Sunday, 17 July 2016

An American in Kent - again

Adult Bonaparte's Gull at Oare Marshes. Note the black hood and bill, dark red gape and pinkish-red legs.
A change from large gulls: small gulls! I headed down to Kent today to catch up with the returning adult Bonaparte's Gull at Oare Marshes. This individual is now present for its fourth summer at the site; according to it was first seen there as a first-summer on 22 May 2013 (and previously nearby at Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey). In subsequent years it has usually appeared in June or July and departed late August. 

In this partial wing stretch, the Bonaparte's reveals the white undersides to its black-tipped outermost primaries, a key distinction from Black-headed Gull (which has dark grey bordering the white leading edge of its underwing).
Today it was present quite close to the road, so I took welcome advantage of the fact - all these images are taken with a Canon 500mm f4 lens, 1.4x EFIII extender and 7D MkII body, and manually exposed to take account of the difficult backlit lighting conditions. (Tip: if you are visiting Oare Marshes on a sunny day, whether for photography or just birding, afternoons and evenings are always best, with the light illuminating the East Flood from behind you).

Comparison shot of the Bonaparte's Gull with Black-headed Gulls (and islandica Black-tailed Godwits).
As might be expected, and shown in the above comparison shot, the Bonaparte's associates closely with the local Black-headed Gulls. When I saw it best it was close to the west edge of the East Flood, at times obvious and easy to pick out, at others tucked away out of view among its congeners and not easily visible. It particularly seemed to like a muddy patch just next to some tall rushes, and after going AWOL for a while in the high-tide throng would gravitate back towards this corner.

Clean those primaries! Another view of the strikingly white underside of the wing-tip.
I also had a juvenile Mediterranean Gull briefly on the East Flood which then joined a large group of Black-headed Gulls asleep on a small island on the north side of the flood. While watching it there another birder picked out a moulting second-summer Med, still sporting the remnants of a black hood. The Bonaparte's eventually flew to the same island, so it was a rare treat to have all three of these small hooded gulls together at once.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

It's official - Britain's first Slaty-backed Gull

Adult or near-adult Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011
(photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission)
While I was away in Canada last week, a congratulatory text message from a friend alerted me to some long-awaited news on the gull front (thank you Bob!). The Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus which I found at Rainham landfill, Greater London, on 13 January 2011, exactly five-and-a-half years ago today, had been accepted as the first-ever record for Britain. Here's the announcement from the website of the British Ornithologists' Union, whose Records Committee considers potential first records for Britain after they have been assessed and accepted by the Rarities Committee:

I expected this record would take a long time to pass through the two-stage acceptance procedure, especially as the bird's identity initially generated much discussion. This centred around the colour of the upperparts, with some (mainly those who had not seen it) claiming that the shade of grey was not sufficiently dark for the species. As I noted when submitting the record, opinion became much more settled in favour of Slaty-backed Gull once the bird was more widely seen (and also when refound and photographed at other sites to the east in Essex).

Adult or near-adult Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011
(photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission)
This becomes the second Western Palearctic record of this north-west Pacific Ocean species, after a bird present in Lithuania from 17-20 November 2008 which was then, remarkably, refound in Latvia, where it lingered from 13-21 April 2009 (photos of it in Latvia here). There have been no further British records but five more in Europe, as follows: Belarus (26 Dec 2012-4 Jan 2013 - video here); Finland (3-4 Nov 2012 - multiple pics here); Iceland (14 May 2012 - scroll down this account for an image); and Ireland (2: 8 Feb 2014 - read the account here; Jan 2015 - photos here).

Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus with Great Black-backed L marinus and European Herring L argentatus Gulls, Rainham landfill, Greater London, 14 January 2011 (photo © Dominic Mitchell - do not use without permission) 

Although confident of the identification from the outset, in view of the extreme rarity of this species in Europe I solicited feedback widely from the gulling community. One of the first to provide it, and to be extremely positive and supportive (as always), was the late Martin Garner. I think Martin would still have been sitting on the Rarities Committee when this record was assessed, and I'm sure he would have been pleased to see it make the final cut at the BOURC. At the same time as that committee announced this decision, it also accepted the first British record of Chinese Pond Heron, an identification which Martin really helped to clinch (see his Birding Frontiers website for more). So today is an opportunity not only for me to remember a friend and inspiring guller, but also to remind ourselves of his significant contribution to the birding scene in Britain and beyond.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

June 2016 | Issue 288

This month voters in the UK get the chance to say whether or not the country should remain in the European Union. The environmental impact of a so-called ‘Brexit’ has received precious little attention in the mainstream media, but for wildlife and habitats in Britain it really is crunch time.

Why? For a start, the EU provides an essential counter-balance to a government whose leader is forever tainted by the words “We’ve got to get rid of all this green crap”. Environmental legislation is seen as a burden to business in the UK, not as a framework for the preservation of natural resources and for improving the quality of the countryside. It is the EU, not the Conservative government, whose directives now protect nature on more than 8,000 square miles of land in the UK – an area 13 times the size of Greater London. Through such initiatives our air is cleaner, too, and so are our beaches and seas.

When a consultation exercise was undertaken as part of a review which threatened such laws, a record 520,000 respondents in the EU took part, including more than 100,000 from Britain, and campaigning resulted in almost 80 per cent of MEPs voting to protect nature – that simply would not have happened in the House of Commons under the present government. There are also environmental policies with strict targets that can be legally enforced as a result of our membership of the EU – a far cry from the days when Britain was known as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’, recklessly producing more sulphur dioxide – the principal cause of acid rain – than any other country in the Continent.

Birds do not recognise political boundaries, and the environment is a concern common to us all. Legislation from Brussels is needed to protect wildlife and habitats right across Europe and especially in Britain, and continued membership of the EU is the only way to maintain this important protective framework and stop it from being dismantled. Voting for Britain to remain within the EU is the only option for birds and the environment.

Postscript This editorial outlines in very general terms the importance of EU membership from an environmental perspective. For an unequivocal understanding of what a Brexit will mean for trade and the economy, this lecture by Professor Michael Dougan, an independent academic expert from the University of Liverpool's Law School, makes sobering viewing (for follow-up comments on immigration see here):

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Biggest Week

A sizeable crowd gathers at Magee Marsh after news spreads of a Kirtland's Warbler found near the car park.
What. An. Experience. I'm just back from The Biggest Week In American Birding, the major bird migration festival in north-west Ohio. If it's possible to overdose on warblers and camaraderie, I may need treatment. For its combination of birds, people and purpose, The Biggest Week is like nothing I have seen before. Period. Keen birders and newbies sharing news, Amish families and bird photographers getting each other onto birds, large crowds of happy people watching masses of northbound migrant birds together at close range, all day, every day.

In the UK there's a distinct lack of festivals which focus directly on birding, with the fundraising flagship that is Birdfair being our primary event (indeed the biggest of its kind in the world). If anyone ever wanted to look at a model festival and do something a little different, they would do well to start at Magee Marsh in Ohio's Black Swamp region.
Organised by Black Swamp Bird Observatory, The Biggest Week is clearly a successful initiative on an impressively big scale. There are so many top-flight birding locations which can accommodate the large numbers of local and visiting birders, and as spring migration approaches its peak through the Great Lakes there are so many birds as well. It also raises important funds for conservation.

Yellow Warbler was the most numerous of almost 30 warbler species seen during The Biggest Week.
It's not just about warblers: plenty of other migrants included numerous Baltimore Orioles, like this male ...
... and also Indigo Buntings, at their bluest at this time of year.
I attended The Biggest Week on behalf of Birdwatch magazine, and will be writing about the experience in the September issue (on sale at Birdfair in August and from all good newsagents - or subscribe here). It's also likely that we'll be running a reader trip to the region in May next year, to give others a chance to experience this amazing event for themselves - more on that in the same issue. In the meantime, special thanks to Kim Kaufman and Rob Ripma for their help in Ohio, and it was also a pleasure to meet Kenn Kaufman and catch up with many old birding friends on the Magee Marsh boardwalk. See you all next time!


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