Friday, 30 April 2010

Rainham record-breaker

Whimbrel (above) and Common Sandpiper (below) were among the waders added to the Rainham year-list today.

A combination of jet-lag and a long day in the field meant that I was up early this morning. Way too early. There wasn't much point in heading out to Rainham at 2.40 am, so I caught up with a bit of work first before setting out on a planned big catch-up day.

Having been away for two key weeks in the middle of spring migration, I was lagging behind on my patch-list. So with a full day at my disposal, I thrashed the site. Absolutely blitzed it. And when it looked like all was done, I caned it some more, just for good measure. I employed a new strategy for the day: don't walk around somewhere once when you can do it twice. In fact for the cordite and scrub, I did it three times. Excessive, maybe, but I was also targeting a personal best day total of more than 75 species - and hoping to break the mythical 80-mark.

The result was an exhausting but very worthwhile 12-hour marathon which, after starting at Ferry Lane, the tip and barges, going on to Wennington and the seawall at Aveley Bay, continuing with two tours of the reserve and ending on the silt lagoons, produced the following 15 patch year-ticks (my most productive day since January) out of a provisional total of 80 species (looks like I did it, subject to a recount):

112. Reed Warbler (dozens now on territory).
113. Cuckoo (up to three at Ferry Lane/the silts)
114. Swallow (light passage)
115. Common Sandpiper (three together just west of the barges)
116. Common Swift (100+)
117. Willow Warbler (singing male at Wennington Mound)
118. Whimbrel (one Aveley Bay and three on Purfleet Scrape over high tide)
119. Brent Goose (a dark-bellied bird on the Thames foreshore with two Great Black-backs!)
120. Sand Martin (40+)
121. Lesser Whitethroat (singing male in the reserve scrub)
122. House Martin (a single bird).
123. Greenshank (two on the reserve over high tide).
124. Hobby (one flew north-east over the reserve, chasing hirundines briefly).
125. Common Tern (two over Aveley Pools).
126. Marsh Harrier (adult female over the silts late in the day).

Conspicuous by their absence were Spotted Redshank (seen intermittently during the previous few days by others but not during this day, despite erroneous news to the contrary), Caspian Gull (a first-summer hastily identified and reported by me but soon withdrawn after better views), Whinchat (couldn't find one anywhere, despite six a short distance away at Crossness), Garden Warbler (gone from yesterday) and most dabbling ducks (Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal all having shipped out en masse in the last few days).

Ten of the patch year-ticks were also London year-ticks (Reed Warbler, Cuckoo, Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Lesser Whitethroat, House Martin, Greenshank, Hobby, Common Tern and Marsh Harrier), taking my 2010 total in the capital to 161 species. And while we're updating lists, 52 Common Swifts yesterday evening over the reservoir in Alexandra Park were my 67th species there this year.

One last thing noted today: a really odd gull on Rainham tip, possibly a Herring hybrid - but with what I don't know. More on that when I have the time.

Reed Warblers - one of eight warbler species seen during the day - are now on territory on big numbers.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Colorado: the final countdown

Greater Prairie-chicken (top) and Mountain Plover (below) were two big target species on my last full day in Colorado.

It's over. After some 2,550 miles on the road (and 9,400 in the air), the Colorado chicken run has reached its conclusion. We cleaned up on all of the state's big gamebirds, the last and most impressive in many ways - mainly because we watched 27 birds lekking within 30 metres of the van - being Greater Prairie-chicken. After a group vote, however, White-tailed Ptarmigan still came out as bird of the trip; the other speciality chickens rounded up were Greater Sage-grouse, Gunnison Sage-grouse, Dusky Grouse and Lesser Prairie-chicken, with the introduced Chukar definitely an also-ran which was outplaced by dapper Scaled and Gambel's Quail.

