Tuesday 30 July 2013

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse in Egypt

Last Wednesday, after an overnight flight, I landed at Cairo airport where after a lengthy wait for my bag to arrive I met up with old time Belgian buddies Vincent L and David M. We were quickly on the road and heading south into the Nile Valley. Until recently, as the army have become less officious since Mubarak's fall from grace, a lot of the Nile to the south of Cairo was off limits to westerners. But with less military presence you can travel around Egypt pretty easily, and with this in mind, we headed towards the semi-desert an hour or so to the north of the town of Al Minya. The target was to see Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, a species only recently rediscovered in Egypt.
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (two males and a female), Sandafa Al Far, Egypt 24th July 2013
In fact, it was only last year that Swiss birders doing survey work made this rediscovery (presumably of the race floweri) - you can read about it here. Up until then, I'd envisaged that my only hope of seeing Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse in the WP would have been in Kuwait. As it turns out though, this species seems to be pretty common and during the course of the day at Sandafa Al Far on 24th July, I had 16 bird sightings (of ones and twos) from arrival at 10.20am to 3pm and then the afternoon activity turned it up a notch with 87 bird sightings, including a single flock of 16 birds.
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (female), Sandafa Al Far, Egypt 24th July 2013
Stunning birds in fantastic light that were attracted to a pool that had been created by a leaking pipe in a semi-cultivated, arid area. It just goes to show that with no coverage, birds that appear to be relatively common - albeit on a local scale - go undetected even in countries such as Egypt.
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (two males and two females), Sandafa Al Far, Egypt 24th July 2013

Monday 29 July 2013

Return from Egypt - Saunder's Tern breeding on Sinai

I've just got back from a quick trip to Egypt, my fifth trip there. The reason for going in late July this year all started last winter when one of the Egyptian birders, Mohamed Habib, photographed some 'Little Terns' in southwest Sinai. The photographs were circulated courtesy of Fred Jiguet, and although just on the deck, there was enough to suggest that these were no ordinary Little Terns but Saunder's Terns - they showed a nice rectangular facial pattern with the eye within the mask, subdued legs and perhaps fairly extensive dark in the primaries and obvious darkish bill tips. I was pretty stunned when I saw these shots a few months back, as from a WP perspective, no Saunder's Tern records that I'd heard about would really stand up to modern scrutiny.

Mohamed had seen eight birds in July 2012, so roll on to 25th July 2013 and a group of nine of us arrived at the site with Mohamed. After getting onto the sand bar, we were immediately greeted by rather squawky calls, very distinct from the Little Tern calls I'd heard on the beach at Rye a couple of weeks back. In fact, it was obvious that the birds we had just found were on territory. Within minutes, after taking many shots and sound recordings, every single feature of these birds was in line with what you would expect for Saunder's Tern.
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - note the squared off forehead patch with the eye solidly behind it, the extensively dark-tipped bill, three black outer primaries with obvious black primary shafts on the underwing
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - this photo shows the concolourous mantle, rump and tail nicely. Also note the active primary moult
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - leg colour more subdued that Little Tern, this bird being at the brighter end of the spectrum (ranging from olive to dull orange); again note the rectangular forehead patch and the position of the eye within the black, as well as the contrast at rest of the black outer primaries and extensively dark-tipped bill
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - showing the concolourous mantle, rump and tail despite the harsh light conditions
Saunder's Tern, adult, Egypt July 2013 - again note the shape of square shape of the forehead patch (compared to Little Tern which tapers off behind the eye), dark-tipped bill and dark under primaries
We walked along the sand bar, and found at least 20-25 pairs (c.50 birds) along with a single chick and two fledged juveniles. Juvenile Saunder's Terns are poorly documented, so hope this bird provides interest - seems to show darker primary-coverts and have much darker primaries than Little Tern but more research and study of individuals obviously needed. Probably safer to call this bird a first-winter given that it seems to have already moulted through some 2nd generation scapulars.

Saunder's Tern, juvenile/1st-winter, Egypt July 2013
So do you have to time your visit for July? Well, obviously not. With two fully fledged, flying juveniles seen it would suggest these birds were probably born in late May/early June. If you read here, it seems that Saunder's Terns may, just like Little Terns, be staggered breeders as we saw one chick that was not at flying stage so had evidently hatched in the last 3 or so weeks. Being on the southwest coast of Sinai, there is a military presence so it's advisable to get in touch with Mohamed before you go as access needs to be granted.

