Monday 31 October 2011

Headaches from the rock...number 2

There were two 'Herring Gulls' on the airport Thursday 27th October while I was searching the valleys. However, it was not until the next day that we managed to get some flight shots of one of the birds. In the field, this individual had a swarthy feel - with blotching (not streaking) coming through on the nape and breast sides - as well as large size and pale upperparts. All decent starting points to start looking more closely at it as a smithsonianus.

I've done a fair bit of swotting up on the subject this evening, ranging from PAC's adult on Flores in December 2005 in Dutch Birding to the more usual references such as Gulls of the Americas and the standard DB American Herring Gull reference. And also a few internet searches, including the regular bird in Ireland (

primaries show grey pinching into the black tips - 'bayonets' to P7 and P8?

pale underside tongue to P10 long and rectangular

tricky to get exact primaries here due to photo quality. P5 seems to show that black 'W' over both webs...

Headaches from the rock... number one

So Friday morning, the last day on the rock, went something a little bit like this. Get up, have breakfast, see very little in the middle fields, check the dump for interesting gulls to no avail (though some nice shots of atlantis scrapping around with the local cats and a 1cy GBB Gull).
I had a quick look around the tamarisks by the Cape Verde farm, and then a last walk around the airfield. There was little action on the beach, just a couple of Turnstone chilling out as well as a pretty screwed up looking Cory's Shearwater sitting on the runway. It must have had a hard night. So a check over the fields south of the airfield were nice, for old times' sake, but quiet this time around.

And then it was back to this little blighter that has had me perplexed for most of the week. I've been trying to convince myself all week, but I really haven't been too successful in doing so despite some of the others being much keener throughout. It's not a straightforward, obvious individual and I've seen a fair few in my time. One of my claims to fames is locating the Irish bird this autumn on the day for Britain's most famed twitcher Bagpuss, so hear me out guys as I know a bit about what I'm talking about. And I haven't received any emails from the usual scrutinisers, so they're either perplexed or just slagging me off behind my back. So here goes it, with some photos... and a read of Julian Hough's recent paper in Birdwatch. Chandler's Shorebirds book oversimplifies things, so don't go by that.
Much better light here - you can see an orbital ring although it's only pronounced in this light and I'd describe it as buff as opposed to yellow. The legs appear distinctly two-toned, quoted in Van Duivendijk as a pro Semi-p feature. And in this image the lores look real thin, meeting the bill above the gape line. There's a nice obvious orangey bill base.

For sure, palmations between the middle and outer toes - a feature also shown by Ringed Plover. Any pronounced palmation between the inner and middle toe is tenuous... but is it still there?

Dabs at the breast sides, more akin to RP and is that a full breast band?

Are those lores too thick? Compare this image with the 1st one and see how posture gives a different layout of the loral feathering. At this range, there is a orbital ring but it's subtle for sure. And once again, look at those breast sides... though the super thickens at the rear side of the eye.
So, what do I think to this bird? Well I've always found Semipalmated Plovers more obvious than you'd think at places such as Cabo da Praia, so I'm battling with myself because I've not struggled like this before. In certain respects, you need to judge birds such as this on a suite of characteristics for sure, as the little blighter never called despite trying to coax it to do so. References vary - for example, Chandler's book shows a nice photo of a Semip Plover's foot that looks just like this bird, but then incorrectly states that Ringed Plover should have no webbing. Hough states that Ringed Plovers have webbing between outer and middle (like this bird) while Van Duivendijk states 'in Ringed sometimes small semipalmation between inner and middle toe' which in my eyes this bird doesn't appear to show.

So scratching my head still - which I really shouldn't be with the prolonged, close views of this lone bird - I headed to have a scan of the roosting gulls and walked straight into another headache... but it's getting late so I'll leave you with a couple of shots and the commentary will come later. However, upon doing a bit of research over and above what I was already familiar with, this looks quite decent for an adult smithsonianus in my humble opinion.

