Thursday, 30 September 2010

Round 2 on Terceira

Nailed down on the second day: juvenile Western Sandpiper.

I started with a similar route to yesterday, beginning at Paul da Praia before going on to Cabo da Praia, then hit the centre of the island before returning to the Praia area at the end of the day.

Paul da Praia was very quiet, with unfortunately no sign of either the Belted Kingfisher or the Great Blue Heron. The latter is likely to still be in the area, having been present for months, and it seems unlikely that the Belted Kingfisher will move on quickly given the lack of freshwater habitat elsewhere. However, if it finds the harbour to its liking, then it could prove very hard to pin down. Good luck to Ernie Davis, who arrives on the island as I leave tomorrow.

Praia produced five juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers compared to yesterday's three, and three Semipalmated Plovers compared to yesterday's two. Neither White-rumped nor Semipalmated Sandpipers were in evidence, but on the plus side a juvenile Western Sandpiper was a real bonus. This was certainly the peep I registered only distantly yesterday, so a made an effort to dig it out - it's good to be able to put that one to bed. Simon Buckell had a juv Western not far away last week - could it be the same individual? Also present at Cabo were the putative Green-winged Teal and the four Blue-winged Teal, plus three snipe which I photographed extensively - more anon once I've had time to analyse the photos on a proper screen.

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper at Lagoa Ginjal.
The reservoir at Cabrito was bird-free, but Lagoa Ginjal had just enough water to attract a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper (with a damaged leg). I returned via the cliff north of the harbour, only to very distantly scope a couple of Little-type Egrets. One was a pukka Little, but the other had extensive yellowish-green coloration on its tarsi. The lores were certainly not bright yellow, but seemingly green-tinged - whether this bird could really fit juvenile Snowy remains to be seen. Another one for research on my return.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


At breakfast with Gerby the bird talk includes Belted Kingfisher, a much-wanted vagrant for both of us and one which was seen a couple of weeks ago here on Pico. After checking again on the Semipalmated Plover, we say goodbye until next month and I head to the airport to fly on to Terceira. I was going to go straight to Cabo da Praia on arrival, but then opted for a quick stop at the small wetland of Paul da Praia on the edge of town. I don't know why I did, but just as well ...

Several Moorhens and a Eurasian Coot failed to get the pulse racing, and in fact the place seemed particularly quiet. A female Northern Pintail swam into view, but immediately went down in my estimation by consorting with a mongrel barnyard duck. It was all looking a bit dire.

Then a movement in the sky made me glance to the left, and my heart almost stopped for a moment. A pied-looking, Jay-sized kingfisher flapped in silently on big wings and dropped in at the back of the marsh. WTF?? Was I dreaming this? It was impossible, surely. For the first time ever, I almost pinched myself.

Then I panicked - the bird was no longer visible from where I was, so I had to run back to the car, drive round to the far side and look back east up a narrow channel. In running towards where I thought it was, bizarrely I flushed 25 Black-tailed Godwits which were roosting among tall weeds (go figure). Then a White-winged Black Tern flew past at close range. And finally, I found the bird again, perched on a low post and preening, and fired off some record shots. While I watched, I kid you not, a Great Blue Heron flew into view, seeing off a Grey Heron. The tern and heron are long-stayers in the area, but the kingfisher was new in, and utterly sensational. I managed to get closer still for the shot shown here. What a shame Gerby wasn't on the island.

Serendipity: the fly-in Belted Kingfisher at Paul da Praia.
Great Blue Heron seeing off an intruding Grey Heron.
In the afternoon, there were many birds at Cabo, of which the best were three juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers, an adult White-rumped Sandpiper, at least two Semipalmated Sandpipers, two Semipalmated Plovers, four Blue-winged Teal, a putative female Green-winged Teal, two snipe which need following up tomorrow (looking quite different to each other) and another juvenile peep in the Semi-p/Western camp.

