Sunday, 28 November 2010

Out for a duck

Female Ferruginous Duck at Burgess Park, Camberwell. Note the head
and bill profile, uniform breast/flanks and (below) hint of white undertail.

Today was a catch-up day at home with the family, with an Indian lunch prepared perfectly by 14-year-old Ed, who shows much promise with the spice rack. But with impeccable timing, a text from John Archer necessitated a change of plans for the afternoon - there was a Ferruginous Duck in Camberwell, south London, an excellent find by Rich Bonser on one of his urban patches. What's more, it's the first to appear in the capital since I started a London year-list in earnest ...

Before long I was taking a hasty trip down Memory Lane, as the lake the bird was on in Burgess Park was within a stone's throw of the Thomas a'Beckett, the Old Kent Road pub where I spent many a youthful evening some 30 years ago watching (and ultimately working for) R&B band Nine Below Zero.

The light was fading when I got there, but the bird was a done deal as I parked up, swimming among Coots close to the edge of the lake and only a few metres away from its admirers. In the circumstances the 'noisy' images here aren't the best, but they show the key features of the species.

What you can't see here, but which I saw in flight as the bird took off and circled twice around the lake before landing again, was a full set of flight feathers and a pure white, broad and striking wing-bar extending almost the entire length of the wing to all but the outermost two or three primaries. The bird even called several times, a quiet, rasping croak, and though confiding was no more 'tame' than nearby Tufted Ducks and Mallards. It's interesting that it has appeared on the same day as the first Smew has returned to the London Area, and with many lakes and ponds icing over perhaps it will herald the start of an influx of interesting wildfowl.

Assuming the Ferruginous Duck does nothing to disgrace itself in the meantime (it is apparently also unringed), it's a welcome and unexpected year-tick:

London year-list update:
205. Ferruginous Duck.

Also noteworthy in Burgess Park was the regular wintering adult Mediterranean Gull, originally also found by Rich and back for another season.

The regular adult Med Gull (swimming) is back for another winter.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Ice station Anser

Greylag (above) and Pink-footed Geese (below) in the freeze at Holkham.

A short-notice trip to Norfolk coincided with the coldest November weather for 17 years, with sleet, snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures making driving in the county an eye-opening experience today. It wasn't a birding trip, but a brief stop on the way up produced a ring-tail Hen Harrier flying south over Lynford Arboretum. I returned on the scenic route via Holkham to enjoy the spectacle of so many Pink-footed Geese in the wintry conditions.

Eurasian Wigeon get an early taste of wintry weather at Holkham.
Heading west on the coast route, a heavy snowfall and temperature drop made conditions suddenly hazardous, and a car ahead of me took a bend too fast and paid the price ...

It's worth slowing down on the bends when the road is covered in ice.
It was a long journey back to London, but thankfully the snow stopped in the fens and the motorway was clear. With even lower temperatures expected and more snow likely to hit the South-East in the days ahead, it'll be interesting to see if there are any hard-weather movements of birds in the region.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Where there's muck ...

... there's brass: second-winter Iceland Gull (upper bird) at Rainham tip.
Note also the adult argentatus Herring Gull, one of many present.

Saturday's vigil on the Thames didn't materialise in the intended way, with over-pessimistic weather forecasters emphasising conditions that simply didn't happen. But who would have thought that a London river watch would have been rewarded with Marsh Harriers - not one, but two? I picked up an adult or near-adult male very distantly over Crayford Marshes on the south side, but it later flew across the river to join a second bird (perhaps a second-calendar-year male) in terrorising the wildfowl on Aveley Pools. There was plenty else to enjoy as well, with a female Sparrowhawk also hunting over the reserve and foreshore counts of 400 Northern Lapwing, 800 Dunlin, 60 Black-tailed Godwit, 1 Eurasian Curlew, 30 Redshank and 8 Yellow-legged Gulls

Doing the double: Saturday's two Marsh Harriers at Rainham.

By mid-morning, with still no action on the river, I decided to break cover and head for the tip rather than repeat yesterday's reserve loop. It proved to be a good move, as within 30 minutes of arriving I picked out at least eight more Yellow-legged Gulls, an apparent third-winter Caspian and, best of all, a second-winter Iceland - the first in London this winter and, from memory, the first back in the south of England. It bodes well for our special gull day at Rainham with Martin Garner on 4th December.

London year-list update:
204. Iceland Gull.

Rainham patchlist 2010:
156. Iceland Gull.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The late chat show

This Black Redstart was a welcome - and overdue - Rainham patch tick.
It's been a long time coming, but at last today a Black Redstart put in a prolonged showing on the reserve at Rainham - my first there this year of a species which used to breed regularly in the area.

