Monday 30 April 2012

Bad weather decent birds

When those weather warnings came up on the news on Friday, warning about strong north-easterly winds and heavy rain, I just knew that I needed to be out and about. Excellent light and balmy weather, that’s just for pussy birders and pure photographers. You’ve got to get soaked sometimes if you want to be in the game. Only problem I had this weekend was with BT, where a fault on the line meant no internet (or landline) until today so hence the late posting.

So Saturday (28th) comes, and it’s relatively drizzly with a bit of northerly wind. I was at Crossness from 7am, by which time the Barking boys (Paul H and Dave Mo) were producing with a couple of Turnstone and a Whinchat early on. John A and I felt like there should be something around on the south side of the river, and then at 8.40am an adult Kittiwake flew upriver past the outfall – nice. Another call from the Barking boys, while we were heading to the paddocks, as the 2 Turnstones had reappeared and a couple of Barwits had dropped in on the foreshore. We had a Whimbrel head northwest at 9.50am, and there were 3 Wheatears and 2 LRPs around too, before John and I headed back to the shore where the Turnstones and Bar-tailed Godwits had remained for us. Things slowed up after that, and late morning I headed back to Rotherhithe where, despite a decent flog of the place, I only managed 1 Common Tern...
Bonxie, Crossness, London 29th April 2012

Sunday (29th)came, and after oversleeping having watched all the footy til gone 1 in the morning, I finally rolled up at Crossness at 9ish. Weather was proper grim, and you could easily have thought it was November bar all the Common Terns calling around the outfall. First up, a lone duck I picked up in the ming quickly turned into a Red-breasted Merg as it headed west quickly upriver at 10am – bizarrely my first at Crossness to Ian M’s surprise. Aware of a couple of skuas just downriver at Rainham, Ian M and I were primed although news from Dom suggested that the Bonxie was lingering at the stone barges. Then, at 10.25am with optics completely screwed up because of the weather, pandemonium broke out amongst the gulls and terns at the outfall which meant just one thing – the Bonxie was upon us. My first skua this far upriver, and a fantastic sight, it gave some show as it flew almost over our heads – lingering for 10 minutes or so – before it headed back downriver. Half a dozen Barwits in Barking Bay late morning were the last birds of note, before I had to head back if only to dry off.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Pelagics anyone?

There is a weekend of pelagics planned off Lanzarote on 18th and 19th of August. Anyone up for it? I'm already going. Ryanair flights from Stansted are reasonably priced for the time of year, and with South Polar Skua and Black-bellied Storm-petrel recorded on these last September then you never know what will be seen this year. As well as the possibility of extreme rares, you'd imagine that in amongst all those Cory's Shears you will get a few Madeiran, Wilson's and White-faced Storm-petrels. On each of the pelagics last year, all these species were recorded - have a look at the tally chart here (scroll down) for the scores last year.
Wilson's SP off Graciosa, Azores, June 2011
It's also a real shame that I can't go on Peter Alfrey's superb Azores pelagic this year though - just a conflict with dates when I'll be away with Karen this summer. Totally gutted as it was a brilliant experience to see Monteiro's Storm-petrel up close and personal last year, and it's only time before they record a Trindade or Black-capped Petrel. I'm also thinking about trying to get out to Hatteras early June, as flights aren't too bad price wise to fly into Norfolk, Virginia. Send me an email if you want any info on any of the above ideas as I'm lonesome on them all at present.

Looking forward to getting out on Saturday, because if the weather forecast is correct, there could be a few Black and Arctic Terns, and Little Gulls, in southeast London.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Flava fever

Yep, you guessed it. Back to Egypt considering all this cold weather, lack of migrants and the added frustration today that I was hemmed in by the London Marathon. I did receive info on one of the Black-tailed Godwits though (the bird in the photo on yesterday's posting, left leg, green and right leg, yellow over blue - ringed as an adult male at Farlington, Hants in Sept 2010, seen in May 2011 at Kuiabol, northern Iceland before being back at Farlington on 22nd August.

Now onto to the wagtails in Egypt. These birds were absolutely everywhere on the Red Sea coast, and the variation in flava wagtails was immense. I'll start with an obvious one, a nice 1st-summer male Citrine Wagtail of the nominate race citreola taken at Shams Alam on 7th April 2012. Interesting reading about a possible werae in Israel here and for something that bit more special have a look at this link for fantastic images of what is probably the first calcarata in the WP.

