Monday, 30 August 2010

Peep show

Can you identify this wader, photographed on the Azores in October?
A change of pace now from practical to theory. How difficult is a Sanderling to identify? Could it be confused with a Pectoral Sandpiper? Or what about Temminck’s Stint and Baird’s Sandpiper, or even Western and White-rumped Sandpipers? These are just three of the ID issues that have – maybe surprisingly – created much debate on the ID-Frontiers list recently, with some well-known birding names on both sides of the Atlantic taking opposing sides as plumage features and photos have been analysed to resolve the identity of ‘problem’ waders.

In many real-life situations, of course, most individuals of all these species are readily identifiable, or at least usually so. Less clear-cut was the small Calidrid depicted in a photo which we published in Birdwatch (172: 37) in Peter Alfrey’s excellent ‘Eye of the Storm’ article, about birding on the Azores in autumn 2005. The middle ‘peep’ in a trio of shorebirds on Terceira, identified as White-rumped, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers at the time, was latterly suggested by Marshall Iliff (and eventually many others) to be a Little Stint.

Nearctic peeps are far more numerous in the Azores than in Britain, to the point where Semipalmated Sandpipers are said to be outnumbered by Little Stints only by about 2:1. I have seen obvious examples of both species in the archipelago, and also less clear-cut individuals (including a wintering bird which I consulted Peter about).

So having recently revisited the ID issues surrounding small Calidrids, I was reminded of a bird (see photo above) which I myself saw in the Azores one October. Before discussing this wader further, readers are welcome to suggest an identification – it’s not a trick question, anonymous contributions are welcome (the more the merrier) and just a species name will suffice, but do please have a go and post your entry in the comments box below this post. I’ll be back again on this once a few answers are forthcoming.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Going to the dogs

Should I stay or should I go? It was 7.25 am, but I had only until 10 ish before we headed off on a family day out. It seemed too small a window to get to Banstead and back and allow enough time to try for yesterday’s very intermittent Quail. What’s more, Factor’s comment on the blog last night about the bird going silent wasn’t exactly encouraging.

So I set off in the opposite direction to Rainham, getting only as far as a mile from home when my phone peeped. It was a text from David Campbell, the industrious young birder who’d found the Quail yesterday: “Quail still 6.44am ….” In an instant, my previous thought-train was derailed. Fast-forward what turned out to be 55 miles, and I arrived at Canon’s Farm to be greeted by a triumphant David, who had not long clapped eyes on the bird. We rushed to the field, took up position on the footpath and waited expectantly.

After a short time, an old lady walking two dogs approached from the left. To the right, I noticed two women jogging with another brace of mutts in tow. At the moment at which the two parties of dogs met, almost at our feet, the Quail started calling. But my delight at hearing the bird was instantly tempered by one of the approaching joggers bellowing “OI, FIDO, CM’ERE!!”

Politely, I asked her not to shout, as we were trying to birdwatch. The Quail called again. So did the jogger. Very loudly. “OOO D’YOU FINK YOU’RE TALKING TO, THEN?? I calmly restated my case, to which she replied, with bulging veins and hairs on her upper lip trembling, something along the lines of “I COME DAHN ’ERE FREE TIMES A DAY AND NO ONE TELLS ME WOT TO DO!” I helpfully pointed out that she was free to visit 100 times daily if she wanted, but that shouting wasn’t necessarily fun for everyone else in the Banstead area. “EH?!? I’M TRY’NA CONTROL ME DOG, AIN’T I??!!” I decided not to suggest that a lead would be a good starting point, as her puce face was now mere inches away from mine. The Quail called again. The livid joggers rounded up their pooches, fumed and glared, then charged off. Nice.

The old lady, dumbstruck by the outburst, felt compelled to condemn the state of young women in Britain, and in this instance I had to agree. I thanked David, said hello to Neil as he arrived and was back indoors by 9.50 am, job done.

London year-list update:
196. Quail.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Birding on the fly

One of three Spotted Flycatchers in The Grove this morning.
A change of pace today, dipping in to Alexandra Park for three Spotted Flycatchers in The Grove alongside Bob Watts, and then dipping out at Regent’s Park, where this morning’s Pied Flycatcher was a no-show during my visit (the second time in a month I’ve missed the species there).

