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.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Monteiro's Storm-petrel photoshoot

A couple of weeks birding in London quickly brings you back down to earth after a session in the mid-Atlantic. Whinchat and Greenshank this weekend, Lesser Whitethroat and Whitethroat last weekend the only slight bits of interest. So, without any more ramblings, here are a selection of Monteiro's Storm-petrel photos from the seas and land off Graciosa.

Monteiro's Storm-petrels on Ilheu da Praia, August 2009. I was privileged to be able to spend a couple of nights in the colony on this uninhabited island, a great experience that is brought back to me every time I sail past it.
This cryptic species is the 'hot' season breeder on the Azores, with egg laying going on from May to early July - hatching spans from early June and the last chicks fledge by early October. This in itself provides a bit of a headache for those looking for 'cold' season [Grant's] Storm-petrels at sea on August and September pelagics, as young Monteiro's will have a full set of wings too.

Monteiro's Storm-petrels off Graciosa August 2014 (top three) and August 2013 (bottom two)
Here are a few fresh plumaged Monteiro's Storm-petrels from pelagics in late May/early June - it was only on the last day of these that we discovered the Bank of Fortune. This area, therefore, is relatively untouched in what I reckon will prove to be the best time for Black-capped Petrel in Azorean waters, plus other pterodromas...

Monteiro's Storm-petrel off Graciosa, May 2011. Note the fresh appearance of these birds at this time of year.
Monteiro's Storm-petrel is the guaranteed star of pelagic trips off Graciosa that I've been involved in during recent years, and up to 50 birds can usually be seen on a full day visit to the Bank of Fortune.
Monteiro's Storm-petrel chick, Ilheu da Praia August 2009
There are just a couple of places left on next year's trip (the last week of August 2015), so do contact me if you're interested.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Azores August 2014 - update 3 - Cabo da Praia

It's now just under a week since I returned from the Azores and, as usual, I've been punished for having such a good summer with a typically manic first week back at school. On the positive side though, it's only 7 weeks before I'll be back in the middle of The Atlantic.

When I came off Graciosa last Friday, I purposefully staggered my journey back to London with a day on Terceira. I could have flown back direct on the Saturday morning from Sao Miguel, but wherever possible I like to visit the famous quarry at Cabo da Praia as there's often a turnover of birds. And compared to Monday's visit, there were three new adult White-rumped Sandpipers - one that had been found on Friday, and two fresh in while I was there.
Two White-rumped Sandpipers, Cabo da Praia 30th August 2014
Though the three most common waders at Cabo da Praia are Turnstone, Sanderling and Kentish Plover, there is usually a healthy mix of other species - this year it included two Curlew Sandpipers, a Knot, two Ruff, a Common Sandpiper, two Grey Plovers, up to ten Whimbrel (including two Hudsonian), a Little Stint, two Semipalmated Sandpipers, two Semipalmated Plovers, seven Black-tailed Godwits and of course the star of the show, a Short-billed Dowitcher that turned up in early September 2013. And in the week since I've left, a Spotted Sandpiper and a new Semipalmated Sandpiper have arrived...
Short-billed Dowitcher and White-rumped Sandpiper, Cabo da Praia 30th August 2014

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Azores August 2014 - pelagics off Graciosa - update 2

Swinhoe's Storm-petrel at the Bank of Fortune, 20 miles east of Graciosa 27th August 2014 
I've been leading a group of birders out on pelagics off Graciosa this week, part of an ongoing project to see what's out there with a bit of effort. The plan on arriving on Graciosa was this - try and get out to the Bank of Fortune on as many days as possible weather permitting, as well as paying a visit to the breeding Sooty Terns on Ilheu da Praia (which for the first time ever have successfully fledged one young). With three and a half days to play with, there is should be enough scope to get to the Bank of Fortune on at least one day - like the last couple of years, we were fortunate to get out there on two days. So three and a half days with my head in a bucket of rotting fish was to commence.

The first day (Tuesday 26th August) as predicted was the worst weather wise, and with a decent swell and high seas, it wasn't possible to go too far offshore. However, this was a good excuse to plan on a visit around Ilheu da Praia in the morning. We were in luck with the juvenile seen first - an amazing sight in the WP - and then the two adults were seen. Some excellent shots were taken, but with grey skies and fishy fingers I decided to leave my camera back at the hotel. A Sooty Shearwater was seen too as well as the first Great Shearwaters.
Great Sheawater off Graciosa 27th August 2014
The evening session was really enjoyable, and I decided to take the group out to the seas to the east of Ilheu da Praia where Monteiro's Storm-petrels congregate each evening before they head to their burrows. Needless to say we saw a handful of 'band-rumped petrels' including a couple at decent range that were in heavy moult confirming them as Monteiro's Storm-petrels. A close baroli Little Shearwater skirted the boat and an adult Long-tailed Skua flew by too, along with ever increasing numbers of Great Shearwaters in amongst the abundant Cory's Shearwaters.