In total, the group saw at least 200 species - the final figure needs confirmation as they were still birding when I left to catch an earlier flight home (see the Sunrise Birding website for more details in due course). That is an excellent figure for any spring tour of Colorado (bear in mind, for example, that one leading tour company advertises only 140-150 likely species). My personal total was 198 species - no one ever manages to see everything on a long group trip, do they? For a bit of fun we also had a lifers competition, with Trevor the clear winner on 41 new species; everyone got into double figures, with the obvious exception of leaders Luke 'Harris' Tiller and Joe 'Don't mess with the' Bear, who being old hands on this route (and elsewhere) didn't score - and wouldn't qualify anyway!

At the beginning of the trip I said a dozen ABA ticks would be good, though 14 was my real target because that's what the same tour produced last year. In the event I clocked up a high 17, with Greater Prairie-chicken the 600th species for my ABA list and the final lifer (ABA number 601) being McCown's Longspur - a fine bird to round off proceedings. All in all it was a superb tour, and I just managed to sidestep volcano-induced chaos on the way out (by five hours) and return journey. Now I have almost 1,400 images to sort through; here's a few of Colorado in the meantime to give a flavour of this wonderful state and its birds.

Below: the Rockies distantly from the east; Colorado National Monument; and Loveland Pass, the highest point of the trip and home to White-tailed Ptarmigan.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Little grouse on the prairie

From top: the first Lesser Prairie-chicken emerges from the gloom; then, encouraged by the warming sun, lekking birds start putting on a full display.

The rain lashed down yesterday evening. Sheets of lightening illuminated the night sky above Lamar, Colorado, and I fell asleep to the rhythmic crack and rumble of thunder. Only fools would contemplate going out in such weather, and shortly after 3 am 10 fools did exactly that. To make matters more challenging, after a steady drive on tarmac we decanted into a 30-year-old school bus and ground and slid our way along muddy tracks out onto the prairie. It wouldn't have been so bad if we could see where we were going, but the fog saw to that. A half-mile drive took 20 minutes until, having circled and back-tracked, we finally got our bearings in the gloom and parked up close to where the birds should have been.

Somewhere out there, the prairie-chickens were chuckling at us. We knew this because we could hear their muffled laughter, but clapping eyes on them was another matter. Western Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow and Yellow-headed Blackbird all came and went until, finally, I glimpsed a couple of chickens whizzing past the van in the half light. It was a poor view, and Luke was the only other one to catch them before they vanished.

So we waited. And waited some more. Finally, the decision was made to edge closer to where the birds seemed to be gathered out of sight, and our driver, now aided by the half-glow of dawn, was able to take exactly the right direction. Within a few minutes of parking up again, we began to catch sight of birds moving through the buffalo grass, occasionally pausing in the open before pursuing their rivals.

Then, for a magical few minutes, the sun broke through, and crisp golden light fell across the tall-grass prairie in front of us. Their inner senses triggered, six Lesser Prairie-chickens began catapulting themselves into the air, sometimes randomly on their own, other times at opponents in this ancient yet familiar ritual to win the attention of females. It was an extraordinary spectacle and a privilege to watch as it unfolded in front of us; if only it could have lasted longer. Before we knew it, it was time to leave the booming grounds and head back with Norma and Fred to the ranch for a chuck-wagon breakfast. Our guides were gracious hosts too, and I can tell you, coffee, eggs and biscuit never tasted so good.

The rest of an eventful day included Harris's Sparrow (thanks Luke), a convivial chat with a Colorado state trooper (thanks Enterprise Car Rental), tornado warnings, two distant Long-billed Curlews, a Ferruginous Hawk, an audience with a cattle rancher and more than enough beer to round off the evening. Tomorrow is my last full day in the state - flights back to England permitting - and a last chance for any key outstanding targets. Key is the word - my ABA list now hovers at 599 species.

The Colorado crazy gang, holed up in the chuck house (from left, around table): Jerry, Annette, Sara, Ben, Trevor, Denise, Barbara and leaders Luke and Joe.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

A grouse about recycling

A regional endemic now split from Greater Sage-grouse, the declining Gunnison Sage-grouse is high on every birder's wants list when visiting Colorado.

We're now more than halfway through this Colorado tour, birding mountain and prairie and many places in between. Days are long and nights are short, but it's been worth every minute. Last night was the shortest yet, waking at 4 am to head out well before the first glimmer of morning light struck the sagebrush lekking grounds of Gunnison Sage-grouse.