It’s amazing how unsatisfying such tick-and-run attempts are, whether successful or not – it’s definitely the downside of year-listing. But that didn’t deter me from doing the same thing again a couple of hours later at Brent Reservoir, where Roy Beddard, Andrew Self and others had seen a Common Redstart. With my 10-year-old, Ava, in tow and time against us, I finally resorted to a little gentle encouragement in the form of the BirdGuides Birds of Britain and Ireland (Pro Edition) iPhone app.

This inexpensive and useful app has images, text, maps and vocalisations, and on a quick play of the call a dapper male Common Redstart duly popped up in response – not a technique I like to over-use, but worth resorting to in certain circumstances. I tried to show Ava the bird and the screen images of its different plumages, but that was too big an ask of the migrant and it dropped back down out of view. A couple more Spot Flies, several Willow Warblers and Blackcaps and a Common Chiffchaff later, and we were on our way home – without the time to try for yet another London year bird in the form of Quail, this time near Banstead. Maybe tomorrow.

Alexandra Park year-list update:
81. Spotted Flycatcher.

London year-list update:
195. Common Redstart.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Silver linings

Adult Cattle Egret (below) with two Little Egrets at Aveley Pools.
This week was meant to be very different. We should have been in Italy by now, soaking up some culture, sun and the occasional ornithological diversion (a Moltoni’s Warbler would have been appropriate), but instead had to cancel our family holiday the day before departure when my mother-in-law was taken seriously ill. It's been several hectic days of changed arrangements, hospital visits, hundreds of miles behind the wheel and a fair dose of stress, but she is now thankfully making a determined recovery.

With the pressure off for a couple of days, I took some time out on the patch this morning. While I’d be the first to admit that the Rainham foreshore is not a straight swap for the Italian Riviera, on days like today it has its plus points. I decided on a dawn raid to try and see the Cattle Egret which had taken up temporary residence while I was out of town. Duly nabbed soon after dawn in wet and murky conditions at Aveley Pools, I also managed to dig out a Garganey – a decent start to proceedings.

At last: a Garganey (right) sails into view at Rainham.
By 8.30 am, with rain becoming heavier and visibility poor, I side-stepped the woodland and headed round to Aveley Bay to check the river. A text from Andy Tweed brought welcome news of a Common Scoter, so I scanned downstream towards the Dartford Crossing in the hope of finding it. Instead, I picked up something else: even in the murk, the distant brown shape swimming offshore from the visitor centre was surely a Great Skua. Conveniently, a wing-flap confirmed its identity, and I was hollering the news down the line to Andy within seconds. He alerted birders in the centre, but in the meantime the bird absconded.

Find of the day was this hooligan - a fine moulting adult Great Skua.
After an anxious wait followed by a rubber-burning drive to Coldharbour Point, I relocated it upstream. It then flew back towards the centre and, thankfully, showed to those on the balcony. Result! Back in the bay, 17 Ringed Plover, eight Dunlin, three Sanderling and six Black-tailed Godwits had dropped in. The Common Scoter, a smart drake, also drifted past on the incoming tide, while the Bonxie reappeared, circled, gained height rapidly and headed off. Other birds were on the move too, as evidenced by a Sandwich Tern and a steady passage of Common Terns upstream on the far side of the river.

An extraordinary 19 Sandwich Terns were on the move on the river.

I sped round to the visitor centre to join the others for a London-style ‘seawatch’, during which brief interlude Dave Smith did well with three Little Terns heading upriver. From the balcony, Common Terns were still moving west at a steady pace, and in total over the next few hours the list included eight gull species, five terns (including Dave’s Littles) and one special skua. Jono Lethbridge was with me from mid-morning until 4 pm, and at various times so were Dave Smith, Ruth Barnes, David Campbell, Phil, Pat, Mike Dent, Joan Thompson and several others, with Andy Tweed watching from further west at Aveley Bay.