The second half of November is very late for Northern Wheatear.
Even more unexpected, in terms of date, was this tardy Northern Wheatear - probably the latest I've ever seen in London, if not Britain. It turned up yesterday and, though feeding OK (I watched it despatch a large grub with ease), was deemed to seem rather unwell by some observers. Let's hope it heads off shortly on the long journey south - it's only four months until the species returns again in spring.

European Stonechats are back in numbers on the reserve.
Completing the chat line-up today were three European Stonechats. A lone dapper male didn't sit still long enough in the Aveley Pools reedbed, so a shot of this smart female will have to do instead.

Other species recorded today included several Northern Pintail, Little Egret, Sparrowhawk, 223 European Golden Plovers, a Ringed Plover, 22 Dunlin, 14 Common Snipe, Yellow-legged Gull, several Ring-necked Parakeets, 15 Redwings, two Cetti's Warblers and at least 10 Bearded Tits. One 'Beardie', an adult male, was ringed - I will post on this bird shortly.

Rainham patchlist 2010 update:
155. Black Redstart.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Caspian headlines on the tip

Caspian Gull at Rainham - one of seven gull species on the tip today.

I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with Andy Tweed and Phil Street at Rainham this afternoon, working through the gulls on the tip from afar. The highlight was this Caspian Gull - seemingly a third-winter - but there were at least three Yellow-legged Gulls up there too, along with another in Aveley Bay. I thought I glimpsed a second-winter Caspian briefly on the tip as well, but lost it in the throng. The gulls are back in good numbers now, and it all bodes well for the forthcoming gull workshop with Martin Garner in early December.

An adult Yellow-legged Gull prepares for take-off.
Best of the rest were two Marsh Harriers, including the semi-regular adult male, a Short-eared Owl, 86 Common Redshank, three Ringed Plovers and two Eurasian Curlew. All this was at the Wennington end, with no time to cover the reserve proper on this occasion - maybe next visit.

A fraction of the gulls present on the dump this afternoon.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Waxwings at last!

One of the 80+ Bohemian Waxwings on show in Norwich today.
It was good to be back up in Norfolk over the weekend – somewhere I’m looking forward to spending a bit more time in future – and though it was primarily a family weekend, 24 Pink-footed Geese over the garden was a welcome sight.

Far more glamorous, however, were a good-sized flock of (Bohemian) Waxwings in Norwich on the way home – they took a bit of pinning down, but my son Eddie and I finally saw about 80 birds in the Exeter Road area. Among the admirers gathered to watch them was artist Richard Thewlis, who was producing some very attractive field sketches in watercolour from life, despite the skittish nature of his subjects. Waxwings are not good at sitting still for too long.

Sadly, my creative skills don’t extend to such fine artistry, so these record shots will have to do instead.

Hundreds may have been present around the city today.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Good weather for ducks

Common Goldeneyes (above and below): back at Staines for the winter.

With strong winds and steady rain, I headed out on Remembrance Day morning to check the west London reservoirs via the scenic route – a site just beyond the north-west edge of the London Area where Grey Partridges were reported last week. None there today, however – just three Red-legs, as I have come to expect. Nonetheless, I worked the fields between this location, which is next to the site of the old Roman city of Verulamiam, and the M25; in the deteriorating conditions there weren’t many birds, the best being two more coveys of Red-legs (numbering five and 15 birds), 30 or so Fieldfares, a Yellowhammer, a calling Common Buzzard and a Red Kite over the M25 as I headed away westwards.

Up on the Queen Mother Reservoir – which straddles the border of the London recording area – the wind was far stronger, though the rain had abated. The water was positively rough and I had hopes of finding a seabird swept up from the south coast, but an hour of diligent scanning brought no more than another Common Buzzard (surprising to see large raptors on the wing in these conditions).

A distant female Greater Scaup (left) with a male Tufted Duck at Staines.
At Staines Reservoirs early afternoon, I set out in glorious sunshine with the southerly wind abating. By some meteorological quirk which I still can’t fathom, an ominous grey cloud to the north-west ignored the prevailing wind and seemed to make a beeline straight for my position on the causeway, far from cover. Over the next 15 minutes it deposited a ridiculous amount of water, and at one point a micro-squall within this shower could be visibly tracked passing across the south basin, whipping up the water and raining intensely as it progressed. I haven’t seen such a downpour in London for several years.

This Tufted Duck with a nasal saddle may have originated from France.
I just about managed to keep the camera and lens dry and, when the weather permitted, take a few wildfowl shots. Wind-blown seabirds were absent here too, but I did find a distant Greater Scaup among the Tufted Ducks (only the second I’ve seen in London this year), as well as good numbers of Common Goldeneye (my first returners of the autumn) and Northern Shoveler, a few Eurasian Wigeon and plenty of Great Crested Grebes. Also noteworthy was a Tufted Duck with a nasal saddle which, according to Mark Grantham at BirdGuides, may have originated from a French scheme - more to follow on this.