Right now for some rather interesting flava wagtails. First a straightforward one, a classic male feldegg - Black-headed Wagtail. Wholly yellow throat, nice black unmarked head. Those special guys at the BBRC would be happy with these two: -

Then things get more messy. Anyone remember the Maylandsea, Essex male from 1999? Well, that bird was rejected despite being well twitched due to an asymmetrical pale mark within its black head. I imagine this bird would not make the grade either, though presumably it'll be on its way to Romania or somewhere in the Balkans: -
And then note the whitish base to the bill on this bird. Presumably within range for feldegg, though the doubters would be out if it turned up over here: -
Now for some less clear cut birds: -
Could easily be passed over as a flava though the split supercilium and darkness, particularly on the ear-coverts, would suggest influence from elsewhere. Its call was remarkably similar to a nearby feldegg...
A properly smart bird, a male 'superciliaris' - a pretty obvious feldegg x flava/beema intergrade
Obviously, you have to speculate somewhat with these intergrades - putting square pegs into round holes - and the amount of birds that didn't fit the bill as either a regular feldegg or flava in Egypt was pretty high. And throw in a few thunbergi too, and the whole flava complex is to coin a phrase, a minefield. Interesting though.

Saturday 21 April 2012

A bit of Icelandic colour

Back to the local stuff today, and things were on the move. Well, sort of. It hardly felt spring like temperature wise, but a few Whitethroats were back in and Swallows were heading steadily west in dribs and drabs. Little else though in the cold.
15 out of the 368 Iceland Black-tailed Godwits today
But the highlight of the day was an influx of migratory Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits at Crossness - 368 of them in total. There's a wintering flock at this site, but the sight of 6 colour-ringed individuals, suggested that a fair few of these were new birds heading north as I'd not had any of these birds previously. Using these excellent links - here and here - I managed to figure out a couple were ringed in Iceland, one orange-flagged bird in France and the others are presumably from the UK.
Two of today's colour-ringed Blackwits - Peter Potts responded quickly, and the bird on the right was ringed on the Axe Estuary, Seaton, Devon on 5th March 2011 and then seen at Cliffe, Kent, on 29th October 2011 before my sighting today.
I also had a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls, one at Crossness and a couple in flooded fields at Crayford. Also, on the barges outside my flat at Rotherhithe, was a North Thames Gull Group ringed Herring Gull.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Motley Crew in Croatia

Anyone like Yellow-legged Gulls? Well, if you don't then I'd advise you to look away now. Even if you do, there are a fair few scraggy characters here that may put you off your dinner. All are 2nd calendar year birds that I photographed at Zadar, Croatia last week when I was there for a few days of chillout with Karen. A lovely place by the way, but some of the gulls were truly minging as you'll see. Real variation in these birds moult wise - some looking absolutely screwed with dropped primaries, secondaries and tertials while some fairly retarded moult wise.

Rather pale underwing (what's left of its wing!)

Saved the best til last... a rather ill-looking bird with an extremely long, parallel-sided bill. Difficult to do much with this bird plumage wise to suggest exactly what it is, as I imagine some people may be surprised to label it as a Yl Gull

Monday 16 April 2012

Armenicus Stonechats

Right then, back to work today after a restful break but still a load of stuff to go at from Egypt. And today's offering is some charming little Stonechats that had pitched up in the greenery at Lahami Bay. Before I go on about the birds, a word of advice to anyone staying at Wadi Lahami - just walk south along the bay to the next hotel, and you'll find well-watered gardens dripping with migrants if you're there in spring (and presumably worth a shot at any time of year). Get amongst it if you can.
male Caspian Stonechat ssp.armenicus
Right then, back to the job in hand - there were at least three Eastern Stonechats Saxicola maurus present on 6th April, all presumably armenicus Caspian Stonechats. The male was a sure fire armenicus candidate; nice black and white plumage with a decent, extensive pale nape and a nice orange hue confined to the breast. So what about the tail? Well, most of the time it seemed pretty much all dark: -
Back on view; this bird showed a nice whitish unstreaked rump and when in normal posture perched, just a hint that there may be some white on the outertail feather bases
But when it opened up its tail, it exhibited an amount of white at the tail feather bases (but always less than half), largely on the outer webs - nothing like what you would expect on a male variegatus (check here for some more photos of similar birds from Kuwait). Some of those boys that I've seen in Kuwait almost mirror Pied/Black-eared Wheatears in their tail patterns!
So what about the females? Well, to be honest they were probably Caspian Stonechats too, presumably armenicus, but you just can't do them in the field and this is coming from a man who likes to get his hands dirty with them - have a look here for some commentary and in hand shots from Israel. If what Yoav says holds true, then you can't exactly move the uppertail coverts aside in the field, but it doesn't seem like there is any white at the tail base on these Egyptian birds.

Also, I like Yoav's thoughts on what our 1st-winter birds could be in the autumn in Western Europe - perhaps categorising these 1cy birds into the maurus category is unsafe, plainly ignoring variegatus? So go and see a male Sibe Stonechat kidz. Just to play safe that your autumn Sdark-tailed Sibe unequivocally wasn't a Casp if you've only had autumn birds...

Sunday 15 April 2012

Egyptian raptors

Back to last week's trip to Egypt, and one thing I haven't really mentioned yet were the copious amounts of raptors that we saw - at two spots (Marsa Alam and El Gouna) in two distinct waves. For a British birder, raptor migration is a real big draw for spring birding anywhere in the Middle East. Birders go crazy about the stuff that goes over Eilat for example, and for sure it's good as I've been there, but you've got to remember all those Steppe Buzzards and eagles are going up the Red Sea too, and the views in Egypt are properly good too! So eyes to the skies wherever you are. You've also got a few nice resident species of raptor in Egypt as well.
Black-shouldered Kite - common roadside bird in The Nile Valley
Right, I'll do a quick diary entry to give you a flavour...

