Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Azores and Madeira: part 2

Spring passage waders at Cabo da Praia, from left to right: Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstone and Semipalmated Plover.
Autumn migration in the Azores is synonymous with American waders, but what about passage in spring? There must be a chance of a lingering ‘Yank’ and I expected the best shorebird site in the islands, Cabo da Praia, to produce something of interest - it always does.

A Hudsonian Whimbrel caused panic among the Black-tailed Godwits and other waders, harassing roosting birds and driving others away from an area in which it chose to feed. Note the dark rump and underwing.
As it happened, on this trip Cabo was probably the quietest I’ve seen it, but still with a respectable total of 10 wader species (though no wildfowl). The pick of the bunch was a fine Hudsonian Whimbrel that flew in on my second visit and proceeded to give the party of 12 Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits and any other waders within reach a hard time. It was preceded – and followed – by a Eurasian Whimbrel, but curiously I never saw these two birds together. Also present were numerous Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Red Knot and a White-winged Black Tern still moulting into summer plumage which is presumably the same bird that first appeared on the island last October.

This White-winged Black Tern at Cabo da Praia has stayed on since arriving last autumn.
Cabo da Praia is the only regular site for Semipalmated Plover on the European side of the Atlantic.
Plovers are a permanent feature at Cabo, and at least one Semipalmated Plover in evidence during my visits has presumably wintered at the site, the species' only truly regular location in the Western Palearctic. Four Grey and numerous Kentish Plovers were also in evidence, the latter peaking at about 30 – now that this species has been split, who will be the first to find a Nearctic Snowy Plover here?
Yes! Delighted to discover that a pair of Killdeers is in residence on Santa Maria and in breeding mode.
Shorebirds also featured strongly on Santa Maria, where last year, among the numerous Kentish Plovers, a pair of Killdeer was present and monitored constantly by Alan Vittery, who reported the first breeding of this American species in the Western Palearctic. Though the birds were present again in the winter, Alan hasn’t been on the island since February, so I spent some time searching the airport area in case they had lingered into spring.

One of Santa Maria's Killdeers flashes its distinctive rump and uppertail for further confirmation of its identity.
On the second day of searching, I finally succeeded in finding a Killdeer, though it quickly disappeared into a restricted area. More scouring of the site next day produced not one but two adults, behaving very territorially, and I felt sure that breeding was in progress. Although I ran out of time to prove this, I passed on the location details to Gerby Michielsen when he visited the island a few days later, and congratulations to him and his colleagues for discovering two Killdeer chicks – an amazing event on this side of the Atlantic! The possibility that this species could become established here is very real if the adults succeed in fledging more youngsters successfully – fingers crossed.

Pretty in purple: two male Kentish Plovers on Santa Maria, where chicks were in evidence by mid-May.
I found this colour-ringed female Kentish Plover while birding on Santa Maria: it was ringed as an adult exactly two years earlier, on 18 May 2009, on the same island.
* Coming up: an influx of avian predators involving at least one new bird for the islands.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Azores and Madeira: part 1

The trip started well with the rediscovery of one of last winter's vagrants, this Pied-billed Grebe in the marina of Terceira's capital city, Angra do Heroismo.

Unless confined to a cave for the past 10 years, there can scarcely be a serious birder on this side of the Atlantic who hasn't noticed that the Azores hits the headlines with emphatic regularity every autumn. Such is its reputation that even those with troglodyte tendencies may be aware too. Winter birding has also come on the radar in recent years but, with a couple of exceptions, there has been very little birdfinding effort made in spring.

Ilheu da Praia is one of only two confirmed breeding sites for Monteiro's Storm-petrel, an Azores endemic.
This is all the more surprising given that one of the archipelago's two endemic bird species, the recently described Monteiro's Storm-petrel, arrives to breed in May. Next year, in addition to the regular transatlantic vagrants tour in October, I will be leading a new holiday for Sunrise Birding which will target Monteiro's and the other local endemic, Azores Bullfinch, as well as numerous seabirds including Barolo Shearwater before moving on to Madeira and its own full suite of endemics and seabirds. Scheduled for June 2012, I decided to get ahead with the planning and do some groundwork in the field last week.

The location and date of this storm-petrel, at sea off Graciosa in mid-May, fit Monteiro's, but the tail appears square-ended rather than slightly forked, and the bill is also perhaps on the small side. My view was that it was probably best to put this one down as 'just' a Madeiran, in the general, pre-split sense, but Joël Bried has commented: "It is true that the tail looks squared rather than forked, but ... there is an overlap between the two species, and I have seen (in the hand) a few Monteiro's Storm-petrels with rather squared tails. In addition, the small bill and the complete plumage point towards Monteiro's. A Madeiran Storm-pterel should be moulting its primaries in May." Thanks also to Magnus Robb for his helpful comments on this bird.
So first up, the Azores. I visited three islands, checking known and new sites for seabirds and migrants. Despite rather adverse weather and rather limited time, pelagic efforts proved successful and Monteiro's Storm-petrel was seen at both attempts; at a more leisurely pace next year I'm hoping to enjoy even longer encounters with this rare seabird. Another Oceanodroma storm-petrel I photographed could also be this species but, with no visible tail fork and a rather small bill, may possibly be a Madeiran. In among the abundant Cory's were also Barolo, Manx and an early Sooty, with quite a few Roseate Terns at one of their colonies in the islands.

