Thursday, 30 June 2011

Club Med

Adult and juvenile Mediterranean Gulls at one of their busy south coast colonies recently.
This adult Med Gull seemed to be looking for feeding opportunities around the nests of wary Black-headed Gulls.
This juvenile Mediterranean Gull looks like a recently fledged individual.
It may not be the scarcity that it once was, but Mediterranean Gull remains one of my favourite larids. Here in London they are increasingly frequent along the Thames (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) outside the breeding season, no doubt partly because of the growing population on the south coast.

As gulls go, adult Mediterranean is a work of beauty ...
The latest estimate for Britain, for 2008, suggests there are between 543 and 592 breeding pairs at 37 sites mainly between Dorset and Kent, but with scattered pairs as far as north as Cumbria (British Birds 103: 523). Some of those southern colonies are now well established, including one I visited earlier this month, where these images were taken.

... but juveniles have an appeal of their own too.

Adult Med Gulls are undeniably immaculate birds, oozing class and beauty among a flock of more workaday Black-headed or Common Gulls. But juveniles are also a work of distinction, all scaly grey with pale eyelids on smudgy faces which somehow suggest an origin more exotic than a south coast gravel pit. By the time birds of this age wander as far as London they’ve often worn off some of the grey powdery coating to their plumage, and look rather paler and plainer.

Another juvenile: note the scaly upperparts and white eyelids on a smudgy grey face.
Med Gulls don’t have a particularly long history in the capital. According to the London Bird Report 1967 the second record was just 46 years ago, on 18 May 1965 at Staines Reservoirs (the date of the first seems unclear). By the end of 1976, when there were three records, the total had risen to 16. The last of these, an adult at Epsom Common, was the cover bird for that year’s report, such was its noteworthiness; I remember it well because the following winter the bird returned and my late uncle Rodney Lomax, very much my birding mentor at the time, was visiting from Cheshire and took my brother Auk and I across town to see it. Contrast that with the present position, the London Bird Report 2007 revealing monthly maxima of up to 35 birds in the capital – a refreshingly positive story for a scarce breeding species.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Overlooked, but over here?

Field test: Semipalmated and Ringed Plovers are famously hard to identify. Have a go at these two for starters ...
In terms of low detection rates, few shorebirds in the Western Palearctic beat Semipalmated Plover. This is an atypically rare wader, with, for example, just two British records and one in Ireland. Why atypically rare? The last British individual of this migratory Nearctic species - which is very numerous on passage on the east coast of North America - was at Dawlish Warren, Devon, from April-September 1997 and again from March-May 1998; compare that single occurrence with the 1997/98 WeBS figure of 23,000 passage Ringed Plovers (see Is a 1:23,000 ratio really representative of the true status of Semi-p?

Juvenile Semipalmated Plover, Corvo, Azores, 13 October 2007.
It certainly doesn't compare favourably with the strike rate in the Azores, the only regular location for Semipalmated Plover on this side of the Atlantic. I've seen it there on numerous occasions in three different islands, and on Terceira it is often possible to observe the species alongside lookalike Ringed Plovers in autumn. Despite limited observer coverage, no fewer than 17 Semipalmated Plovers were found in the archipelago in 2010 alone, hinting at the true number that must be reaching mainland Europe, and there have now been about 200 records in total in the islands.

Juvenile Semipalmated Plover, São Miguel, Azores, 10 October 2007.
Ringed Plovers are, of course, more common in the Azores than Semipalmateds, though the latter can sometimes outnumber the former on passage (see the Birding Azores website for the stats). The wintering Ringed Plover population is said to be as low as under 100 birds, so perhaps the ratio on the Azores, where one or two Semipalmateds sometimes winter, is more like 1:75, or even better?

With that in mind, the challenge for birders in Britain, Ireland and continental Europe is to look harder for this species and find those missing Semi-ps. Having twitched that Devon bird back in 1997 and since seen and found a few on the Azores, I feel like I'm at last getting a better feel for the species. For starters, when heard (and learnt!), the upwards-inflected chu-wee call is quite distinct from (and higher in pitch than) Ringed Plover - and diagnostic.

Jizz-wise, the slightly smaller size and proportions of Semipalmated give it a touch of Little Ringed Plover, while the famous 'white wedge' gape feature of juveniles, first noted by Killian Mullarney, the thin yellow orbital ring and the toe webbing (when visible) are also useful. Other subtle characters such as relative differences in bill size, breast band and supercilium can also help, but I still find some birds more obvious than others (and feel free to disagree with any of the IDs here - all self-found birds photographed/filmed in the Azores). The video clip below, shot in May this year on Terceira, perhaps gives a better feel of the species' jizz than still images can:

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Vagrant Yellow-crowned Night-heron: the movie

I first heard there was a Yellow-crowned Night-heron in Madeira in late March, when Hugo Romano posted news of the amazing retrospective discovery to WestPalBirds - it transpired the bird had first been seen by a non-birder in early February. Coming hot on the heels of one on Terceira in the Azores, it was clear from plumage details that they were different birds.

