Sunday 26 April 2015

Hudsonian Godwit in Somerset... just!

This hobby is meant to be pleasurable, a distraction from the stresses and strains of everyday life apparently. It isn't. Yesterday, for example was a case in point. Karen was away for the day, and had left me in charge of doing two very important things - it was our final chance to pick up the wedding banns from the church while at the same time, a boiler was being fitted and some strength was needed to transport the old one out. To cap it all off, I needed to be in Woking for the evening to help transport some bits and bobs back into London. I normally don't have commitments, let alone three in one day.

So I really didn't appreciate the call from Bob W (first time I've seen RBA broadcasting news well in advance of BirdGuides, since I relinquished my pager a year or two ago), informing me of a Hudsonian Godwit in Somerset. An easy twitch in normal circumstances with no water to cross. Anyway, I was well and truly screwed as those wedding banns just had to be picked up; there really wasn't an option. So that was fine, I'd be off just after 10am. Or perhaps not, what with the church being a bit laissez faire with their punctuality combined with the old boiler not being as easy to extricate as originally thought. I ended up leaving southeast London at 12.15pm. Sub-optimal, and a Common Sandpiper on Greenland Dock - a decent bird for the patch - did its best to cheer me up.

Fortunately, traffic was very average as I headed through London town and once on the M4, it's remarkable how close you can make Bristol with a bit of downward force on the right hand pedal. And so it was that I arrived at Meare Heath at 3.25pm - probably Britain's most impressive reedbed reserve these days? It felt totally continental, whether that be Med style or Danube style I'm not sure. What's for certain is that, as well as the hoped for yank, I saw 3 Cranes, 3 Great White Egrets, a Spoonbill, a handful of Bittern sightings and a Wood Sandpiper - all in the space of a couple of hours.

And yes, Britain's third Hudsonian Godwit and the first since I've been out of nappies was gladly received. I was mega excited this time last year when I saw the species for the first time in Texas, so to unblock this golden oldie in Britain was pretty special - it's not the firsts you dream of, it's birds like Hudwits that really get you going. Not the brightest of individuals and presumably a female, I watched it at mid distance for just over half an hour as it fed at the back of the pool enjoying its intricately patterned upperparts and undertail coverts, as well as its nice black underwing coverts.

With the weather and light poor, I was just waiting to get my camera out on it... as surely it was going to stick about for the rest of the day. But at 4.10pm it suddenly decided to depart with a handful of Black-tailed Godwits. They banked around, looking to land before returning a short while later. But pretty quickly, the Hudsonian Godwit was off again and headed fast west into the distance. And hasn't been seen again as yet. Good views of the underwing I guess, but I was left cold on the pictures front.

I guess that with good views and no photos, I'm still a birder at heart. That's quite satisfying really. Two British Isles ticks in eight days - that's one more than I got the whole of last year. And a new Western Palearctic bird to boot; can't be bad! And with all chores done (including getting back to Woking for 8pm), and the bird seen, all turned out well. If not slightly stressful.

A Lesser Whitethroat in Russia Dock Woodland was today's highlight among marathon fever here in Rotherhithe, as well my first ringed Herring Gull here in just under a month.
1st-winter Herring Gull M7MT Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe 26th April 2015 - ringed at Pitsea, Essex in March 2015

Sunday 19 April 2015

The Great Blue rollercoaster

Picture this - the perfect Atlantic midwinter storm as it hits the southwest of England back in early December 2007. On the Friday afternoon, Ash F stumbled upon a first-winter Great Blue Heron from the hide at Lower Moors. And with the bird present until dusk it was time to give it a go. A decent group of birders managed to somehow fly on the next morning, but amazingly - despite horrendous weather - we couldn't locate this bird. As it happened, the wind then strengthened to 80 mph during the day and with this, the flights stopped and we were all stranded til the Monday. To cut a long story short, I had to miss a day of work, eventually fly off on the Monday as well as return empty handed on the Ardea front. So roll on this week...

Tuesday 14th April. My Champions League watching of the two Madrid clubs was quickly curtailed by a call I received from Bob W, informing me that Ash F had been up to his old tricks and had found another Great Blue Heron. Again in Lower Moors, and then on the beach at Old Town, it was pretty rude not to give this bird a go - and with a bit more information and the bird showing til dusk, I was relatively confident for the next morning. With lots of fog forecast, it looked as though the Scillonian would be the only option. And it was...

