Monday 25 December 2017

Dwarf Bittern twitch to Fuerteventura

I came out of Western Palearctic retirement a couple of weekends ago. There are a few birds that, despite never likely to occur in Britain/Ireland, still hold that bit of mystique due to their WP status. And a Dwarf Bittern that had recently been found on Fuerteventura was a classic example of that type of bird. Not exactly easy to see in their native sub-Saharan range, and an extreme vagrant to the WP with no twitchable birds over the past decade either. With it lingering too, and showing nicely, that was all the more reason to have a weekend on a sun-soaked island.

Arriving late morning on the Saturday, I was kindly picked up by Josh J and Ed S who'd arrived on the island the day before. A quick drive took us to Barranco de Rio Cabras where, parking in the middle of the desert, we quickly walked a couple of hundred yards to the barranco (canyon/wadi) where there the bird had been. It was a bit of a surprise to find so much water and vegetation down in the bottom, but as the other guys had seen the bittern the day before, it didn't take long to locate: -

Dwarf Bittern Barranco de Rio Cabras, Fuerteventura 9th December 2017
It was a really showy bird, so long as you waited for it to feed along the small stream - any sudden movement, and it was gone. A proper delight to see, more reminiscent of a Striated/Green Heron rather than a bittern in terms of how it was feeding. The place was also full of other decent species with a couple of pairs of Fuerteventura Chats, two White Storks, Egyptian Vultures, Berthelot's Pipits and African Blue Tits all seen in the barranco on the couple of visits we made there.
Fuerteventura Chat Barranco de Rio Cabras, Fuerteventura 9th December 2017
It's rude on any trip to Fuerteventura to not go and see its resident specialities, so on the Sunday morning the Tindaya Plains delivered with five Houbara Bustards, including a showy bird just as we were heading off: -

Houbara Bustard Tindaya Plains, Fuerteventura 10th December 2017
This was my third visit to the island (following an Allen's Gallinule twitch in December 2011 and a week there back in 2003), and one thing that was really obvious was the spread of Ruddy Shelducks like wildfire. There were nearly a couple of hundred of them at the traditional site of Embalse de los Molinos, while even in Caleta de Fuste - on the golf course there - there must have been in excess of fifty of the beasts.
Ruddy Shelduck Caleta de Fuste, Fuerteventura 11th December 2017
Unfortunately, on the way home our flight back to Stansted was cancelled due to snow there. This meant we had a bonus morning at the expense of Jet2, and while Josh and Ed scoffed their faces on rancid food, Alan L and I had a quick look around the golf course. The highlight being this Golden Plover: -
Golden Plover Caleta de Fuste, Fuerteventura 11th December 2017
And so that was that, another decent weekend break filled with nice memories, good tapas and pleasant company. Just what you want from WP twitches these days.

Friday 22 December 2017

Local Jack Snipe plus the usual gulls

I finished for the Christmas holidays on Wednesday, so typically I've had time to do a bit of local stuff while fretting over braving the shops and completing the gulls section for the 2016 London Bird Report. It almost feels like it'd be less work going back to work! Although you don't see things like this at work: -
Jack Snipe Greenwich Ecology Park, London 22nd December 2017
Jack Snipe is a bird I rarely see these days, so I was really happy to have a look at this fine chap as it bounced about on the small pond in Greenwich Ecology Park. In fact, it felt like I was back on Scilly staring at them on Lower Moors or Porthellick instead of having it with a backdrop of Canary Wharf. A thoroughly enjoyable, cryptically plumaged bird.

With low tides mid morning, I got the loaves out in the hope there'd be something about. Today and yesterday I visited Thames Barrier Park and it was really barren, which was a great shame considering how decent this stretch of the Thames was last winter. I'm going to put it down to the mild weather and continual west/southwest winds which just doesn't bring the roaming gulls into the big city! Nevertheless, there were four Yellow-legged Gulls there today (an adult and three 1st-winters) and three yesterday (an adult and two first-winters) but not the hoped for Caspian Gull.
1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 21st December 2017
Meanwhile in Rotherhithe yesterday, on Greenland Dock I managed my first ever Shoveler for the site - a female along with 49 Tufted Ducks - that presumably had decided to wander from nearby Southwark Park (where the species is regular).

