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.

Friday 22 August 2014

Gulls on the beaches of North Carolina

Nearly a week back, and it doesn't take long for normal life to take hold. GCSE exam results have meant I've been in school every day this week. But with the Azores on the horizons, and the larid memories still fresh, here are some photos from the beaches of North Carolina - from around Hatteras Landing and Kill Devil Hills.

juvenile Laughing Gulls, North Carolina 9th and 10th August 2014

adult Laughing Gulls, North Carolina 9th and 10th August 2014

juvenile Ring-billed Gull, North Carolina 10th August 2014

1st-summer American Herring Gull, North Carolina 9th August 2014

2nd-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull, North Carolina 10th August 2014
I managed a little bit of birding around and about, and bizarrely the grounds of the Wright Brothers Memorial (at Kill Devil Hills) were where I saw the best birds - including Prairie Warbler and Brown-headed Nuthatch. There were a lot of Eastern Kingbirds about, that actually seemed to be on the move, while other highlights included Black-and-white Warbler, American Robin, Willets and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Nothing great, but always nice to see.
adult Semipalmated Sandpiper Hatteras, North Carolina, 10th August 2014

juvenile Eastern Willet, Hatteras, North Carolina 10th August 2014

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Black-capped Petrel photos from Hatteras

So, this one is a bit different to my recent travelogue posts. So, I'll set the scene - last Saturday, 9th August, I was fortunate to go out from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina with Brian Patteson on 'The Stormy Petrel' in pursuit of pelagic birds. As someone who has done a fair number of different pelagics, this was a professional one with an excellent boat and good use of chum...

However, for me, there was one real purpose of going - to see Black-capped Petrel and study their variability. And for sure, it's a very variable species where I reckon some people may have one extreme - the 'white-faced' individuals - within their search image. I also learnt that Bob Flood and Ashleigh Fisher 'pterodroma petrels' book is bloody excellent too; I knew this as I reviewed it for Birdwatch last year but flicking through ad hoc and then using it with a purpose are two different beasts. What it notes, and I noticed too, are the following macro points on the 40 or so birds that I saw: -
- there is a great array of variability in Black-capped Petrels. I only saw one bird that would fit the 'white-faced' criteria, with all others being 'dark-faced' or intermediate birds.
- underwing is extremely variable, and seems to some extent to be much paler on intermediate and 'white-faced' birds. Though this is just through the one trip I went on.
- they're not like Great Shearwaters at all; though I did go back to the book on one particular 'dark-faced' bird that looked in some respects close to a Bermuda Petrel - though a check of the large bill and the extensive white on the rump/uppertail confirmed it as a Black-capped.
- wing moult varied somewhat; perhaps this being age related. The 'dark-faced' and intermediate birds seen were largely showing some state of wear (inevitable for a non-breeder).
- the birds skirted the boat, sometimes following in the wake loosely. On one occasion, a bird was sat on the sea in amongst Cory's Shearwaters.

All the above is very interesting, with a lot of the Black-capped Petrels seen at a sea depth of c.2,000 feet. Given that all the other species seen, with the exception of Bridled Tern, are regularly seen off the Azores I can but hope to bump into a Black-capped Petrel out there one day. But until I do, here are a fair few photos of this quality species. Recent studies suggest the two types are genetically distinct (probably at subspecies level).
Photo 1. A typical 'black-faced' individual in active wing moult.

Photo 2. Same bird as photo 1 showing what I'd call an average underwing pattern.

Photo 3. A 'dark-faced' individual with a particularly dark underwing.

Photo 4. Probably what you'd call an intermediate morph, though on the darker side. Note the relatively pale underwing and also the dusky half collar on the hindneck.

Photo 5. A 'dark-faced' bird exhibiting wing moult as well as the broad white rump and uppertail.

Photo 6. Same bird as in photo 5; showing the dark cap with a dusky hindneck extending into the mantle.

