Saturday 29 August 2015

Swinhoe's on the Azores pelagic again but...

It's good to be back in London, with another August Azores Pelagic tour under the belt. I'm still getting the odd throwback whiff of chum that's stuck into my skin, but this year's sacrificial clothes were left behind on Graciosa.

I had it very hard this year; in fact, it's a miracle in itself that we got out to the Bank of Fortune this year. After going out on Tuesday for a few hours (detailed in the last post), Wednesday was storm force - big winds and high seas. So much so that walking back on Wednesday evening with the wind still pushing 40+ mph, I told the group that we wouldn't reach the Bank of Fortune at all on this trip. And so people wanted to leave Graciosa (we saw nothing scouting about the island on the Wednesday bar three Long-tailed Skuas past Ponta da Barca) and head back to Terceira. But Rolando had surprising news on Thursday morning and said 'let's do it!' and so we all headed back from the SATA office and quickly got our boat gear on.

We were off to the Bank of Fortune! Having been seawatching the evening before and the sea looking abysmally rough, it had flattened out remarkably though there was still a swell. I opted to purely focus on chumming for the participants so left my camera behind. Bulwer's Petrels were seen on the way out to the bank, but we didn't stop much until we got to one of the 'annual' GPS points. Monteiro's Storm-petrels found my petrel liquor very quickly, and half an hour later I called the first of two Wilson's Storm-petrels - they showed really nicely this year. An adult Arctic Skua and then an adult Pomarine Skua (complete with 'spoons') joined the party.
Monteiro's Storm-petrel at the Bank of Fortune
We then moved off to a second GPS point, and knowing this was going to be our last real chance of anything mega (with Friday's weather looking poor), I really went for it on the chum front. It started off slowly, with a few Monteiro's Storm-petrels and another Wilson's Petrel and an adult Long-tailed Skua. Slowly, momentum gained, and then there was the call from Bob Swann of 'dark-rumped petrel' that quickly turned into 'Swinhoe's Petrel' when a few others got onto it. I was chumming and with a low vantage point, failed to get onto it first time around. Then it did another circuit - never close - and then a third, when finally I could be happy that for the fourth year running (and fifth successive trip!) the Azores Pelagic team had recorded a Swinhoe's Storm-petrel. A couple of shots were rattled off too from what I gather. Once again, the flight action was very different to the nearby Monteiro's, being distinctively butterfly like and slightly more erratic.

So all was well despite the tricky weather, and to cap it off on the way back a Little Shearwater showed for all too. So with lots of Great Shearwaters, and the Sooty Tern earlier in the week, (nearly) everyone was happy.

But what this year has taught me is that birders are a difficult bunch, or at least some are. With my normal line of work being in a 'challenging' London school this week was comparatively difficult, and the behaviour of some people in times of adversity left a lot to be desired. Peter and I run these trips (and don't get paid!) to explore the pelagic potential of the Azores, and yes we're having good luck with Swinhoe's Storm-petrels, but anyone coming in the future needs to approach these trips as follows: -
- the weather can be bad and therefore it is not our fault if we can't get out to sea
- there are few birding sites known on Graciosa (though we did find a Spotted Sandpiper this year) so if we don't go out, there may need to be a lot of relaxing time
- please don't shoot the messenger if you don't get Swinhoe's Storm-petrel (or in one case this year, South Polar Skua!!)
- enjoy the Monteiro's Storm-petrels, Sooty Tern(s) and just being out in the mid-Atlantic

Anyway, we got flown back to Terceira on Friday evening by Captain Monteiro, which was a nice coincidence. And with an hour to spare, I did a mad dash around Cabo da Praia quarry and found three juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers (presuming one to be from last weekend) and an adult White-rumped Sandpiper still. And then it was back to the airport, ready for a nice long stint in London to unwind at work next week!
two of the three Semipalmated Sandpipers at Cabo da Praia, Terceira 28th August 2015
Looks like we're already fully booked for 2016 too but do contact me if you're interested as you never know, we may have more spaces/trips come up.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Poor weather mid-Atlantic

The second update from this year's August Azores trip. Unfortunately though, the Azores High has long since departed and today (and especially tomorrow) is revved up wind wise. Leading a group of expectant birders and telling them that the weather's going to get in the way is never ideal, but that seems to be the case currently.

