Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Birders reunited




Neither of us can remember exactly when it was that we last birded together, but we agree it was at least 30 years ago. Angus Wilson started at my north London school not long before I left in the late Seventies, and in that overlap we had some good birding moments (dipping the 1978 Lowestoft Franklin's Gull wasn't one of them, we recall). Having gone our separate ways we have since resumed intermittent contact through Birdwatch, and I have been a fan of Angus's Ocean Wanderers website for many years.

This morning, we meet again. We are birding around Angus's adopted home turf of New York, where he has lived since the mid-Nineties and served for the last 10 years as Chairman of its state records committee. We convene proceedings by searching for ... a Common Gull. It seems a bit peverse coming all this way and targeting such a familiar bird from back home, but of course Common Gull - as opposed to its North American sibling taxon Mew (or Short-billed) Gull - is a major rarity in North America, and a good 'bank' bird, as they say over here.

We don't find it along its favoured stretch of Brooklyn foreshore, but in sub-zero conditions we do come across three Purple Sandpipers - another species familiar from home, and in fact a North American tick for me. Offshore are Buffleheads, Greater Scaup and plenty of 'Brants' - Pale-bellied rather than Black - and the gathering of gulls that we do find gives plenty of opportunity to scrutinise adult and first-winter American Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

Before long we are in Staten Island, again checking gulls, and this time looking for 'Lester', a regular wintering adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. As soon as we get out of the car Angus homes in on a nice graellsii along the beach beyond a squabbling group of American Herrings. Walking around the corner, past a Northern Mockingbird which looks as cold as I am, I pick up Lester again on the sea. Yet as we get back to the car, there he is again on the first beach. Qué? We split up and, sure enough, confirm that there are indeed two Lesser Black-backs here - a good local record, and an even better one for me as I nail another long-standing North American bogey bird.

Further on we find more Buffleheads, plus Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) and Red-breasted Merganser, while in the scrub of a coastal park several Song Sparrows, two each of Blue Jay and Carolina Wren, and single Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers add further interest. We press on around the island to a spot where a young male Summer Tanager has been lingering, but these conditions are very far from summer and we speculate the bird has either moved on or perished. In compensation, for me at least, are a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Tufted Titmouse, several American Mourning Doves and even more White-throated Sparrows.

The sight of the morning, however, has to be a particularly special tree which pulls in first a Red-bellied Woodpecker and then a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which proceeds to feed eponymously on its arboreal nectar. As we watch this, first a female Downy Woodpecker and then a White-breasted Nuthatch join them, making for a fine spectacle on a sunny but freezing New York morning.

On the way back Angus and I swap birding stories, wonder what happened to our peers from the Seventies who drifted away from the birding game, and hope not to leave it another 30 years before we meet up again.

Photos from top: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Manhattan transfer


It's 12 years since I last visited Battery Park, near the southern tip of Manhattan, and then the skyline was dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. How different it looks now, whether standing up close to the gaping, crane-filled chasm at Ground Zero, or viewing the distant cityscape from the Staten Island Ferry. At least the Statue of Liberty looked as impressive as ever across the water.

Though this is a family visit and not a birding trip, I managed to occupy some quiet moments on the return ferry crossing photographing gulls, especially American Herring (above) and Ring-billed (below). Some adults of the former species look very distinctive, but of course the difficulty in Europe would be differentiating them from extreme examples of European Herring Gulls; first-year birds may be much more straightforward but, interestingly, there are no younger smithsonianus visible today. Here are a couple of photos from that trip; more on Flickr anon.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Another day, different gulls

Can anyone ever have enough of gulls? Yes, you might well say, but for me they are the high point of winter. A day after scanning through the mixed flocks of loafers, bathers and scavengers on the Thames in east London, I am on an expressway near the East River in New York - praying for a traffic jam so that I can scan through the massed ranks of larids on the ice close to the road.

Today is not my day, though, and a remarkably speedy drive from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan results in just snatched glimpses of American Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, plus a few Double-crested Cormorants and a few more Black Brants along the water's edge. All are new 'year birds' for me, but birding proper will have to wait for a couple more days - even if an adult female Peregrine drifting over midtown Manhattan provided a welcome surprise.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

More questions than ansers




The last jaunt of the year to the Thames coincided with a significant improvement in temperatures, and the snow of a few days ago has all but gone. No time to do the RSPB reserve at Rainham today, so instead I headed to the riverside car park at the stone barges. After at least 40 Fieldfares and a Redwing on the way in and a welcome from this remarkably confiding female Kestrel in the car park, I birded the edge of the tip by the riverside path.

Other than the usual Redshank flock, some Common Shelduck and a single Black-tailed Godwit there was little of note along the foreshore. Numerous Pied and one Grey Wagtail consorted with a sprinkling of pipits - mainly Meadow, though two Rock/Water Pipits also flew over, calling. I've been listening to these last two species calling for years now and, no matter what others claim, I find it impossible to separate them with confidence on call; I'm in good company, as Per Alström declared the two effectively inseparable on call in his scholarly Pipits and Wagtails identification guide. While there do seem to be some subtle nuances, occasionally the odd bird calls more like its sibling species, and I still feel a good look is advisable to clinch the ID.

