Saturday, 9 August 2014

Birding the Azores - read all about it

The report on the Azores birding tour I led last autumn has been accessible on the Birdwatch website for some time now, but in case any blog followers have missed it and want to get an idea of what this annual vagrant-finding fest is all about, here it is to enjoy 'direct'. It's only two months to this year's trip, on which there are two last places remaining (you can also access the 2012 trip summary via that link). With all the talk this week of the post-tropical storm that was Hurricane Bertha passing across the Atlantic, I'm already wondering what American migrants have been deposited on unwatched European territory in the Atlantic.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Patch pit-stop

After gulling on the Thames this morning I took the opportunity to head east for a quick visit to my local patch at Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve. I timed it to arrive over high tide, and was duly rewarded with a few waders and other species of interest, the best being 2 Garganey (including the eclipse drake below), 10 Little Egrets, 5 Little Ringed Plovers, Common, Wood and 4 Green Sandpipers, 16 Black-tailed Godwit, 2 Eurasian Whimbrel, and single Eurasian Curlew, Water Rail and Hobby.

A record shot of today's eclipse drake Garganey (note the blue forewing just visible, and broad white upper wing-bar).
It wasn't great weather for flying insects, so I was particularly pleased to find a Jersey Tiger moth near the Cordite Store. The only other one I've seen at Rainham, a more ragged example, was in the same area. This shot was taken with my iPhone and has been cropped but not otherwise adjusted.


Yellow-legged Gull: juvenile plumage

I visited the Thames in east London today for a two-hour session with gulls at my regular site. Here are a few images of some of the 11+ Yellow-legged Gulls seen - my interest today was particularly in juveniles, of which there were at least six. I'll let the photos do the talking, but it's interesting to note the subtle variation in plumage (for example, how moult in the first individual is more advanced than in the second).






Monday, 4 August 2014

Two for the price of one ...

It's been a while since I've had time to post on the blog, largely because I've been working hard to finish a new book on Western Palearctic birds (more anon). As that nears completion and I have more opportunity to get out into the field and post about it, the plan is for birding news to appear here again more regularly. Let's start with a subject which is a personal favourite: gulls.

Note the tail pattern and also the greater coverts of this colour-ringed juvenile gull.
I spent a day birding on the Suffolk coast yesterday, a fair amount of it looking at and photographing gulls. I first picked up this interesting juvenile large gull distantly in flight over the mouth of the River Blyth at Walberswick, and thought it was probably going to be a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull when I got better looks. On closer inspection, however, the black tail band seemed rather broad and not typical for that species. Intriguingly, I also noticed the bird was colour-ringed (white on green XDEE), so I kept an eye on it and got a few images when it came within range.

The bird was colour-ringed XDEE white on green as a chick in a mixed Caspian x Herring colony in east Germany ...
Eventually the mystery gull landed not far away and perched shots were briefly possible. As I took them, the bird suddenly struck me as looking somewhat Caspian Gull-like in standing profile. If the tail pattern wasn’t right for Yellow-legged Gull, however, it certainly wasn’t typical for Caspian; yet at the same time I noticed it looked ‘leggy’, and it was also already moulting in some first-winter feathers on the upperparts, more or less ruling out later-breeding local species such as Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

... so it could be Caspian or Herring, or more likely a bit of both, as its mix of characters appears to indicate.
A better view of the upperside, showing the rather heavily marked tail and a wing pattern resembling michahellis.
My curiosity was well and truly piqued, and this morning I sent images to Peter Rock, who co-ordinates colour-ringed gull sightings in the UK, to request information on the scheme that marked this gull. He responded quickly to say: “This is a German bird … you and [Ronald Klein] will, I'm sure, have an interesting correspondence.” He wasn’t wrong. Ronald made contact shortly after and explained that “it is a gull from the mixed area (Caspians and Herrings) in East Germany”, and confirmed that the metal ring code (which I’d only been able partly to read) is Hiddensee EA-068143. “The problem is,” he continued, “the parents of all the ringed birds are unknown, because [they are] caught in ‘chicken-nurseries’.”

Note the bird's leggy jizz but somewhat 'truncated' rear-end profile, plus the tertial pattern and greater coverts.
Ronald believes this bird is a hybrid Caspian x Herring Gull, a view which helps explain my early impression of atypical and perhaps mixed characters. From looking more closely at the images, the slightly ‘truncated' look of the bird’s rear end, the speckled pattern on the tip of the second tertial and the more heavily chequered greater coverts are also suggestive of Herring Gull influence in a bird with some Caspian-like qualities. It will be interesting to see what it looks like if it returns in subsequent years, and I’d welcome news of any further sightings of this bird (and also other comments from observers with first-hand experience of juvenile Caspians and hybrids).

If this bird returns to Walberswick regularly to winter, it will be interesting to monitor its plumage progression.
It was one of several interesting larids in a day which also produced a second-winter Caspian Gull and a possible juvenile (too distant) in the pig fields at Walberswick, and which gave me a final Suffolk day total of a very respectable 10 gull species – the other nine being Black-headed, Little, Mediterranean, Common, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, Yellow-legged and Kittiwake. Autumn is definitely here …

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