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!