Photo 7. An intermediate bird, that initially I thought could be a 'white-faced' bird. However, note the dark smudging behind the eye and also slight hindneck markings.

Photo 8. Another photo of an intermediate morph - note the pallid underwing appearance to the true 'dark-faced' individuals.

Photo 9. Another example of an intermediate morph, on the paler side than average but still showing black to the eye, dusky hindneck and heavy wing moult.

Photo 10. Intermediate morph again showing classic underwing pattern and capped appearance.

Photo 11. Perhaps what most people have as a 'classic' Black-capped Petrel - the isolated black cap, obvious white rump and white hindneck.

Photo 12. Same bird as photo 11 - note the slight supercilium on this intermediate bird.

Photo 13. Illustration of a classic pale underwing - little wing moult going on here. Breeding on Hispaniola spans November to May, so perhaps this could be a young bird?

Photo 14. 'Dark-faced' birds especially seemed to be in relatively heavy wing moult.

Photo 15. Another intermediate bird, showing a couple of markings on the hindneck; could well be the same bird as in photo 13 and shows relatively fresh wings.

Photo 16. The facial appearance of this species varies dramatically - some 'dark-faced' birds like this can look rather 'mean' in comparison to their more docile looking intermediate/'white-faced' relatives.

Photo 17. The only truly 'white-faced' bird of the trip. Note almost  a lack of a black cap, the lack of any markings on the hind neck. Also, the theory is that at this time of year adult 'white-faced' birds should be much fresher winged - as in May/June they're often in heavy moult.

Photo 18. Same bird as above, showing the obvious white nape with no dark markings.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon

Having finished up at the Salton Sea, my next mission was to drive for the majority of the day from there to Las Vegas, where Karen would be arriving. The next couple of weeks would be a bird friendly 'non-birding' holiday. Sort of.

So first place on the agenda was Flagstaff; a really pleasant town set up in the pine forests and away from the desert heat. As well as attracting tourists as it's on Route 66, the place is also pretty close to the Grand Canyon - one of those places you must see. Anyway, to the birds - around Flagstaff casual birding produced stuff like Western Tanager, Hairy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed (red-backed) Junco, Mountain Chickadee and Acorn Woodpeckers. Also, with a bit of perseverence I was able to track down a group of Pinyon Jays, a species I'd not seen previously.
Pinyon Jay, Flagstaff
A single Green-tailed Towhee was seen under the chairlift at the Arizona Snowbowl, while at the Grand Canyon (which was pretty birdless to be honest) Western Scrub Jay and a single Black-chinned Sparrow were the highlights.
Dark-eyed Junco, Flagstaff - ssp. dorsalis ("Red-backed Junco")
A bit of target birding always does the trick though. And through research - mainly using Ebird - I'd picked up on a spot for Grey Vireo in an area of junipers to the south of the East Entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park. With some patience and persuasion, I eventually tracked one down - Warbling Vireos and Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers, along with a single Grey Flycatchers and Black-throated Grey Warblers, provided some backup too.

The next three days I spent surviving Las Vegas. An absolutely putrid place, full of the most vacuous and distasteful people on the planet. Not somewhere I think I'd ever enjoy, but for the sake of the holiday somewhere I endured. Completely birdless too, except for the odd Great-tailed Grackle. Time to fly east...

Monday 11 August 2014

Return to the Salton Sea

I can't quite believe that it was only on New Year's Day that I was here last. However, as with a lot of things that I do these days, there was a specific target - seeing a Yellow-footed Gull. And that I did, pulling out an adult in the pre-roost. One thing I didn't do though was get any meaningful photos and so, with the species being much more abundant in summer, I decided on a return. The best place for birding at this vast, saline environment is the southeast end to the north of Brawley - Obsidian Butte and the area immediately to the southwest was where I spent my time this trip.