Monday 18 December 2017

Snaresbrook Casp and a Danish OAP

I went out for the morning yesterday, with the intention of doing more than I actually did - started out late (couldn't rise from my slumber) and finished early (rain and general gloom). Nevertheless, I'm not one to turn down a Caspian Gull, and so first port of call (after the habitual check of Rotherhithe) was Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook. Not a place I'd been to before, but after a brief wait the 3rd-winter Caspian Gull came in nicely: -

3rd-winter Caspian Gull Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook, London 17th December 2017
This bird isn't an absolute classic, in that it lacks any mirror on P9 that you'd probably expect at this age and whether it's just me, but I'd like a smaller eye. Other than that, it felt ok with a bit of remnant Casp-like neck streaking, decent mantle tone and parallel-sided bill etc. But if I were a betting man, I'd edge towards one of those Casps from the western edge of their range (also affectionately known as 'German muck'). Wherever it is from, it passes the cachinnans litmus test these days though I'm sure that we're all becoming more lenient with age (and yellow 'X' rings)!

Meanwhile, down the road in Wanstead I managed to round the day off nicely with three Common Gull rings (two old faithfuls - from Norway and Pitsea - and a metal ringed Danish bird which proved to be a rather exciting OAP): -
adult Common Gull Wanstead, London 17th December 2017 - metal ringed as a chick at Lille Svelmø, Fåborg, west of Copenhagen, Denmark on 21st June 1995. So 22 years old! 
3rd-winter Common Gull Wanstead, London 17th December 2017 - JZ66, a regular wintering bird here having been ringed in Oslo as a 1st-winter in September 2015

And that was that. Another weekend, a load of gulls. All that a guy needs to keep him away from anything to do with Christmas, thankfully.

Saturday 16 December 2017

A handful (and a half) Casps at Dunge

A quick trip down to Dungeness today with Dante and Josh was nice and pleasant, particularly in the midwinter sunshine. We got down there mid-morning and headed straight to the fish hut and fishing boat area, where we almost found our first Caspian Gull of the day... or at least a gull that seemed to have Caspian Gull genes in it. 

1st-winter (presumed) Caspian x Herring Gull Dungeness, Kent 16th December 2017
However, Martin C contacted me from just a couple of hundred metres away with the real deal. A really good looking 1st-winter Caspian Gull on the beach by the fishing boats: -

1st-winter Caspian Gull Dungeness, Kent 16th December 2017
There was a nice 1st-winter Norwegian Great Black-backed Gull as well, which had been ringed at Langholmen, Rogaland as a chick on 28th June 2017 and was first seen at Dungeness on 11th November 2017.
1st-winter Great Black-backed Gull JJ904 Dungeness, Kent 16th December 2017
We headed off to Lade Pits for a bit of general birding, where a female Long-tailed Duck and a Slavonian Grebe were the highlights. Once finished there, we headed back towards Lydd where there were a decent total of 16 Bewick's Swans (including 4 juveniles) in fields at Cockles Bridge as well as a male Merlin over there. A quick check of the RSPB Reserve produced a good haul of Caspian Gulls - all from either the Makepeace Hide or Firth Hide, and all (an adult, two third-winters and a scabby looking, German-style 1st-winter) typically distant.

And it was then back to the fishing boats for the afternoon, where we predictably met Mick and Richard. Surprisingly things here were quiet, bar a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull and a bread investigating Kittiwake: -
Kittiwake Dungeness, Kent 16th December 2017
So it was back to the reserve for the last hour or so of light, where the classy 1st-winter Caspian Gull from the fishing boats earlier this morning had relocated. And that was pretty much the last bit of action as the light failed, and the clouds started to gather. Not a bad day with a handful of Caspian Gulls plus a bit of back up more generally.

Saturday 2 December 2017

White-crowned Black Wheatear and a lovely Red-necked Phalarope

It was going to be a normal day today, doing the gulls. That is until early evening yesterday, when news started to surface about a White-crowned Black Wheatear in North Lincolnshire - the second for Britain and the first since 1982. The location eventually firmed up, and there were photos of the bird so it was an easy decision to be able to go. Obviously December on northwesterlies isn't an ideal time of year, and so there was the acknowledgement that it may not be a wild bird; especially considering birds in Germany/The Netherlands in recent years had been deemed escapes from captivity. But, with nothing else planned, then why the heck not head up despite any misgivings...