Great Crested Grebe in non-breeding plumage at Staines Reservoirs.
UPDATE: here's another image of that Greater Scaup, out of the water
and showing its unusually grey flanks to good effect. Probably an adult
female, but eye colour indeterminate from these distant record shots.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Eyes to the skies

Common Buzzard over South Ockendon this morning.
What started out as yet another effort to locate Grey Partridge in the London Area today turned into a very enjoyable morning’s visible migration watch and exploration of a rarely visited site near South Ockendon. I was in good company with Dave Morrison, who knows the area well.

A few of the thousands of Woodpigeons streaming south-west.
 Early on in the morning it became clear that, with a cloudless sky, low temperatures and a north-westerly wind, ‘vis migging’ was where the main action was going to be. Our eyes were on the skies more than the ground, and the totals were as follows: 11 Gadwall, 31 Red-legged Partridge (in coveys of 21 and 12), two Little Egrets, a Common Buzzard, 143 Northern Lapwing, one Common Snipe, 2,580 Woodpigeon (mostly flying south-west), nine Stock Dove, five Ring-necked Parakeet, a single Woodlark (bird of the day!), 52 Skylarks, four Song Thrush, 25 Redwing, 121 Fieldfare, 44 Chaffinch, one Brambling, 15 Goldfinch, three Siskins, 10 Lesser Redpoll (including a flock eight with two Siskins), five Reed Buntings and a single Yellowhammer (plus one very well-seen Fox).

You will have noted from the above that no Grey Partridges were found. I went on afterwards to Orsett Fen and notched up a further 81 Red-legs, as well as 200+ Stock Doves and 1,000+ Woodpigeons (all on the deck), but again no Grey Partridges. The more these searches draw a blank, the more convinced I am that the species no longer exists in the wild in our area, and that the very few birds seen from time to time are either releases for shooting or their offspring.

Common Teal - one day surely a Rainham Green-winged is on the cards.
Plenty of European Golden Plovers and Northern Lapwings today.
 I spent the last couple of hours at a rather quiet Rainham Marshes RSPB. The car park was almost full but so was the cafĂ©, leaving the reserve to just me and a handful of others. Best of the bunch were four showy Bearded Tits at the dragonfly pool, but on the circular walk I also noted five Northern Pintail, good numbers of Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal, two Little Egrets, Water Rail, 127 European Golden Plover, 300+ Northern Lapwings, three Common Snipe, three Cetti’s Warblers and a Goldcrest (a site rarity this year) in the woodland.

Star billing at Rainham went to this very confiding Bearded Tit.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Catching up

Pink-footed Geese on the move over Longniddry, East Lothian.
It’s been a busy fortnight post-Azores, starting first with a week in Scotland with the family for half term. Based at my dad’s in central Edinburgh but with little time to spare for birding on this occasion, I’d hoped for at least a chance Waxwing or two. No such luck, but a pair of Dippers along the Water of Leith near Stockbridge – the male unusually singing strongly in late October – was a decent consolation prize.

A brief foray east along the Firth of Forth again failed to connect with Waxwings, but this being coastal Lothian, there are always birds of interest. Between Longniddry and Cockenzie these included numerous Common Eider, several Velvet and a single Common Scoter, eight European Shags, a Common Guillemot drifting by close inshore, three Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Eurasian Curlew, and visible migration in the form of westbound flocks of 30 Siskins, 400+ European Golden Plover and at least 500 Pink-footed Geese (above).

Back to London last weekend for a hectic week passing the December issue of Birdwatch for press. Monday started well with an unexpected visit to Alexandra Park on the way to the office, after David Callahan found a Yellow-browed Warbler in with a Long-tailed Tit flock. It’s only a two-minute detour but it took a full hour to catch up with the bird, which eventually showed well near the Conservation Pond. With Firecrest, Siskin and Linnet also noted, it’s the kind of journey to work I could do with more often.

The week ended as it began, with another good local bird when I picked up a Brambling from the office window flying into the park. It dropped into the top of a distant sycamore and everyone managed a glimpse before it departed; my first locally this year (Ian subsequently saw another one or two among other finches – Chaffinches have been on the move past our window all week). Having passed the issue on time (well done to all the team) I was home earlier than expected and finally had time to watch Twitchers: a Very British Obsession in full. Hmm … a disappointment to say the least, but it's too late to get started on that now.

London year-list update:
203. Yellow-browed Warbler.

Alexandra Park patchlist 2010 update:
82. Black-necked Grebe. [seen on 19 September, but update previously omitted from blog]
83. Yellow-browed Warbler.
84. Firecrest.
85. Linnet.
86. Brambling.


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