nice to chill out at a leisurely pace. I even managed to squeeze in an ice cream this evening.
Western Willet Ponta Degada ETAR, Sao Miguel 26th October 2014
With a full check of the sites in the eastern half of the island, it was obvious that settled conditions equals no birds. Highlights, if that's what you call them, were a female Wigeon and female Teal at Lagoa das Furnas and a female Wigeon at Faja de Cima. However, plenty of opportunities for papping Azorean Gulls were taken, and another Western Willet show - even better than yesterday - made sure I had another nice day. There really is very little that beats getting close to vagrant Nearctic waders. With the Atlantic like a millpond this September, and Ireland failing to deliver, this Willet is the first chance I've had this autumn.
Western Willet Ponta Degada ETAR, Sao Miguel 26th October 2014

I've just had my last supper - a nice bit of local meat with salad - in preparation for the next five days, in the culinary desert that is Corvo. Anyway, hopefully it'll be another memorable trip out on 'The Rock' but we'll see. With a few days of westerly winds and a Northern Shrike (Nearctic race borealis) waiting for me, it could be a lot worse.

Azorean Yellow-legged Gulls at Vila Franca do Campo, Sao Miguel - first-winter (top) and second-winter (below)

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Azores day 1 - Western Willet

Never have I needed a break as much as this. Ofsted decided to come to school Thursday and Friday. Hopefully you'll appreciate the torture I've been through leading up to the usual night on the floor of Lisbon airport last night. However, I arrived in Ponta Delgada earlier this morning, with one plan for the day - see the Willet and then relax.

And, thankfully, that's what happened. Ever since first turning up in late September, this Willet has been hanging about the rocky shore of Ponta Delgada ETAR (water treatment area), and though often going missing for several hours (like it was this morning), it showed typically well for the species. A real mega bird in a WP context, with really just the one previously well-watched bird in Norway in the early 90s. So I was the latest to join the list of regular Azores autumn goers to take a look at this beast.

Western Willet, Ponta Delgada ETAR, Sao Miguel, Azores 25th October 2014
When the first photos appeared of this bird, I was quite quick to jump to the conclusion that it looked leggy and rather long billed. However, as more people saw it and more photos emerged, the shift towards a Western Willet occurred quite rightly - indeed, when in the flesh, it's obvious. Check out the ABA paper here for more on the subspecific (species?) identification. If I'd have actually thought about its rocky shore preference, this would be completely wrong for Eastern too.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls at Dungeness 5th October

Being in the southeast of England, with a job that has no flexibility in taking holiday this time of year is always tough. Not that there has been anything turn up that I haven't seen, just that it would be nice to head off to places further afield to try and find some rarities. Nevermind, it's not all bad as today proved - relaxing on the beach at Dungeness in the sunshine, with loads of gulls to scan through. And look what I found...

2nd-winter Caspian Gull, Dungeness 5th October 2014. A pretty typical, placid-looking individual with obvious white mirrors to P10, neck streaking and retained (though worn) dark based greater-coverts and tertials.

1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull, Dungeness 5th October 2014. Note the distinctive tail pattern, dark based tertials with pale tips and dark anchors in the first-winter scapulars. Additionally, this was also a real brute of a bird in structure.
Anyway, much of these gulls are attracted to fish scraps and the like that Mick S religiously chucks out each weekend. He's doing a professional job of things, and it's no surprise that the shots and numbers of scarce gulls down at Dunge have been pretty decent over the last year or so.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Hybrid hirundine at Dungeness

It has been a long September since getting back from the Azores. Up until today, and despite a fair amount of effort, the best thing I'd seen was a Whinchat at Crossness a couple of weekends ago. And with the southeast London scene still feeling pretty stale, I headed off to Dungeness for the day - primarily to look at gulls.