Adult Semipalmated Sandpiper - at least two Semi-ps seen today.
The adult White-rumped Sandpiper also at Cabo da Praia.
Presumed Green-winged Teal - more research needed, but for
starters note the un-Common Teal-like head pattern.
A bizarre day ended even more strangely when I asked directions in town to my hotel. Two very helpful young women insisted on getting in my car to show me, but as we drove up to it there were about 300 people out front, some of them hanging onto walls and ledges. Turns out it's the annual bull run tonight with an unspecified number of beasts charging through the streets. The thought of this made me a little anxious about wandering out for dinner, but I figured there was safety in numbers. I bade my helpful new friends farewell, met the world's second rudest hotel receptionist (don't ask about the first), and spent most of this evening downloading hundreds of photos.

PS Now I know why they changed that genus name to megaceryle.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Plovers and pelagics

A showy Semipalmated Plover at Lajes de Pico.

Bumped into Gerbrand Michielsen at the airport. Dutch by birth but Azorean through 20 years' residence in the islands, Gerby works for a government ecotourism department. He once found a Snowy Owl on Flores - an amazing record - and we published his photo in Birdwatch. We talk birds all the way to Pico, and agree to meet in the evening once our respective plans for the day have been completed. Mine include looking for Nearctic shorebirds at Lajes, and they duly get under way with a showy Semipalmated Plover.

Lajes is a semi-regular site for Spotted Sandpiper in autumn.
Lajes looks great but is one of my two least favourite sites to bird in the islands because of its difficult terrain (the other is the 'walk of death' out of the caldeira on Corvo). Nonetheless, I struggled over lava fields smothered in tall spiky grass and finally reached the 'oxbow' pool where on both previous visits I have found American wanderers lurking. Sure enough, a handsome Spotted Sandpiper popped up to keep the run alive and, after much furtive sneaking through the grasses, it got used to my company.

In the afternoon I met up with another Birdwatch contributor, Justin Hart (check out his amazing Cory's Shearwater article in the October issue), and courtesy of C W Azores we headed out mid afternoon to a sea mount south of Graciosa and west of São Jorge. En route among numerous Cory's were a single Sooty and a very worn adult storm-petrel that proved to be a Leach's rather than the hoped-for Monteiro's. We chummed to little effect, but did have three Great Shearwaters, not to mention Loggerhead Turtle and two beaked whales - Cuvier's is possible here but not the only option (any other suggestions?).

A very worn Leach's Storm-petrel at sea near Pico.
One of three Great Shearwaters seen on the same pelagic.
 After thanking Justin and the C W Azores team for a thoroughly enjoyable trip, I headed back to dinner with Gerby and friends - the latter including Jõao Qaresma, another Pico skipper and sometime Birdwatch contributor. Small world.

Beaked whale - but which one? Cuvier's seems likely, but other
suggestions welcome from seasoned cetacean-watchers.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Azores draw

Semipalmated Sandpiper in active feeding mode: first Yank of the trip.
Far rarer in the Azores was this Garganey - just the 30th individual.
There are few better places to be birding in autumn than the Azores, and it's great to be back in Ponta Delgada on the main island of São Miguel. I'm only here for four nights, and with six flights in five days have a lot of ground to cover. Web access is sometimes difficult here, so I'll keep it short and sweet and, whenever possible, let the pictures do the talking.

Today's highlight, at least in terms of rarity value, was unusually a European rather than American species. I discovered this cracking Garganey at Lagoa Verde, my first stop after arriving on the island. Unsurprisingly, given that there are only 30 previous individuals, it was an Azores tick for me. On to Mosteiros, where the rocky shoreline took some searching for waders. Eventually I found this juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper associating with a group of Turnstones; up to three have been reported recently. Other species included Eurasian Whimbrel, 200+ Cory's and three Manx Shearwaters offshore and a very distant skua (probably Arctic) harrying a tern out to sea.

Turnstones showed well for the camera today in their various guises.

The Ponta Delgada gull roost contained only 'Atlantic' Gulls this evening (the atlantis form of Yellow-legged Gull), so I quickly moved on to catch roosting waders before dusk - no more Yanks, but an unexpected Bar-tailed Godwit in with more whimbrels and Turnstones on the rocks. Early start tomorrow for Pico.

