Saturday, 23 October 2010

The final countdown

Finally - the American Black Tern in Ponta Delgada harbour.
At the third time of asking this morning, we finally connected with the American Black Tern in Ponta Delgada on São Miguel - a great piece of spotting by John. The bird showed very well for a short time, but before long it flew off east and was lost to view.

With our flight home necessitating a return to the airport mid-morning, we had time to visit just one last local site - a duck pond on a farm north of the capital. Amazingly, among a motley assortment of barnyard ducks and geese, it also held two Blue-winged Teal, a Eurasian Wigeon, a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper and - best of all in terms of rarity status - a White Wagtail which I picked up catching insects along the far edge of the pond. Having seen what must be thousands of Grey Wagtails in the islands over the years, it made a change to clap eyes on a different Motacilla species. With just 25 previous records, White Wagtail is only marginally commoner than, say, Red-eyed Vireo in these islands.

Vagrants from east and west: the 26th White Wagtail for the Azores
is flanked by two Blue-winged Teal on a small farm pond ...

... while a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper struts along a muddy edge nearby.
So another Azores tour comes to an end. Despite the complete absence of westerly winds this year - a rare event - we still logged 15 species of Nearctic vagrant, as well as some very rare Eurasian visitors to the islands. A great time was had by all, with every participant getting assorted lifers, and in due course I'll upload a full trip report online - watch out for the link on this blog.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Three islands, six Yanks

The Great Blue Heron on Terceira could not have performed better.
Our last whole day on the islands was a long one. It started on Faial and ended on São Miguel, but the lion's share was spent on Terceira, where this cracking Great Blue Heron put on a fine show at Paul da Praia.

Lesser Yellowlegs (left) and Pectoral Sandpiper go head to head at Cabo.
We quickly moved on to the famous quarry at Cabo da Praia, where the tide was up and waders were congregating in several discrete areas. Sanderlings and Turnstones always seem to dominate at this unique tidal location, but careful scrutiny over two hours produced no fewer than 16 species of shorebird - four of them American. Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers numbered two each, while a Buff-breasted Sandpiper was our third individual of this species of the trip. A juvenile Little Stint made for good side-by-side comparison with the 'Semi-ps', while another candidate for a female-type Green-winged Teal boosted the Yank total further to five species at the site and six for the day.

A record shot of today's Buff-breasted Sandpiper (right) with a Ruff.
After Cabo there was just time to visit another wetland location, where we flushed a possible Wilson's Snipe - the bird showed almost no white trailing edge and appeared cold in tone and rather dark, but unfortunately dropped out of view and was not seen again. One that got away, and arguably the hardest of the regular Nearctic vagrants to clinch.

From Flores to Faial

Outstanding views of Cory's Shearwaters today off Faial.

As we prepared to leave Flores today we bade farewell to the Azores's first Spotted Flycatcher, and notched up a vagrant House Martin in the process. Better still on the journey to the airport was the pukka female American Black Duck finally pinned down on its favoured pool, with two male-type hybrids also present for direct comparison.

Joel Bried releases a young Cory's Shearwater on our pelagic - some
5,000 are rescued annually in the Azores by the SOS Cagarro scheme.

A short while later, we were on Faial for an excursion offshore. No pelagic rarities this time, but it was good to be back on the sea again, and great to have Joel Bried on board too. He brought along a companion - this young Cory's Shearwater (above), picked under the SOS Cagarro project, to be released at sea. It had quite a nip on it, as a marauding Atlantic Gull quickly found out.

A Loggerhead Turtle surfaces next to the boat.
As well as big numbers of Cory's Shearwaters, other marine wildlife highlights included two Sperm Whales, a sizeable mixed pod of Common and Striped Dolphins, and a Loggerhead Turtle which swam right alongside the boat. Thanks to Norberto and his crew for doing a great job today - particularly with preparing and distributing the chum, which is about the grimmest task in birding in my book.

The group watching dolphins off the coast of Faial.  

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Flores strikes again

One of the two Bobolinks near Lajes today - a much-appreciated vagrant.

The sun was in a better position for photographing this Snow Bunting.
With the wind easterly backing northerly here in the north-westernmost Azores, there is little chance of new vagrants from the New World at present. But wayward Nearctic passerines linger on for some time after their arrival, replenishing fat reserves, and that is presumably what the two Bobolinks were doing in a hay field near Lajes today. A great find by Laurens Steijn's group, they were surprisingly elusive, but we all got good scope views and a few record shots in the end.