And after all this tricky business, it was time for me to spread my wings and fly off the rock for another year. Thoroughly enjoyed my time here as always, good to see Manuel and Katt and especially had a quality time with my Dutch buddy Arthur Geilvoet - let's not leave it another 8 years mate.

Friday 28 October 2011

The Last Full Shift

Today started off, and finished, rather misty with a brisk SSW wind. It was to be the last full day of birders being present on Corvo for autumn 2011 so thought I'd give it a good bash.
After a quick walk around the village in the half light, where the highlight was a White Wagtail seen by Vegard, we wandered to the harbour where the plover from a couple of days ago was still present. Not the most obvious Semi-p(?) I've seen by a long stretch but seemingly is one, with that eye-ring, the lores having a whitish area below the gape and those palmations (obvious between mid and outer toes). More research needed, and it played on my mind right the way up the rock to the other side near the lighthouse.
We got a taxi up to Lighthouse Valley, cutting through all the murk in the middle of the island, and were greeted with more murk and a strongish wind in this exposed valley. Had a good bash at things, but just the usuals. Reminds me a lot of Nanjizzal in Cornwall, so was just waiting for a nice empid to fly out... but it never did. When things got too much, we all headed back along the road and took the track down towards the old whale house - in old times, there used to be people stationed there that would send flares out to boats offshore when they spotted whales.

I'd never been down this way, so lost my bearings a little bit - due to the fog - and that meant we were all scrambling around like goats unnecessarily. But when things cleared, there was Cantinho down below so dropping two fields down from the whale house - BANG!! - yankee action once again. As I rounded a hydrangea hedge and dropped into the next field, there was a lovely Common Yellowthroat nobbing around in front of me. I shouted to the troops, Arthur standing next to me anyway, and all were able to get views of this 1st-winter female before it disappeared into the abyss. We stood around for the best part of an hour, but there was no further sign and it was time to try and get amongst some more yanks with just the a'noon remaining for autumn 2011 in Corvo's valleys!

We had an entertaining climb down Cantinho, scrambling around once again like goats and making friends with the many trees as we clung on alond the slippery slopes. There were, alas, no yanks though the hope was always there for a nice Nearctic wood warbler. I had a quick look in the bottom of Cancelas, but it was too blowy and I had my fall of the day... grabbing hold of a not so solid rock!

Back on the road, there was a bit of action in the bottom of Fojo and it wasn't long before I picked up a bright yellow/orange bird - the Summer Tanager was once again in the original spot where I saw it on Monday, and where it was found on Sunday by David Monticelli and co. Rather bizarre that it was back here again, after Arthur and I had a Summer Tanager half a mile or so away yesterday. The rest of the day was spent feeling rare in Poco de Agua and Do Vinte, but those rares didn't develop and that was it valley wise for 2011. There's always next year.

When I got down to the village, Arthur had photographed a couple of adult 'Herring Gulls' on the airfield that look interesting to say the least, so perhaps they'll be around tomorrow? We had out last supper in the restaurant by the windmill; survived the food here for another year... just. And then with the supermarket open between 9-11pm, had to wait 10-15 minutes to purchase a couple of cans of Diet Coke while the queue moved tediously slowly. Never thought I'd say it, but bring on Tesco.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Another Day Way Out West

With the sun shining and a fine day, I'll start with the Corvo signature shot - the caldeirao; a mind-blowingly impressive volcanic crater lake. Arthur did the honours today and went and checked down in the bottom where there was a Great Egret (Nearctic race egretta), a White-rumped Sandpiper and a Black Duck of sorts. I headed off to the reservoir with the Norwegians and, though not quite as grim on the feet as the boggy mire in the caldeirao, the steep climb burned a few calories off. A few Turnstone busily feeding but no yank wader action. 25 Snow Buntings grubbing around the grassy slopes were a long overdue addition to my Azores list; nominate race birds that presumably emanate from Greenland or further west.