We were delayed slightly by discovering the skid marks of an 18-wheel truck that had left the road and plunged down an embankment, but it seemed to be an old crash not requiring further intervention on our part. As we finally arrived on site and settled in place in what to us still seemed like pitch darkness, it was clear the grouse were already active. Shadowy forms eventually began to take shape as male grouse, fluffing up their neck feathers, inflating the air sacks on their necks and fanning their impressive tails as they threw their heads back and called, drawing in a small number of females.

This impressive performance lasted for some two hours before the birds finally departed in two main groups. Feeling entirely satisfied with the experience we left too, passing the totalled 18-wheeler and its attendant recovery vehicles on our way back to the hotel for a late breakfast. There, a sign above a bin full of plastic plates and styrofoam cups urged guests to recycle. "What is it exactly that you want us to recycle?" I asked the manageress. "The plastic cutlery - that goes in the dishwasher," she explained, completely missing not just the point, but the meaning of the word 'recycle'. When I asked why she didn't use china plates and cups, she said: "You must be joking. We get construction workers staying here - they break 'em all." I gave up at that point - you can only say so much.

Some fine birding during the rest of the day was followed by a meal in a Mexican restaurant patronised at some point by Barack Obama, as evidenced by the photos of him, the First Lady and their daughter plastered all over the table opposite ours. I wonder if he also came here because he needed Gunnison Sage Grouse?

Monday, 19 April 2010

Lewis's and Clark's

From top: displaying male Sharp-tailed Grouse; male Mountain Bluebird; Gambel's Quail; Western Grebes; and the quirky Lewis's Woodpecker.

Dawn began as dusk had ended - in what seemed like only a few hours later we were again watching charismatic gaggles of Sharp-tailed Grouse going about their business on the prairie, only this time in full display mode, with jumping, chasing, fluffing and fighting. Maybe 30 or more birds were involved, including three which approached our vehicle closely to allow perfect views.

Colorado feels vast at times and, after refuelling with coffee and waffles, we were on the road again, this time heading for the dry slope of the state. Here the avifauna has a distinctly more south-western feel, as evidenced by our first Black-throated Sparrows and Rock Wrens at Coal Canyon. In this barren, scrubby setting the introduced Chukar seems firmly at home, even if more easily heard than seen, but our biggest success was a Grey Flycatcher - a target bird I didn't expect so early in the season.

We clocked another one of these migrant empids the next morning at the absolutely spectacular Colorado National Monument, where Juniper Titmouse and Pinyon Jay also gave themselves up. Retreating from the heat to the high ground once more, we scored a female American Three-toed Woodpecker near Grand Mesa before heading down to lower levels, where arguably the most beautiful example of that family in the country, Lewis's Woodpecker, also performed on cue.

With Clark's Grebe on a nearby reservoir, along with much larger numbers of Westerns, the pioneering namesakes of these birds were brought to mind, their legacy living on through the names of enigmatic species of the west. By contrast our own journey, though exciting, thankfully lacks the danger element of Lewis and Clark's; instead, travelling through the Rockies and finding new birds has been remarkably straightforward. All of the group - Trevor and Ben, Sara and Denise, Annette, Jerry and Barbara and myself - have been enjoying lifers at a rate of knots, and we're having a blast at the same time. More anon.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Way out west

From top: drake Barrow's Goldeneye; Swainson's Hawk; Grey Jay; Brown-capped Rosy-finch (centre) with Cassin's Finches, Pine Grosbeak and Pine Siskin; and Pronghorn on the move.

In between owling into the small hours of the morning and rising way before dawn for grouse, there has been no time until now for an update on this Colorado trip. But suffice to say that we are officially on fire, hitting target after target in line with plans carefully made and executed by Luke and Joe.

The scenery has been mesmerising but the birding even more so, with grouse, owls and woodpeckers featuring heavily but many other notable species involved. Yesterday's session began with good views of Williamson's Sapsucker ("Not available this early in spring," according to one tour leader I consulted before deciding to look elsewhere) and continued with my personal highlight of finding two White-tailed Ptarmigan at almost 12,000 ft at Loveland Pass.

