Monday, 28 June 2010

Eight-gull day

Among large numbers of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were at least a dozen Yellow-leggeds.

With disappointingly late news of a Spotted Redshank emerging from Rainham (seen Saturday but no word until too late yesterday afternoon), I was back on the Thames this morning at low tide. After yesterday's adult Yellow-legged Gull I expected a few more on the river today, especially with the tip in action, but at least 12 of all age classes except juvenile was the highest count I've had for a long time. One even sported a red colour ring on its left leg (code not clearly visible).

A Med Gull searches in vain for water at the Target 'Pools'.

A trudge around the reserve in a fingertip-style search of every remaining visible patch of water failed to produce the AWOL Spot Red, which by now was probably resting its long legs somewhere like Sheppey. Fourteen Little Egrets (including two juveniles) on Aveley Pools was the highlight until a cracking adult summer Mediterranean Gull flew over the Target Prairie (no water there, just cattle and grass). Almost as good on the return walk was my first returning adult Common Gull - autumn is definitely here, at least for gulls.

Caspian Gull: rare find for midsummer.

As if to prove the point, a phone call from Andy Tweed as I was about to leave the reserve centre took me straight back to Aveley Bay, where he had found a Caspian Gull - it was still on show when I arrived, making 28 June a notable eight-gull day.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Night to remember

 Sunset strip, London Area-style.

Back in the spring I missed what I thought would be the only chance of European Nightjar in London this year when a migrant seen well in Regent's Park failed to rematerialise (unsurprisingly) for a second evening. But then rumours emerged of a possible breeding territory in more suitable habitat away from the built-up zone. We had to give it a try and, after a few postponed attempts because the weather didn't seem ideal, it was suddenly game on this evening.

The flash catches the incredible eyeshine as the bird coasts past.

We arrived just as the sun started going down, walked to the likely area, got in position and stood patiently listening to the asthmatic refrain of a Yellowhammer - but little else. Finally, with the light failing, distant churring started up, and we were suddenly in business. There seemed to be only one male and it moved around a lot out of sight, but ultimately that was to our advantage as twice it hawked overhead - hence these poor record shots (I seem to be saying that too often these days), taken with a weak flash in the last rays of ambient glow at dusk.

It was an ethereal experience, and made all the more surreal when we flushed a group of small birds on some rough ground in the half light. Finally pinning them down, and hearing them, we were able to confirm them as Woodlarks - an excellent bonus. We left them in peace to settle down for the night as a Tawny Owl hooted in the distance - time for bed all round.

Woodlark at dusk: major bonus bird.

London year-list update:
186. European Nightjar.

Down by the river

Adult Yellow-legged Gull back on the Thames at Grays today.

With a morning to spare before England's crucial World Cup game against Germany, I headed down to the Thames at Grays, on the easternmost edge of the London recording area. The tide was down and a party of Sandwich Terns had been seen the day before a few miles upstream, but the best I could find on a hot and still morning was two Yellow-legged Gulls, including my first returning adult locally ('autumn' starts early for this southern breeder).

Onwards to Rainham and, for the second time in a week, I had a Marsh Harrier from the roadside. This time the views were longer, enabling better record shots.

The Rainham area has done well for Marsh Harriers this year.

Finally, I called in at Dagenham Dock to check the Crossness outfall across the river. This must be the birdiest place on the Thames at the moment, with hundreds of gulls around the outfall, 60+ Common Terns on their nesting jetty, 200+ Common Shelduck with one Ruddy Shelduck in tow (the long-remaining bird), and six Oystercatchers, including a half-grown chick.

Common and Ruddy Shelducks at Barking Bay today.

Not a bad haul for a few hours, and far more enjoyable a spectacle than England's abject performance against Germany proved to be.

The mystery finch in my last post was a Linnet, as correctly identified by David Callahan and Roger Taylor. Don't ask me how it got that dark face!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Summer in the city

A very plain-looking male Common Whitethroat at Rainham today.

With the mercury rising rapidly this morning and an early start not possible, it was tempting to pass up the chance to head over to Rainham for the first time in five days. Midsummer on the reserve can be great for dragonflies and butterflies, but bird-wise it is typically slow; I opted to go, and took the long lens out in the hope of achieving a few shots of interest.

First up was this male Common Whitethroat near the reserve centre. When you're concentrating on the shot you don't necessarily pick up on the finer detail of the bird, and only when reviewing my images back home was I struck by the lack of an obvious rufous wing panel on this male, which appears rather worn. If this bird pitched up at another wetland reserve in London it would perhaps be branded an icterops or similar, but a more likely explanation is that my monitor needs recalibrating ...

The food chain in action: one of two Hobbies feasting on dragonflies.

Notable birds were few and far between on the reserve, bar two Hobbies, three Little Egrets, a drake Eurasian Wigeon (presumably oversummering) and 50+ Northern Lapwings. Insects threatened to be of more interest, with butterflies including two Small Heaths, several Holly Blues, my first Meadow Brown of the year and a brief unidentified skipper, as well as a cracking fuchia and black Cinnabar moth.