This Bar-tail was photographed at dusk, hence the 'noise' and soft focus.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Grey days

One of five Common Buzzards on the latest London outing.
My London year list has been gently stagnating on 199 species for some time, so a lot of hope was riding on a couple of opportunities to get into the field to produce the long-awaited 200th. Yet as sometimes happens in birding, things didn't quite work out.

First, though, was not a year-tick but one that got away - a probable Pectoral Sandpiper, seen and heard distantly as it flew high over the Thames with a Ringed Plover at Rainham. Both birds landed on the mud among a larger flock of small waders on the far Kent shore; when four of us scanned from the balcony of the visitor centre, each time we picked up a larger, darker-looking calidrid - surely a Pec. But then, as the tide came up, it vanished before it could be confirmed, never to be seen again. A late Hobby was scant consolation.

Next up was yet another hunt for Grey Partridge at a tip-off site; it drew yet another blank. I'm now calling off the search for this species for at least a month, when I will have one last roll of the dice in the Essex sector. Instead I did have a few raptors, including this Common Buzzard (pictured above) and a female Sparrowhawk at one site and then Red Kite, four Common Buzzards and a male Sparrowhawk at a second site. But where have all the partridges gone?

What could have been a more spectacular 200th species also eluded me, despite occurring in numbers over London this weekend. Gannets have been forced up the Thames Estuary by strong winds and poor weather further out, and with news of birds on the river I raced to Grays - twice - to try my luck. On the second occasion, just as I was about to take up position, I learned the Rainham regulars had had a juvenile fly past the visitor centre. I had almost gone there instead, but opted for Grays further downstream because many seabirds turn back when they reach the Dartford Crossing, in between the two sites. In fact, I saw four Brent Geese do exactly that, and also had a juvenile Little Gull and a Grey Plover fly upriver - in normal circumstances a good London 'seawatch', but not when you don't connect with a prize like Gannet.

So 199 it is, at least for the moment. That's it for London this week - tomorrow I'm off to the Azores for a short-notice trip ahead of next month's main visit.

Bonus raptor: a distant Red Kite in the London Area.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Art for art's sake

A good turn-out to hear this year's prizewinners at the SWLA show.
To the Mall Galleries in St James’s Park, central London, today to judge contenders for the Birdwatch Artist of the Year Award. This is the major prize at the Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition, and singling one entry out from hundreds of top-flight contenders is always a difficult but enjoyable task.

Assisting ably in this challenge are Peter Antoniou from award co-sponsor Swarovski Optik UK and the considerable artistic talents of Bruce Pearson and Andrew Stock, both former SWLA presidents. It’s always fascinating to see where the views of ‘lay’ judges like me differ from those of the artist judges, and where they coincide.

Martin Woodcock (left) and Sue and Ron Johns at the preview.
Guest speaker Stephen Moss (left) and D I M Wallace in deep discussion.

In the end there was a clear winner which received the majority vote, but you’ll have to wait for December’s Birdwatch magazine (published mid-November) to find out which one it was. In the meantime, enjoy these sample images from the show, and if you can, try and find the time to visit - it runs until 2nd October at the Mall Galleries in the The Mall, London SW1 (five minutes' walk from Piccadilly Circus underground station).

Striking patterns and colours combine in Brin Edwards' Goldeneyes.
A detail from Chris Rose's evocative Soft-plumaged Petrel study.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Down on the farm

Gulls following the plough at Bulphan Fen.
I’ve seen more farmland over the last few days than I care to remember. Having covered some 220 miles by road, farm track and footpath in search of Grey Partridge in the London Area, I can tell you that it doesn’t get any more interesting the more you look at it. I’ve birded from London Colney east to South Ockendon, checking every suitable stubble field, paddock and patch of waste ground for Perdix perdix, but with no luck.

There’s been no shortage of the two commoner gamebirds, however, as some of my counts from the search area testify. For Red-legged Partridge, these include 14 from Navestock, 147 in the Bulphan-South Ockendon area and 46 on a farm near North Mymms. Common Pheasant numbers in the same areas were 73, 103 and 43 respectively. Many of these would have been birds recently bred and released for shooting, and a number of farms had cultivated stands of maize as game cover crops. In several of these grain feeders could be seen, and on one farm I even found open pens from where Red-legs were commuting to the open countryside. But still no Greys.

