Sunday, 28 March 2010

Vanishing point

Something weird happened this morning. I was on the seawall at Aveley Bay early doors, looking for yesterday's Ring Ouzel with two other observers, one of whom had already seen it well out in the open. He relocated it breaking cover from a small hawthorn, from where it flew into a dogwood near the cycle path and proceeded to hop around on the deck.

It never left the cover of the dogwood, but it could be seen easily through the thin red stalks of the shrub as it moved about, its white gorget almost glowing against the black plumage. It then hopped slightly left towards the centre of the bush and momentarily out of view. We kept scopes and cameras trained on the spot, and pointed out the location to two more arriving observers. Twenty minutes passed and the bird still hadn't come back into view, so I walked a loop behind the bush and approached carefully from the far side - if it went anywhere, it would have to head back to the seawall and the others. But still no bird.

In the end, I was right in front of the dogwood, barely inches from where the bird had been showing. It had vanished into thin air. We combed the area for the next hour, thoroughly, but it couldn't be found anywhere. It had simply dematerialised. It reminded me of a story Simon Cox once told me of a Black-eared Wheatear twitch in Essex - a crowd had been watching the bird out in the open, and it then hopped behind a dung heap. They waited patiently for the bird to reappear but it didn't, so they walked behind the heap - but it wasn't there, and was never seen again.

What is this gap in the time-space continuum into which only members of the Turdidae vanish without trace? Unable to fathom this major quirk of physics, I headed on bemused to the stone barges, largely to try and scope distantly the first Common Tern of the year which had been reported at Crossness. I couldn't make out anything more notable than an adult Yellow-legged Gull drifting upriver on the incoming tide, so drew a line under proceedings and headed for home.

Rainham yearlist:
108. Ring Ouzel.

STOP PRESS: just had a text this afternoon from Paul Hawkins at Rainham. He's seen the Ring Ouzel again. Go figure.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Park life

Can you tell what it is yet? A smart duck indeed, but a male Tufted x female Pochard hybrid rather than a Lesser Scaup.

It was birding on the run today - first, a successful second attempt in the morning at seeing Willow Warbler in Alexandra Park, with this smart hybrid Aythya stumbled into en route on the boating pond, and Little Grebe, two Blackcaps, two Common Chiffchaffs, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a single Redwing thrown in for good measure. Then it was off to Trent Park in the afternoon for my daughter's riding lesson - no hoped-for Bullfinch or Little Owl nearby, just Sparrowhawk and Green Woodpecker to show for my efforts.

Meanwhile, the big news elsewhere in London was the second Alpine Swift in a week, this time over Crossness - just to the west of my patch at Rainham, where a male Ring Ouzel was also found. You can't be everywhere, of course, but that doesn't make it any easier when you hear news like that - I can feel an early start in the morning coming on.

PS The clocks go forward tonight, so let's not make that too early a start ...

My first Willow Warbler of the year, gripped back before the turn of the month.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Garganey and Glauc

Top: the first Little Ringed Plover of the year. Below: today's Glaucous Gull on Wennington Marshes. Can you spot the Yellow-legged Gull in the first image?

I should have been at Rainham earlier this morning, but while on the North Circular Road a warning light announced I had just seven miles of fuel left in the tank. As Rainham was about 15 miles away, it was a challenge I couldn’t resist; rather than turn off and queue in Sainsbury’s or hunt for diesel elsewhere, I eased off the gas and managed to freewheel most of the way to the A13 and the Shell garage by the Barking fly-over. Ultimately pointless, I know, but it somehow made the journey marginally more interesting.

The reserve itself was rather quiet, bar four Common Chiffchaffs and a couple of Cetti’s Warblers in the scrub area. Interesting waders were conspicuous by their absence, so after photographing a colour-ringed Herring Gull (A48T black code on white) I headed on to the Target Pools.