On the dump side of the footpath there were many more passerines to enjoy. A gathering of up to 40 Skylarks and 15 or so Linnets was notable, and there were a few Reed Buntings, Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Meadow Pipits around for good measure too - though no sign of the Yellowhammer or the small party of Corn Buntings which have been reported from here intermittently (the rain didn't help). More interestingly, I flushed two separate Common Snipe and a single European Golden Plover from wet grass at the foot of the slope - presumably birds displaced by the recent freezing spell finding their way back to better habitat.

A charm of at least 60 Goldfinches, along with several Greenfinches and a Reed Bunting, decorated the thistles along Coldharbour Lane, while round at Aveley Bay numerous Northern Lapwings, 100+ Dunlin and a Eurasian Curlew were in view distantly on the mud. Two Yellow-legged Gulls - an adult and a third-winter - were on the river in mid-channel (often a good place to look for them), but gull numbers were well down as the tip wasn't in operation today, so I cut my losses and headed round to the viewing mound.

From here there were a few more scattered groups of gulls, with nothing special on view, and also a decent flock of Greylags and some tag-along Canada Geese. I checked the Greylags more in hope than expectation for other species, finding none but spotting a couple of colour rings in the process. Details have been sent off to the WWT - more anon if and when I get any feedback. Interestingly, out of 105 Greylags counted, 11 also had orange rather than pink legs. Why? The key difference between subspecies is between orange (nominate anser) and pink (rubrirostris) bills, but aren't both subspecies meant to show pink legs? Perhaps domestic influence is a factor, but then as most domestic geese are often said to be descendants of Greylags, shouldn't they still be pink? More questions than ansers, as it were.


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A birder in the making?


I'll come back to this remarkable photo in a minute. It was one of the highlights of a hectic day which, in the name of family duty at Christmas, meant breakfast in London, lunch in Evesham and dinner in Essex - with sleet, snow, fog, rain and ice to contend with in between times. I don't relish driving 200-plus miles in conditions like that, and so thick was the fog on the Chiltern escarpment that for the first time in recent years I failed to see a single Red Kite along the M40 corridor. But we made it there and back in one piece, seeing a Common Buzzard or two and even a roadside Grey Partridge in the process.

Now that photo. Before lunch at her granny's, I noticed my 10-year-old daughter Ava settling down at the table with a bag of things she'd brought to do. She reached into the bag and pulled out ... a field guide. Intrigued, I watched her then get her camera out (my old Nikon Coolpix 3500), and she proceeded to view an image on the screen and flick through the book. Eventually, she said to me she thought she'd seen Redwings, and showed me this image - taken through the fuzzy glass of her bedroom window, and at low magnification. She was right, of course - kids have such good eyes. But more than that, I was so impressed she'd noticed that these birds stood out from the others she was used to seeing in the garden, and that she cared enough to find out what it was. She would never describe herself as a birder. But who knows?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Snow pays dividends





Last night a drive that usually takes me 10 minutes lasted almost an hour and a half, and then I had to abandon the car and walk the last quarter of a mile home. Why? A not too heavy fall of snow - not too heavy except, that is, for the London Borough of Haringey, whose habitual failure to respond to winter weather resulted in numerous collisons, abandoned buses and other rush-hour mayhem.

The absence of grit on local roads has resulted in near-total snow cover, and today the birds responded to the sub-zero temperatures by invading suburban gardens. Here in Muswell Hill, north London, Redwings are everywhere - there must be many, many thousands across the city as a whole. In our small suburban garden, an initial three birds this morning rose to 25 by the afternoon. This gathering also drew in 10 Starlings, six Blackbirds, a Mistle Thrush and, best of all, two Fieldfares feeding on the rowan berries.

While watching this thrushfest, I was astonished to see two flocks of waders (or rather lines) pass overhead in shallow v-formations: the first-ever European Golden Plovers for the garden list. They headed high south, towards Alexandra Park, so I quickly phoned Andrew Gardener; unfortunately he couldn't relocate them (a single Northern Lapwing was some compensation), but it turns out that Ian Lycett had the same flocks from the Birdwatch office window moments before they flew west over the park and into my airspace.

Rounding off a great birding day for the garden was a pair of Blackcaps, our first of the winter, that appeared briefly in the cotoneaster and devoured a few berries before moving on. The day's total species count was a record-equalling 22: Golden Plover (25), Black-headed Gull (2), Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult), Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Ring-necked Parakeet (1), Wren (1), Dunnock (1), Redwing (25), Blackbird (6), Mistle Thrush (1), Fieldfare (2 plus 2 more over), Blackcap (pair), Blue Tit, Great Tit (4), Long-tailed Tit (1), Jay, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Starling, Goldfinch (1) and Greenfinch (1). The photo highlights shown here were also taken in the garden today.





Sunday, 20 December 2009

Latest Clements update

For many birders the time is fast approaching for that essential bout of end-of-year housekeeping: the updating of lists. Although I did so for some years in my youth I haven't kept a proper British annual list for a long time, perhaps a sign of changing horizons, growing older, or both. But a year ago I decided to give 2009 the personal designation of 'The year of travel', and with trips in the intervening 12 months to Kuwait, Cape Verde Islands, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Australia, Azores and Austria now under my belt, there is some serious updating to be done.