This Sooty Shearwater at sea off Graciosa was earlier than the expected August-October passage period.
Migration proved surprisingly productive given the isolated position of the Azores from the rest of Europe - more on this, including a new species for the islands, in my next post. In the meantime, for some relevant offline reading, my feature 'Unexplored Azores' was published in May's Birdwatch (see pages 36-39).

Sunday, 15 May 2011

This was the bird ...

Male Eastern Subalpine Warbler, Walthamstow Marsh, Greater London, 15 May 1994. © Mike McDonnell
... that, 17 years ago today, made me appreciate how rewarding local patch birding can be - especially somewhere like my old east London patch. Littered with torched wrecks of stolen cars and motorbikes and an exercise ground for dangerous dogs, Walthamstow Marsh was not for the faint-hearted. Twice I saw people with guns, including a man in a balaclava who aimed a rifle at me (and who shortly afterwards was nicked by about 15 policemen for his trouble). But I also saw this - an absolute gem of a Sylvia, on a day when I called in for a few minutes on my way to work after a night of south-easterly winds and rain.

In fact, I heard it first, and almost dismissed its rapid, puzzling song as some kind of Lesser Whitethroat sub-song. Thankfully, I stuck with it, and a few minutes later clinched London's second record of Subalpine Warbler. It stayed in the area for much of the day, and an estimated 200 people got to see it.

At the time, I submitted the record to the Rarities Committee simply as a Subalpine Warbler, and it was accepted as such. But with more recent interest in subspecific identification, especially since Hadoram Shirihai's landmark Sylvia Warblers tome in 2001, I thought it was time to look again at the bird. What's very obvious even in this scan of an old colour print is the limited extent of the brick-red throat and upper breast, leaving the rest of the underparts with just a wash of reddish - classic albistriata, the eastern subspecies (in nominate Western the colour extends fairly uniformly right across the lower underparts).

I solicited a couple of second opinions and sent out my notes and two photos of the bird (in the other it is less clear than here). Marc Duquet, Editor of the French journal Ornithos, has Western Subalpines breeding in his garden (wow!). He commented: "I think that [it fits] quite well with albistriata and in my opinion excludes Western Subalpine which never has a so dark and contrasting breast. Furthermore, the long and broad white moustache is also a good feature for albistriata." Andy Stoddart, who wrote the recent Subalpine Warbler ID feature for Birdwatch, also thought the images and notes "suggest a bird with the right colour hues and with the pinky colour restricted to the chin, throat and upper breast, leaving faintly washed flanks and an extensive white belly. Also the submoustachial stripe looks very long and broad. On this basis I’d be fairly comfortable with it being albistriata ...", along with an appropriate caveat about the Rarities Committee (which has so far only accepted about 36 records of albistriata - far lower than the real total).

There have now been four London Subalpine Warblers, including one in Barnes in 2003, and Johnny Allan kindly lent me his photo of the bird (below). This too is an Eastern, and Marc Duquet added: "The dark reddish throat colour is indicative of albistriata. The weaker white moustache and the reddish colour restricted to throat fit with a 2nd-cy (not an adult)."

Male Eastern Subalpine Warbler, Lonsdale Road Reservoir, Greater London, April 2003. © Johnny Allan
One last London Subalpine fact: the co-finder of the first, David Montier, also notched up London's only Sardinian Warbler, in a ringing session. Legendary stuff!

Thanks to Johnny Allan, Bob Arnfield, Roger Riddington, Marc Duquet and Andy Stoddart for their assistance in various ways, and also to the late Mike McDonnell, the only photographer to obtain images of the Walthamstow bird.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Good day at Dunge

A smart adult Little Gull was first up on our seawatch at Dungeness this morning ...
... with three passing close inshore during another day of strong up-Channel movements.
With strengthening easterly winds and impressive migration counts still being reported from south coast watchpoints, it was now or never to be part of the action. With four of us keen to catch Pomarine Skua passage before the brief spring window of opportunity closes, I headed down to Dungeness with Roy, David and John at the unfeasibly early hour of 04:00 this morning to get into position.

The closest skua was an Arctic, but for this observer the species was less numerous than ...
... Pomarine Skua, with a total of 10 of the latter (some with full 'spoons') during the morning.
We filled up the last remaining places in the seawatching hide just east of the patch, and timed our run just right - the first bird I set eyes on was a smart adult Little Gull battling against the Force 5 easterly wind, while a short time later the first Poms of the day came through (albeit a long way out).

Bar-tailed Godwit dominated shorebird movements, but they were often accompanied by small numbers of appropriately plumaged Red Knot, as well as Eurasian Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Sanderling and several other species.
,  Poms peaked early today, the last of 10 birds going past at 07:45, and then no more before our five-hour vigil ended at 11.15. So mission accomplished, and then some - even though the strong easterly wind was keeping overall numbers down compared to recent days. Other personal totals included the following (with much higher numbers being recorded collectively by those present): 7 Arctic Skuas, 1 Great Skua, 2 Mediterranean Gulls, 3 Little Gulls, 2 Kittiwakes, Fulmar, numerous Gannets, 7 Black-throated Divers, 2 Red-throated Divers, Velvet Scoter, Brent Goose, 130+ Common Scoter, many hundreds of Common/Arctic Terns, as well as Sandwich, 15 Little and 2 Black Terns, 300+ Bar-tailed Godwit, 62+ Eurasian Whimbrel, 60+ Red Knot, Hobby and Common Swift 'in off'.

Small groups of Common Scoter were regularly heading east up Channel into the wind.
I hope to add more photos from this superb session at Dunge in due course, but it's late now and press week beckons in a few hours, so more anon.


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