Here, after repeated scanning through the ducks on the far side, my gaze landed on what was clearly a female Garganey. This past winter I have searched endlessly through the teal and wigeon for Green-winged and American respectively, to no avail, so this was a minor success. But what was most striking about it was not the striped ‘face’ and loral spot so much as the clean white throat, a character I later checked in the literature. All too quickly, however, the bird sailed out of view.

I walked on to the Marshland Discovery Zone, where a Little Ringed Plover – seen first by Peter Hale – was another welcome summer visitor. But that was as good as it got, so after a quick lunch I repaired to the barges, adding Water Pipit, and then to Wennington Marsh. Viewed distantly from the tip entrance, there were hundreds of gulls way to the east. The first scan, unavoidably through a chainlink fence, produced nothing. But I always try to scan at least twice (you rarely pick everything up in one sweep) and I’m glad I did; first came a second-summer Yellow-legged Gull walking through the throng, and shortly after a head with a bicoloured pink-and-black bill poked out at the back of the crowd. A moment later the bird lifted its wings to confirm my suspicions: second-calendar-year Glaucous Gull.

After grabbing some poor record shots I rushed round to the viewing mound and the got these closer images. It was the last good bird before I left mid-afternoon, bringing the tally to a close at 65 species. Highlights: Garganey (female), Peregrine Falcon (adult), Water Rail, Little Ringed Plover, Glaucous Gull (2cy), Yellow-legged Gull (3cy), Water Pipit, Cetti's Warbler (two), Common Chiffchaff (four).

Rainham year list:
106. Garganey
107. Little Ringed Plover

PS A flying visit to Alexandra Park yesterday didn’t produce the Willow Warbler found by Bob Watts, but three Common Chiffchaffs were the 60th species of the year for my site list.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Chats in, gulls out

Gulls departing the dump at Rainham: numbers have fallen sharply just as the first summer migrants arrive.

At last, my first true spring migrant appeared this morning. A cracking male Northern Wheatear on the saltings at Aveley Bay came six days later than last year's first bird, but was within quarter of a mile of the same spot. While trying to relocate it what looked suspiciously like a White Wagtail disappeared over the sea wall, never to be seen again. Easy come, easy go.

Shortly afterwards, news broke of an Alpine Swift at Leyton Flats. I always think March seems early for this Mediterranean overshoot, but a wave of birds has arrived in southern England over the last few days; all it seems to take is a following wind and some sunshine. With hindsight I should have gone then for this major London rarity, but I assumed it was most likely a fly-through, like so many others have been.

On the second report late morning I was sorely tempted to act, but was up on the tip photographing gulls and couldn't have got out quickly. Gull numbers are well down now, into the hundreds from the thousands present last month, and the only notables were first-winter and second-summer Yellow-legged Gulls in the thick of the action. Among the loafing gulls on nearby Wennington Marsh were a couple of ringed birds, but they were too distant to read the codes and I gave up trying. As I watched birds leaving the tip at Rainham, I got the distinct feeling that the gulling season is over for another year.

Calling in at the RSPB reserve centre for an early lunch, my phone began to ring persistently: it was most likely either the Birdwatch office, or our new east London columnist, Jonathan Lethbridge, on the trail of another good London bird. And so it proved: Jono had indeed connected with the swift and sounded chuffed. I capitulated immediately and headed over to Whipps Cross, as did some of the others at Rainham, but of course the bird didn't return. Lesson of the day: make your mind up more quickly next time.

List update: Rainham 2010 - 105 species. London 2010 - 136 species.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Last chance saloon

From top: drake Green-winged Teal at Burren; Black-throated Diver off Finvarra (if only all divers there were so close); and second-calendar-year Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid at Nimmo's Pier.

We were determined to have a better day today. Though there was again no sign of the Forster's Tern first thing, when the tide was quite high, we set off in a positive frame of mind for Finvarra, determined to relocate the Pacific Diver. Killian Mullarney had emailed me videograbs of the bird last night, and these helped refine our 'search image' of the bird. A shot in the arm en route came in the form of a handsome drake Green-winged Teal on a roadside pool at Burren - our second of the trip, and much better looks than the last one.

