Saturday 30 September 2017

Late September and watching gulls...

Last day of September and I am watching gulls. Not ideal I know, but with tiredness from the week just gone creeping in it meant plans to search for yanks in Cornwall went by the wayside. I had a bit of a sleep in, checking just Rotherhithe, and then set off to Dungeness with Mick S and Richard S for an afternoon session by the fishing boats.

After an hour and a half of very little, this 1st-winter Caspian Gull all of a sudden turned up. A fairly decent bird, with a lovely pale underwing: -

1st-winter Caspian Gull Dungeness, Kent 30th September 2017
There were also three Yellow-legged Gulls about, with an adult (possibly the same bird as last Sunday), 2nd-winter and 1st-winter (with a slightly deformed bill) as well as at least three 1st-winter Mediterranean Gulls.
1st-winter Mediterranean Gull Dungeness, Kent 30th September 2017
2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Dungeness, Kent 30th September 2017

Sunday 24 September 2017

Still got love for the shrikes

I had a day out in Kent today. Decent southeasterly winds but it was a beautiful day; never great in autumn as it doesn't necessarily feel that 'rare'. Dante and I started off early and did the area immediately east of Dover at White Cliffs and then headed into Langdon Hole. I've always liked this place, despite having never seen anything there, and unsurprisingly didn't bump into anyone birdy. Mind you, our haul was pretty bang average with 3 Lesser Whitethroats, a Wheatear, a Willow Warbler and c.25 Chiffchaff for our efforts. There was a scattering of Yellow-browed Warblers just around the coast, but we drew a blank this time.

And so we headed to Dungeness where there was already news of a Red-backed Shrike in the desert area. It took us little time at all to see it, where there was a pleasantly small crowd with the bird sallying from hawthorns just behing 'Southview', the house where almost to the day a couple of years ago I saw that monster yank Acadian Flycatcher. Anyway, enjoy the shots of this presumably Scandinavian waif.

juvenile Red-backed Shrike Dungeness, Kent 24th September 2017
There was also a Pied Flycatcher in the moat by the bird observatory, and a brief hour or so around the gulls produced a superb adult Yellow-legged Gull as well as a Norwegian 2nd-winter Great Black-backed Gull that was about last weekend.
adult Yellow-legged Gull Dungeness, Kent 24th September 2017
Anyway, we headed off back to London a little bit too early as we got a text from Mick S when we were between Lydd and Ashford, about a 2nd-winter Caspian Gull that had come into the fishing boats feast early evening. You can't see everything is what I tell myself, but let's hope this is the pinnacle of being gripped this autumn!

Saturday 23 September 2017


Late September and it should now be getting to the business end of the season, and with Black-billed Cuckoo and Siberian Thrush turning up in the week (neither of which I hadn't seen thankfully), my hopes were high for a weekend of bush whacking. But when Friday came, things looked flat so that was that for today. A day in London...

But it wasn't all bad. A visit to Hornchurch Country Park provided me with probably the best views of a Spotted Crake I have had this century. I grew up seeing a good number of these lads when I was a regular visitor to the reserve formerly known as Inner Marsh Farm, but since living the dream here in London unsurprisingly the urban habitat hasn't been suitable for such regular encounters. I really enjoyed this bird, and the place had a nice vibe to it too.
juvenile Spotted Crake Hornchurch CP, London/Essex 23rd September 2017
 Thirty minutes later, after savouring the delights of a Hornchurch Tesco, it was off to the Roding Valley. A small lake just outside Buckhurst Hill provided a pretty strange setting for a stripy headed juvenile Red-necked Grebe. I can't remember where the last juvenile I saw that looked as fresh as this was, but it is a plumage I'm not completely sure I've ever seen before. And rather predictably, the bird showed nicely too.
juvenile Red-necked Grebe Roding Valley, London/Essex 23rd September 2017
Two great birds within metropolitan Essex, inside the M25 and both only half an hour or so from home. I couldn't not get my gull fix though, and so before the two star birds of the day, Rotherhithe produced a regular 3rd calendar year and there were two 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gulls loving the loaves at Thames Barrier Park.
3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 23rd September 2017