4th April 2012 I'd had enough of the Nile Valley and was bloody glad to get out of the sprawl, as we'd headed up from Aswan early morning. Shit air quality, 100s of speed bumps and sprawl either side of the road - reminding you how much man has screwed up this planet in certain areas. Anyway, 17km west of Marsa Alam, Staines gets an eye full of birds high in the sky and soon enough, it's quick to see that something is going down with a few Steppe Eagles just chilling by the roadside in the mid morning sun.
2cy Steppe Eagle by the roadside west of Marsa Alam
Loads of Steppe Eagles are soaring low over a small bedouin camp, presumably they've typically either left a load of shit out or some goat has come to its end. Anyway, we set up stall by the road and for a couple of hours from 11am the notebook reads like this - Steppe Eagle 300 (pretty much all 2cys and a few 3cys), Steppe Buzzard 1000+, Black Kite 400 (some local birds as well as migrants), Booted Eagle 3, Short-toed Eagle 2, Long-legged Buzzard 1, Egyptian Vulture 5, Sparrowhawk 1, Black Stork 5 and Common Crane 4. Some birds were passing low, and some kettling high like nobody's business.
Steppe Eagle

Per Van Duivendijk on Black Kites 'rufous variant (most seen in the Middle East) with rather strong red-brown underparts, pale head... conspicuous dark band on underwing... wing formula sometimes intermediate between Black and Red with tendency for only 5 fingers'. Well, this Black Kite does what it says on that Dutch tin!

Egyptian Vulture
Every time I see large soaring birds in great numbers, it always brings me back to the first time. As a NW European birder, the first wave of eagles each trip makes me feel as rusty as an old car but then I quickly regain confidence and you can properly get into it. Just the spectacle is something I'd recommend to anyone, birder or non-birder. Good stuff again.

Thursday 12 April 2012

The Real Deal?

Yesterday, I managed to get myself up to Lincolnshire. It'd been a bit of a fraught time, as while in Egypt last week, I'd been told about a decent looking juvenile thayeri candidate - a bird that I was mega keen to see. Sounds a bit ungrateful given all the quality in Egypt, and it really does paint me out to be one sad gull-induced bloke.
Anyway, it all came good as just northeast of Brigg I managed to locate the bird early morning, sitting in a ploughed field with a load of Herrings and LBBs. Bob was pretty chuffed, having missed it on Saturday and he offered me a handful of Brazil nuts in celebration.
It showed fine, both on the deck and in flight, and overall I was pretty happy with it - a little snouty, but if that was all I was fussed about then it wasn't too far from being the real deal. I really liked those dark centred juvenile scaps - something Josh and I had been chatting about in Egypt - as well as the really uniform chocolate brown tertials. I've been a real basher of several recent claims (including this winter's bird at Enniskillen that shows remarkably hoary scaps), and having seen only seen the adult at Killybegs in 1998 and the Barnatra bird of 2005 (both accepted by the IRBC but do not make me sleep easy!), this in my eyes is the best Thayer's to have turned up in Britain and Ireland (along with the original Cork bird, and the juveniles at Newport Dump in 1998/1999 and Killybegs in 2003).

Monday 9 April 2012

Quality Red Sea migration

For the last three days of the trip, I chilled out on the southern Red Sea coast. As well as wandering around in the tropical, picture postcard mangroves of Wadi Lahami failing to see Goliath Heron (having visited this site on 3 trips, I've only seen it once) there were a shed load of passerines going over too - predominantly flava wagtails, Red-throated and Tree Pipits and Short-toed Larks. Once in the nearby gardens of Lahami Bay, though, colour and quality popped up all over the place. It was genuinely exciting birding...
male Red-spotted Bluethroat - dozens of these hopping around the flower beds of Lahami Bay

presumably another svecica, this time a female

Red-throated Pipit complete with tick

superciliaris Yellow Wagtail; a properly smart bird

Black-headed Wagtail... but would this feldegg get through the BBRC with a throat like that? I'd like to think so.

This feldegg is exactly what you see in the text book; though many birds had assortments of white head fleckings

an inquisitive, confiding Eastern Stonechat... probably armenicus?

male Caucasian Stonechat, presumably ssp. armenicus

large flocks of Short-toed Larks heading north with vitesse

Collared Pratincole enjoying an early evening visit to the swimming pool for a quick drink
As touched upon above, there were some really interesting identification challenges too, that I'll come onto in later posts. Particularly interesting were the varieties of Yellow Wagtails and the stonechats that were seen - seemingly all armenicus from what I can tell. The females, particularly, seem to be indistinguishable from maurus in the field, from what the ringers in Israel say about not being able to see the white in the tail unless its specifically spread in the hand.