Since then we have descended to the sagebrush plateau where Sage Thrasher and more than 30 lekking Greater Sage Grouse gave themselves up to our admiring eyes. And we persisted with our vigil in the cold at a set of feeders where, finally, Brown-capped Rosy-finches - endemic to this region - came in as snow began to fall heavily. Sharp-tailed and Dusky Grouse rounded off what was another remarkable day today, while our mammal list is already in the mid-teens.

I hope these brief photo highlights will give a good flavour of what the birding is like out here; list update to follow when I've worked it out.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Rocky Mountain high

Pine Grosbeak (above) and Cassin's Finch (below): two Rockies target birds in the bag.

I am lucky to be here. Having just seen the news on the BBC website that all air traffic over Britain is grounded today because of the volcanic ash cloud drifting in from Iceland, I'm delighted that in the end the logistics of this trip meant I had to be in Colorado a day early; otherwise, an act of God would have wiped out my participation - and investment - in it. Taking that as a good omen, I headed back to the airport this morning and met up with the rest of the group and the two leaders. We are four Brits and six Americans, with a strong Connecticut influence, and everyone was itching to get out in the field.

It's late so I'll keep it short, but what a day. We began near Denver and via Rocky Mountain National Park ended up in the wonderfully named town of Golden. The good news: almost everything, from hitting three of my target species - Cassin's Finch, Northern Saw-whet Owl and Red-naped Sapsucker - to a supporting cast which included Golden Eagle, Townsend's Solitaire, Cassin's Finch, Pygmy, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Grosbeak and a host of different 'Dark-eyed' Junco forms (why aren't they split?). Oh, and the mammals too, from Elk (many dozen) and Mule Deer to Coyote and assorted ground-squirrels. The only bad news: the weather is superb, which is of course good, but we could do with a little of the white stuff to push down the otherwise absent rosy-finches from the peaks. Maybe tomorrow ...

Northern Saw-whet Owl: one of two we saw today at the nest (thanks Scott).

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Colorado: travel day

The day has come, and I'm off to Colorado at last. I could have illustrated this first tour update with a distant post-take-off shot of Queen Mary Reservoir (long time no visit), but somehow thought that a view of the south-west tip of Greenland from 36,000 feet had the edge. I imagine that this is a lot like how the Rockies will look, only without the water and icebergs. The other shot is the frozen wastes of Hudson Bay, close to an area I visited back in June 1997.

On touchdown in Denver after nine hours in the air, I had to fill in the Department of Homeland Security's visa waiver and give the usual assurances that I haven't been a terrorist or involved in genocide (has anyone ever ticked that 'Yes' box?), been a pimp or abducted children. Having reclaimed my luggage, cleared customs and found the hotel shuttle bus, there was just enough time for a wander in the middle of nowhere before sundown.

The airport hotel is on an unattractive development stuck out on the prairie near the airport. Having already seen prairie dogs scuttling about as we neared the site, I decided to give the more weedy areas in the vicinity a grilling, and saw more than I bargained for. At 18 species the overall list was short, but quality species included Swainson's Hawk, a pair of Great Horned Owls (bottom) in a scrubby gully, four Short-eared Owls at dusk and a nice Grey-headed Junco (below).

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Next stop Colorado

It's 15 years since I first travelled to North America, touring California on honeymoon with Hazel. Funnily enough, I took my bins too. Since then I have visited almost every year, either with the family and/or birding, and have made multiple trips in a few years. As an American Birding Association member I've got 'remotely' involved with the listing thing too; I'm not a fanatical lister in any event, even if the evidence of this blog suggest otherwise, but sometimes it adds an interesting angle to record-keeping.