Slightly better views of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper today ...
... and the two Upland Sandpipers also performed, though always at range.
Also new for our trip list today were two very tame Snow Buntings at Ponta Albarnaz, where the two Upland and single Buff-breasted Sandpipers continue in residence, along with a Northern Wheatear or two (presumably Greenland birds). Elsewhere, we also renewed acquaintances with the Semipalmated Sandpiper at Faja Grande and the Ring-necked Duck and two Green-winged Teal at Lagoa Branca. It's been a great three days here, but tomorrow is time to move on. More anon.

ID quiz: name that finch. No prizes - just for fun.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

American big hitters

One of two Upland Sandpipers digiscoped at Ponta Albarnaz today ...
... and a rather more confiding juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper.
A report of a yellowish wood-warbler near our guest house yesterday evening put a spring in our step at first light today. A Spotted Flycatcher (the first for the Azores) was still in attendance at the same site, but a prolonged vigil produced no further glimpses of the 'Yank' so we set off on our rounds of Faja Grande. An overflying Skylark and another Northern Wheatear were token signs of migration, but things picked up with a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper on the harbour slipway.

The islands' first Spotted Flycatcher lingers on at Faja Grande.

This was followed by news of Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers up in the north, and by the time we arrived on site two Uplands had been found. Laurens Steijn and I have been swapping information regularly, enabling both of our tour groups to try for all the birds being found - and so it happened here, with us getting onto all three prairie companions with five minutes of arriving at the site.

After four more Skylarks and three Northern Wheatears in the area, we headed back to the lakes where two American Black Ducks had been reported. Unfortunately, close inspection revealed them to be probably hybrids, with extensively grey tertials, perhaps questionable underparts coloration and, on one, an unacceptably curly tail!

Better duck news came in the form of two Wood Ducks, discovered by Staffan Rodebrand, and within half an hour what was probably the single biggest twitch in the history of Flores took place - 21 birders from five European countries quickly notched up these two handsome and very shy drakes, which were keeping respectable company with a Blue-winged Teal and five Eurasian Wigeon.

New in: today's Wood Ducks (digiscoped) and, below, a record twitch.

Discussion about the identity of two other teal at Lagoa Branca saw us then head back to the site, only to discover a Lesser Yellowlegs striding about next to them. These teal are generally regarded as Green-wingeds, although as they are not adult drakes and are very distant, getting a firm handle on plumage minutiae is difficult. Doubtless we haven't finished with the ducks here yet.

Monday, 18 October 2010

It's all about context

The near-endemic Atlantic Canary occurs in good numbers on Flores.
Our first day on Flores had its ups and downs, beginning with a Rose-breasted Grosbeak which was a no-show near Santa Cruz. We put in a decent effort for this bird and a fair selection of shorebirds and ducks, all of Nearctic origin, but with the wind firmly in the east it was European migrants which dominated.

A poor record shot of today's Willow Warbler - an Azorean rarity.

It's all about context. At Ponta Albarnaz, for example, a Willow Warbler in a field near the lighthouse was only the 16th record for the islands - making it twice as rare here as, say, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (35 records). At least two Skylarks and a Northern Wheatear were also noteworthy scarcities. The briefest of views of two calidrids flushed from the corner of a field suggested White-rumped Sandpiper, but in very strong winds on the exposed headland they couldn't be relocated and hve to go down as probables.

Ring-necked Ducks are scarce but expected autumn visitors.
Two Green-winged Teal and a Ring-necked Duck on the lakes added some American flavour to proceedings, but the final honours again went to Europe - another major scarcity in the form of a House Martin hawking over a lake as the day came to an end.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Back in the Azores

Excellent views of Azores Bullfinch got the tour off to a great start.
Last night was a short one. Having landed at Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel after 11 pm and then crashed out at the hotel well after midnight, I was up at 5.30 am to get ready to head off in search of Azores Bullfinch at the other end of the island. But an early start is important, and the Birdwatch reader group - this year comprising English, French and Dutch birders - are especially eager to see this threatened endemic.

We got to my traditional spot on schedule and heard a Priolo calling immediately as we got out of the car - a superb start to proceedings. It took a little while longer to see them well but, as this image shows, the views were superb. Far rarer here were two Common Crossbills - the second time in three years that we have found this rare visitor at the site.