At Finvarra, however, the wind was outrageous and it had started to rain. It was almost impossible to keep the scopes still in the open, so we were forced to shelter in the lee of the Martello Tower. Roy was first in position and called two "interesting" distant divers. We could see they were Black-throated types but in these conditions, at that range, it was hard to be certain of anything else. With more scanning the diver count grew, until eventually we had eight Great Northerns (plus seven more a little later), three Red-throateds and four Black-throated types, including a cracking summer-plumaged bird that appeared from nowhere quite close inshore.

Thankfully, the visibility began to improve and we were better able to appreciate one of Roy's original two birds, which was now showing a clear suggestion of a chinstrap and, importantly, no white flank patch. The Black-throat next to it aided a positive identification of Pacific Diver, and it remained on view for a full hour until we left late morning.

Buoyed with this success, we rushed back to Galway to catch the beach by Nimmo's Pier at low tide. Still no Forster's Tern, despite several Sandwich Terns being present again, so it was time for one last check of the slipway, where I found a smart second-calendar-year Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid (note the mixed characters in this image). After a major disaster when a gust of wind blew over my tripod-mounted long lens, leaving my 1.4x extender in pieces, we had to head south back to Shannon for the evening flight home.

Somewhat subdued by the damage to my photographic kit, it seemed fitting somehow that, stopping off near Corofin, we again couldn't find the Pied-billed Grebe in its favoured corner of Lough Atedaun. It wasn't meant to be, it seemed. Then, as the others climbed into the car, I decided to give the rest of the lough a final careful scan and there, well out on the open water among the Great Crested Grebes and Mute Swans, was the Pied-billed after all! We had assumed it was sheltering in the reeds because of the winds, but it was diving repeatedly and seemed unperturbed by the weather. Our final roll of the dice had paid off - never give up. Not even Ryanair could quell the euphoric feeling which lasted all the way back home to London.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

St Patrick's Day

Left: Nimmo Pier's wintering adult Ring-billed Gull. Below: this Black-headed Gull was ringed as a chick in 2007 at a Co Mayo colony. Bottom: Redshank on Mutton Island Causeway.

When the arrangements were originally made for this trip, I hadn't taken into consideration that it coincided with St Patrick's Day. Big mistake, I thought, as our car negotiated streets crowded with people of all ages and in all states of sobriety sporting big green hats, stuck-on ginger beards, shamrock tattoos and more.

We were on our way back to Galway city, having traversed a wide area of peat bogs and hills north-east of Rossaveal in search of a Snowy Owl. It has reportedly been present for a month, though news has only just emerged; I'm pretty confident we didn't overlook it in our extensive search by foot and car this morning, but it could range over a vast area. Five Sandwich Terns and a Black Guillemot in Rossaveal harbour afterwards were scant reward for our efforts, so we headed back to town among the revellers to Nimmo's Pier.

Here, an adult Ring-billed Gull was performing on cue. I'd located it earlier on the far side of the harbour, but now it was on the slipway, within a can's throw of the drunken crowds gathering on the pier - presumably to avoid the Garda threat to round up drinkers on public streets. We felt rather conspicuous lugging thousands of pounds of optics and cameras through this motley crew, some of whom tossed the odd insult our way, but we needed to check the beach for the long-staying Forster's Tern that had been regularly reported at low tide.

Try as we might, we could not find the bird. Five more Sandwich Terns - apparently often its companions - were on show, and I and then Chris both found first-winter Glaucous Gulls as we neared the causeway to Mutton Island. But with the tide coming in and birds rapidly departing for their roosting areas, we realised it was not to be. We celebrated St Patrick's Day, or rather drowned our sorrows, with Guinness in the Crane Bar. Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Ireland or bust

From top: drake Green-winged Teal (left) with female (presumed) Common Teal and Little Egret, Great Northern Diver, Eurasian Wigeon and Rock Pipit.