We all piled onto the Scillonian, all 70 or so of the usual suspects - same faces, just everyone starting to look that bit older given how long it'd been since a massive bird like this had got us all together. The omens were good; positive news right from first light until we lost signal on the Scillonian crossing between Land's End and the islands. However, despite the fact the bird had remained on Old Town beach all morning, there'd been no sign since 11am when it apparently just headed out of view. Arriving at just after midday, we all had about 4 hours on the island before having to get the boat back - so people starting spreading out. I headed around Peninis, seeing the odd Swallow in the process but not too much else, while others headed out in all directions. It took a couple of hours, but Andy H and Vicky T had the good fortune to relocate the bird; in a weedy field at Holy Vale. A bit of excitement for those nearby, and even before I'd arrived with the majority of others, the bird had been spooked and headed off frustrating pretty much everyone. And on this note, with a requirement to be back in London the next day, I left empty handed despite knowing the bird probably hadn't moved too far.

Thursday came and nearly went with no sign of the heron, despite a load of birders having stayed on and scoured the islands. It wasn't until a Bryher local had posted a photo on Facebook that everyone realised the Great Blue Heron had presumably spent the day on there without being detected. So, car back in action and team assembled, it was back down the M3, A303 and A30 overnight once again. Along with Josh J, James S and Sam V it was back on the Scillonian (where it was good to catch up with Ian E from my 'back in the day' Cheshire times and we had a mini fall of phylloscs) and across to Scilly again. News was again positive, as Billy S had slept over on Bryher so that he could be there at first light, so by 6.30am the heron was again on Big Pool. It was a bit nervous, but with the Scillonian having docked by midday, the 30 or so birders who had come back piled onto one of the inter island boats and headed towards Bryher. The tide was still really low, meaning we had to wait a bit to get through the channel, but once done it was a quick stroll over to the other side of the island where finally it was possible to clap eyes on this: -

1st-winter Great Blue Heron Bryher, Scilly 17th April 2015
Utterly incredible how much of a pain this massive (in all senses of the word) species had been and genuinely good to see, as well as a relief. Having an hour and a bit to watch the bird on Big Pool, it was good to see it catching a small fish despite the relatively poor weather. Plus the opportunity to look at its large size, off white thighs, reddish epaulets and finely streaked neck - add to this a concave looking bill and blotches of reddish/mauve on the next sides too.  I'm not too sure how long it'll stay on Scilly, but with over 35 records from the Azores, it's possible there will be the odd one or two more Great Blue Herons turning up in Britain in the future. Though given that this is only the second, despite everyone's awareness to look for this species, it's always going to be a bit of a mega rarity.

Thursday 9 April 2015

Thayer's Gull and birding in Galicia

I've often thought about a trip to northwest Spain, not just for a quick twitch but as an alternative winter trip destination to let's say Ireland. Anyway, that didn't happen and though a bit late in the season to do any real damage, I thought in April it'd be a nice place and a good trial run to see the lie of the land here.

Galicia is very much like Cornwall and southwest Ireland, with the birding consisting of small estuaries and fish ports. Having trawled through the Rare Birds in Spain website over the years while compiling the WP report for Birdwatch, many of the sites have become pretty familiar before I'd even visited them. Places like Ensada de Insua and A Frouxeira lagoon, and of course San Cibrao where the most bona fide Western Palearctic Thayer's Gull you're ever going to get hangs out each late winter into spring. News wasn't good though on this bird before my visit yesterday, with locals saying that it hadn't been about for a while. However, I put in a good session that paid dividends when I eventually located it among the hordes of Yellow-legged Gulls at Xove fish factory. In bright light, it showed rather well...

adult Thayer's Gull Xove fish farm, Lugo 8th April 2015
A couple of Herring Gulls were around too, an adult and a rather pale, large looking third-winter that I messed up flight shots of by taking my eyes off it at the crucial moment! There were also a couple of ringed Yellow-legged Gulls about, including this black-ringed bird that was ringed last summer in Gijon, Asturias.
1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull San Cibrao, Lugo 8th April 2015 - ringed as a chick in Gijon, Asturias on 14th July 2014.
Being a bit late on in the winter, birds like a long staying Bonaparte's Gull at Carino had moved on and no white-winged gulls were about, though a check of A Frouxeira revealed this rather handsome Merlin in the dunes - a scarce winter visitor apparently, and quite late on in the season for one here.
Merlin A Frouxeira Lagoon, Valdovino, A Coruna 8th April 2015
On the way into La Coruna last night, there was one first-winter Ring-billed Gull at O Burgo. So a re-visit today and in better light produced two 1st-winters together - distinctly different from each other.

