Friday 31 October 2014

Azores days 6 and 7 - goodbye to Corvo for another year

So that's it. Another autumn on Corvo done, just writing this from the airport on Terceira before a late flight to Lisbon. It's been another enjoyable one - with the obvious highlight being the Northern Shrike (as well as the en-route Willet). But again, a swine of an Eastern Crowned Warbler has turned up and caught me with my pants down once more. I'll be back in London not soon enough (as TAP are on strike so I've been re-routed via Madrid, and as a result, trying to get back quicker wasn't an option) but if it's there tomorrow then I'll be in Cleveland for dawn Sunday...
Long-billed Dowitcher on the airstrip, Corvo 31st October 2014

But anyway, here's the update from the last couple of days on the rock. And I'll start with today - where a walk around the village fields pre-flight produced a lovely Long-billed Dowitcher on the airstrip. Birds right up until the last, and with a cargo ship seen passing east, sure there'll be some new yanks on the island. Just nobody to find them, as we all left the rock this afternoon.

So what about yesterday? Not much really. Started off at the reservoir, where there was a single White-rumped Sandpiper and a Snow Bunting to show for my efforts. I then headed down into Lapa where there was a Monarch butterfly whipped through, stirring up memories of those halcyon days on Scilly in the 90s - where these orange beasts, and other yanks, were more or less taken for granted. I also located a Chiffchaff in Lapa too, and while this was going on, the Germans had relocated the Scarlet Tanager in Tennessee Valley. For me, despite an afternoon vigil, there was no sign and I descended down into the village as the sun started to set.

With a few hours to kill in Terceira this afternoon, it was rude not to head to the hotspots. The Short-billed Dowitcher at Cabo da Praia made it a double dowitcher day, while other stuff there included single Pec and White-rumped Sands, a couple of Semipalmated Plovers and Euros such as a Redshank, Little Stint and two Curlew Sandpipers. Around at Paul da Praia, there was a female Lesser Scaup and Blue-winged Teal to round things off.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Azores day 5 - shrike it lucky

The fog was still around this morning, but not as bad as yesterday. So I headed up to the far end of the island and went solo into Lighthouse Valley - the theatre of dreams with records of Golden-winged and Prairie Warbler amongst others. There was, alas, nothing there today amongst the Blackcaps, Canaries, Blackbirds and Chaffinches.

The other guys managed to locate the Chimney Swift from the whale watching hut between Lighthouse Valley and Cantinho but by the time I got there, the fog had closed in and there was no joy. So Jerome and I headed down the middle road, stopping at Poco d'Agua for a bit where I was able to see my first Redpoll on the Azores. Looked pretty standard to be honest. And then I headed up to Pico where, despite a fair bit of effort, I saw nothing. Heading out of Pico though, the Germans were trying to radio through something - in the end, I deciphered that there was a Northern Oriole in Poco d'Agua and they confirmed this. So off I went, getting Jerome in the process.

Needless to say, we both arrived by the road and the bird had flown a minute or so previously. So I then asked 'was it a bright individual?' to which Jurgen showed me a shot on his camera... it was not a bloody Northern Oriole, but the Northern Shrike - an absolute crippler of a bird, a species I'd never previously seen in the US and something I thought I'd be going into the caldeirao to see. I hit the roof, with the cock up in communication. A nervous half hour or so, in wind and poor visibility, was testing but in the end, the sun shone through and the bird duly performed.
1st-winter Northern Shrike (race borealis), Poco d'Agua, Corvo 29th October 2014
Despite being a first-winter, the bird was really vocal - singing continually at times, perched low in the hydrangeas. Pale lores, heavy barring and overall dusky tones to the head and nape were really obvious. I watched the bird for an hour or so, before it headed down the valley and into the gloom. Once again, coming late to Corvo had paid off with the best bird of the season still lingering.

Heading back down to the village, I saw a couple of Collared Doves in the higher fields - a new bird for me here, as the species wasn't about on the island until this year. A stroll around the middle fields late on produced a Tree Pipit (a major bird here) courtesy of Jerome and a perplexing falcon that headed fast over late on has meant a later than expected night.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Azores days 3 and 4 - foggy on the rock

Yesterday was largely spent in transit getting from Sao Miguel onto Corvo; I ended up briefly visiting a further two islands (Terceira and Faial) on my way here as for some reason, that's what SATA scheduled for me. Anyway the flights were uneventful, as was the birding arounf the village yesterday afternoon. Since arriving here, the whole of the island is covered in fog so places like the caldeirao (where there should still be a Northern Shrike), the reservoir, the upper fields and the upper parts of the ribeiras have been a total write off.