With the view to Flores pretty clear, we were chilling out by the reservoir itself when a pipit came into view. It was evidently going to be an American Buff-bellied Pipit - presumably a longstaying bird that has been around most of the month - and it then proved rather skittish as it played cat and mouse with us down the grassy slope. Remarkably, this one was the first I'd seen since one on Tresco, Scilly, in 1996 so I was pretty chuffed.
Yankee BBP
I headed down the grassy slopes and entered the top of Ribeira da Lapa; quite an open valley that is first landfall to birds coming in from the west and down the reservoir's grassy slopes. There wasn't much about this time amongst the local stuff. Like yesterday I managed a nice tumble as I scrambled down the valley, grazing myself in the process. I was meant to be meeting Arthur at midday near Da Ponte, but my text message to him about the pipit was delayed and he had to go back up to the reservoir to find it - which he did.

The same as yesterday, I went down to the bottom on Ribeira da Ponte. Much more activity in the fine weather, but no yanks. So after a bit of lunch and pishing, I went back up the track and was distracted by a familiar, yet unfamiliar, zitting. Right there, in the same place, was the Indigo Bunting I'd found yesterday and the Norwegians were there to see it but Arthur was nowhere in sight.
Indigo Bunting at Ribeira da Ponte - typically beady-eyed
And then, to make things even more of a yank fest, Vegard picked up a Chimney Swift distantly looking up towards the middle of the island. Happy days. Arthur finally made it down from the reservoir, and luckily the swift was still lingering between Da Ponte and Pico. The Indigo Bunting was less straightforward, but after an hour or so I picked it up again and Arthur got it this time. One elusive lil' mofo.
Chimney Swift... distantly
So we trudged on, rather shattered, down the lower road without having made our mind up which valley we were going to do - Cancelas, Fojo, Cantinho or Do Vinte? Anyway, to cut a long story short we just were about to round the corner before dropping down to the children's play area at Fojo and there in front of us flicking itself over the road was a Summer Tanager... evidently the bird from a couple of days ago that had relocated itself half a mile or so south of its original spot. Brilliant stuff, and totally unexpected. A Great Egret - presumably the bird from the crater - flew over the fields near Fojo and there was also a Cattle Egret in the same area.

Three of us had a glance into Fojo late afternoon/early evening but it failed to produce. The walk back was pretty birdless, and we managed to flag a lift down at the higher fields to take us back down to Vila Nova do Corvo as the light started to fade. Another quality day, with a month of walking in my normal life compacted into the one day. The winds have swung southerly so it's looking for what's already here...

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Happy Days on The Rock

I awoke to a lovely westerly wind and overcast sky after a decent night's sleep. A downpour during the night did wake me, but things felt rare as soon as I got up in the pitch black. It wasn't until 8.15am that it was actually birdable, and I headed towards the lower fields to check the area around the airstrip out. Passerine wise, it was pretty much a no go as everything was being blown about. Arthur had another plan, checking the sheltered harbour and duly scored with a fresh in 'Semipalmated Plover'. Feeding with 3 Turnstone, it showed rather well before the heavens opened... though it didn't feel the real deal completely. And a 1st-winter GBB Gull on the airfield was half decent amongst the atlantis.
confiding plover in the harbour - the semipalmations are much less pronounced between the inner and mid toes compared to the mid and outer toes. Showed to within a metre...
After sheltering for half an hour or so, we got ourselves up to the ribeiras on the east side of the island where there was far more shelter but the rain wasn't really stopping. We were going to check out Lighthouse Valley, but with the foggy conditions and wind we last minute opted for Da Ponte... and walked down the road path towards the valley bottom. I checked a low hedge to the right and there, looking gormlessly and beady-eyed at me was a 1st-winter Indigo Bunting. Bang! The Norwegian guys also saw it, but in the crap weather it quickly headed off over the field with Arthur barely seeing it at all. But he was to have the last laugh a short while later.