Monday 22 July 2013

Showy Med Gull in Rotherhithe

After probably the hottest and most pointless school day (babysitting those who had opted not to go to Thorpe Park), I was back in Rotherhithe early and had a quick look in at the pontoons on Greenland Dock. Much to my surprise and pleasure, there was a juvenile Mediterranean Gull sitting there. With no camera, I rushed back home and was back within a couple of minutes with a bit of bread, and it got amongst it quickly. Just like yesterday's bird, it was quite a vocal bird but less advanced moult wise. It also proved to be rather confiding too. Very nice indeed.

juvenile Mediterranean Gull, Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe 22nd July 2013
Anyway, this will be the last post for a week as I'm off to Egypt tomorrow evening to fill in a WP gap or two.

Sunday 21 July 2013

A good day turned bad

Felt a tad bizarre when I woke up, leaving the house with more than one layer. By recent standards, the morning was positively chilly. Checking in at the Long-tailed Duck on Surrey Water revealed it was still present, and then 22 juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the mud by the Hilton were all presumably local birds as some were still being accompanied by their folks and begging for food.

There was little on the mud at Crossness, but as the tide rose, more Black-headed Gulls congregated at the outfall and in amongst them was this beautiful juvenile Mediterranean Gull.

juvenile Mediterranean Gull, Crossness 21st July 2013
It was really agressive to all the Black-headed Gulls, calling away regularly, but after an hour or so it presumably realised its petulance wasn't getting anywhere so it chilled out a little bit. Not much else doing, bar a couple of Common Sandpipers, though views of the Common Terns at high tide here are always excellent so I had a bit of a papping session in the now bright light.
adult Common Tern, Crossness 21st July 2013

juvenile Common Tern, Crossness 21st July 2013
A lovely relaxing morning until I got back to my car. I found the back windscreen smashed and the boot crumpled. I first thought someone had nicked stuff, but the lovely people in the house at the end of Lytham Close had seen it all. Transpires that one of those cowboy scrap metal vans backed into my car and drove away. Miraculously, they'd got part of the registration number and the company it was so, with a little bit of detective work, I managed to track down the driver and get all the details required. Nonetheless, I'm now carless and, once again, left questioning the dignity of the majority of the human race.

Saturday 20 July 2013

From Surrey to Surrey Water

I've had a pretty packed day today. Pretty much being a bird only man, just dabbling a bit with other aspects of natural history, James L and Graeme S were my nature guides for the day. We'd initially planned to head up to Northants to join the masses at Fermyn Woods where Purple Emperors are enjoying a record year, but a look at the weather forecast revealed overcast conditions. So, with the same target in mind, we diverted to sunny Surrey and a nice little place near Chiddingfold called Botany Bay. James L was armed with shrimp paste and rotten bananas, though these weren't required, as on arrival a nice male Purple Emperor was feasting on the horse dung!

Purple Emperor, Botany Bay 20th July 2013
In total we saw four of these massive butterflies, as well as perhaps ten or so Silver-washed Fritillaries and half a dozen White Admirals. All very nice indeed, so with time ticking on, I was escorted to nearby Thursley where my expert guides talked me through the Odonata there. Namely Downy Emerald, Keeled Skimmer, Four-spotted Chaser, Small Red, Large Red and Emerald Damselfies. Thanks guys.
Silver-washed Fritillary, Botany Bay 20th July 2013
Though with not a gull or whiff of sewage in sight, I was gagging to get Crossness and do what I know best. On arrival I was pleasantly surprised to find a Whimbrel on the foreshore by the golf centre - first of the year here for me as spring passage was so lame. Five Yellow-legged Gulls included my first juvenile of the year, and a couple of ringed Herring Gulls were from the NTGG and Suffolk, while a Jersey Tiger moth was on bushes in the sewage works.
Jersey Tiger, Crossness 20th July 2013
Back in Rotherhithe, an adult Yellow-legged Gull was new in on the mud off the Hilton Hotel before some twat with a dog flushed it, along with my first juvenile Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Then a check of Surrey Water late evening allowed me an encounter with a long lost friend...
Long-tailed Duck, Rotherhithe 20th July 2013
All in all, a thoroughly pleasant day out.