As my benchmark list, I use what has become known as 'Clements'. Jim Clements's world checklist has long been the American Birding Association's preferred global view, and until Howard and Moore was finally brought up to scratch by Edward Dickinson in 2003, it was to my mind the only world checklist worth having. I got to know Jim a little through correspondence and was delighted when he accepted the invitation to be an Advisory Panel member on Birdwatch. But since his passing in 2005 his legacy to the ornithological world has changed somewhat under the management of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which inherited responsbility for the Clements checklist and proceeded to put its own stamp on the publication.

The latest effects of this can be seen in the most recent (18 December 2009) update. Gone is the handy list of splits, lumps, revisions, decisions and corrections. Instead we have a downloadable Excel spreadsheet, an explanatory overview of policy and strategy, and some summary statistics. It will be a while before I figure out exactly what the big changes to the world order of birds are, but in the meantime here are the key stats with which Cornell ends its update:
  • Number of families: 223
  • Number of taxa: 31573
  • Number of species: 9995
  • Number of unique subspecies: 21107
It's clear that much has changed, with numerous new families added as well as changes having had an impact on other totals. If anyone finds an online breakdown of the changes in detail, please let me know and I'll post a link. In the meantime, I'd better start the Excel download running for that new world checklist ...

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The big chill
















Top: Rainham at dawn. Above: a backlit Blackwit.
Copenhagen summit or not, there was little sign of global warming at Wennington Marshes this morning. Most of the snowfall of the previous 24 hours was still on the ground, inconveniently compacted into ice on parts of the road and in the Aveley Bay car park, which was like a skating rink. It was -3 C when I arrived at 8 am; unsurprisingly, there was no one else in sight.

Today was the first chance I'd had to get out for a few days, so I decided to target the bay and the viewing mound for gulls and passerines respectively - plus any cold-weather wanderers that might be on the move (remembering a previous late December cold spell here which brought Tundra Bean and Barnacle Geese). The river was alive with gulls, with the tide well down and plenty of foreshore exposed, and the tip in action. There were large numbers of the 'common five' gulls - Black-headed, Common, Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed - and just a single adult Yellow-legged just offshore. Waders were mainly Redshank and Northern Lapwings, but there were single Black-tailed Godwit and Eurasian Curlew. A flock of some 300 Linnets bounded around between weeds on the seawall and the top of the dump; if a Twite reappears here this winter, my money is on it joining this flock.

Round at the viewing mound, there were plenty more seedeaters - Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Linnets, plus the occasional Reed Bunting but no Corn Buntings. Cattle feed put out for livestock on Wennington Marshes was attracting plenty of Starlings and Stock Doves and the occasional Meadow Pipit; I can see the finches and buntings cottoning onto this food source before long. I walked west from the viewing mound for 250 m, enjoying a natty male European Stonechat and flushing a couple of Song Thrushes, and after scouring more parties of finches found a single European Serin. The light wasn't good for photography at that moment, but here's a record shot of it, plus more landscapes from this morning.

Below: just part of the gull gathering on the river by the tip.

Bottom: one of the two European Serins shows briefly.







Saturday, 12 December 2009

More gulls at Rainham

Today was an organised gull-watching event at Rainham. I arrived at the site later than planned, at about 9.45 am (blame the London Birders' Bevvy last night), and first went straight to the viewing mound to try and jam in on the recently reported Corn Buntings. It wasn't to be - again - but, having bumped into Steve Bacon, we decided to scan the distant gulls on Wennington Marshes before moving on.

They were a good way out today, some maybe as far as half a mile, but in decent light through the excellent new Swarovski 25-50x zoom, they were largely viewable. After a while I picked up what was very likely a first-winter Caspian Gull walking through the flock, but just as I was about to get Steve onto it, the bird sat down and was largely obscured. He then found a Yellow-legged Gull which similarly went AWOL before I could get onto it. Dick Jeffrees joined us and we continued scanning until I eventually picked up another Caspian Gull, this time an adult, standing still and side-on in the flock - result.

While they watched the bird I dashed back to the car for my 500 mm lens - only to return and find it had moved on. We did pick it up again briefly before it flew off, but the microscopic record shots proved to be a wasted effort when I viewed them on a decent screen back at home. A shame, as unphotographed Caspians are lost to the record in London. After the others left, I estimated the gull numbers twice, and with a big arrival from the tip around noon, there were easily some 3,500-4,000 birds on Wennington and the Target Pools combined. Among the Herrings were numerous argentatus, and there were a few intermedius types amidst the Lesser Black-backeds too. Just a shame that viewing is so distant there.

Also this morning, a Common Buzzard appeared and settled briefly at the west end of Wennington, while back in Aveley Bay, Yellow-legged Gull took my personal larid species tally to seven for the day; a Black-tailed Godwit, four Ringed Plover and 120+ Dunlin were also on show. Something then came up at home which meant an early departure, but the probable Azorean Yellow-legged Gull seen again yesterday didn't show today, despite all the attention the gulls were getting. Maybe next time.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Tale of atlantis?