 It's not every day you get a drive-by Marsh Harrier in London.

In a last desparate roll of the dice I decided to head round to Aveley Bay - and promptly threw a six. While driving along Coldharbour Lane next to the silt lagoons, this female-type Marsh Harrier hove into view as it circled briefly before heading off west. I had to work hard for this patch tick earlier in the year, so today's sighting was far from typical. The river itself was quiet, with the lingering Red-breasted Merganser right over on the Crayford side, just two second-summer Yellow-legged Gulls among the many hundreds of large gulls on the ebbing tide, and a single Oystercatcher. Two police vessels, a launch and a RIB, travelling at high speed suggested dubious goings-on upstream, and they soon put paid to my gull-watching efforts.

Messing about on the river: pelagic police.

Today's minor insect action has motivated me to do some moth-trapping in the garden tonight, but before I go and check the trap, here's a quick mystery bird photo from Rainham today: can you name this passerine? I'll give the answer in the next post.

Name the species - answers in the comments box please.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

You couldn't make it up ...

I'm sharing this appalling video as requested by American contacts to draw attention to the disastrous side-effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill on breeding birds in the Gulf of Mexico. Drew Wheelan is reporting on behalf of the American Birding Association - stick with it to the end, pity the birds if this is what the clean-up workers do, and feel free to share it elsewhere.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Unseasonal sawbill

It may be an appalling photo, but at least I know what it is - taken with an iPhone through a Swarovski 10x42 EL binocular, and heavily cropped in, it is none other than a female Red-breasted Merganser on the Thames at Rainham Marshes yesterday. A very bizarre record for mid-June, it was actually a patch tick for me - my 180th species at the site - so thanks to Andy Tweed for the call. Somehow I expected that mini-milestone to be a little more glamorous, maybe involving an American wader or perhaps a Great Egret, but the ways things are at present I'll take any patch tick that's going - it's my 132nd species at Rainham this year but the first addition for something like a month.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Poor behaviour at twitch

The rosefinch twitch was a great social occasion (spot any faces?),
but something to look at would have helped ...

I’ve been to a lot of twitches over the years, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. Yesterday and again today, at a site that rarely registers on the rarity map, the crowds assembled on news of a much-needed tick – in fact the best bird for at least 100 miles in any direction (forgetting claimed Booted Eagles in Suffolk and Hampshire).

After a total of three hours on my part, and far longer spent by others, you might have expected nerves to become a little frayed. But they didn’t, and the masses waited patiently. For what? A glimpse of the most badly behaved, skulking rarity I think any of us have ever seen. A furtive crake, perhaps, or a tired Locustella warbler creeping through the grass? No, a Common Rosefinch of all things, steadfastly refusing to sing out in the open on Tottenham Marshes in urban north-east London. A couple of fleeting glimpses yesterday was all that most of us managed of this vocal but invisible first-summer male, and after another hour drew a blank today I took the camera home having never fired a frame. So instead, I give you this photo of a 'proper' male, taken in Finland a few summers ago, looking like and behaving as the species is meant to. It's the least I could do.

Common Rosefinch, Finland, June 2004. Why can't they behave (and look) like this in London?

There was little else at Tottenham Marshes bar singing Sedge Warbler and Lesser and Common Whitethroats, but a Yellow Shell was a new moth for me. Prior to my first visit a brief look at Rainham produced three Little Egrets, a Curlew, 22 Northern Lapwings, three Oystercatchers and six Redshanks, but the real wader interest came the day before, on Saturday 12th, when a call from Roy Beddard saw Ava and I dash over to Brent Reservoir for a very distant but very welcome Little Stint. It was the first at the site for 14 years, and in a poor spring for waders it was notable regionally as well as locally.

A diminutive Little Stint forages among the scenic splendour of Brent Reservoir's eastern marsh.

London year-list update:
184. Little Stint.
185. Common Rosefinch.

That means I have now hit my provisional year-end target, set back in mid-April, and there is a handful of expected species still to come. That said, an operation in a few weeks’ time will mean I'll be able to do almost no birding for several weeks – an unexpected hindrance which I hadn’t anticipated. Looks like I may have to switch to food reviews after all …

Friday, 11 June 2010

yes. Yes! YES!

Long-awaited: Turtle Dove at Greensted. Below: the sad sight of a roadkill Moorhen and its parentless chicks nearby.

Same leafy hedgerow on the Essex fringe of London. Same leafless tree. I had an uncanny sense of déjà vu as I scanned from a distance, hoping that a Turtle Dove might land in full view on a favoured snag. It didn't, of course, but I went through the motions anyway and walked once more along the edge of the field. As I neared the tree a Woodpigeon broke noisily from cover, again falsely raising my hopes. And then, as I went into the next field, an unmistakable purrrrrr emanated from somewhere in the canopy.

