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 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.


Dominic Mitchell


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