Luckily though, the end of the lower road - Cantinho and Fojo - were birdable to an extent today, so that's where I headed. And in a lucky break, just as I was leaving Cantinho and heading back along the road, the cloud lifted a bit and there was a Chimney Swift flying low over the trees. In true Corvo style - no photo, no bird - so got a few grainy shots on ISO2000.
Chimney Swift over Cantinho, Corvo 28th October 2014
I then headed up into Fojo from the lower road, and slipping and sliding made my way up beyond the white house where I hung about for a while. Pishing away, wading through the Chaffinches and Blackcaps, along came that sweet 'tsip' that is only ever going to be one thing - a Nearctic wood warbler. And indeed it was, a Black-and-white Warbler. But within 10 seconds or so, there was more movement and amazingly another appeared right beside it. Both looking similar, in that they were 1st-winter males, the whole thing must have lasted 30 seconds or so before they both headed off calling across the clearing. Only on Corvo. There have been sightings of Black-and-white Warbler (one bird) in Fojo up until 20th October, with further sightings this autumn of birds in Cantinho and Da Ponte. All, as far as I'm aware, have been 1st-winter males so difficult to unravel how many birds.
Black-and-white Warbler in Fojo, Corvo 28th October 2014
I managed a couple of Chiffchaffs together at the bottom of Fojo, but apart from a healthy total of 4 Woodcocks flushed in the gloom, the rest of the day was effort for nothing. Interesting to note some rather bizarre responses on other social media sites today about vagrant searching in the Azores - seems like those rocked up in their Norfolk armchairs see it as rather easy. Good luck to anyone who tries it out here, as it's tough. And as always, the rewards are contextual.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Azores day 2 - sunny Sao Miguel

The Azores is a funny old place. Every island is different, and with only three flights a week to Corvo (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), it was another day for me on Sao Miguel today. To be honest, in other years, I'd have been chomping at the bit to get west but with the tiredness of a hectic week still in me it was nice to chill out at a leisurely pace. I even managed to squeeze in an ice cream this evening.
Western Willet Ponta Degada ETAR, Sao Miguel 26th October 2014
With a full check of the sites in the eastern half of the island, it was obvious that settled conditions equals no birds. Highlights, if that's what you call them, were a female Wigeon and female Teal at Lagoa das Furnas and a female Wigeon at Faja de Cima. However, plenty of opportunities for papping Azorean Gulls were taken, and another Western Willet show - even better than yesterday - made sure I had another nice day. There really is very little that beats getting close to vagrant Nearctic waders. With the Atlantic like a millpond this September, and Ireland failing to deliver, this Willet is the first chance I've had this autumn.
Western Willet Ponta Degada ETAR, Sao Miguel 26th October 2014

I've just had my last supper - a nice bit of local meat with salad - in preparation for the next five days, in the culinary desert that is Corvo. Anyway, hopefully it'll be another memorable trip out on 'The Rock' but we'll see. With a few days of westerly winds and a Northern Shrike (Nearctic race borealis) waiting for me, it could be a lot worse.

Azorean Yellow-legged Gulls at Vila Franca do Campo, Sao Miguel - first-winter (top) and second-winter (below)

Saturday 25 October 2014

Azores day 1 - Western Willet

Never have I needed a break as much as this. Ofsted decided to come to school Thursday and Friday. Hopefully you'll appreciate the torture I've been through leading up to the usual night on the floor of Lisbon airport last night. However, I arrived in Ponta Delgada earlier this morning, with one plan for the day - see the Willet and then relax.

And, thankfully, that's what happened. Ever since first turning up in late September, this Willet has been hanging about the rocky shore of Ponta Delgada ETAR (water treatment area), and though often going missing for several hours (like it was this morning), it showed typically well for the species. A real mega bird in a WP context, with really just the one previously well-watched bird in Norway in the early 90s. So I was the latest to join the list of regular Azores autumn goers to take a look at this beast.

Western Willet, Ponta Delgada ETAR, Sao Miguel, Azores 25th October 2014
When the first photos appeared of this bird, I was quite quick to jump to the conclusion that it looked leggy and rather long billed. However, as more people saw it and more photos emerged, the shift towards a Western Willet occurred quite rightly - indeed, when in the flesh, it's obvious. Check out the ABA paper here for more on the subspecific (species?) identification. If I'd have actually thought about its rocky shore preference, this would be completely wrong for Eastern too.

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.