After a post-Christmas break in New York with the family, my ABA Area list stood at 584 species. I had limited time for a spring trip, and after careful consideration chose Colorado - a new state for me and one which had the potential, if the birds and weather behaved, to add a dozen or more species to this total, edging it towards the 600 mark. It's hard to be specific about targets when so much spring birding there can be weather-dependent; but grouse, rosy-finches and a few choice birds like Sage Thrasher, Juniper Titmouse and McCown's Longspur promised a very interesting line-up; I'll surely be too early for the likes Common Poorwill and Grey Flycatcher.

My natural preference would have been to escort Birdwatch's own reader break to Colorado and Wyoming in late May and early June, organised in association with Birdfinders, but it would have wiped out spring half term with the children and, at two weeks and three weekends long, involved more time than I had. Another Birdwatch partner, WildWings, offered a more focused and potentially more tick-heavy trip in mid-April, but that would have significantly reduced Easter with the family too.

In the end, I did a cost-benefit analysis of all the main Colorado tours during April, assessing past species lists, costs and how they compared - as well as taking soundings from the ABA's Ted Floyd and from WildWings leader and Colorado semi-resident Dick Filby, who was generous with information even though I couldn't make his tour.

The results were interesting. Prices varied considerably, as did species lists; the most expensive trip had the longest lists (for both birds and mammals). The least expensive was excellent value, but didn't have a chance of several of my targets for itinerary reasons. The variation in the quoted likely trip totals ranged from about 150-220 species, except for one company which couldn't tell me what number they saw last year; so it obviously does pay to do your research. After checking dates and availability, as well as considering these factors and advice received, I opted for a tour offered by Sunrise Birding, a company recommended by two Connecticut-based birders I know.

So, as time and web access allow, the next few entries to this blog will be about Colorado. I am not reviewing this tour for Birdwatch, or travelling to promote the state's birding potential: this trip is pleasure rather than business (even if I'm fortunate that the boundaries are often blurred). And I am looking forward to it.

Passing milestones

It has been a busy few days - too busy, really. For production of the May issue of Birdwatch we switched from an ancient version of Quark Xpress to the modern, industry-leading software that is InDesign. Very soon it will be a bonus in many ways, but as a learning process the first issue was inevitably tough and, with Steve Young's 24-page bird photography supplement to contend with too, we finally passed for press mid-evening on Monday (with thanks to Beccie and David, and especially also to Lynn, who gave up three days to help us with the extra production work in the London office). In the meantime we also said goodbye to Louise, our editorial intern who for the past three months has been another welcome pair of hands around the office.

Time out for birding has thus been in short supply, and limited to occasional glances at Alexandra Park during family walks or when commuting between home and the office. I have largely ignored this truly local patch recently, in favour of slightly less local Rainham Marshes and elsewhere in London. Because of this, it was easy to amass four year ticks for the patch in just three days (all of which I would have notched up long ago with minimal effort had I been visiting more frequently):
63. Meadow Pipit.
64. Great Crested Grebe.
65. Goldcrest.
66. Greylag Goose.

Only today did I manage to reclaim a day off, most of which was due to be spent getting ready for an imminent trip to Colorado. But in the morning, having taken my daughter to her riding lesson, I spent a couple of hours in the Lea Valley nearby. With my London year list currently on 148 species, it seemed natural to aim for a target of 150 before heading to the US. It was rather quiet with scant evidence of migration in the Holyfield/Fishers Green area, other than a couple of Little Ringed Plovers briefly and a few singing warblers, the best of which was my second Common Whitethroat of the year.

The famous goose field duly delivered its motley collection of feral suspects, including Egyptian Goose (I couldn't avoid it forever), and there were braces of Common Buzzard and Common Snipe in the area, though no Little Owls in their usual trees at the farm because of work on the site. Finally, a few brief bursts of song from the first returning Nightingale closer to Fishers Green brought up the respectable milestone of 150 species before a third of the year was up:
149. Egyptian Goose.
150. Nightingale.

On the way home I stopped at another couple of Little Owl sites that have delivered historically, including one near Sewardstone Marsh, but 10 Sand Martins and a Barn Swallow were the only rewards. Time to pack.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Southern spring continues

Today's male Black-winged Stilt at Rainham.