This morning I paid a flying visit to King George V Dock in the hope of relocating the adult Caspian Gull which Rich Bonser saw there mid month. I timed my run for high tide and, sure enough, the bird was viewable distantly on the concrete pontoons in the south-east corner of the dock. I started to fire off a few record shots but my concentration was broken when I became aware that two police officers were standing just behind me, one on each shoulder. A pleasant exchange of views about terrorism and the need for vigilance ensued, during which time one of the officers was treated to scope views of his first Caspian Gull (the other was more intrigued by the fact that I worked in a building called the Chocolate Factory). While momentarily distracted, the Caspian vanished and I wasn't able to relocate it.

I then called in at Rainham late morning in the hope of finally catching up with the Yellowhammer and Corn Buntings reported recently. That game of hide-and-seek is ongoing, but will hopefully be won another day. While there, I set off in search of both the Serin and the aberrant female European Stonechat, and after a bit of searching found both along the bank 100-200 metres west of what has become known as the viewing mound, overlooking the west end of the RSPB reserve and Wennington Marshes. Another birder there, a non-local, remarked that he still needed Yellow-legged Gull for his year list, so I walked him back round to the car park and about 300 metres beyond, from where it is possible to look south along the foreshore towards Coldharbour Point, and east down river towards the Dartford Crossing.

From this vantage point, at about 1pm, I began scanning to try and find him his year tick, and after about 10 minutes, on the falling tide, I picked up an interesting gull drifting away from me towards the bridge; it was probably at least 200 metres away when I first saw it. It was a large gull with smooth, ash-grey upperparts, and when it turned side-on the contrasting black primaries with white tips were clearly visible. The underparts were clean white, but the head was densely streaked all over, the streaks forming a neat, cleanly demarcated and 'full' hood. The bill was yellow with an obvious red spot towards the tip. The distinctive look of this bird struck an immediate chord with me: atlantis Yellow-legged Gull, a taxon I've seen thousands of times on numerous trips to the Azores. Both graellsii and intermedius Lesser Black-backs and argenteus and argentatus Herring Gulls were present in the vicinity for comparison, as was a third-winter michahellis Yellow-legged Gull. The mantle shade of this last bird was almost identical to the hooded gull, though in obvious contrast it was white-headed.


The atlantis type had a density and distribution of streaks that matched perfectly the typical pattern of well-marked adults which I've seen and photographed on numerous occasions in the Azores, most recently one month ago; in all the many michahellis Yellow-legged Gulls I've seen over the years, none has ever shown this extensive complete hood of streaks. Unfortunately, however, I couldn't see any meaningful detail of the primary pattern at that range and angle, and, while trying to get the other birder onto it, I lost it from view as it drifted away down river.

Immediately I phoned Howard Vaughan at the visitor centre. He was busy but called almost straight back, and on hearing the news went to look for the bird - and amazingly, he found it! He called me back to say it had flown from the river towards the Dartford side, but from where I was standing - now with Andy Tweed and Paul Whiteman - we couldn't relocate it. Fingers crossed someone else can pin it down tomorrow and obtain better images and a full description.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Big day at Rainham

Rain, wind and gloom proved not to be as ominous as they seemed. The weather was uninviting at 5.30 am this morning and stayed poor until early afternoon, but I decided to stick to my plan to spend the whole day at Rainham.

I started birding in the half light along Ferry Lane at 6.50 am, and finished at 4.40 pm in the same area. In between times, I birded the stone barges, the tip borders, Wennington and the viewing mound, Aveley Bay, the saltings and the RSPB reserve. I'm knackered, but it was well worth it.

I bumped into Les Harrison near the viewing mound in the morning, and the highlight was when we picked up the Serin in a small elder just west of there at 9.15 am - a patch tick for the year. Otherwise, with much more water on the reserve this week and a bumper personal day list of 73 species, there was plenty else of interest:

* Pintail - 12 on Aveley Pools
* Marsh Harrier - ad male hunting intermittently over the Target Pools in the afternoon
* Peregrine - ad female over the same area and on pylons
* Water Rail - one seen and two more heard along the Aveley Pools boardwalk
* Golden Plover - 186 counted with 1,200+ Lapwings on the new scrape diggings next to Aveley Pools
* Curlew - two in Aveley Bay
* Black-tailed Godwit - 166 at high tide on the stone barges
* Green Sandpiper - one at the back of Purfleet Scrape
* Yellow-legged Gull - three ads (including one with a red colour ring on the left leg and a metal ring on the right), a fourth-winter, a third-winter and a first-winter along the Aveley foreshore
* Ring-necked Parakeet - total of c 10 flying back towards the Kent side of the Thames late afternoon
* Barn Owl - one at dusk
* Short-eared Owl - two at dusk
* Water Pipit - three on the saltings in Aveley Bay
* Rock Pipit - one in the same area
* Cetti's Warbler - five singing males on the reserve and another near the silt lagoons
* Chiffchaff - one in the Aveley Pools reedbed
* Starling - 1,500+ emerged from their reedbed roost along Coldharbour Lane at first light and headed straight for the tip
* Serin - a female type just west of the viewing mound at 9.15 am, and then I found the same or another 50 m inside the seawall near the Aveley Bay car park at 10.15 am