Highlights as follows:
  • Great Skua: moulting adult from 08:55-09:33.
  • Kittiwake: juvenile west at 12:03.
  • Little Gull: juveniles west at 13:38 and 15:35.
  • Yellow-legged Gull: several individuals along the river.
  • Common Tern: 300+ west from c 09:00-16:00, very few east.
  • Arctic Tern: total of nine (including high-flying flock of seven) west, none east.
  • Sandwich Tern: total of 19, including three groups of four, mainly west, but at least two east.
  • Black Tern: four west with Common Terns at 11:00.
  • Common Scoter: drake on the river from c 08:50-09:40 at least.
I was pleased to pick up the Kittiwake, which was not only a London life tick for Jono but a capital year-tick for me, while my Rainham bogey bird of Little Gull finally bit the dust to become my 12th gull species for the site. Other species of interest at various times today included the following: Common Buzzard (heard while in the woodland), Hobby, 3 Green Sandpipers, Common Swift, 4 Yellow Wagtails (others had more), six Northern Wheatears (dump east slope), 2 Lesser Whitethroats, Spotted Flycatcher (woodland school zone).

A Spotted Flycatcher foraging at ground level at Rainham today.

Rainham patch-list update (my previous all-time annual site record is – was – 142 species):
142. Cattle Egret.
143. Kittiwake.
144. Little Gull.
145. Spotted Flycatcher.

London year-list update:
194. Kittiwake.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Birding's Glastonbury: over for another year

An up-tempo Ethiopian-style welcome at the opening ceremony.

The rain, the mud, the wellies, the crowds, the campsite, the marquees, even the egos – the British Birdwatching Fair may be a long way geographically and spiritually from Glastonbury, but there are similarities.

The years seem to come around ever more quickly, and I don’t mind admitting that as we drove onto the Egleton Reserve site at Rutland Water to begin this year’s preparations, I was feeling a little jaded at the prospect of a 20th consecutive annual event. The novelty of my first, in August 1991 a few months before I launched Birdwatch, has faded, but it’s fair to say that once proceedings got under way on the Friday morning, Rutland was once again a great place to be.

The opening ceremony, complete with Ethiopian musicians and dancers, was more Womad than Glastonbury, but no less enjoyable for it. At seven, the number of speakers was excessive, but organiser Tim Appleton OBE was as engaging and witty as ever, and the Executive Director of the Ethiopian BirdLife Partner also got the crowd going with some novel reasons to visit his country (hands up all those who knew it was only 2002 in Addis Ababa).

Assorted artists including Clive Byers (standing) paint the mural.

The Birdwatch stand was the largest we’ve had, and it did the trick in drawing in more people than ever before – despite the fact that overall visitor numbers seemed slightly down on last year (at least that was my impression). In commercial terms it was our most successful event ever, despite ongoing talk of recession and belt-tightening. A big pat on the back goes to Holly for the amazing stand, and thanks also to Sue, Steve, Ian, David, Claire and Cathy for all their hard work during the event.

A random selection of impressive offerings at this year's Rutland includes the innovative, picture-less Advanced Bird ID Guide, the formidable but expensive new Zeiss PhotoScope 85, the hugely impressive Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia, the Sound Approach (nothing new this year, but still impressive), the homemade cake selection produced by Mark Grantham on the BirdGuides stand, the donation of almost £1,000 to the Ethiopian appeal by the Allen family who, with help from Rare Bird Alert, made the Norfolk River Warbler twitch possible, and several imaginative new tour company itineraries and brochures (among which the Rockjumper offering looked particularly attractive).

Dick Filby from RBA (left) with Martin Davies and the Allen family.

The wooden spoon award goes to the catering, which has always been the Achilles’ heel of Birdfair: the quality, choice and pricing can all be questioned in very unflattering terms. Sadly, this year it wasn’t much better off-site either. That’s a lesson that could be learned from Glastonbury. But, on balance, still a blinder of a show: roll on Birdfair 2011.

Serious message: wildlife crime-fighters and confiscated goods.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Law of Sod

Today's juvenile White-winged Black Tern at Aveley Pools.
From some angles the trailing edge of the underwing seemed blackish ...
... but less so from others. Note the clean flanks and black 'headphones'.