Monteiro's Storm-petrel at the Bank of Fortune, 20 miles east of Graciosa 27th August 2014
Wednesday looked like it was going to be the day, and what a difference a day makes. Calm seas and blue skies meant one thing - we were off to the Bank of Fortune, a seamount 20 miles east of Graciosa that provides upwellings and sea depths from 500 metres. And for sure, it was an excellent day and the chum mix went down a treat. The undoubted highlight was a Swinhoe's Storm-petrel in the same area as it had been seen on our last three trips (two in 2013 and one in 2012). Unlike the previous trips, we had several sightings through the day including some decent views mid afternoon as it fed in the chum line. I'm glad that my three and a half days of spooning rotting fish and dribbling fish oil out paid off.
Bulwer's Petrel at the Bank of Fortune, 20 miles east of Graciosa 27th August 2014
It wasn't just about the Swinhoe's though, and with Great Shearwaters passing all day to within just a few metres at times everyone was happy. Monteiro's Storm-petrels were in good numbers too, and though difficult to assess precisely, perhaps forty or so is a decent estimate. They showed rather well too.

To add to this a 'Bonxie' caused excitement as this was the first large skua we've seen on August pelagics. Up to three Wilson's Storm-petrels were also well received. A first-summer Pomarine Skua and a couple of Arctic Skuas, a very distant juvenile Sabine's Gull, a handful of Bulwer's Petrels, a Manx and a Sooty Shearwater meant that there was usually something to look at. A Blue Shark around the boat for a while and a load of Bottle-nosed Dolphins added to the diversity of what was, in everyone's opinion, a pretty special day.

Wind had been forecast to get up on Thursday, but with the calm seas the previous day and lack of swell we headed to the Bank of Fortune again. Early signs looked decent, with Bulwer's Petrels and Manx Shearwaters, as well as two adult Long-tailed Skuas, seen on the way out. A Sperm Whale was also seen to surface, as well as both Spotted and Bottle-nosed Dolphins. Perhaps we'd got a little complacent after yesterday, and admittedly we still saw large numbers of Monteiro's Storm-petrels (as well as some good Grant's Storm-petrel candidates) and Great Shearwaters, but with a choppy sea and just an Arctic Tern and Arctic Skua of note we headed back towards Graciosa early evening. Closer to shore, we saw a Sooty Shearwater and our final Bulwer's Petrel while with an increasing wind the sea was becoming rather lumpy.
Cory's Sheawater off Graciosa 27th August 2014
Friday morning was always going to be a bonus, and so with the sea still pretty choppy we headed out but kept close to the island. Highlight was seeing the juvenile Sooty Tern fishing independently - with no sign of its folks - a mile or so from Ilheu da Praia. With a nice pod of Spotted Dolphins by the boat and a few Great Shearwaters soaring about, 2014's Graciosa pelagic came to an end. A very enjoyable experience made even more so by a good bunch of guys. Thanks to Stephen Dunstan for the meticulous notes taken throughout - his Birdforum thread can be found here - as with oiled hands throughout, notes for me were out of the equation.

If you are interested in doing this trip next year - most likely at the same time of year - please let me or Peter Alfrey know as with four successive trips now seeing Swinhoe's Storm-petrel (as well as phenomenal views of Monteiro's Storm-petrel), it could be busy again.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Azores August 2014 - update 1

Just a quick update after arriving here on the Azores on Friday evening. As usual I skipped Sao Miguel and landed on Terceira. Home of the best place in the Western Palearctic for American waders. And it has delivered again, this early in the season, with two new Semipalmated Sandpipers - an adult on 23rd-24th and then a juvenile on 25th; this latter bird to my knowledge being the first juvenile American wader of autumn 2014 in the WP. Right on cue.
Short-billed Dowitcher Cabo da Praia, Terceira

adult Semipalmated Sandpiper Cabo da Praia, Terceira

adult Hudsonian Whimbrel Cabo da Praia, Terceira
Add to this a few familiar faces - a Short-billed Dowitcher that turned up as a juvenile early last September, two Hudsonian Whimbrels and 2 Semipalmated Plovers - then a late August session there isn't too bad. Also a Little Stint, two Ruff, a Common Sandpiper and a Curlew Sandpiper have padded things out too.
Sowerby's Beaked Whales between Terceira and Graciosa
Got the ferry this evening from Terceira to Graciosa, and after the news of two Trindade Petrels off Faial on Saturday our hopes are quite high. A handful of Sooty Shearwaters, lots of Great Shearwaters and some jumping beaked whales - Sowerby's? - were the highlights of a pleasant crossing. Now the serious pelagics from Graciosa start tomorrow and, as has always been the case, the first task early tomorrow morning will be making the chum at the harbour.