Tuesday 19 September 2017

School madness - YBW

What a bizarre, exciting experience today. Those regular readers will have read that my day job is rather detached from the (perceived) serenity of birding. I'm in charge of behaviour in an inner city London school. So there I was mid-morning, sitting in the internal exclusion room on a timetabled period of supervision where if kick offs happen around the place, then the perpetrators come my way. Fortunately there hadn't been any referrals so I was getting on with the typically copious workload. And with the window open, there was a moment of madness, a really bizarre sensation. It was crystal clear, and surrounded by high rise buildings there was real crispness and clarity when I heard an unbelievably out of context upslurred, high pitched disyllabic 'tswee-eet' that is such a familiar sound in autumn these days. But hang on... I'm in Central London, it's not the coast and this is work. It continued to call several times in quick succession.

Not quite sure why I bothered, as it was obvious that there was a Yellow-browed Warbler in the isolated single tall tree outside of school here in Elephant and Castle, but I quickly whacked a bit of xeno canto out. And in true form, the bird sallied down and revealed itself as a smallish green warbler to my naked eye. Always scornful of no bins sightings when assessing other peoples' records, I legged it outside to my car and got my bins and back up to where the action had been. A bit of xeno canto later, and with the bird still calling, I got some decent views of a nice fresh looking Yellow-browed Warbler whacking about and doing its thing. Quality stuff - and with it now being 10.30am it was off to break duty, teaching and then meetings/sorting nonsense out til 5.45pm. The joys of work.
The Yellow-browed Warbler tree surrounded by South London urbanity

I couldn't find the Yellow-browed Warbler late on, and I know that one birder had a search mid/late afternoon and couldn't find it either. No surprise to be honest, as past form over the last 8 years has made me conclude birds quickly pass through due to the marginal habitat. I've had Reed Warbler, Willow Warbler and a fair few Chiffchaffs over the years and I can't remember one hanging about long.

Just shows that it is all about context, and it is the first Yellow-browed Warbler I've found away from what you'd describe as typical coastal locations. Where of course I've found a fair few over the years. But when you're a London birder on 70+ hours or work a week, you bloody punch the air when you get results like this. True urban birding - The Urban Birder would be proud.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Staying local with little reward

It's this time of year where I tend to float about based on the weather, and if there isn't anything obvious then my local gulls get a look in. Last Sunday, feeling a bit jaded from the previous day's travel to the Hebrides and back, found me at Thames Barrier Park. A couple of times a year, they close the gates on the barrier for routine maintenance and the gulls go wild. Despite the large numbers, there was no Caspian Gull unlike the week before. Around eight Yellow-legged Gulls, but that was it. And because there was so much food, they weren't that fussed about my loaves. Meanwhile back in Rotherhithe, this third-winter bird was a bit more obliging on the slipway just east of Greenland Pier.
3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 10th September 2017
 I stayed local today too, for my sins. A walk around Russia Dock Woodland was quiet, with little of note. Genuinely, it was a really quiet day - four Yellow-legged Gulls (adult, two 1st-summers and a juvenile) at Thames Barrier Park, nothing of interest at the O2 and then just the presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach in Rotherhithe last thing.
adult Yellow-legged Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 16th September 2017
3rd-winter presumed Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull Rotherhithe, London 16th September 2017

Sunday 10 September 2017

A great start to the autumn

I genuinely cannot remember how many years the thought 'will this be the year we get an American Redstart?' has come up in conversation. For birders of my generation, brought up on books like Rare Birds by Cottridge and Vinicombe, it has been a very long time coming since those fabled American Redstart sightings at Kenidjack, Cornwall in 1983 and Galley, Cork in 1985. To a decent extent, it is these 'old school' birds that feel better than firsts as they're what you've been brought up on.