I stopped dead in my tracks and looked round. No sign. But then it appeared, gliding over my head in brief display mode and alighting in a larger tree on the other side of the path. YES! A beautiful, immaculate Turtle Dove, at last. I savoured this long-awaited view of my most-missed London bird this year, took a few shots, listened to it sing once more and left it in peace. In steep decline and much persecuted by hunters in southern Europe, Turtle Doves are fast becoming a rare sight in Britain; I had almost given up hope of one in London this year.

A few miles to the east, I worked an area of fields and paddocks hard, searching for Grey Partridge which had been reported here earlier in the week. No joy this time, with another dip notched up (hot on the heels of yesterday's no-show Hoopoe in Chertsey), but by the end of the morning two Red-legged Partridges in different areas, four singing male Yellowhammers, a Lesser Whitethroat, a calling Bullfinch (only my second this year) and several dapper Brown Hares were a reasonable haul. On the downside, I found an adult Moorhen dead in the road, just along from a small pond where its four chicks were waiting patiently for it to return - a sad ending perhaps for the whole family.

London year-list update:
183. Turtle Dove.

Many thanks to Ian Woodward and Barry Jones for their gen today. And no thanks to the Deli'More in Ongar for a dismal Latté (note to kitchen: don't use powdered drinks), or to The Bridge Deli in Abridge for a very poor attempt at a sandwich. I may have to start reviewing eateries for birders on this blog ...

Monday, 7 June 2010

Twitcher in the Rye (Meads)

From top: a Water Rail breaks cover briefly; a pair of Pochards eye up the young of another female; Common Tern on the scrape; what's up, doc?

After an eyewatering spell in the dentist's chair this morning (think Marathon Man), I had a couple of spare hours and decided to try Rye Meads RSPB again - more in hope than expectation - for my most-dipped London bird this year, Turtle Dove.

I duly failed, as it turns out that despite breeding on the reserve last year, just a single bird has been seen on one day in 2010. This is clearly a species in trouble, with similar absences commonly reported elsewhere.

That at least gave me a chance for some photography, with an unexpected Water Rail (hard to see in summer), Common Tern, Little Ringed Plover and Pochard among today's subjects. This last species is breeding there, and I was amazed to see a pair repeatedly attack the two ducklings of another female, which struggled to drive them away but eventually triumphed.

Most of the other avian interest centred on warblers, with seven species between the visitor centre and the first hide - Cetti's and Reed Warblers, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Garden Warbler, Blackcap and Common Chiffchaff - as well as a single Grey Wagail, presumably also breeding locally.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Shrike central

Today's male Red-backed Shrike at Richmond Park.

Back on 21 December 1974, a school friend and I took a train from north London to Richmond, walked up Star and Garter Hill and spent a day birding in Richmond Park. I think it was my first birding trip there, and it fairly quickly got off to a flying start when we found a Great Grey Shrike perched up in bracken just north of the Pen Ponds. As finds go it wasn’t altogether seismic, but this is London, it was a life bird, and I was 14. We also had our lifer Goosander there, so it was a day to remember.

There is something about Richmond and shrikes. Back in spring 1953 a Woodchat Shrike lingered there for three weeks, while in 1994 London’s only Isabelline Shrike – apparently of the form phoenicuroides, Turkestan Shrike - was brought in dead by a cat in nearby Lambert Avenue on 21 March.

Today was the turn of shrike species number four. An initial text from Franko and thoughtful follow-ups from Johnny Allan, Mark Pearson and Bob Watts alerted me to possibly my best and probably my only chance of a Red-backed Shrike in London this year. I took my daughter Ava for an impromptu afternoon outing, and we watched the shrike – a fine male – catch bees, perch up in full view and even sing occasionally, at a site where this now absent British breeder once nested.

We didn’t have the luxury of time on our side, but Ava managed to take some decent shots of it too.

Here’s the official London year-list update:
182. Red-backed Shrike.

And here’s one of Ava’s finest efforts:

Tubenoses the easy way

Having now passed for press the July issue of Birdwatch, which has a strong seabird theme (potential Western Palearctic splits, top sites, pelagics, storm-petrel ID and the Falklands), I'm starting to get itchy feet. It's not like it's easy to sate a desire for tubenoses close to home; the best chance for a seawatch in London is an autumn vigil during easterlies and rain at Rainham or Grays, and believe me if you hit two species of tern and nothing else you can count yourself fairly lucky.

So instead, my seabirding is for now vicarious and online, starting with Peter Alfrey's evocative photos of Monteiro's Storm-petrels and Macaronesian (or if you prefer Barolo's) Shearwater from his recent Azores pelagic, and also the following video clip from the latest Madeira Wind Birds pelagic (it's a bit juddery at first, but if the word Swinhoe's means anything to you then stick with it).

And finally, here are some images from the last (and most hair-raising) pelagic I went on, at sea in the Cape Verde Islands in March last year (from top: Brown Booby, Cape Verde Shearwater and Boyd's Shearwater); you can view a few more shots from that trip on my Flickr site at

Roll on autumn!


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