I'd forgotten about the joys of flying Ryanair, but was abruptly reminded of them at Stansted this morning. Loudspeaker announcements and ground staff warned passengers, who were gathering at departure gates like prisoners awaiting transportation, what would happen to them if anyone attempted to take more than one item of hand baggage on board, or had a bag marginally too big. Welcome to budget air travel.

Chris Harbard, Roy Beddard and I were heading to Galway for what was originally conceived as a gull-watching trip, but which had changed in nature somewhat given the lack of white-winged gulls this winter and the presence instead of some major rarities. Fortunately we are all good travellers - Ryanair doesn't do seat-back pockets, so anyone looking in vain for a sick bag presumably has to throw up on their feet (or their neighbour's).

Anyhow, we duly landed unstained at Shannon Airport and made straight for the adjacent lagoons, where a local birder was already viewing the long-staying but rather distant drake Green-winged Teal. It was good to hit the ground running with our first 'Yank' of the trip, so after exchanging pleasantries and gen with our new friend, admiring at least 20 Little Egrets and a selection of waders, we headed north to Galway Bay via Corofin.

The big draw en route was a Pied-billed Grebe at Lough Atedaun - in theory at least. We met another local who hadn't managed to find it around its favoured reedy margin, perhaps unsurprisingly in the windy conditions, but were pleased to hear that he'd just come from watching the Pacific Diver at Finvarra. We searched long and hard for the grebe but without luck, so continued north across the impressive Burren landscape to Ballyvaughan and then Finvarra, expecting the diver to be a done deal.

If only. Here, yet another sole local birder was on site; he'd seen the bird 10 minutes previously, apparently, but a quick scan failed to produce it and nor could he refind it with more careful searching. We gave it a hour, notching up Red-throated, Black-throated and many Great Northern Divers, as well as Black Guillemot and Long-tailed Duck, but could not find a good candidate 'loon' complete with chinstrap and dark flanks.

A minor diversion nearby generated discussion of female-type wigeon, with one candidate rather American-like in general appearance (but, as we now know from the images and through discussion with others, definitely a Eurasian), and then we pressed on to Galway for the night. An OK day, but disappointing not to have connected with two major targets.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Spring is in the air

From top: singing male Wren; female Sparrowhawk; Water Pipit; second-calendar-year Yellow-legged Gull; and Little Egret.

It felt very spring-like this morning, so I headed to Rainham early and birded the reserve thoroughly before decamping to the Ingrebourne Valley for a reported Penduline Tit. That was a no-show, so I headed back with another birder, Tom Smith, to check the barges at high tide and then the gulls on the dump and in Aveley Bay.

On this day last year I had the first Northern Wheatear of spring at the site, a cracking male, but attempts to repeat the feat today weren't successful. The wind was brisk at times and from the south-west, so not ideal fall conditions, though one wheatear did make it through to the west side of the city.

Nonetheless it was a good day, with at least 72 species, including Pintail (20+), Little Egret (5+), Common Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon, Ringed Plover (4), European Golden Plover (164), Common Snipe (20+), Yellow-legged Gull (2cy), Stock Dove (156), Rock Pipit (2), Water Pipit (1), Blackcap (3) and Cetti's Warbler (3).

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The eastern quarter

From top: Siskin at Danemead; a brief but welcome Lesser Spotted Woodpecker; how not to digiscope a Velvet Scoter; Northern Pintail pair at Rainham; and Yellowhammer at Stifford Clays.

After a full 12 hours passing April's Birdwatch for press yesterday, it was good to get back out in the field this morning and clear my head - at least until I hit roadworks on the A10 (another 45 minutes of my life I won't get back). So I arrived later than planned at Broxbourne Woods, where the aim was to try and refind the Hawfinches that had last been seen during February's cold spell. Thanks to pinpoint directions from Jono Lethbridge and Jan Hein van Steenis I found the spot easily, but the only finches on view when I got there were two dapper male Siskins in full song. I gave it a good hour, at which point a male Brambling was a welcome bonus, and then wandered into the Danemead Reserve to see if the birds were deeper in the woods.