No shortage of Red-leggeds - but where are the Greys?

So much searching, even in intensively farmed areas, did bring a few rewards, however. A couple of Hobbies were still performing west of Navestock, as were five Common Buzzards, an adult Yellow-legged Gull was in a ploughed field with Lesser Black-backs in the same area, and passerines included the occasional Yellow Wagtail, Bullfinch and a rather streaky, buffish-brown finch in with a large Linnet flock which unfortunately flew off before I could pin it down (I will check the area again next week).

In the meantime, to rest my eyes from furrowed fields, I visited the Thames as the tide turned on Sunday, checking out the river and foreshore at Grays. Within a few minutes of arriving a juvenile Arctic Tern moved upriver behind three juv Common Terns, and among seven gull species four Yellow-legged and a first-winter Mediterranean were the most notable; also making the notebook were a Curlew and a Little Egret. But despite the attractions of the river, I still have Grey Partridge to find this autumn - I would never have guessed that it would turn out to be one of the biggest challenges of the year.

From left: Common, Black-headed and Yellow-legged Gulls at Grays.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Breaking the Jynx

The Wanstead Wryneck was easier to watch than photograph ...

I was out early again today, quartering the rural fringe of London in the Essex sector. My goal was to try and locate the last of the capital’s breeding birds to elude me this year, Grey Partridge. But the better – and more useful – thing about doing this year-list is that it gets me to places that I have rarely or never birded before, collecting records of potentially interesting species that are otherwise missed. Indeed, some of the farmland I visited (and I drove 107 miles today) is probably never covered by birders at all.

Initially I criss-crossed a large network of fields over several square miles, yet the only gamebirds I could find were Common Pheasants – and dozens of them. But then the phone rang, and plans suddenly changed – it was Jono in Wanstead, where yesterday’s AWOL Wryneck had been relocated. I made it there in surprisingly good time, and after a short wait a crowd of us watched it feed on an anthill by a bramble bush before disappearing into cover. Having dipped Wryneck twice already since Sunday, at the third attempt I had finally broken the Jynx, as it were.

After nabbing a few more migrants for good measure, I took the scenic route back to my early morning round and began the search again. The closest I got to Grey Partridge was hearing what was probably one call briefly in the distance, but it stays off the list until I can confirm it properly. In the meantime, today’s sightings round-up:

Good views of Red-legged Partridge, but none of Grey - yet.
Fallow Deer were also much in evidence. This black variant male
was the dominant animal in its herd of 22 deer.
M25/Essex sector:
Common Pheasant (60+), Red-legged Partridge, Common Buzzard (5), Hobby (2), Sparrowhawk (large female), Northern Lapwing (10), Yellow-legged Gull (adult in ploughed field with other gulls), Stock Dove (50+), Common Chiffchaff (2), Chaffinch (flock of 22 in stubble), Yellowhammer. Also 55 Fallow Deer, including herds of 26 and 22.

Wryneck, Yellow Wagtail (overhead), Whinchat (2), Common Redstart, Common Chiffchaff.

London year-list update:
199. Wryneck.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

What they don't tell you about urban birding

Today's smart juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper at Beddington.


Today could so easily have been another one of those days. I was at Rainham as dawn broke and had completed a lap of the reserve by 7.15 am, hoping for waders over the early high tide but finding instead that the water level on Aveley Pools has now got far too high. Two Green Sandpipers and a heard-only Redshank was a disastrous showing, so I settled in on the foreshore for a two-hour river watch.

Still smarting from being out of town while a Manx Shearwater was on show for three hours yesterday, I was determined to find something. And I did – a juvenile Common Tern. And a Knot and 10 Yellow-legged Gulls. But other than those, six fly-over Yellow Wagtails and a couple of Northern Wheatears along the sea wall, that was no more to it than that.