Good birding all,

Dominic Mitchell

Thursday, 12 November 2009

First Caspian of the season

I had a meeting with the RSPB at Rainham Marshes today, and afterwards checked Aveley Pools in case there was anything interesting among the gulls (as the rest of the reserve and adjacent Wennington Marshes are virtually dry, Aveley Pools seems to be concentrating the gulls at present). Careful scanning eventually paid off with a smart first-winter Caspian Gull, which subsequently flew off in the direction of the tip. As I was there primarily for the meeting I didn't take my 500 mm telephoto, but got some record shots with a smaller lens - see www.flickr.com/photos/dominicmitchell/. Also present today in the short time I had available were:
* Pintail: male and female on Aveley Pools.
* Jack Snipe: one from the viewing mound.
* Curlew: one on the foreshore.
* Yellow-legged Gull: a first-winter over the reserve and 12 ads along the Kent foreshore on the falling tide (among many hundreds of large gulls, including good numbers of both graellsii and intermedius Lesser Black-backs).
* Great Spotted Woodpecker: one in the scrub.
* Redwing: one heard over the scrub.
* Cetti's Warbler: one singing briefly in the reedbed by Aveley Pools.
* Chiffchaff: one in the scrub.

Rgds

Dominic Mitchell

Monday, 2 March 2009

Continental drift

As I stepped out of the house this morning in Muswell Hill to head to work, a Coal Tit was calling in the birch tree opposite - a decent garden bird, as at best we tend to get one or so a month. I then picked up another one much closer in next door's beech tree, and two more up high, along with a single Blue Tit.

Four together was exceptional, so I paused to eyeball the closest one in the beech. At 15-20 ft away, I could see it clearly had bluish-grey upperparts with no hint of olive or brown, indicative of the nominate continental subspecies. In fact, in excellent light the colour was quite striking and obviously different. Overall it was a smart-looking bird, with bright white cheeks and nape patch contrasting against the black of the head (though with a slightly messy 'bib'), and flanks strongly suffused buffish. Looking at the other birds from underneath and more distantly, it was hard to be certain of their upperpart colour, but I suspect it was likely that some, if not all, were also continental birds.

They were on the move and so was I, but I headed home again at lunchtime to try and relocate them. Needless to say, having been actively feeding and on the move when I saw them earlier, they had passed straight through.

The key field character for this subspecies is the bluish-grey upperparts, while the underparts seem more variable. According to Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers (Harrap, 1996), for example, "Fennoscandian and western Russian birds (south to NE Poland and the northern Carpathians) ... [have] flanks to undertail coverts grey-buff", while these areas are darker on birds from central and western Europe which, in extreme cases, "approach britannicus". The tone is on "average more cinnamon (less grey)" on birds from Italy and Sicily, and so on, in assorted permutations according to freshness of plumage and, doubtless, individual variation.

The Migration Atlas indicates that Continental birds reaching Britain do so from the near Continent mainly via the east and south coasts, so a western/central European origin might be most likely for nominate birds occurring in the London Area; the few ringing recoveries in Britain of nominate birds all involve individuals originally trapped in the Low Countries and Germany. Interestingly, and a fact I didn't know before today, Continental Coal Tits bred on Scilly between 1976 and 1989.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Wild goose chase






Still in Scotland, I'm heading south-west today towards the Solway Firth - so no prizes for guessing the target birds. But first, leaving Edinburgh before dawn on the scenic A701, a stop at a regular spot at Tweedsmuir, not far from the source of the River Tweed, was well timed - a Dipper was living up to its name well in the swirling currents downstream from the bridge.

The next pit-stop was in the centre of Dumfries, in the riverside car park from where great views can often be had of another torrent-feeder: Goosander. Today there was just one female in sight, but often several drakes can be watched here too fishing in the waters below the weir.

It's a short drive on to Caerlaverock, where thousands of Barnacle Geese always make an amazing sight to a London birder like me. What's more, there's the added attraction of other geese, including the occasional vagrant Canada or Cackling Goose, in among them. Yesterday a Taverner's (Cackling) Goose was again present here, although there was no sign so far today. A minima Cackling Goose had also been seen intermittently, though not since 30 January - so what fantastic timing to be in the Avenue Tower when it was refound with a couple of thousand Barnacles. None of the standard European field guides deal with these small 'Canadas', and even Sibley's excellent North American guide isn't comprehensive - but the supplementary notes on his website, blog and elsewhere go some way to making sense of all the forms (more than 100 subspecies having been named by one author!).

After indulging in some close-up wildfowl photography and finding an Aythya hybrid while checking the Tufted Duck for Lesser Scaup (I'd seen one here three winters ago), I was amazed to bump into Ken Shaw back in the centre - long time no see, and it was good to be able to show him the latest Birdwatch on display which featured the 'Chum Odyssey' article he had co-authored with Russell Wynn.

Having told Ken my plans for the day he gave me some very useful tips on locating two other Yanks further north in Argyll, and a couple of hours later I was carefully checking the fields near Drongen in east Ayrshire for goose flocks. The white morph Lesser Snow Goose seen recently wasn't at its regular location at Treesmax Farm, but with perseverance I found it tucked away with Greylags and a few Pink-feet not far away. Thanks to permission from the farmer at Drongen House to walk his land, I ended up getting decent views of this bird, in a flock numbering some 600 or so grey geese, and with a tag-along contingent of four Whooper Swans.