It's been a manic post-Easter rush at the office as we finalise the May issue of Birdwatch for press, but a brief side trip to Rainham this morning was worth the effort - thanks to a find by Peter Hale and a call from Howard Vaughan, images of the first Black-winged Stilt to reach London for 12 years will now make our next South-East report.

This photogenic wader, which stayed all day, was the eighth record (but 11th individual) for the London recording area, and could well have been the bird seen at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, earlier in the week. It is a male, perhaps a second-calendar-year bird, and it continues the fine run of Mediterranean overshoots to hit the site in the last five days, after Hoopoe (found by David Callahan, who accompanied me today) and Alpine Swift.

I dipped the Hoopoe on 5th, by which time it had gone, but had an early Sedge Warbler instead as partial compensation. Today, as we left the site, a singing male Common Whitethroat was another early warbler for the site, and a further addition to my 2010 Rainham patchlist:

109. Sedge Warbler
110. Black-winged Stilt
111. Common Whitethroat

The stilt was also a London tick, taking my overall life list for the capital to 272 species; my 2010 London year list now stands at 148 species.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Third time lucky

Having missed an Alpine Swift at Hollow Ponds a couple of weeks back and then not being able to get to Crossness in time for the second London bird this spring, a third found last night at Chafford Hundred, right on the Essex perimeter of the London recording area, really seemed like rubbing it in.

Nonetheless, I set off early this morning with high hopes, having exchanged texts with finder Ruth Barnes and with Dave Darrell-Lambert, who lives close to Warren Gorge, where the bird had been seen. Paul Hawkins and Martin Redfern were already on site when I arrived, but my first two Sand Martins of the year were no consolation for the absent swift, and by 9 am, with the weather closing in, I headed for home and filed a 'negative news' report.

I could have laughed when half an hour later news broke that the bird had reappeared - except that it wasn't funny. I hastily had to rearrange domestic plans (thanks family) and slugged back round the North Circular and along the A13 to Grays, only to miss it by eight minutes. Is there no justice? Thankfully, the answer was yes after I picked the bird up again coming in towards the gorge over a nearby shopping area - bingo at last!

It was only my second London Area Alpine Swift, after the well-watched bird on Hampstead Heath in 2006, but great not to have missed an encounter in this invasion spring. A passing Peregrine was a nice bonus bird, while Sand Martin and the swift took my London year list to 145 species.

A family walk around Trent Park in the afternoon brought good views of Treecreeper and Mandarin Duck - and the news that David Callahan had struck gold with a Hoopoe at Rainham, an excellent find. Fingers crossed that that bird stays longer than the average Alpine Swift ...

Friday, 2 April 2010

A very Good Friday

No sooner had I got in from Rainham last Sunday than my back went. To a greater or lesser extent it was agony for the next few days, until I found an osteopath who would make a home visit. And then it was agony to a greater extent only, until the pummelling eventually unfused my lower spine and pelvis and I could begin to move again.

Being stuck in this painful position for a few days curtailed both work and birding, and it wasn’t until a second treatment session towards the end of the week that I was finally mobile enough to get out under my own steam. So on Good Friday morning I opted for a leisurely stroll in Broxbourne Woods and then Amwell, sans camera and lenses, and was just enjoying the first Swallows of the year when news broke of a flock of Common Scoter and a Brent Goose on Banbury Reservoir, further south in the Lea Valley.

I was there within half an hour and enjoying great scope views of the three drake and three duck scoter, with the Brent Goose occasionally drifting into view alongside them, and another Swallow overhead. It struck me that I’d now seen all the geese on the London list this year bar Egyptian Goose, which is ‘available’ any time and, to be honest, the least of my priorities.

I’ve never seriously attempted a London year list before, and I’m not about to begin one this year either. But it has been a cracking start to the year – by the end of March I’d logged 141 species in the capital (including the much-discussed Barnacle Goose at Rainham and the female Red-crested Pochard at Berwick Reservoir), and with Swallow and now Brent Goose that total is 143. A quick calculation of likely species suggests 180 or so should be possible with reasonable effort, while even 200 could be attainable if I really had the inclination. But I’m not sure that I do …

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