As I crossed the sheep pasture a small bird sitting atop the highest point of a nearby tree caught my eye. Of all things it proved to be a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! I moved a bit closer, whereupon it dropped in among the branches and started feeding. It wasn't easy to get even a record shot, so apologies for the poor result here - no time to adjust the metering before it flew. This declining species can be very hard to find in the London Area these days, so it is good to know they are still present in this area. Also at Danemead were a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a Nuthatch and several more Siskins, but being unable to find any Hawfinches I headed back to the car.

As soon as I was within range of a mobile signal again, my phone started bleeping with texts - the hot news was a Velvet Scoter on William Girling Reservoir, further south in the Lea Valley. Within 20 minutes or so I was in Mansfield Park to the east of the Girling, scoping the scoter distantly as it swam with a pair of Shoveler, occasionally wing-flapping to reveal its diagnostic white secondaries. Bingo - a second London tick in three days! Jono was there with his daughter and we exchanged news and gossip, while also notching up the long-staying Great Northern Diver rather distantly. A while later John Colemans and a friend appeared, and while scanning the reservoir to relocate the scoter we had a female Red-breasted Merganser with a pair of Goosander and a couple of Black-necked Grebes.

The afternoon was inevitably lower key, but Rainham produced two year-ticks in the form of Great Spotted Woodpecker and Mistle Thrush (now 104 species for the site this year), plus 12 Pintail, still many Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal and Northern Shoveler, two Cetti's Warbers and a Green Woodpecker. I headed home via Grays, finding two Oystercatchers, a Eurasian Curlew and a Dunlin on the foreshore, and 10 Yellowhammers and 70 Fieldfares near Stifford Clays to the north. All in all, a very good day out.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Listing landmark - 270th London species

From top: Firecrest, Stock Dove, Ring-necked Parakeet, Bewick's Swan and Pink-footed Goose.

Having not succeeded with Firecrest yesterday, I tried a different site this morning – a prime piece of habitat in north London with stands of holly among ivy-clad tree trunks in oak woodland. I have visited this site before but not for many years, and Firecrests have occurred here too, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised when a gorgeous male popped up in the holly and began singing, at one point even with its crest raised. Eventually a female joined it, and they gave superb views on and off for more than an hour – you can’t get enough good looks at Firecrests.

The site is potentially suitable breeding habitat so should remain nameless for this Schedule 1 species, though the pair may be tempted to move on in this improving weather anyway. Everything else in the wood was thinking about breeding, with Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers very audible and visible, displaying Stock Doves, fast-flying parties of Ring-necked Parakeets and, on a nearby lake, paired-up Mandarin Ducks, giving much closer views than yesterday’s birds at Trent Park. A single fly-over Siskin rounded off the list before I headed for home. When I got back there was no sign of the regular male Blackcap in the garden (it had been present both of the previous two mornings), but a Long-tailed Tit and a rare fly-over (and calling) Kestrel were notable.

I was catching up with emails at home mid-afternoon when news came via Dave Darrell-Lambert of two Pink-footed Geese in east London. Clearly the birds first seen at Rainham and then in the Ingrebourne Valley in February, they had been refound at Belhus Woods Country Park a short distance to the east – exactly where Dave Morrison and I speculated they might be! How I wished, while speeding through the Sunday traffic on the North Circular Road, that we’d checked the site out earlier.

As I neared Dagenham, my mobile rang – it was David Callahan who, not content with his success in finding a Little Stint at Rainham in the morning, was now watching two Bewick’s Swans on Wennington Marshes. I diverted my route and was there within 15 minutes, giving distant but confirmatory views of one adult’s bill pattern while the other slept. It was my 178th species for the site (and 102nd there this year), and only the second time I’ve seen this declining winter visitor in the London Area. David joined me for the short trip to Belhus, and after a failed attempt to see the birds from the road we parked up, exchanged pleasantries with Mike Spicer – who had just added the birds to his London list – and headed over to Huntshill Pit. After a short search I picked the birds up swimming towards a group of Greylags.