Heading west, it took more protacted scanning to finally pick out the distant female Ring-necked Duck at Martnatham Loch, finally located in company of a female Tufted Duck and, briefly, a female Common Goldeneye. Several Goosander showed well rather closer, but time was running short so I headed for Troon - arriving too late for the Iceland Gull or anything else of larid interest, but it was good to see the site and adjacent Barassie Shore, which looks to have great gulling potential. Some 265 miles and 13 hours later, I called it a day back in Edinburgh.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Along the Firth of Forth



On our first of a few days in Scotland, we headed out to the beach at Gullane on an unseasonally mild February day. This was about kids, sand and rockpools rather than birds, but along the Firth of Forth you are never far away from them. As we walked down to the beach the sea buckthorn was still covered in berries, now well past their best, but 15 or so Fieldfares were still finding enough to eat. A line of 25 Pink-footed Geese headed north high overhead, calling, purposefully towards the eastern end of the Fife peninsula. Offshore, a few scattered groups of Common Eider were dotted about, and among them the occasional Shag and a drake Velvet Scoter - my first of the year.

West of Aberlady a party of eight Greylags flew in, and along the shore towards Longniddry were scattered groups of Pink-footed Geese along the shore as the tide came in. There were none of yesterday's Waxwings at Prestonpans, and no real time for photography either - but here are a couple of grab shots of commoner species, Oystercatcher and Common Eider.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Diving on a Sunday afternoon



Other commitments unfortunately meant little time for birding this weekend, but en route to Islington this afternoon I made time for a brief stop at Stoke Newington Reservoirs. Continuing his run of good form at the site, Mark Pearson had recently found a Great Northern Diver on the west basin - an excellent bird to turn up this far into urban London, and perhaps the same individual that was reported until recently at Walthamstow Reservoirs in the 'wrong' end of the Lea Valley..

There was no sign of it on the west basin today, with just a summer-plumaged Great Crested Grebe and a few gulls on view, so I drove round to Lordship Lane to check the east basin from the bridge - and sure enough, it had moved across the road. Although distant, it was just about possible to make out through binoculars the pale 'scaly' edges to the upperpart feathering, indicating juvenile plumage. In 'rolling preen' mode, the bird was drifting further away when I grabbed this poor record shot with a 300 mm lens and 1.4x converter. Better images can be seen on Mark's excellent website, www.hackneywildlife.org.uk.

Also on the east basin were another Great Crested Grebe, this time in non-breeding plumage, and five gull species - Black-headed and Common were the most numerous, along with eight or so Herring Gulls, a single adult graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull and even a second-winter Great Black-backed Gull, a species I have rarely seen here in the past.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Winter delivers







Having given up on the motorised slalom event that is the ungritted slopes around Muswell Hill, I trudged through snow and ice this morning to get to the office, diverting my route to take in the best birding spots in Alexandra Park. Having had 18 Fieldfares over the site yesterday from the office window, and a drake Northern Shoveler on the boating lake on the way home, I thought it was worth a look again this morning.

The shoveler was still present today, even though the lake has gone from about 50 per cent to 98 per cent ice cover overnight; two Greylags were also a site year tick there. I went on to the crossroads of paths next to the deer enclosures to check the plane trees where the Bramblings were found last winter, and there was a female Kestrel sitting there hunched up while a flock of finches sat in the tree-tops nearby, calling. Initially, they were mainly Greenfinches, but when the Kestrel flew they mobbed her, and more finches began to appear and join the throng. Eventually, there were some 15 Greenfinches, six or seven Chaffinches, four or five Goldfinches and, tagging along with them, a cracking pale grey and white Mealy Redpoll. On colour alone the redpoll appeared very Arctic-like, with almost no brown tones in the plumage (and also no pink), but it had quite prominent dark flanks streaks and a typical Mealy bill and 'face' profile.

Elsewhere in the park, I had my best-ever local views of a Kingfisher at the tunnel reservoir, sitting preening in the sunshine on a snowy branch, and a Chiffchaff in the play area compound in the south-east corner by the filter beds. These and a few other additions take my patch total for the year to 50 species, with a few common birds still to locate.

Monday, 2 February 2009

White-out







What the BBC describes as the heaviest snowfall to hit London for 18 years has transformed the view outside my window this morning. There are no buses on the roads in the capital, half the tube network is down and hundreds of schools are closed - just because it has snowed for less than a day. The good folk of Canada, Scandinavia and Russia must be laughing themselves stupid.

Later in the day, in continuing heavy snow, a flock of 18 Fieldfares emerged from the gloom over Alexandra Park and flew east past the Birdwatch office window - a rare sight in these parts. A pit-stop at the park's boating lake late afternoon revealed a drake Northern Shoveler - my first locally this winter - and 10 Common Gulls. I survived an unnecessarily scary drive home (why do local councils have gritting lorries if they don't use them?) to be greeted by a female Blackcap again in the beech tree, along with two Mistle Thrushes.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Calm after the storm



After the superb birding in Kuwait, the rather dismal weather in Britain seems to have quietened things down here at home. Having dropped my daughter Ava off in Enfield this morning, I had a quick glance at William Girling Reservoir on the way home, from the very distant viewpoint of Mansfield Park in Chingford, and single Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes and a drake Common Goldeneye were just about discernable.