I was rescued from this dismal outing by a phone call from Jono, who had news of a Wryneck found on Wanstead Flats. Having dipped one just four days before, I headed straight over to join him and others in an effort to relocate it. But after an hour of scouring a large area of prime Wryneck habitat, and fending off a wino’s dog with my camera bag, we were close to admitting defeat.

In a last-ditch attempt to locate the bird I suggested playing a recording of the call, and entered the shady glades of Long Wood to do the honours. For possibly the first time in the history of playback, the call of a female Wryneck resulted in a shabby man with a large smile and his hand on his groin emerging from the undergrowth. As he attempted to invade my personal space, I played back two choice words of my own, and in the interests of self-preservation he decided to move on pretty sharpish. Ah, the joys of urban birding.

A confiding Kestrel and an acorn-gathering Jay at Wanstead.

Feeling that the Wryneck was unlikely to show again, and aware of my 6 pm home-time deadline, I headed south of the river to Beddington to meet up with Johnny Allan, who had texted news of a Pectoral Sandpiper on site - another potential London year-tick. After a fair drive I reached the site and quickly located a couple of Greenshank, three Common Snipe, a Ringed Plover and a Common Sandpiper, but there was no sign of the Pec or Johnny. A quick call revealed why with the dreaded words: “It was last seen 10 minutes ago, we’re trying to relocate it.”

I joined the hunt and, with just a few minutes to spare before I had to leave, the bird flew out from the margin of a sludge bed close to where we were standing. Yes! It perched briefly then flew, towering away into the distance but returning quickly to the same place, allowing me to take a few shots before I had to head for home – an excellent end to an otherwise trying day.

London year-list update:
198. Pectoral Sandpiper.

PS Thanks to Jono, Johnny, Mike, Franko and Mark for the calls and texts today - the London grapevine seems second to none at times, and I hope I can return all favours in due course.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Holme run

Arctic Warbler at Holme today: note the prominent supercilium,
greenish upperparts and rather stout, long and orange-toned bill.
In strong light the bill appeared almost wholly orange. This image shows
the combination of pale supercilium and dark eyestripe to better effect.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an Arctic Warbler – Finland in June 2004, to be precise – so today I broke off early from my planned morning itinerary around north London to take advantage of a bird making an extended stay at Holme Bird Observatory, Norfolk.

I reached the obs at about 1.30pm, got a permit and joined the small gathering to discover the bird had just been lost to view. Fortunately, after half an hour it was refound nearby and showed intermittently for the next 20 minutes or so, during which time it moved around the pines in a surprisingly sluggish and furtive manner for a Phylloscopus warbler. When it emerged from among the tangles of branches, the narrow wing-bar, prominent long supercilium, dark eyestripe and mainly orange bill, together with its relatively large size, combined for a very characteristic jizz.

Distinctive an Arctic may be, but it will be interesting to see what happens with British records if the proposed split of this species into perhaps three gains wider acceptance (see BirdForum for discussion and references). I’m not yet aware of how the three taxa might be separated in the field, but the Holme bird, along with a number of others, was trapped and ringed; perhaps measurements will confirm it as nominate borealis, which is said to be the form occurring in Britain.

Among my fellow warbler observers, I was amazed to bump into Stefan Zaremba, possibly Lincoln City’s only Vancouver-based supporter. I first met Stefan on a trip to Armenia 10 years ago, and last saw him in October 2003 on Scilly, where he was busy adding North American birds to his Western Palearctic list! On the way home I dropped Stefan off in Hunstanton as the rain started to fall heavily; we were both glad to have gone for the warbler when we did.

Even in a rear-end glimpse the bird appears pretty distinctive. Note
the ever-obvious supercilium and optional leg-iron.

Attempts 3, Ospreys 0

There are some birds you can’t plan to see even when you’re undertaking an organised year-list effort, and in London – despite the growing number of records every year – Osprey is one of them.

After a slow start at Rainham yesterday I broke away early on news of a Wryneck at Tyttenhanger. But no sooner had I got to the A13/A406 junction at Beckton than Ruth rang with news of an Osprey drifting down the Ingrebourne Valley towards Rainham village. I did a full-circle of the roundabout and was up on the silt lagoons in no time, but to no avail – apparently the bird diverted east rather than south towards me (thanks to Howard for the updates).