American Redstart nearly happened for me in September 2008 when one was found late one afternoon in southwestern Ireland at Mizen Head, County Cork. Getting there early next morning, in sunlit skies and a light wind, it was evident that that bird had done an overnight bunk. I did manage to see one mid-Atlantic, high up in the treetops and looming darkness of Ribeira da Ponte, Corvo in October 2015, but when another magic Bruce Taylor find developed on Thursday evening it was game on again for that all important British and Irish perspective...

Friday loomed pretty wet, but I was still in London due to critical child protection commitments, but when it was confirmed (rather unsurprisingly given the overnight conditions), I made arrangements to travel up on Saturday. And thankfully that 'unprofessional' day delay didn't have repercussions and the bird was still about. So by early afternoon yesterday, we'd had an enjoyable landing on the famous beach airport at Barra, a quick taxi drive up to the church at Eoligarry and this...
American Redstart Eoligarry, Barra, Outer Hebrides 9th September 2017
I always say this, but I can't think of a species it doesn't apply for - you really cannot go wrong with yank passerines, particularly their warblers. Give me 6 weeks of westerlies over 6 weeks of easterlies any day, as the real big ones like this travel alone. Transatlantic passerine vagrancy is the best we get in Britain and Ireland - these little birds, a matter of grams, manage to do that ocean crossing, every year. Presumably only the strongest make it, which makes the birds you actually see that bit more impressive. Those Sibes have it easy!
site of the American Redstart on Barra
And it's often the location too. Albeit usually a real pain to get to, particularly in the past decade where the shift away from Scilly has continued, these mega yanks can be in some quality places. Just thinking off the top of my head about the big ones I've seen this millenium - Blue-winged Warbler, Hermit Thrush and Northern Waterthrush Cape Clear, Canada Warbler Loop Head, Purple Martin Butt of Lewis Scarlet Tanager Garinish Point, Alder Flycatcher Nanjizal, Ovenbird St. Mary's, Northern Parula Tiree, Yellow Warbler and now American Redstart Barra. Admittedly the Acadian and Alder Flycatchers at Dungeness and Blakeney had a slightly different feel, as east coast yanks do, as did the overwintering Northern Oriole in Oxfordshire.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Back home and into this season's Casps...

I spent a couple of hours on the Thames late this afternoon, having fully maxed out my summer holiday before back to another year of beasting and drudgery tomorrow. I only got back from a quick trip to the Azores late last night, so after whacking in five loaves with the weekly shop this afternoon, I dutifully sloped off to feed my larids.

Nice and grey, cool and a bit murky. Just the job for a bit of gulling at Thames Barrier Park. And it was straight into the Caspian Gull action, even before Dante and Jamie P arrived, with this lovely 1st-winter coming straight in. I was pretty pumped by this bird, as it was my earliest ever 'bird of the season' in London and has arrived 17 days before our first last year. And to boot, it is a thug of a bird with no disputing its identity. With its advanced moult, pale underwing and seemingly clean genes there'd be an assumption it comes from east of Germany...

1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 3rd September 2017
And that wasn't the end of the Caspian Gulls, with Jamie picking up a 2nd-winter bird too. A relatively small and dark bird, that isn't the best structurally. But what is most interesting is that this is the same bird that turned up last winter that we called 'Mucky' - see photos here. This is the first example of a returning individual without a ring on this stretch of the Thames. No major surprise, given that there are regularly returning birds with rings all over Britain but interesting all the same.
2nd-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 3rd September 2017
There was also another '0.5' bird. Well outside the realms of a pure Caspian Gull, but probably some genes in there somewhere.

Note to anyone coming to Thames Barrier Park or Lyle this winter - they have shut the car park at Thames Barrier Park, put parking meters on every single street so good luck to all! Genuinely, I have changed my routine and I now get there on the DLR instead of driving as I have been unable to find anywhere that is free parking in the immediate vicinity (and rest assured, I have tried!).
1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 3rd September 2017