However, we managed to get out on the boat this morning in ever increasing seas. With a couple of circuits of Ilheu da Praia, I managed to safely locate target number one for several of the birders - Sooty Tern. A juvenile showed pretty well in the end, coming to the boat and the chum I'd thrown out. Really encouraging that for a second successive year, the species has bred on the island (the only breeding site in the Western Palearctic). No sign of either adults, though choppy weather didn't help...
juvenile Sooty Tern off Ilheu da Praia, Graciosa 25th August 2015
And so to that Azores' endemic - Monteiro's Storm-petrel. Having seen a couple of mid-distance birds on the Terceira to Graciosa ferry (along with two Long-tailed Skuas, a couple of Bulwer's Petrels and several Great Shearwaters), I managed to bring one in by chumming relatively close to Ilheu da Praia. I'm hoping that's not the only one of the trip, but as it stands, getting to the Bank of Fortune this year could be slightly problematic. We'll see...

Anyway, just one new wader to add since the last post - an adult Pectoral Sandpiper arrived at Cabo da Praia, Terceira on Sunday morning and was still about when we all left the site yesterday afternoon.
adult Pectoral Sandpiper Cabo da Praia, Terceira 23rd August 2015

Saturday 22 August 2015

Azores time - Cabo da Praia delivers again

I flew out from London yesterday morning, a couple of days in advance of the guys that I'll be taking on the now annual Azores pelagic. After a smooth flight, I arrived on Terceira early evening and naturally headed straight down to the quarry at Cabo da Praia. With expectations pretty low after what seems to have been a pretty static summer mid-Atlantic, I was overjoyed to find three new yanks - best of all was a juvenile Least Sandpiper (is this the earliest ever juvenile in the WP?): -
juvenile Least Sandpiper Cabo da Praia, Terceira 21st August 2015
I was also a bit pumped up with this juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper. As I say every year, you can't call it the autumn until you've got your first displaced Nearctic youth wader under your belt. A nice long-billed bird, presumably a female fresh out of the far eastern Canadian Arctic.
juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper Cabo da Praia, Terceira 22nd August 2015
Semipalmated (left) and Least Sandpiper (right) Cabo da Praia, Terceira 21st August 2015
Predictably for this time of year, the third new yank was an adult White-rumped Sandpiper. And along with Semipalmated Plover and Redshank (a decent bird out here), that was an eventful first evening and as always really good to be out here again.

Today was a bit of a relaxation day, what with the manic nature of the two days I was in school doing all the results stuff being sandwiched in between coming here and getting back from Ecuador. Nevertheless, there was still some good birds to be had with a similar line up in the quarry to yesterday, less the Least Sand but with a Hudsonian Whimbrel and Curlew Sandpiper instead. And a trip up to the centre of the island was typically hard work, though a Glossy Ibis that has been about for a while decided to show itself at Lagoa do Junco.
Glossy Ibis Lagoa do Junco, Terceira 22nd August 2015
A fair bit of time has been spent with the atlantis Yellow-legged Gulls in the harbour at Praia da Vitoria. Loads of photos to delight you with at a later date of course.

Thursday 20 August 2015

Just for starters - Ecuador and the Galapagos

It's pretty hard to get writing when you've been away for so long. I've been in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands for pretty much the last four weeks - the ageing laptop stayed at home in London, what with the humidity of the Amazon likely to have taken its toll. Karen and I had a fantastic time, enjoying the scenery, culture and wildlife.
Sparkling Violetear - first afternoon of the holiday birding in Quito's Botanic Gardens
It was a fantastic trip. We started off in Quito for a few days to acclimatise, before heading into the Amazon at Sacha Lodge. It was rainy, sticky and a hard slog but there were a few jewels to be seen.
Paradise Tanager - one of the real gems of the Amazon
It was then straight over to Darwin's islands, the Galapagos where the wildlife is how you see it on television; everything shows well and comes towards you. Marine Iguana and Galapagos Sea Lions everywhere, along with some quality birds and copious amounts of them too. Perhaps the most impressive location for wildlife I've been to and perhaps ever likely to go. It was one of those places that actually lived up to the expectation, and they're managing the tourists relatively well too.
Waved Albatross - critically endangered, breeding on the island of Espanola
Galapagos Petrel - another critically endangered species
adult Swallow-tailed Gull - one of the main attractions of the trip for me
Once finished in the mid-Pacific, it was back to Quito and up into the cloud forests around Mindo. Hummingbirds, Antpittas and Tanagers galore.
Rufous-breasted Antthrush - showed well along a track in the cloud forest near Mindo
Giant Antpitta - 'Manuel', the boldest of the antpittas at Paz de las Aves
Ochre-breasted Antpitta - 'Shakira', the smallest of Angel Paz's antpitta brigade
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock - gaudy in plumage, and enjoyable (though rather raucous) while lekking
At times it was birding overload for somebody who hasn't been to South America for over a decade, but with over 420 species recorded at a pretty leisurely pace, I was mightily impressed with the whole holiday. I'll break things down a little bit more over the next few weeks...
Swallow-tailed Gull - juvenile in the warm evening light