Then came the amazing revelation that there had been an earlier bird on the Azores last autumn, this time on Pico. So, after no previous Western Palearctic occurrences, three birds in the space of five months – amazing! For those who like to know such details, WP records are therefore as follows:
  • Azores: immature at Angra do Heroismo, Terceira, 24 July 2010-18 April 2011.
  • Azores: juvenile at Lajes do Pico, Pico, 18-28 October 2010.
  • Madeira: second-calendar-year in Funchal marina, from early February to at least 18 June 2011.
I didn't expect it would stay, but the Funchal bird lingered for quite a long time, and though elusive I managed to find it at the second attempt in May when I was visiting the island. I’ve already posted a still image of it in my earlier trip coverage on this blog, but thought this short sequence – shot on a Canon EOS 7D in high-definition movie mode – would give a better feel for the bird’s jizz (thanks to my son Ed, as always, for the excellent video editing).

Only time will tell if this unprecedented arrival was a one-off event, or whether more Yellow-crowned Night-herons – especially in less obvious juvenile plumage – will be detected in future.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Going for gold

Looking hard for Golden Orioles at their British stronghold of Lakenheath RSPB, Suffolk.
It’s been a few years since I visited Lakenheath RSPB reserve, Britain’s only publicised breeding site for Golden Orioles. So with July’s Birdwatch now at the printers, I made time to return to the site this weekend and see whether I could almost literally strike gold. The last report of the Rare Birds Breeding Panel (British Birds 103: 482-538) gives a 2008 figure of between two and eight pairs of this Schedule 1 species at four sites nationally, of which Lakenheath is the most important. This year there is a pair and another male there, but as always with orioles, it’s much easier to hear them than see them.

Farmland at Lakenheath has been successfully turned back into true wet fen habitat.
I was on site around 9.30 am and birding along the trail by a suitable area of poplars when I first heard a male call. It’s a lovely, fluty call evocative of warm, early mornings in spring. Picking a bird out in the dense poplar canopy seemed like an impossible task, as a rather large gathering of observers was already finding, but by chance I noticed a couple farther along the track looking rather intently at a particular spot. On investigating, I was amazed to see they were watching a male Golden Oriole rather distantly but out in the open, foraging in low branches just a few feet about the ground - perhaps was looking for caterpillars. It flew a short distance to the right, but we picked it up again, still showing well. I called everyone over and tried to line it up in a scope, whereupon the bird promptly disappeared.

In due course, most of the assembled crowd managed to get 'record shot' looks at what I suspect was a different male, perched in the canopy and partly obscured by a tree trunk away from where we had the first sighting. This time I did manage to line it up in a scope, but even then not all of those who looked were able to pick it out. These birds are beautiful and frustrating in equal measure.

Marsh Harriers are everywhere at Lakenheath, with occasional birds like this male showing very well.
Water Voles watch out ...
With the main target bird achieved, I spent a couple more hours on site sampling some other interesting species which seem to do well at Lakenheath, among them Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Water Rail, Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Bearded Tit and seven warbler species, including Cetti’s (and the underrated Garden Warbler). Common Cranes are apparently still on the reserve but rather less visible while breeding, but four Stone-curlews nearby rounded off an excellent trip.

Hobbies are often seen catching dragonflies over the site, and last month up to 65 together were reported.
Also good to see several familiar faces and meet a few new ones, including some blog followers (hello again!) and also Stuart White, finder of last winter’s Northern Harrier in Norfolk (apparently now accepted by the Rarities Committee – an excellent find).

For more on Golden Orioles, I recommend David Callahan’s excellent Birdwatch article from June 2009 (204: 42-45) and the Poyser species monograph. And finally, in the absence of oriole pics from this trip, I offer you the following image, a record shot but an amazing feat in the circumstances - taken by 'digibinning' a fly-over bird at Stoke Newington Reservoir in London on 12 May 2006. All credit to photographer Mark Pearson, to whom I'm also grateful for the tip-off - it's still the only Golden Oriole I've seen in London.

A Golden Oriole shares the skies over Inner London with a passenger jet. This remarkable photo
was taken by 'digibinning', a difficult skill. © Mark Pearson (

Friday, 3 June 2011

Azores and Madeira: part 4

Protected for their flora and fauna, the Desertas Islands are home to huge numbers of breeding seabirds including the endemic form of Fea's Petrel, as well as the threatened Monk Seal.
Having left the Azores on a high, I arrived in Madeira on a low courtesy of TAP. Yes, for the second time in a week, the Portuguese national carrier lost my luggage, courtesy of a delayed flight out of Santa Maria and a missed connection in Lisbon. So I finally arrived at the hotel in Funchal just before midnight with nothing more than the clothes I stood in (oh, and 18 kg of cameras, lenses, optics and recording equipment in my hand luggage).