And there we were just after dawn, walking about a typically Scunthorpe-like area of Scunthorpe in a typically fringe of society way, just like the pursuit of twitching tends to dictate! No sign of the target bird first thing, but the finder was about and was lapping up the 100 or so birders and showing us all his photos from the day before. Certainly no rings, so that was a good thing. The urban environment wasn't perhaps ideal, but the snow could have forced it in and that said, I've seen the species regularly in Moroccan settlements. As people spread out more and more, it seemed as though locals had been seeing the bird for a couple of weeks, had taken photos and... the keeper, who had lost the bird, had come to try and catch it. So case closed?
escaped adult White-crowned Black Wheatear Scunthorpe, Lincs 2nd December 2017
I'm afraid it was. Although a bit sketchy and being 80 years old, the owner did confess that he'd lost a White-crowned Black Wheatear. A short while after the chain of conversations had been connected, the target bird did appear - on a house window sill, where it sat nodding itself to sleep rather forlornly. We left shortly afterwards, but it didn't take much longer for the bird to be recaptured and return for its rightful(?) owner.

So what have I learnt from this experience? Not much I already didn't know - all sorts of nonsense species are kept in captivity and the good old adage 'if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is'.

And so that was that. Time for a real bird, and with Dante S in tow, we headed to Covenham Reservoir and its extremely late juvenile Red-necked Phalarope. It had been 22 years since I'd last been here, a day in November 1995 when my mum drove me and Tom Lowe there on the way back from Spurn to see a Grey Phalarope and Great Northern Diver. Like the previous visit, this time was a success too: -

juvenile Red-necked Phalarope Covenham Reservoir, Lincs 2nd December 2017
It is ridiculous to think this bird hasn't moulted into first-winter plumage!

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Northern Treecreeper in Shetland last month

I'll confess to not knowing much more than anyone else on Northern Treecreepers on Sunday 22nd October, when I stumbled upon one in the plantation near the cemetery at Vidlin, Shetland. Out of the corner of my eye, when scanning up to the foliage for a Yellow-browed Warbler I'd just located, a movement quickly darted in the darkness low down. In the poor light, this movement is etched as being really pale grey - cold toned. And of course it transpired that this was a treecreeper, which in itself is a pretty rare bird on Shetland. So knowing that there'd been a Northern Treecreeper nearby on Out Skerries, it was not exactly a bold call to assume this was going to be a non-native treecreeper...
Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017
What struck me straight away were two things: -
1. How this bird was pecking away low down, on moss clad trees, and moving fairly rapidly within a small area. It was the most showy treecreeper I'd ever seen!
2. It was mega cold in appearance, more so than the photos suggest. It did give a bit of a Black-and-White Warbler feel... honestly.

Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017 - note the cold tone to the underparts and upperparts, and especially the broad white supercilium that broadens behind the eye and almost hits the upperparts; little of evidence of rufous/warmth in any of the plumage including the uppertail and rump.
Most of us will be aware of Northern Treecreepers, potentially from commentary from the late Martin Garner on his Flamborough bird here and here and also in his Birding Frontiers Challenge Series: Autumn. Anyway, Northern Treecreeper refers to the nominate race familiaris, with the warmer toned British birds being aptly named the britannica subspecies. Nominate birds are apparently clinal, with the further east you go the colder and greyer they become - so the BBRC says. And why are the BBRC interested? Because it is a description species, although there is a bit of conflicting info in terms of its actual status: -
- 'Nominate familiaris is also on the British List but its published status in the literature is somewhat contradictory. Witherby et al. (1940) listed only four records but it is described in the BOU 8th Checklist and in Kehoe (2006) as a scarce migrant. Cramp et al. (1993) described it as a rare vagrant in Britain and also noted its rarity in the Netherlands and on Heligoland, Germany. It appears to be a genuinely rare late autumn (and sometimes wintering) vagrant, occurring as part of occasional irruptions out of Scandinavia and with very few confirmed records from east coast migration ‘hotspots’. Only on Shetland are more occurrences documented but even here it is rare.' BBRC website.
 - '39 records in Shetland up to 2004, where British birds assumed not to occur. 78 Lanceolated Warblers and 128 Subalpine Warblers in the same period in Shetland. Exceptionally, two were trapped at Spurn in autumn 2013 but otherwise 3 previous confirmed records of Northern Treecreeper. In Norfolk there are 3 records indicted with one trapped bird with biometrics outside of the range for brittanicaOn the Farne Islands (Northumberland) one accepted record on 20th October 2004  out of 22 records of Treecreeper in total per David Steele. Conclusion: It's a rare bird.' Birding Frontiers.

Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017 - in the top two of these three photos, the cold centred scapulars and mantle feathers are really apparent giving an overall grey tone to the bird. The bottom photo here illustrates the coldness of the underparts.
So despite a little contradiction in its status, what should we be looking out for? Note that much of this comes from previous Birding Frontiers pointers: -
- a white supercilium that flares and broadens behind the eye
- underparts cold white with any colour confined to rear flanks; vent and undertail-coverts are wholly white too
- mantle and scapulars greyish in overall tone, with white centres giving a spotted, cold effect
- pale secondary panel lacking any warmth

Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017
Anyway, I really enjoyed this bird and thought it was worth highlighting these northern birds once again.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Crisp Casp at Thames Barrier Park

It was one of those crisp early winter days today. Non-stop sunshine from early on right through until it got dark. Never ideal for gulls, but it turned out not to be all that bad. It started off with three BTO metal ringed Black-headed Gulls on Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe - a recent thing of mine, when times are quiet, is to get the codes of birds with just metal rings! That's five for the weekend now - three British, one Belgian and one German.

After a quick look at the beach by the Hilton hotel where a regular Norwegian Black-headed Gull was present, I headed over to the other side of the river and to Thames Barrier Park. I decided to just pay for the hour's parking initially, given how poor it has been recently and the omens didn't look good again - the park gates were locked! And so I just decided to chuck the bread out by the barrier itself and, after a couple of minutes, this lovely (unringed) 1st-winter Caspian Gull came in: -

1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 19th November 2017
A decent looking bird, that perhaps comes from further east than the German swarm - pure speculation I know, but this bird felt good in all respects. This was the first Caspian Gull here for almost a month, and number ten for the season (July to June) for me, Jamie and Dante, and to be honest it was a bit of a surprise as there were probably no more than 50 large gulls present. Josh J has been bemoaning the lack of numbers in West London too, and I presume that London has lost its gulls due to the lack of easterlies and no cold weather so far this autumn/winter. So I'll count my lucky stars that this crisp beaut came into the loaves this morning.

Meanwhile, I had another check this afternoon of Burgess Park for the returning Med Gull - still no sign, but loads of Black-headed Gulls and a Little Grebe was nice too. It often doesn't come back until December so all hope isn't lost yet.

Saturday 18 November 2017

The (presumed) Italian Job

It was a pretty hard, gritty day yesterday - more than the usual antics after school. And so, what could be better than a calm early morning drive to East Devon? Probably a calm early morning drive to East Devon for something other than a presumed Italian Sparrow...

But beggars can't be choosers, and in the game of twitching it is about the numbers. A marathon and not a sprint. So when you've got a precarious species, a bird that looks like that precarious species and a drive of just under four hours each way - you just have to do it. I wasn't wholly adverse to it, as London birding has been terrible recently (no Caspian Gull since before my Shetland trip!). And so I went to East Budleigh, arriving just after 9am this morning. Within a few minutes, the male Italian-type Sparrow turned up at the feeders for a minute or two, did its thing and then flew off. It looked no different to the ones I'd seen hopping about among the ruins of Pompeii last May, bar the slightly larger than usual upper mandible on this Devon bird.
male presumed Italian Sparrow East Budleigh, Devon 18th November 2017
And so that was that. I briefly stopped off in the little village shop, purchased some local cheese and a coffee, reminded myself once again what life is like outside London and the southeast... and then returned to London, where in the Rotherhithe gloom I had a couple of metal ringed Black-headed Gulls, one Belgian and a regular German bird.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Weekend of London gulls

The furthest I ventured from home this weekend was just a few miles. Winter is here for sure, and the birding in London continues to be hard work. That's the summary. And with no easterlies, so no fresh wave of Caspian Gulls, it was a relatively quiet time. Which was a shame considering Niall K was back in London town, and a couple of young birders Samuel and Elliot joined the Thames Barrier Park late afternoon Saturday party.