At home in the afternoon, a motionless passerine silhouetted in the beech tree suggested just one species: Blackcap. Perhaps to conserve energy, this species seems far less active in winter, and birds are not inclined to move much once they have found somewhere to feed. I have had both male and female Blackcaps visiting the garden since mid-December, and with other local sightings there are perhaps up to five or so in the area. I didn't photograph today's bird, but the above image was taken in the same tree earlier this month.

Friday, 23 January 2009

More Kuwait images


Here are more images from our first day in Kuwait - the widespread White-eared Bulbul, and the Indian Roller (this bird seems to be the only individual wintering in the country at present).

Kuwait at last



160. The potential trip list? The number of people queuing to get through the gate on this flight? No, actually the number of words in the ingredients list of the 'Winter fruit frangipane' served up by British Airways on this late evening departure from Heathrow - strange it tasted of so little then. I ruminated on this as we passed over the twinkling lights of Baghdad below, just ahead of dawn on the home strait of the six-hour flight to Kuwait City.

After laborious visa procedures Roy Beddard and I were met by the welcoming figure of Pekka Fågel, an ex-pat Finn who spends much of his time in Kuwait, and our guide for the next few days. Pekka whisked us off to the Sabah Al-Ahmed Nature Reserve, an extensive enclosed sanctuary where desert vegetation has been able to regenerate without the ground-clearing ravages of herds of goats. Our first Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Lesser Short-toed, Bar-tailed and Greater Hoopoe Larks and Asian Desert Warblers indicated the diversity such restored desert habitat could hold, while Eastern Mourning and Persian Wheatears added even more glamour.

Elsewhere, we struck lucky with a group of three Macqueen's Bustards - a species at risk from hunters here as in many places. While racing off down the track to try and relocate them, we flushed a fourth bird which gave even closer (and briefer) views before disappearing at speed.

High on our success in the desert, we moved on to Jahra Farms, where highlights included my first Indian Roller in the Western Palearctic (at least as defined by Stanley Cramp et al), as well as White-throated Kingfisher, Black-throated Thrush and Isabelline Shrike. Identification of the different forms of this last species continue to prove problematic, but on current understanding it seems that the regular wintering birds in Kuwait are most likely to be so-called Daurian Shrikes.

We ended the day with a visit to the tidal shores of Kuwait Bay at Sulaibikhat, where numerous Crab-plovers, Marsh and Terek Sandpipers, Greater Sand Plover and Heuglin's Gull were among the more notable species.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Kites flying high




Family commitments away meant vacating my London patches this weekend, but as we headed west along the M40 birds inevitably loomed large on the Chiltern escarpment - literally. Red Kites are now an inescapable sight along this stretch of motorway, especially in the vicinity of High Wycombe; the challenge is not in seeing one, but in seeing how many you can count. This morning's tally was an impressive 18, in contrast to a single Common Buzzard and three Kestrels between London and Evesham, and a Raven in west Oxfordshire. Reintroduced or not, who would ever have thought that Red Kites would become such a commonplace sight in England?

From south Worcestershire we headed to Bath, getting notice via the pager just too late of an Iceland Gull in a field at Bishop's Cleeve; sod's law. On the return journey a pit stop in the area proved fruitless, but two ploughed fields north-west of the village were teeming with Fieldfares. A quick head count put the total at somewhere around 1,000 birds, perhaps the largest non-migratory gathering I've seen 'on the deck', and among them a Redwing or two, a few Blackbirds and a squadron of Starlings. It was too dark for a recount of the kites on the drive home, but two Common Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk upped the overall raptor tally.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Another owl, but no larks






I spent the much of the morning on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, hoping for some good raptor watching. A few patches of fog on the way down weren't unexpected, but as I continued towards the north Kent coast the fog became denser, to the point where, at the turn-off to Capel Fleet, visibility was barely 75 metres.

A male Pheasant gave itself - and me - a scare by running in front of the car as I turned down towards the raptor watchpoint. The next bird, hunched up on a roadside post, was immediately more interesting. Even through the dense murk the silhouette said 'owl', and sure enough a fine Barn Owl got off its perch, hovered briefly over the verge and landed a few posts farther on. I fired off a few record shots, but the bird was nervous and each time I edged closer it moved another along. Eventually, another car pulled up behind me, so I had to move forwards - but I pulled up briefly alongside the owl and fired off a couple of close-up portraits. They are superb birds.

Thereafter, it was slow going and the fog never cleared. A few Common Teal and other ducks were on the fleet, but temperatures were low and the ditches were still largely frozen. Several Curlew were working the banks were the sun had just permeated the fog and softened the going, and a Green Sandpiper call alerted me a bird somewhere; eventually I pinned it down in a frozen ditch. A female Merlin, at least 15 Red-legged Partridges and one or two Corn Buntings were all good to see, as were two Brown Hares, but I gave up waiting for clearer skies and headed back before noon.

I diverted my route home to east and then north London via Sidcup, until yesterday home of a small Woodlark flock. But as stated on the Rare Bird Alert pager yesterday, the stubble fields are now all ploughed and the larks, which peaked at seven, have been replaced by the same number of Pied Wagtails. Ring-necked Parakeets were all over the place, but otherwise it was quiet.