So we headed into Da Ponte, doing the usual goat impressions scrambling along the ribeira. I had the usual fall and scratches to prove it, but getting amongst it down in the ribeira bottom failed to produce the goods. Meanwhile, Arthur had headed out to have another go for the bunting, and as he walked out he heard a couple of Blackbirds alarm calling as they chased a bloody Yellow-billed Cuckoo across the adjacent field... two yanks within a couple of hours. The recent westerly weather and low pressure systems were evidently producers.

I then checked Pico and had a couple of Kestrels, before walking slowly back along the road towards the higher fields and the power station. Nothing of note except the usual Canary, Chaffinch, Blackbird and Blackcap suspects. Heading down the bends below the miradouro, Arthur and I took the cut through the old town to check out the fig trees that have hosted multiple Baltimore Orioles in the past. We'd had a couple of scans of the airfield to see whether Saturday's Laughing Gull was roosting there, and then all of a sudden I got an eyeful of a rather large, long-tailed bird heading in from the east over the town... and I knew exactly what I was onto with rather a lot of undesirable expletives. I must admit that I lost myself in the moment, just shouting and yelping a load of obscenities while realising that I'd found THE White-tailed Tropicbird that I was totally gutted about dipping on the neighbouring island of Flores yesterday and the day before. Get the f**k in. An adult with a rather obvious yellowish wash to its tail and breast sides, as it did on Flores, attempted to land on some of the buildings in the old town of Vila Nova do Corvo. It did a few circuits of the town, entertaining us brilliantly, before heading off around the east side of the island. Let's see what happens tomorrow...

The tropicbird attempted to land in the old town, fluttering about just a few inches above the buildings. One lost bird.

And for those who know Corvo... take off in a westerly direction!

So the rest of the day was spent just remembering the moment but also working hard around the lower fields. The Semipalmated Plover was on a puddle by the airport terminal early evening, a Little Egret was on rocks west of the windmill while a seawatch in the evening produced 200 or so Great Shearwaters - much commoner than in previous years - in amongst the numerous Cory's Shearwaters.
And then it was back to the nightly occurrence of finding young Cory's Shearwaters on the streets on the way back from the restaurant. A lot of Cory's are leaving their burrows for the first time, and become dazzled and disoriented by the street lights in the town. We pick them up, then take them to the harbour or give them to the SPEA guys. For such a graceful bird at sea, they're not half lumps on land - one flying along the street today managed to whack itself against a streetlight and tumble to the floor! it was ok by the way.
Celebratory meal. Cold sausages with rice - washed down with a little chili sauce and Sagres to take the taste away.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

On The Rock Again...

So I'm back on 'the rock' - Corvo; landed this afternoon (24th October). It was straight off, after dumping the bags off at Manuel's place, and up to Fojo. The guys yesterday had located a Summer Tanager at Fojo following the rough weather that moved through on Saturday, though they'd not looked for it today. So after getting the directions from Monticelli at Flores airport, and then from Peter and Eric on landing on Corvo, I had a pretty good idea of where it was seen yesterday. Arthur and I made our way up there, joining the couple of Norwegians (we'd all arrived today and are now the only 4 birders here), but there was no sign after an hour's searching. Lots of those pesky Blackcaps, Chaffinches and Canaries of course.

So off to Cantinho for a bit of a mooch, showing the other guys the score around this place. But with the tanager playing with my mind, it was back the short walk to Fojo. Lots of activity and then bang, there it was in the bottle brush trees where it'd been yesterday. Real orange undertail coverts on this individual... a real nice start to my stay on Corvo and to complete the tanager set in WP terms.

Walking back briskly, and catching a ride with one of the locals, we all wanted to get down to the lower fields as the boys that left had seen a Yellow-billed Cuckoo there earlier in the day. We had a look around in the last hour of dark, but everything was heading to bed anyway. See what happens in the morning.