1st-winter Ring-billed Gulls O Burgo, A Coruna 9th April 2015 (bird 1 above, bird 2 below)
We'll be heading along the coast tomorrow from La Coruna, hoping to see some more gulls of course, before spending a couple of days in Santiago de Compostela.

Monday 6 April 2015

Gulls at Getlini, Riga, Latvia 4th and 5th April

Saturday and Sunday were spent in Latvia. Getlini Eko (landfill site) near Riga to be precise. And with Mick S, we had two really excellent days of getting to know the gulls of the Baltic. It's a really easy trip to do, with the dump being less than half an hour away from the airport and even less from the city centre where there are loads of hotels and pints of beer for just over a euro! One thing is for sure, I'll be returning to Getlini sooner rather than later.

It's the first trip this far east for gulls that I've done in Europe, so the primary targets of the trip were to look at omissus-type Herring Gulls (those ones with yellow legs, and a bit less black in the primaries, often referred to as Marsh Gulls) as well as enjoy some more Caspian Gulls - as they're always a treat - plus whatever else came along. One thing's for sure, it has quickly got me up to speed (as much as you can do) on Lesser Black-backed races - understanding how perhaps you'd struggle identifying an out-of-range graellsii with the prospect of heuglini (and vice versa) and how can you be certain what you're looking at is a heuglini anyway? There you have it, a minefield.

The highlight for me though was finding a ringed Baltic Gull i.e. a nominate fuscus - and doing the detective work of reading the metal ring. Still awaiting the finer detail, but with a look like this and a ring inscribed 'Riksmuseum Stockholm' it's definitely in the zone: -

adult Baltic Gull metal ringed in Sweden 8113504 - just waiting for the exact location...
Added to this, here is a brief summary the gulls noted over the two days: -
Caspian Gull at least ten birds noted; a third-winter and a second-winter, with all the rest first-winters. A couple of suspect individuals noted, including a Lithuanian ringed bird, that presumably had some Herring Gull influence. Just a couple of shots for starters on this post.

first-winter Caspian Gulls, Getlini Eko
Herring Gull extremely common, with the majority of birds being omissus-type, yellow legged birds. There were some very bright legged birds, and some pink-legged birds presumably from further north and west. Birds typically showed a nice white tip to P10, a subterminal band to P9 and either a small band or broken band on P5 with no black at all on P4 - what I was expecting which is always nice. Four ringed birds - two from Lithuania, one from Latvia and one from Finland.

adult omissus-type Herring Gulls, Getlini Eko
Lesser Black-backed Gull a handful seen; three adults of which two looked good candidates for nominate fuscus while another looked very graellsii-like despite the range so perhaps it's either this or heuglini (though the mirrors aren't ideal for a'classic' of the latter).

Great Black-backed Gull two birds seen, an adult and a first-winter.

Common Gull small numbers seen with perhaps fifteen to twenty birds present.

Black-headed Gull the commonest gull, and with a few rings about, very interesting to look through. Rings from Germany, Denmark, Latvia, two from Poland and most interesting of all from Northern Ireland!
Black-headed Gull 2AFD, Getlini Eko - ringed at Ballymena, County Antrim on 12th February 2014 and present there this winter until as recently as 22nd March 2015. Only the second ever bird from this scheme to be recorded outside of the UK; shows that a good proportion of our wintering Black-headed Gulls breed further east
Also, this leucistic gull, or potentially albinistic, was present too. The size of a Herring Gull, its slim and long bill does give a slight cachinnans feel. However, all white birds don't really give you much to go on especially when bare part colouration in these freak birds has no resemblance to what it would be like in normally pigmented birds.

gull sp., Getlini Eko
There'll be a few more photos to come once I get the time to do a bit of polishing off.

Well, we did also try to access the coast for something slightly different, but had little luck in tracking much down - just a Great Grey Shrike on wires over a typically boggy area at Mangalsalas. We could have seen what many would term 'real' birds, including Pygmy and Ural Owls, plus some decent woodpeckers, but we didn't bother. Oh yeah, and on the Sunday, three of these guys were enjoying the dump alongside the gulls...
White Stork, Getlini Eko