Saturday 13 July 2013

This year's youths are released

It's been wall to wall sunshine since last Sunday's post. What that has meant is breeding birds have been in overdrive ,and it has been nice to get out and about locally. Rotherhithe has been quiet, though I had two Lapwing over yesterday evening; normally a bird I'd associate with cold weather movements in Inner London, as opposed to post-breeding dispersal like these birds.
adult Mediterranean Gull Crossness 13th July 2013
Crossness is now packed with birds, 99% of these being Black-headed Gulls. I spent an enjoyable evening here on Thursday, as well as today, just lapping up the close views in the warm light. Just one adult Mediterranean Gull and an adult Common Gull in amongst them. Though I must admit that each year I think the same - juvenile Black-headed Gulls are mega looking birds and each one is very different. The extent of the nape shawl through to the amount of scapular, covert and tail moult... just feast your eyes on these bad boys, some of them already moulting through to 1st-winter plumage.

On Thursday, I also managed to see my first juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull for the year while juvenile Common Terns were present then and tonight too. Highlight tonight though was a Sandwich Tern heading rapidly west midriver, calling as it went. Bizarrely, when I was at Rainham RSPB this morning watching a rather nice but heat-hazed adult Pectoral Sandpiper, I mentioned to Nick Croft that days like today can be decent for Sandwich Terns. So it proved. While trying to locate gulls (unsuccessfully) on the foreshore near the stone barges - they're tipping out of sight currently - a Crossbill flew west calling; a bit of a surprise but there seem to be a few moving at the moment.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Fun in the sun

This weekend could have been so different. Friday lunchtime, and news of an Ascension Frigatebird chilling out on a harbour wall on Islay meant that another trip north was on the cards. However, news filtered out that it had flown off before the usual spurious rumours about further sightings filtered out. Looking forward to my parents arriving for a nice day out, for once I decided to act sensibly and chill out and let the rest of the big d*ck players head north. I awoke on Saturday with some relief, though not totally unsurprised - and went on to have a relaxing, nice day in the sun visiting some of London's tourist attractions with good food and company. This only slightly tempered by one of the local birders, Mike R, finding perhaps one of last year's Bonaparte's Gulls (now in summer plumage) at Crossness.

Today, the chillout in the sun time continued albeit with an early start. The Bonaparte's Gull showed pretty well throughout the day (I had an early morning showing and then returned in the afternoon). Nice to see a slim yank amongst our fat Black-headed Gulls. I've had these images looked over by American gullers just to see whether they could nail any 3cy characters, but unfortunately not so. Just like our Black-headed Gulls, a 3cy Bonaparte's would show a dark smudge on the primary-coverts as well as perhaps some dark shafts in the outer primaries, smudges on tertials or an isolated dark mark in the tail. However, these features can be moulted out by Black-headed Gulls by this time of year, so the same is probably true for Bonaparte's Gulls (as well as some 3cy Bonaparte's and Black-headed Gulls just mimicking adults anyway). There were also a couple of adult Mediterranean Gulls that appeared, and then disappeared, as well as a Little Egret on the Thames foreshore early morning.

I'd arranged to team up with John A, James L and Graeme S to do a bit of summertime nature watching in Kent. First on the agenda were the Heath Fritillaries at East Blean Woods that, as usual, showed pretty well mid morning before they started to get a bit more active with increased heat.
Nearby, at least three male Red-veined Darters were seen. Very nice to see, though must admit that Odonate aren't my speciality and I just duded it up, enjoying these little critteres, with special thanks to James L for use of his macro and 70-200mm lenses.
Back in Rotherhithe, I saw my first juvenile Black-headed Gulls of the summer here as well as a 2nd-summer Yellow-legged Gull on one of the barges near Greenland Pier. This rounded off a pretty good, sun-soaked weekend. Just five days of crazy kids in boling classrooms to deal with now.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Bridled Tern on the Farne Islands

It has been 25 years since the last truly twitchable Bridled Tern. Always viewed as the 'commoner' of the two dark-backed terns, the Sooty Tern on Anglesey in 2005 has meant that most of today's listers have seen the latter but not the former. So when a lovely adult Bridled Tern turned up on the Farne Islands, a load of Britain's finest were chomping at the bit.

I actually saw a Bridled Tern from a boat on the way to the Black-browed Albatross in June 2006, along with a number of others, though bizarrely the wise men didn't seem to like it for some reason. So guess this week's Bridled Tern satisfies those BOU listing slaves. Anyway, Puffins, Arctic Terns and loads of other auks and Eiders, plus a dozen Manx Shearwaters thrown in, reminded me that there was more birdlife in Northumberland compared to London.