Pied-billed Grebe was one of three American species seen on day one.

A rapid tour of the island's hot-spots followed, resulting in a haul which included a smart Pied-billed Grebe at Lagoa Azul and American Golden Plover and Buff-breasted Sandpiper on the airport among other waders. Also of interest was an American Painted Lady at Furnas - the first I have seen in the islands. So job well and truly done on Sao Mig - tomorrow Flores.

American Painted Lady Vanessa virginiensis at Furnas.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Win some, lose some

Two of the four Pink-footed Geese at Rainham today - a site tick.
The good news this morning was a Bluethroat at Rainham - a great find by Les Harrison. The bad news was that I was at home, packing for the Azores, and couldn't get there until I was en route to Gatwick Airport in the afternoon. By that time the bird had gone to ground (not that it ever showed well during the day, apparently), so I had to be content with some compensation in the form of four Pink-footed Geese - my first-ever for the site (unlike Bluethroat, having seen a singing white-spotted male back in 1994).
Rainham patch-list 2010 update:
154. Pink-footed Goose.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Creatures great and small

Common Seal at Rainham: a rare species in the capital.

Seeing marine mammals of any description in London is a rare event, so I was delighted to come across this Common Seal hauled out on the mud in Aveley Bay, Rainham, today. It is presumably the same animal I saw at some range recently on the tideline on the Kent side of the river, but this was by far the best view. Any seal is notable on the inner Thames, but Grey is more likely than Common.

The river has a magnetic appeal for creatures of all kinds. At the other end of the size scale, yesterday's oddity was a female Common Redstart which, bizarrely, chose to ignore copious amounts of hawthorn scrub to feed almost on the tideline. It was actually a site tick for me (number 187 for my Rainham life list).

Eurasian Curlews are back on the river for the winter ...
Other fare along the river in the last couple of days included two Rock Pipits (presumably Scandinavian littoralis birds), six Swallows still, increasing numbers of Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal, several Common Snipe, single Eurasian Curlew and Green Sandpiper, 30+ Redshanks and a scattering of Yellow-legged Gulls (with seven more of these on the tip today). The biggest surprise, however, was on the feeders outside the reserve centre - a smart Tree Sparrow found by Phil, and my first at the site since 2006.

... as are Common Teal. This drake is moulting out of eclipse plumage.

Yellow-legged Gull (note this adult is still growing new outer primaries).

Tree Sparrow through the reserve centre window - another local rarity.

Rainham patch-list 2010 update:
152. Common Redstart.
153. Tree Sparrow.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

No, seriously ...

Great Grey Shrike: at 1600 ISO with an exposure of 1/4th sec at f5.6
and handheld after running some distance, this was only ever going to
be an utter garbage record shot. In my defence, it was also nearly dusk.
... it's not your eyes. It really is a Great Grey Shrike, and it is also a desperately abysmal photo. But needs must - despite having been tipped off by Gaz about the bird's presence yesterday morning when I was still at home, a couple of appointments in Norfolk meant I couldn't try for it until nine hours and 280 miles later, when the sun had virtually set.

It was a break-neck drive in the London evening rush hour to make it to Wormwood Scrubs before the sky became pitch black, but I figured a predator like this might still be active at dusk - it's a good time to be on the lookout for a snack. And when it was almost too dark to be scoping distant hawthorns, this beauty suddenly popped up on one for a couple of seconds - just long enough for me to fire off two appalling handheld shots at 1/4th sec before it went to roost. It wasn't seen today, so it was worth the effort.

That I even found the right place was only down to my remote navigator Gaz checking Google Earth for satellite imagery of suitable habitat - good call (thanks also to Bob for his gen). Such is the value of the internet at times like this; perhaps it could also prove useful in the hunt for the probable White-tailed Eagle found by Ruth Barnes last week at Orsett Fen ('probable' does a disservice to her convincing description of what was surely an adult White-tailed Eagle). We looked for it again on Sunday but without joy, so instead of an impressive shot of a majestic raptor plunging talons-first into a flock of duck on a lake, I offer you this Northern Wheatear on a skip at Rainham Marshes on the same day. Say nothing.

Northern Wheatear at Rainham (you can tell the site by the habitat).
London year-list update:
202. Great Grey Shrike.