For three days on the spin I have checked the pools at Rainham over the early high tide. The birding has been good, but not exceptional, and rarities have been conspicuous by their absence. On the fourth day we have a family day out planned, so this morning I'm at home where, occasionally, my mobile fails to pick up a signal.

Late morning I pick it up, it reconnects with the network and immediately an incoming text message drops a bombshell: 'White-winged Black Tern on Aveley Pools.' Any other day that could have been 'my' bird, but instead we are about to take a car-load of kids strawberry picking. Any other wife and that could have been a major dip but, ever patient and flexible, Hazel stalls departure while I hack round the North Circular Road for an unplanned fourth visit to Rainham in four days.

This distant record shot shows the dark brown 'saddle' to good effect.

Thankfully, the bird is still there and showing very well - though I barely have time to snatch some record shots and enjoy it before heading rapidly for home. Thanks to Dave for the text, and to Andy and Jono for trying to call me while my phone was out of range. Comiserations too to Dave, David, Paul, Ruth and everyone else who couldn't quite get there before the local Peregrine attempted to snaffle it, as witnessed by Shaun; scared witless, the tern was last seen heading for the Thames. Hopefully it will reappear tomorrow.

London year-list update:
193. White-winged Black Tern.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Godwits in focus

Two Black-tailed Godwits engage in a turf war over feeding rights.
Feeding birds often probe the mud with their heads under water; this bird
has just come up for air and the excess water is draining from its bill.

Black-tailed Godwits look their most spectacular in flight.
Back today at Rainham Marshes, where wader diversity has stabilised at its natural autumn level of 13 species. At least godwit numbers are building (as are gulls), and returning Icelandic birds put on a decent show for the camera today.

A moulting adult godwit stalks past a dozing Eurasian Teal. The godwits at
Rainham are subspecies islandica, though nominate limosa has occurred.
Highlights in full: 2 Avocet, 2 Oystercatcher, 30+ Northern Lapwing, 7+ Ringed Plover, 1/2 Ruff, 2 Dunlin, 5 Greenshank, 4 Redshank, Whimbrel, 15 Black-tailed Godwit, 4 Green Sandpipers, 2 Common Sandpipers, 39 Yellow-legged Gulls Aveley Bay area and 8 Aveley Pools, leucistic Herring Gull with red ring Aveley Bay, 4 Common Gulls, single Arctic Terns upstream at 12:00, 12:09 and 12:14 (all seen off Belvedere 15-20 mins later), numerous Common Terns, Northern Wheatear.

A brief low-tide side trip to Grays didn't add anything unexpected, with just a few Common Terns on the river and Oystercatcher on the foreshore, but Barking Bay at the end of the day produced the female Common Scoter enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, and three Common Sandpipers.

Triple bird score

Yesterday's early morning visit to Rainham was more successful for year-list additions:
138. Bullfinch.
139. Sandwich Tern.
140. Whinchat.

All the highlights for Sunday: 10 Ringed Plover, 30+ Northern Lapwing, 3 Green Sandpipers, 2 Common Sandpipers, 3 Greenshank, 6 Redshank, 10 Black-tailed Godwit, 4 Avocet, 3 Common Snipe, 2 Ruff, 3 Dunlin, 2 Yellow-legged Gulls, 2 Sandwich Terns (one off Coldharbour Point, the other heading upriver with Common Terns), 6 Yellow Wagtails, Whinchat near sea wall at Aveley Bay, and a Bullfinch briefly in scrub at c 6.45 am - my first for the site.

The impressive Wasp Spider: arachnid of the day at Rainham Marshes.
One of these species was also a much-wanted London year-tick:
192. Sandwich Tern.

In contrast to Rainham, Alexandra Park mid-morning was quiet, despite the well-attended guided walk and the nets being up in the scrub. It was just too windy, and nothing better than a single Magpie was caught and ringed. Fingers crossed that the next session in September produces more migrants.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


Green Sandpiper (left) and the first Wood Sandpiper (right) of the autumn at Aveley Pools.
My last five visits to the Rainham area produced 13 shorebird species on each occasion – a bizarre and slightly unsettling coincidence. Standing on the viewing platforms at Aveley Pools has seemed like Groundhog Day, to the point where I felt I knew each Dunlin and Green Sandpiper personally. Almost invariably, on each trip there were 12 ‘core’ species and an unexpected extra, typically Avocet, Curlew or Ringed Plover.