adult Yellow-footed Gull
I'll do a more in-depth post some other time on the target species, but suffice to say they were showy enough to get the images and understanding that I wanted. At least 80 birds - mainly adults - part of a post-breeding dispersal northwards from Baja California, Mexico; the Salton Sea's the only reliable place to see the species in the USA. There were also California, American Herring, Ring-billed and a couple of Bonaparte's Gulls too.
American Avocet

Long-billed Dowitcher
As always though, the whole place was absolutely buzzing with birds - loads of Long-billed Dowitchers, Wilson's Phalaropes, Least Sandpipers and Killdeers while infinite numbers of Brown Pelicans (and to a lesser extent White) and Double-crested Cormorants lined the shores. Through in the odd Redhead, Western Grebe, Northern Harrier and Burrowing Owl too - not bad for an afternoon and a morning of gull watching. It was bloody hot though.
Double-crested Cormorant


Thursday 7 August 2014

Last day in southeast Arizona

Southeast Arizona had been very kind to me, and with it being my last full day before I started to head north, I was in a position of being able to target a few species that I'd yet to see - namely Gilded Flicker, Lucifer and White-eared Hummingbirds, Rufous-capped Warbler and Grasshopper Sparrow.

And so I started off in Green Valley shortly after dawn where just to the west of the I-19 (the turnoff to Madera Canyon), some gardens with ornamental Saguaro cacti provided some easy views of a Gilded Flicker. This place was a living cemetery, and as Rich will confess, the look on my face when I walked into the golden arches at 6.30am was a picture - literally tens of 70+ people just sitting about eating their Sausage & Egg McMuffins. Anyway, to the birds...

Rufous-capped Warbler, Florida Canyon
And it was back to Florida Canyon, a site I'd visited in the dead of the afternoon a few days previously. Walking up the canyon, with views of another couple of Black-capped Gnatcatchers, I got in position for where the Rufous-capped Warblers were being regularly seen. Rich said they'd be easy enough but, after over 3 hot hours in the canyon, one eventually played ball and started singing. This Mexican species is now a regular breeder in this canyon - with perhaps up to 4 singing birds this year - and seems to be the best place in the ABA region to regularly see this species currently. Broad-billed Hummingbirds darted about, and a Blue Grosbeak was busy attending to its nest.
Grasshopper Sparrow, Las Cienegas
With the warbler finally seen, Las Cienegas grasslands was the next port of call (after the best burrito of the trip). This steppe-like area was ripe for sparrows - Botteri's, Cassin's and of course some really nice, fairly diminutive Grasshopper Sparrows. A really showy Pronghorn, of the endangered Sonoran race sonoriensis, was quality too.

Pronghorn, Las Cienegas
And then it was back to Miller Canyon, with White-eared Hummingbird and better views of Spotted Owl in mind. Luck was with us, and at Beatty's hummingbird feeders the White-eared Hummingbird showed well alongside a host of other hummers - Calliope, Anna's, Black-chinned, Anna's, Magnificent, Broad-tailed and Broad-billed. Mega stuff!
White-eared Hummingbird, Beatty's Ranch
The two young Mexican Spotted Owls were pretty inquisitive up the canyon too: -
Mexican Spotted Owl(et), Miller Canyon
And with an hour or so of light left, we headed to Ash Canyon and the feeders at the lovely Mary Jo's - complete with her African Grey Parrots. This was good timing as a Lucifer Hummingbird (as well as a Lucifer x Costa's Hummingbird) had been coming into the feeders late on in the day; and tonight there wasn't to be any disappointment with firstly the hybrid, and then just before dusk, the Lucifer fed itself up in the twilight.

So, with just a couple of hours sleep (as Rich was doing some guiding for the Tucson Audubon Society) I said my farewells and immense thanks - and headed to the infamous Patagonia Rest Stop where a pair of Thick-billed Kingbirds were lurking in the early morning gloom. These were the last birds of any note I saw in southeast Arizona, an area of immense birding potential and varied landscape. Now  it was just a small drive to that saline spot in southeastern California...
Thick-billed Kingbird, Patagonia Rest Stop