Meanwhile, in other news, the Azores is really hotting up - the first Lincoln's Sparrow for the Western Palearctic has been found today on Corvo, alongside two Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, two Baltimore Orioles and two Red-eyed Vireos (see Peter Alfrey's blog for the first images). Not to be outdone, the neighbouring island of Flores has hit back with Grey Catbird, Hermit Thrush, two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Upland Sandpiper and Great Blue Heron. On Saturday I'll be back in the islands leading this year's Birdwatch reader group, and in a week's time we'll be on Flores - it should be a good trip.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The feather forecast

Conditions are looking good for migration in London over the weekend and beyond, with easterlies with cloud tonight and gently strengthening winds (check the BBC's 24-hour and five-day forecasts here). The airstream has its origins to the east of Europe, which is always a plus. No rain is forecast so major falls seem unlikely, but there may be fog, especially along the river valleys.

Friday 8 October 2010 © BBC
Any 'viz miggers' hoping for diurnal migration could have some success as visibility improves, while warmer afternoon skies may see continuing raptor passage (with Montagu's Harrier logged through Rainham this week prospects may be good).

Diary date: there will be nationally co-ordinated viz-mig counts in a fortnight's time, on the weekend of 23-24 October, and plans are already afoot in the London Area for watches at different sites on both the Saturday and Sunday - for more information watch for updates on


Updated 9 October from 12:30 hrs:

Did the forecast live up to expectations? In most ways, yes - check the Twitter feed on this blog and you'll see that interesting migrants so far today in London include six White-fronted Geese and a Lapland Bunting, while Redwings are on the move at a number of sites (including up to 100 at Rainham Marshes by mid-morning).

I went to Rainham myself earlier this morning to test the weather theory, and the forecast certainly delivered there - as well as thrushes and Chaffinches clearly moving through, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and two Goldcrests (rare as hens' teeth at the site this year) were all present and new patch-ticks for 2010, while the Redwings were also my first of the autumn anywhere in Britain.

By 14:00 hrs, further weather-related movements were reported from the Thames, with 17 Brent Geese on the river at Rainham for 25 minutes being the highlight before they flew off downstream, but also a noteworthy Red-breasted Merganser and four Sandwich Terns through Crossness.

Goldcrest at Rainham today (note the unusual ear extensions).

Rainham patch-list 2010 update:
149. Lesser Redpoll.
150. Siskin.
151. Goldcrest.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Cabo da Praia, pure and simple

No waffle, just waders - a shorebird retrospective from late September at the Azorean wader hot-spot on Terceira.

Juvenile Semipalmated Plover.

Juvenile Kentish Plover.

Adult winter Grey Plover.

Juvenile Knot.
Adult winter Sanderling.
Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper.

Adult White-rumped (left) and juvenile Western Sandpipers.

Common Snipe (with juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper in background).

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

200 up - and counting!

Swallows, a House Martin and a late Sand Martin gather together on
the saltings at Rainham Marshes before heading south. Not shown is
the House Martin x Swallow hybrid that accompanied them.
It took longer to get from Heathrow in west London to my home in north London than it did to fly back from Lisbon on Friday. It didn’t help that my luggage went AWOL en route from the Azores, compounding the dire journey home. Still, it was worth it – Belted Kingfisher, numerous Nearctic calidrids, a fistful of Semipalmated Plovers and teal with wings of both blue and green hues, not to mention seabirds and the long-staying Great Blue Heron. A cracking Azorean starter ahead of the main course there in late October – can’t wait to get back.

In the meantime, maintaining the London year-list seems uninspiring by comparison – or would have done had I not hit 200 the very next day with a Manx Shearwater on the Thames at Rainham Marshes. Unbelievably, it was the second in a month there, and like the last it one hung around for several hours. Unlike the last occasion, this time I was in town and able to see it – a massive grip-back (and thanks to Ruth for the timely call).

I hit Rainham again on Sunday for a couple of hours early on while the family laid in, and again on Monday before work. I just had a good feeling about being by the Thames in early October, even though the forecast of good river-watching conditions didn’t materialise. And it paid off – number 201 was a southbound Osprey (another grip-back) called by Howard as it passed over the reserve towards Dartford Marshes at 9 am! A Brambling on the sea wall, a smart House Martin x Swallow hybrid with other hirundines and a Common Seal (rare in London) also justified the delayed start to the working day, and I headed in to the Birdwatch office in fine fettle for tackling the forthcoming November issue.