So, at this point, you were probably expecting some gripping shots of White-tailed Tropicbird from Fajazinha, Flores? Wrong... to cut a long story short, I was there from from 1.30pm on 23rd and then til midday today and sweet f*ck all. I made friends with several locals, all telling me they'd seen it but not for a couple of days. And I can even recommend that you get a good night's sleep in the car at the bottom of the valley (slept non-stop from 9.30pm until 7.20am when my alarm woke me).
Fajazinha, Flores - nice place but no tropicbird
I suppose that I managed an upgrade on Wood Duck though... so not all bad by any stretch of the imagination.
Cleansing one's WP list... drake Wood Duck Lagoa Lomba, Flores
And for those of you Midlands gull roosters, here is what Azorean Yellow-legged Gulls look like in October... this one taken today in the higher fields on Corvo.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Back out west

The usual start to my Azorean trip saw me sleeping in PDL airport after the Saturday evening flight from Gatwick. For the first time in the 3 years I've been visiting in late October, the conditions look promising with a Yellowthroat fresh in on Corvo yesterday, and new Chimney Swifts and Yellow-billed Cuckoos the day before that.

I was meant to fly to Terceira this morning, but with the news of a longstaying White-tailed Tropicbird on Flores I obviously changed my plans. Let's see where I end up today as I'm due to fly, via Faial, in the next half hour or so...

Meanwhile, in the UK, things seem to be kicking off a bit with multiple Scarlet Tanagers (in Cornwall and Scilly). I'm just glad that I'm not at all interested in my British list (Britain and Ireland for me), though it brought back great memories of the Garinish Point bird in October 2008...
Scarlet Tanager, Garinish, County Cork October 2008

One sweet day...

the assembled crowd... happily soaking in the tanager. Until news of an empidonax flycatcher in Cornwall filtered through!

Tuesday 18 October 2011

mid-October blues

Faja Grande, Flores, Azores - I'll be right there on Sunday!

Ok, a lot has happened and hasn't happened since my last post. Hopefully you'll get what I mean. Firstly, I had a weekend in The Kingdom not the one just one, but the one before that. I met Garry. I've done a lot of marking of 'what are the global issues linked to trainers'. I've sweated on a Rufous-tailed Robin while having a thoroughly enjoyable time at my parents' 40th wedding anniversary weekend. It was an entertaining read on Turdforum this evening - loads of the usual suspects slagging off suppressors etc. Oh yeah, I'll be going west again soon and I can't wait.

The Irish trip a couple of weekend's ago was hard work. Not least, the weather. The whole of Dingle and The Iveragh were shrouded in fog for the whole weekend making solo birding even more solitary. Although a rendez-vous with those new skool twitcher-types at Ventry on the Saturday morning, including the legendary Baggers, allowed me to talk rubbish to somebody for the weekend. Although I was quick off the draw and managed to locate the Semipalmated Plover for our hero, just in time for him to spin his car round back to Dublin for the afternoon ferry! 'Some people never learn', as Garry's messiah would say.

Additionally, just outside of Shannon Airport I'd stopped by the roadside to have a chat with Staines, Adam W. and Dom D. when the Garda pulled up and asked what we were doing. We simply said we're exchanging information about rare bird sightings (the other lads had been in Mayo for a couple of days). Now, at gone midnight on a minor road, you'd have thought we'd have got more of an inquisition than 'grand, right ok then'? We didn't and they headed off into the night, just like us...

So what did I see overall then bar the Semi-p Plover? Well, Carrahane Strand was kind to me and there were a couple of juvenile AGP's in amongst the 700 strong Golden Plover flock on the Saturday a'noon; at least one of these was a new bird, neither were around the next day and trying to get close to Golden Plover flocks on flat mud makes one rather liable to joining the flushing brigade. There was very little else around Tralee Bay (and there hasn't been since) - even the longstaying Buff-breasted Sand did a Friday night bunk.

And what about The Iveragh? Well, that place that promises a lot. It promised a lot once again. Let's be honest though, one chap doing a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there isn't really going to even scratch the surface so it's unfair to say that I tried hard. As time was against me. Instead of the usual gardens I've done on Valentia, I gave Bolus Head a go in nice SW winds. It looks promising... some cover but not too much and slightly reminiscent of the Garinish/Firkeel area one peninsula down in Cork. Give it a go sometime, and just like on Achill where I started the damage this year it's one of my predictions that could pay off for a lucky grafter.