So 45 minutes later I headed away again, this time on the M25, to the Hertfordshire sector in belated pursuit of the Wryneck. A pager message suggested that an Osprey might be lingering at Amwell too, but Jono was on site with Paul Whiteman and reported that the bird had already left. We met up at Tyttenhanger and headed out towards the Wryneck, only to discover that it had been seen by the finder two hours before but not since. Not only that, but there was now another Wryneck at Grays, two miles from Rainham, and the Osprey was reported to be back at Amwell. Grrr!

Amwell's fly-pasts included (above) feral Canada and Barnacle Geese
and (below) also Bar-headed and Greylag Geese, but not Osprey ...

Jono and I toed it round to the Amwell viewpoint, only to learn that we were five minutes too late. Worse still, there had actually been three different Ospreys through between 7 am and 1pm. Our vigil began at 1.05 pm and lasted until 3.30 but was in vain, and the distant Red Kite that I picked up briefly was little consolation.

So this morning was sort of groundhog day, being back at Amwell skywatching in the hope of a repeat of yesterday’s Fish-hawk fly-past. It was a forlorn hope in more cloudy conditions from 7 am until 10.30 am, though I did have some viz-mig with 76 Meadow Pipits through, 15 Yellow Wagtails south-west (including parties of seven and four), 38 Shoveler arriving in three groups, a steady stream of House Martins and Swallows, and Hobby and Sparrowhawk over the wood (but no repeat of yesterday’s kite and 4+ Common Buzzards).

I ended prematurely as it was brightening up mid-morning to head off to Norfolk, and joked to others that they’d get lucky now. And guess what came up on the pager in the afternoon? “Osprey thru Amwell this morning.”

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Azorean Yellow-legged Gull in Argyll?

Putative Azores Gull on Islay, Argyll (Richard Allen).
While it’s probably a little early for rarer large gulls to be appearing along the Thames, there have been several interesting larid reports from western Britain and Ireland recently. Among them was this large gull seen at Kintra, Islay, Argyll, Scotland, on 18 August by Richard Allen. Richard has the advantage over the great majority of observers of being a talented bird artist as well as a skilled observer, and produced these field sketches of the bird.

On the face of it this gull looks like an Azores Gull, with that 'half hood' of dense streaks pointing to Atlantic island origin. The slightly darker grey upperparts than Yellow-legged Gull is also good for the form atlantis. The combination of newly grown grey inner primaries, grey coverts, solidly dark tail band and mainly yellow bill with darker tip suggests that it is a second-summer bird moulting into third-winter plumage, in which case it is perhaps a bit surprising the legs are still pink - most at this age would probably be at least a dull yellow by now (sometimes they attain this colour in their second winter). But it may just be a slightly retarded bird in this respect.

I don't think any michahellis Yellow-legged Gull would show such a head pattern at this (or probably any) age, which pretty much leaves Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull as the only other (left-field) option. There was an adult yellow-legged-type large gull in Hyde Park in central London for a couple of winters which resembled Azorean in many respects, though the head was a little more lightly streaked than is typically the case; the upperparts may also have been a fraction too pale.

I sent photos of that bird to Klaus Malling Olsen, who in the end couldn't decide for certain whether it was a genuine Azorean individual or a Herring x Lesser Black-back hybrid. Herring influence might theoretically explain the possibly overly pinkish legs of Richard’s bird, but that wouldn't really count for anything until it was more mature. The shape in this sketch of the bird swimming is quite Herring-like, but this is only a sketch, of course, and not finished artwork.

Taking everything into consideration, the Islay bird seems to be a good candidate (at least) for an Azores Gull. It brought to mind the streaky-headed large gull I had on the Thames late last year which also recalled an atlantis, but which vanished before I could get to grips with it properly (see a record shot of that bird here). Perhaps it will reappear this winter.