However, while at the fishing boats (where there was a 1st-winter Little Gull, 2 Med Gulls (2nd & 1st-winters) and an Arctic Skua) news filtered through that Dave Walker had trapped a hybrid Swallow x House Martin at the observatory. I'd never seen a hybrid like this before, and particularly as it was being ringed nearby, headed over to have a look: -

hybrid Swallow x House Martin (juvenile) at Dungeness, Kent 27th September 2014. Note the intermediate features including more uniform forehead, irridescent mantle and rear crown, off white rump patch and undertail lacking any spots as in House Martin while peach undertail coverts and ghosting of throat patch and breast band all characters of Swallow.
Thanks to Dave W, Dungeness Bird Observatory and the local birders.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

A presumed South Polar Skua on the Azores August 2014

August 27th was already a good day - multiple sightings of a Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel out on the Bank of Fortune plus Bulwer’s Petrels, Monteiro’s Storm-petrels and Great Shearwaters galore. Mid afternoon, I was doing the chumming as usual when out the corner of my eye I spotted a bird coming in to investigate the boat. It was purposeful, robust – a catharacta skua (or what was formerly called a catharacta skua) – and as such I shouted to everyone to take a look. This was the first ever large skua (Great Skua/South Polar Skua) that we’ve recorded on August pelagics off the Azores, so inevitably I was a little excited. We’d seen Great Skuas in late May 2011, but with an increased understanding of South Polar Skua migration from waters in the northwest Atlantic southeastwards in early autumn, as well as recent extralimital records from Lanzarote and Madeira, this species was always going to be a possibility in Azorean waters in late August.
Fortunately, the bird came in a couple of times and it was evident in the field that we were dealing with a bird in wing moult, but in relatively dull conditions and with the bird above the boat, it was a case of take photos and look at the details from there. The identification consensus on the boat was split, with some people feeling that it felt lighter in build than your typical Great Skua while others were rather nonplussed. Nevertheless, once we got back to land and to the hotel, the first thing I did was whack an email off to one of the authors of the British Birds paper on the South Polar/Great Skua identification.
Having had the experience of the Great Skuas off Graciosa in May 2011, I knew the key to getting the identification right is getting the ageing correct. What you have to think about is when in the year birds in the southern hemisphere are born compared to Great Skuas – basically 6 months apart. Adults of both South Polar and Great Skuas have one wing moult each year, after the breeding seasons, while birds in their first 12 months have two wing moults.

Initially, ageing proved difficult and therefore has made the process more protracted. With Martin Gottschling being particularly proactive in his approach, this bird has been aged as in its 3rd calendar year or older on the basis of cold-toned, scalloped scapulars that lack any streaking or golden tones to be expected in a 2nd calendar year Great Skua in late August. Additionally primary moult would either fit a 2nd calendar year Great Skua or an older South Polar Skua – with P10 in pin (1), P9 half grown (3) and P1 to P8 fully grown (8 x 5) I’d be giving this bird a primary moult score of 44. For late August, this would indicate a South Polar Skua taking the moult score charts as red (despite a limited sample) and that the bird has been aged correctly.
The bill is also relatively long and parallel-sided (described as a meat cleaver by one of the authors of the paper!), and the underparts are smooth contrasting with a dark underwing. Although not obviously capped, there is a lack of neck speckling which again is a pro South Polar Skua feature. There has been talk of suspended moult in this bird (in relation to P1 and P2), but I have struggled to see this.

It’s also interesting to look at a confirmed South Polar Skua in the North Atlantic at a similar time of year and presumably of a similar age. A bird ringed in the South Shetland Islands in 2005 was remarkably seen in waters off Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts on 15th August 2007. Photos and details can be found here. The primary moult, body colouration and extent of white on the primary bases is near identical to this Azorean bird.

The process of identifying South Polar Skua is really tough, and despite what seems to clarify and categorise birds by primary moult scoring, this last few weeks has clearly shown me there is still a lot to be learnt. Identifying these birds is far from being a precise science, with a lot of subjectivity on plumage features let alone any consideration of hybrids from the southern skua complex (including South Polar and Brown Skuas). However, documenting birds such as this that seem to fit the bill based on current criteria and then reviewing them going forward on increased knowledge can only be of benefit to the whole identification process.

Many thanks to several people involved in this record, most notably Martin Gottschling who reinvigorated interest in this bird, as well as Dani Lopez Velasco, Dick Newell, Chris Batty and Peter Alfrey for providing decent discussion and airing their views. Also to everyone on the boat who experienced it in its true life glory.