I’ve actually seen this species in London once before, but as single grey geese are not usually counted as wild (for often inadequate reasons), this duo will be acceptable under listing rules – and, as such, became my 270th species for the London Area.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

A walk in the woods

From top: a poor record shot of the male Mealy Redpoll at Trent Park and accompanying female, plus a pair of Mandarin Ducks and a female Goosander at the same site.

Off this afternoon to Trent Park, searching for the long-staying Firecrest while the weather is sunny. I headed for Williams Wood, but while walking near the Long Garden car park was stopped in my tracks by a familiar yet odd song. It was surely a redpoll, but the tone was strangely coarse and buzzy. I searched the hedgerow and found the songster sitting deep within the branches about 8 ft up – a spanking male Mealy! It recalled an exilipes Arctic Redpoll in general appearance, with a pale frosty-grey ground colour and bold white wing-bar, but was visibly ‘beefy’ with a good-sized horn-coloured bill, thick dark flank streaking and a beautiful rose-pink flush on the breast.

I took my camera out of the bag but with all the branches in the way couldn’t get the focus to lock on; instead, I am now the proud owner of the world’s worst Mealy Redpoll images. As I was about to try another shot, a female redpoll suddenly dropped in and distracted me – it was quite large-billed too, but much more buffish-brown in tone compared to the male and thus more Lesser-like. I couldn’t see the upperparts clearly to check for a wing-bar or a rump, and then the birds decided to depart. I followed them a short distance but they were soon gone.

I called Rare Bird Alert and a few friends with the news, then headed down towards Williams Woods for the Firecrest, hoping to relocate the Mealy on the way. Neither bird showed, though I did have a mixed party of at least six Lesser Redpolls, five Siskins and two Goldfinches in the woods.

Three Mandarin Ducks were also notable on a nearby pond, and while watching them I spotted the familiar figure of Pete ‘Shiny’ Lowman on his way up the slope – long time no see! Tempted by my call, he had joined me in to look for the Firecrest, but there was not trace of the bird. Much bigger consolation, at least locally, came in the form of a Marsh Tit, which showed briefly but well and called several times, while Goosander (thanks Shiny) and Treecreeper were also new London year birds.

We headed back and met up with Jono Lethbridge and Tom from Dagenham, both of whom had also been looking for the Mealy, and also without luck. We called it a day and Jono and I headed back to the car park, where we were treated to the spectacle of one of the local hoodies in a BMW misjudging his stopping distance and reshaping the front end of his motor on a concrete post. It must be hard to look like you’re not bothered when you’ve just mashed your Beemer, but he did quite a good job.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Thrice Bittern

Press week on Birdwatch has started, and today was a typically busy Monday. But we still have to eat, and instead of grub-on-the-go-as-we-work it was a welcome text from Mark Pearson that decided today's lunchtime venue - Stoke Newington Reservoirs.

Within half an hour of receiving a message that a Bittern - amazingly, the site's third this winter - was on show in reeds on the East Reservoir, David Callahan, Beccie Armstrong and I were alongside Mark on the London Wildlife Trust's viewing platform enjoying distant views of this skulking heron as it fed along the reedy margins of the south bank. There isn't a great deal of Bittern habitat here (not that they need much in winter), and I don't expect it will stay long, but it was great to see one on the deck in urban London. As it was only a 40-minute lunch break and the bird was distant it wasn't one for the camera, but for an excellent vignette of one of the site's other Bitterns this winter, as it was mobbed on the wing during the freeze-up earlier this year, see page 4 of March's Birdwatch.

In the meantime, congratulations to Mark for another great record from this previously underwatched site. With other finds in recent years including Golden Oriole and Iceland Gull, 'Stokey' continues to produce the goods.

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