You can see more of Richard Allen's work at

Friday, 3 September 2010

Peep show: the verdict

Two Azores peeps, 15 October 2007. The debated bird is on the left.
If it weren't for the bill, would this peep qualify as a Western Sandpiper?
Thanks to all who commented on the identity of the Azores peep in the last post. Votes were largely divided between Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Any pocket-sized Calidrid in the Azores is noteworthy, as even Little Stint – the most frequent of this species group in the islands – is classed as a rare migrant and occasional winter visitor ( Although size is hard to judge on a single image of a lone bird, the combination of compact shape/structure and plumage characters in the image immediately suggests this is a small peep/stint. The fresh, neat-edged upperparts point to a juvenile, and the relatively long bill indeed narrows the choice straight down to Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper (same as right-hand bird, top photo).

When the bird was found by visiting birders on 13 October 2007 at Lagoa Azul, São Miguel, it was identified as a Western Sandpiper – perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of the bill length. What you didn’t know from the cropped photo in the original post is that there was a Semipalmated Sandpiper standing close by. When I arrived with friends on São Miguel from Corvo on 15 October and heard about these birds, we went to the site and managed to locate them and get a few record shots. We accepted the original identification (without thinking too much about it at the time, to be honest), and one of my images was subsequently published in Dutch Birding (29: 382, plate 548) as showing Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers. To my knowledge, no objection to that identification was raised.

However, the ‘Western’ Sandpiper in that duo has recently been questioned following a debate on ID-Frontiers about a different calidrid photographed in the Azores the previous year. While checking images of Semipalmated Sandpipers online two US-based birders suggested that the long-billed Lagoa Azul bird may also be a Semi-p rather than a Western.

These additional photos of both birds, and some others for reference, hopefully set the record straight. Having looked in more detail at this species pair, my view is now that the long-billed bird is, as speculated, also a Semipalmated Sandpiper. In the image of both birds together it seems hard to reconcile them as the same species, yet if it weren’t for the bill length, would Western have entered the equation?

Although I’d seen many Western Sands before, they were wintering birds in February in the US (and also the vagrant first-summer or adult in Lothian in August 1997). When I saw my first juvenile Westerns in British Columbia the autumn after the Lagoa Azul bird, I was struck by their bright rufous-fringed scapulars, and this feature seemed pretty consistent, despite individual variation. In contrast, juvenile Semipalmateds on the same trip were more a dull chestnut on the scap fringes – as is the case with both Lagoa Azul birds.

Juvenile Western Sandpipers, British Columbia, 30 August 2008. Note
that the bird in the foreground is already replacing its scapulars by late
August. The other bird is clearly more extensively rufous on the mantle
and scapulars, this colour even bleeding into the edges of some coverts.
Juvenile Western Sandpiper, British Columbia, 30 August 2008.
With hindsight, the bill of the Azores bird, while clearly long – and indeed longer than on some cast-iron Westerns I photographed in BC – is rather thick at the base and does not seem to taper to a fine point in the classic way. This isn’t so obvious from the cropped original shot, taken when the bird has been feeding, but can be seen in the image of the two birds together. Bill length also varies according to sex, females in both species being longer billed; figure 435 in Pyle part II highlights the very subtle shape distinctions well.

Bill shape was one of the features pointed out by ‘Andy’ in his comprehensive comments, which also included reference to the bird’s moult – or rather lack thereof. A juvenile which does not yet appear to have begun moulting into first-winter plumage by mid-October, the Azores bird on this basis too seems to better fit Semi-p than the earlier-moulting Western.

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, British Columbia, 30 August 2008.
There are several other subtle features, some of them again highlighted by Andy, which are more supportive of Semi-p. These include its contrastingly dark ear-coverts, less like those of typical Western, which often has a more open-faced look. Indeed, to my eye the ‘character’ of the Lagoa Azul bird recalls photos of the famous Felixstowe stint of winter 1982-83 (see Birding World 5: 433-437 for reasons why that bird was a Semipalmated Sandpiper).

For my money, then, I am also now in the Semipalmated Sandpiper camp, and accordingly this post may be of interest to both the Portuguese Rarities Committee, Birding Azores and also Dutch Birding. Thanks again to all for their comments.


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