Rainham Marshes was better. First off was a Short-eared Owl hunting reedbeds close to the seawall from the visitor centre - my third owl species in less than a week - and as I walked out via the scrub flights of Black-tailed Godwits and a few Dunlin were streaming in to roost on the wet areas west of Aveley Pools. Up to four Water Rails, two Cetti's Warblers and a Goldcrest were along the new boardwalk, and at the far end, on the right-hand side just before the bend in front of the target pools, at least one Bearded Tit was calling late on. This last species was a site tick for me. Also of interest was a Jay calling somewhere in the woodland - often not an easy species here, though my second record already this year.

Now that temperatures are up and the ice has gone, the target pools were covered in gulls, but I couldn't pick up anything other than the usual suspects today; three of the six Little Egrets, also up in numbers, were on the targets with the gulls. In total, I had five new species for my 2009 site list:

75. Kingfisher
76. Tufted Duck
77. Goldcrest
78. Pochard
79. Bearded Tit

Friday, 9 January 2009

Patch tick: Common Teal

An unexpected year tick at Alexandra Park today, and indeed site tick, was a drake Common Teal on the boating pond. The bird, which is barely annual these days, was found this afternoon by Gabriel Jaime on his second-ever visit to the park, so he has set the bar high! Thanks to Gareth Richards for the prompt call.

Nearby, I heard a Common Chiffchaff just around the corner from the Birdwatch office in Coburg Road, Wood Green N22, this lunchtime - with a typical collybita call it was clearly not Mark Pearson's tristis bird ranging up the New River from Stoke Newington.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Freezing weather

After a good first two days of the New Year birding at Rainham and Alexandra Park, both sites have been less eventful since. My list for the latter has crept up to a modest 34, including Water Rail, Little Grebe and the recently elusive Redwing, and this last species was one of five patch ticks added in a short dawn sortie to Rainham today; the other four were Fieldfare, Sparrowhawk, Jay and Little Grebe, taking my 2009 site total to 74.

The two Little Grebes were in a small ice-hole on Aveley Pools that was teeming with birds in an otherwise frozen landscape; it was positively arctic first thing and I almost expected a seal to come up for air among all the Coots, ducks and gulls crowding the small patch of open water. There must have been the best part of 1,000 birds on the ice soon after first light, at least half of them Lapwings. The adjacent reedbed was frozen solid, and I flushed a Common Snipe from the boardwalk and had four Water Rails and two Cetti's Warblers, but no Bearded Tits (the main target) or Penduline Tits.

My only other London sighting of note this year was a female Blackcap in the garden yesterday, doubtless the bird first seen just before Christmas.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Rainham kicks off!

Happy New Year!

I spent the whole day at Rainham today, despite my best intentions of wanting to cover other east London sites as well. Quite a bit of time there was spent in company with Baz Harding and Dave Holman and his wife; perhaps it's a sign of the times that Norfolk's birding luminaries are choosing Rainham to kickstart their yearlists.

Anyhow, it was a day well spent. I was up to 22 species even before I got through the door of the visitor centre, and while lingering outside checking the gulls Baz came out to tell me that the Pendulines were reportedly showing well. Within 15 minutes we were watching them down to just a few yards, and put on a decent show for the camera. I continued out to the Target Pools, but that proved a fruitless exercise as they were frozen solid and, apart from a brief Little Egret and a few Moorhens, totally devoid of birds.

Back in the scrub, a Cetti's Warbler gave very close views for a few moments, and I heard a brief, very distant call that may have been the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker reported along the approach road; unfortunately it did not call again. I have rarely seen so few gulls on the river in winter but they did include two adult and a third-winter Yellow-legged, and there was a decent scattering of waders on the Kent shore and all three pipits by the seawall.

After lunch, two Bearded Tits - a Rainham tick - were reported back in the Aveley Pools reedbed, but I had already decided it was time for the Ferry Lane end. I flushed a Short-eared Owl from the bank of the silt lagoons and had a Green Sandpiper flying around, calling; it went down by the pool at Tilda Rice but soon departed, doubtless having discovered it iced over. With
light fading, the roosting Black-tailed Godwits on the barges (day tick number 68) were followed by another Short-eared Owl over the tip, but I scoured the darkening skies in vain for a Stock Dove.

At the last gasp, however, I did find a superb male Dartford Warbler on the tip slope, tagging along behind a male Stonechat (as they sometimes do, in an association never fully explained). I haven't had this species in London for many years and it was also a Rainham tick, so it was a fitting find to end the first day of the year on one of my patches, and species number 69; I couldn't quite break the 70-mark single-handed. Summary highlights as follows:

Great Crested Grebe - 1 on the river on the rising tide
Little Egret - 2
Pintail - c.18
Peregrine - 1 on pylons west of Aveley Pools
Water Rail - Aveley Pools boardwalk
Ringed Plover - 41 on the foreshore
Grey Plover - 1 on the foreshore
Golden Plover - 6 on the reserve
Green Sandpiper - 1 over the silt lagoons/Tilda Rice, and heard again at dusk over the tip
Yellow-legged Gull - 2 ads and a third-winter on the river
Ring-necked Parakeet - 7 fly-overs in total
Short-eared Owl - singles on the silt lagoons and tip slope
Rock Pipit - 1/2 on the foreshore
Water Pipit - 1 on the foreshore
Cetti's Warbler - 3 in total
Dartford Warbler - tip slope (look up slope from the riverside path beyond the barges car park)
Penduline Tit - 2 males on the Aveley Pools boardwalk

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