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.


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