So yesterday, the highlight was an adult winter Mediterranean Gull that was present at Thames Barrier Park briefly mid morning. There were, though, c.10 Yellow-legged Gulls about - evenly split between Thames Barrier Park and the O2. Other interesting bits about were a presumed adult hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull at the O2 (that superficially resembled a Yellow-legged Gull), a 2nd-winter bird possibly emanating from Germany and then an adult and juvenile argentatus. But no Casp...
sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull Greenwich O2, London 11th November 2017
2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 11th November 2017
And today, again there was no Caspian Gull. But that wasn't a surprise given that Dante and I spent most of it looking at small gulls on ponds, away from the Thames. And it did have its rewards, at Wanstead in partcular, where there was a 2nd-winter Mediterranean Gull, three Norwegian colour-ringed Common Gulls (all returnees, including one at least 22 years old) and a German metal-ringed Black-headed Gull.
2nd-winter Mediterranean Gull Wanstead, London 12th November 2017

adult Common Gull J9R5 Wanstead, London 12th November 2017 - ringed as an adult at Byparken, Bergen, Hordaland, Norway on 9.7.1998, with colour ring attached there on 26.7.2011; seen there in Aug 2011, April 2012, June to Aug 2015, July 2016 and then Wanstead Flats 27.12.2016, 29.12.2016 and finally by me on 22.1.2017
adult Common Gull JZ66 Wanstead, London 12th November 2017 - ringed as a 1st-winter at Hovindammen, Valle Hovin, Oslo, Norway on 16.9.2015, seen at Wanstead Flats on 19.3.2016, back at Hovindammen, Oslo, Norway 8.7.2016 to 19.9.2016 (1146km distance from where ringed) and then by me at Wanstead on 22.1.2017

adult Common Gull J8M4 Wanstead, London 12th November 2017 - ringed as an adult at Myrå, Randaberg, Rogaland, Norway on 01.08 2015, seen at Wanstead on 25.10.2015 then back at Myrå, Randaberg, Rogaland, Norway 8.7.2016, 12.7.2016 and 23.7.2016 and again by me at Wanstead on 22.1.2017
Thames Barrier Park was really poor, with just an adult Yellow-legged Gull. So it was back to Rotherhithe where there were actually quite a lot of large gulls, about 150 in total, which included a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls - a 1st-winter and a 2nd-winter.

Last stop of the day was Burgess Park, where the annually returning Med Gull hadn't returned - not too late yet, but one of these years it won't appear.

Saturday 4 November 2017

My first Slovakian Caspian Gull amongst other things

I started out relatively early from Rotherhithe, in the rancid early November gloom. With a sniff of southeasterly and such a poor autumn here in the east, I thought I'd give it one final push. So headed to the Kent coast, specifically the White Cliffs NT near Dover and then walked down to Langdon Hole. It's a site I always fancy, and never really delivers for me. And it was like that today with a few hours this morning producing a Continental Coal Tit (in Langdon Hole) as the highlight, plus a Bullfinch and a load of Goldcrests. The drizzle kept any viz mig at bay, save a few Redwings that headed west. And that was that, so time to head to Dunge and the gulls for the rest of the day.

Having met up with Mick and Richard at the usual lunch spot for a well deserved bit of stodge, we headed out to the fishing boats early afternoon. There was a bit of a roost, so we started scanning where Mick picked out a suspiciously Caspian-like head in amongst the flock. A great call, and after a bit of re-positioning to get a better angle, I lifted my bins and said rather excitably 'it has got a white ring' (expletives deleted). Now for those not in the know, a white ring on a Caspian Gull is something really special! We're used to red rings (Poland), orange rings (the odd one ringed at Pitsea in the past), yellow rings (German mutants, Ukraine and Poland) and green rings (older German mutants and Poland) but a Caspian Gull with a white ring I knew was going to be a new scheme for me. And I knew that it'd either be from Serbia or Slovakia. And with a code 265:S it was a Slovakian beauty...

Slovakian-ringed sub-adult Caspian Gull (265:S) Dungeness, Kent 4th November 2017
It didn't like the loaves, and resisted being fed throughout our time with it. And so we left it in peace as it roosted up between the fish hut and the fishing boats. A second-winter Yellow-legged Gull joined it, and a different second-winter Yellow-legged Gull was on the beach a bit later too. Along with this guy, a first-winter Caspian Gull: -
1st-winter Caspian Gull Dungeness, Kent 4th November 2017
I might as well post this here too, as I didn't post it up during the week. But I managed to get in on the Hawfinch action on Tuesday (31st October), when three flew over school at 7.10am. It was a good morning for thrushes moving over London, and the Hawfinches headed up a small flock of Redwing heading west. Apparently that is what had also happened in Regent's Park too. So I was pretty chuffed, as you take moments like that being based in central London.