Today was surely going to be different. With unsettled weather the last few days and a very high tide at dawn, I was hoping to break the jinx. I laid in until 4.45 am then headed to the reserve, reaching the platforms before it was properly light. The rain had replenished the water levels enough to make the smaller, muddier pool again the more attractive for shorebirds, and I wasn’t disappointed – there were good numbers of various waders on show, as expected.

The Wood Sand was constantly on the move; two others were reported later in the morning.
I saved the best until last, however, when a final scan of the western edge of the main pool produced a dapper Wood Sandpiper tiptoeing along the margins. Sadly, there was also an adult Moorhen breathing its last gasps in the shallows, a very sad sight; it died within minutes.

Completing the sandpiper trio in front of the Ken Barrett Hide was this smart Common.

The morning’s haul was otherwise excellent, and after a couple of stops along the river, waders headlined with 16 species: Wood Sandpiper, 5 Green Sandpipers, 4 Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, 4 Redshank, 10 Black-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, 7 Common Snipe, 3 Oystercatchers, 4 Avocets, 10 Ringed Plover, ad Little Ringed Plover, 50+ Northern Lapwing, 6 Dunlin (3 juvs), Sanderling, 2 Ruff, Eurasian Wigeon, 10+ Little Egrets, 5 Yellow-legged Gulls, 2 ad argentatus Herring Gulls, 10 Common Terns, Marsh Harrier, Ring-necked Parakeet, Yellow Wagtail, Northern Wheatear and numerous warblers, including many Acrocephalus, 3 Cetti’s, and single Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Warbler.

Two of the four Avocets on Aveley Pools this morning.
The Wood Sand was a Rainham year-list addition, and my 26th shorebird species at the site this year:
137. Wood Sandpiper.

In other news, several short visits to Alexandra Park over the last week have added three species to my site year list:
78. Lesser Whitethroat.
79. Whinchat.
80. Rook.

Rooks are rare in built-up London and this was a juvenile in identikit Carrion Crow plumage, so an excellent find by Gerry Rawcliffe. The Whinchat, one of two found by Bob Watts and the first returning birds locally on autumn passage, was also a tick for my London year list:
191. Whinchat

For those who have yet to savour the unique delights of birding in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, on the eastern slopes of the North London Heights, we have arranged a guided walk and ringing session for tomorrow morning, and all are welcome - see for more details.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Back on the patch

Juvenile Mediterranean Gull on Aveley Pools: drab but smart!
Roy Beddard collected me at 7 am for another visit to Rainham - a refreshing change to be chaffeur-driven instead of making the two-bus, four-train, 12-km walk trip to my not-so-local patch (definitely looking forward to being able to drive again if all goes well at hospital next week).

The site is looking good for waders at present and we timed our arrival for the rising tide. However, the promised showers did not materialise and in these fair conditions shorebird passage on the inner Thames continues to be light. For my fifth successive visit the wader total was 13 species, of which a fly-over Eurasian Curlew was the biggest plus - the first I've seen here since June. What sounded like a calling Wood Sandpiper would have been even better but we couldn't track it down. Other notable stats for today's visit were five raptor spp and seven gull spp, as well as at least one, probably two, Garden Warblers - a patch year-tick.

Highlights in full: male Eurasian Wigeon (the oversummering individual), Great Crested Grebe (on the river), 15+ Little Egrets, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Peregrine, juv Avocet, juv Little Ringed Plover, 50+ Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Curlew, 5 Whimbrel, 2 Ruff, 6 Dunlin, 3 Green Sandpipers, 9 Common Sandpipers, Greenshank, 2/3 Redshank, 10 Oystercatcher, Common Snipe, juv Mediterranean Gull, 10+ Yellow-legged Gulls, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat.

Also seen was this juvenile rodent - it was tiny in life and looked like a shrew at first, but a closer look shows it to be a vole, presumably Short-tailed Field Vole. Makes a change to see one not in the talons of a Kestrel.
This juvenile vole is presumably a Short-tailed Field Vole, a rare sight in the open.


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