London year-list update:
200. Manx Shearwater.
201. Osprey.

Rainham 2010 patch-list update:
146. Manx Shearwater.
147. Osprey.
148. Brambling.

Common Seal hauled out on the Thames foreshore - a London rarity.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Azores egret: opinions sought

Extensive yellow on the legs and apparently yellow-tinted lores suggest
this egret on Terceira could be a juvenile Snowy. But it's complicated ...

It’s post-trip catch-up time, and first on the to-do list is this egret from Praia da Vitoria, Terceira. I found the bird while scanning from the cliff road to the north of the harbour – the view is expansive from this vantage point, and the first time I looked from here, in late winter 2008, I picked up a Laughing Gull. So now I always try to make the time to see what might be on view.

Note how the yellow extends to the tibia, a character of Snowy Egret
but not conventional wisdom for Little Egret of any age.
This bird was photographed with a Canon 500 mm f4 lens, 1.4x EF II
extender and EOS 50D with built-in 1.6x effective magnification. Even
so, images are still very small, and reproduced here at 100 per cent
(but with large areas of extraneous background cropped out).
These photos were taken on 30 September 2010. At the time there were two egrets feeding along the inner edge of the north harbour wall, though not together. The closer bird was a Little Egret, the expected white egret throughout the archipelago, but the more distant bird immediately stood out because of the obvious yellow coloration on its legs. The extent of yellow on not only the tarsi but also on the knees and tibia (mainly on the back and 'insides') strongly suggests Snowy, as does what I perceive to be a hint of yellow-green on the lores.

It is often suggested in the literature that young Littles can have more extensively yellow legs than adults, but it seems to be restricted to the lower tarsi and rarely, if ever, reaches the knee joint; eg Pyle 2008 says of Little that it has the "dorsal side of tarsus blackish or with reduced amount of yellowish extending partially up tarsus in HYs … vs legs extensively greenish yellow [in Snowy] including most or all of tarsus and part of tibia in HYs and some AHYs”. On the Azores bird, particularly in the rear view shot, the extent of greenish-yellow on the legs can be easily appreciated.

Little Egret for comparison: photographed at the same site on the same
day, this bird was somewhat closer (both were inside a Portuguese naval

base, from where I was ejected when trying to get closer images).
On this basis alone this bird would be a Snowy, but the colour of the lores seems to support the ID too. Depending on what you read, it could be said that there is overlap in the loral colour of young egrets of these two species, though personally I've never seen any juvenile Littles with detectably yellow lores; on the other hand, there are photos of juvenile Snowies with far brighter yellow lores than here. The Azores bird seems to be a youngster as there is a suggestion of a pale underside to the bill in the rear view shot; if it was a Snowy it could only be a juvenile, as the lores fairly quickly ‘colour up’ to an adult-like brighter yellow in the first autumn.

This shot shows the sole of the left foot on the putative Snowy; it seems
a similar shade of yellow to the upperside, not duller as is often the
case in Little Egret (see Pyle 2008).

It's also worth knowing that there is a history of controversial egrets in the islands, as addressed by Staffan Rodebrand in some detail on the Birding Azores website ( Perhaps some of these debated birds are juvenile Snowy Egrets, which are surely more likely to occur than hybrids or ‘variants’ (and given that Little Egret has not been proved breeding in the archipelago, mixed pairings seem highly unlikely to me; indeed, according to Pyle they are unproven anywhere).

The likelihood, then, is that this is a juvenile Snowy Egret. But are all the features shown fully compatible with juvenile Snowy, especially the lores? And can known juvenile Little Egret ever approach this bird in appearance? How about structural differences, which may be apparent (just) in these images too? Comments are welcome, especially from those with extensive field experience of juvenile Snowy Egrets.

Thanks to Peter Alfrey for his earlier comments on this bird and for providing additional references, and also to Gerbrand Michielsen.

Praia da Vitoria harbour, Terceira: egret watchpoint.
Grant, P J, Hume, R A, King, B, Payne, R, Russell, W, and Wheeler, C E. Bare-part colour of Snowy and Little Egrets. British Birds 73: 39-40.
Massiah, E. 1996. Identification of Snowy Egret and Little Egret. Birding World 9: 434-444.
Pyle, P. 2008. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part II. Slate Creek Press, California.


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