White-tailed Tropicbird... not in the WP
Anyway, at the end of this week I'll be off on my regular late October jaunt to the Azores. This can't come soon enough, especially as there are some west winds forecast, a certain tropicbird continues to linger on Flores and a duck also there may allow me to do a bit of 'list cleaning'.
The ultimate piece of dross? Or a wise yank that saw sense to go no further? The notorious Terra Nostra Wood Duck, Sao Miguel November 2008

Monday 3 October 2011

The Suffolk Sandhill

I headed up, rather casually it must be said, yesterday afternoon to view the southward bound Sandhill Crane that had reached a bottleneck in southernmost Suffolk. It was only two years ago that I'd dropped everything and headed to Orkney to see this mega bird. That twitch was captured on the TV programme about us lot, and was the inauguration of Baggers the birding celeb. Thankfully I had the good fortune not to get involved.
Anyway, Sandhill Crane is an immense rarity - that bird was the first since 1991, when one resided on Shetland for a few days - so this bird was well worth a leisurely trip out for. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if my viewing yesterday was with an old friend... perhaps the exact same bird I'd seen on Orkney in 2009 given the rarity and the similar east coast track (the Orkney bird was 'lost' as it filtered down the extreme northeast of Scotland)?
I must admit that I really enjoyed this little outing and reacquainting myself with this diminutive crane. Bar the crap traffic on the A12 on the way home and a load of diatribe whacked into my ears by a rather persistent lady from Herts. When I'm birding, I enjoy my birds and really don't need to listen to a load of stuff I can't be bothered listening to. Having promised Karen we'd easily be back for 9pm for Downton Abbey, I cut it quite fine by getting in at 8.57pm. By the way, if anyone's wondering, I'm not a fan of that period drama.
Ireland again next weekend. I can't wait...

Saturday 1 October 2011

October's hotting up

Elmley action in the October heat
Well, with the record October temperature recorded today in Gravesend at 29.9°C you can’t argue with the title. And a Siberian Blue Robin on Foula would have hotted up the birding action had it not been unfortunately dead. However, birding in this heat felt more like a mid-July stroll. I didn’t set out until gone midday as I wanted to complete my WP report for Birdwatch before I did so. I also got sidetracked, getting mildly riled by the outrageous comments a few nobs had posted on that forum about the Weirwood Long-toed Stint.
Anyway, I decided to head out to Elmley RSPB for the afternoon. Buff-breasted Sandpipers are one of my favourite species, and despite having seen 11 of them in Ireland this autumn, I’d not seen one particularly well given the usual form of this species. This did not change by the way, as today’s bird was quite distant in the haze from the car park. It kept close to the Lapwing flock, flying around at times, and seemed to quite enjoy crouching down adjacent to cow pats. Something I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed doing.
I met Paul Hackett on site, and we then spent an enjoyable couple of hours walking down to the Counterwall Hide. We chatted about old times, from back in the day when we both lived in Cheshire and did a fair number of trips together. The birding was steady, with much of the scrapes dried out. However, my visit coincided with high tide and there were 3 juvenile Little Stints and 4 Curlew Sandpipers (including a moulting adult) present in amongst Dunlin and Ringed Plovers. A Peregrine and Merlin buzzed over, disturbing the waders and Starlings. Loads of Wigeon were on the river on the return walk and Marsh Harrier and Buzzard were picked up on the marsh. I had a brief look for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper on the way back, but it hadn’t been seen for an hour and a bit, so I departed...
The day was rounded off with a stop at Cross Ness for the last hour of light. The Garganey I found last Sunday was still with Teal just east of the golf centre in the lovely, warm evening light. Not much else doing though, with just a single Common Tern at the outfall.