Cory's Shearwaters are abundant in Madeiran waters, and breed in large numbers on the islands.
Next morning I felt somewhat under-prepared for a pelagic trip, but I was determined to make the most of it. Luís Dias kindly picked me up from the hotel and we discussed the programme for what promised to be a great day at sea on the Ventura do Mar. So it proved, too, with Madeiran Storm-petrel, Bulwer’s Petrels and a presumed Desertas Petrel among the hordes of Cory’s Shearwaters being the main highlights, plus a Great Skua and, on Deserta Grande, excellent views of Berthelot’s Pipits and the ubiquitous Atlantic Canaries.
Favouring dry and rocky terrain, Berthelot's Pipit breeds on Madeira and in the Desertas.
Madeira Kinglet, now widely split from Firecrest, is common in the forests of Madeira.
Back on Madeira itself I was reminded how numerous some of the specialities are, especially Madeira Kinglet and Plain Swift, while the local maderensis Chaffinches made an interesting comparison to the moreletti birds I had been watching previously in the Azores. The same can be said for the local Yellow-legged Gulls, with true darker-mantled atlantis birds in the latter islands – where they perhaps deserve greater recognition as Azores Gull – seeming quite distinct from those on Madeira, which appear to show more traits associated with nominate michahellis from continental Europe.

Two of a kind: a male maderensis Common Chaffinch on Madeira ...
... and a male moreletti Common Chaffinch on the Azores. Subtle differences include the latter's greener mantle.
Another lookalike duo, this time atlantis-type gulls. Above: there is much individual variation but, to me, this second-calendar-year on Madeira seems to have more in common with Mediterranean michahellis than Azores atlantis.
Above: compare this fairly typical (if there is such a thing) second-calendar-year atlantis from the Azores, with its more extensive brownish mottling and barring, to the Madeiran bird above. Azores Gull seems a fitting name for this form, and it has been suggested that it may one day be elevated to the status of a full species.
Migrants seemed less obvious on Madeira, but included a wayward Barn Swallow near Caniçal and, one of the birds of the trip, a Yellow-crowned Night-heron in Funchal Marina. The third for the Western Palearctic, this bird had first turned up earlier in the year and I knew it had been seen the week before I arrived. Finding in amongst all the boats and jetties proved rather trickier than I expected but, at the second attempt, it appeared right out in the open and posed obligingly for photos.

It took some finding, but this young Yellow-crowned Night-heron in Funchal marina provided a fitting finale to the trip.
All too quickly the trip was at an end, but no complaints – it had more than lived up to expectations, with all the target seabirds, numerous endemic and near-endemic landbirds, and some unexpected migrants and vagrants to boot, including a couple of new Azorean birds. I’m looking forward to guiding the full version of this itinerary as a tour next year, at a more leisurely pace – more details will be posted on this blog soon, but for now see the brief summary here and feel free to register your interest via the links provided.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Azores and Madeira: part 3

Common Quail are very audible at this time of the year on Terceira (where this shot was taken) and Graciosa.
It’s a while since I’d been to Graciosa. Quite a while, in fact, so this leg of the preparatory trip for next year’s Azores and Madeira tour was an important one – not just for locating the endemic Monteiro’s Storm-petrel and other seabirds such as Barolo Shearwater, but also to suss out opportunities on land.

I was met on arrival at the airport by my kind hosts Rolando, skipper for the pelagic trips, and Pedro from the Environmental Department. We set off on a brief tour of some spots in the north of the island, including Porto Afonso, a scenic spot with an offshore stack sporting a bustling tern colony. While watching the terns I became aware of a movement over the cliffs nearby, and was surprised to see several hirundines feeding actively along the cliff-top (surprised because there are no hirundines in the Azores). They proved to be House Martins, 25 in total – only the second record for the island, and one of the larger flocks to be seen in the Azores.

Record numbers of House Martins, a scarce migrant in the Azores, were seen on Graciosa and Santa Maria.
The appearance of unexpected migrants from continental Europe became a bigger theme the following morning. If anyone ever asked me to name a good raptor destination I have to confess that, as much as I love the Azores, it would be low on the list. The resident Common Buzzards are admittedly an endemic subspecies, rothschildi, but there are no other regular raptors in the islands. So I was stunned when, as I was driving over some high ground, a large, pale-headed and rather striking buzzard came up out of a field of long grass and quickly vanished behind a hillside. In that brief view of a few seconds, the pale head and suggestion of dark on the belly sides, as well as the pale outer primaries with dark tips, made me think it must be a Rough-legged Buzzard (or Nearctic equivalent), though what I couldn't fully make out the tail pattern. I wasn't able to chase it for photos then as I was on my way to join a pelagic trip, but when I got back ashore in the early afternoon I went straight inland to try and refind it.

This Black Kite was a welcome surprise on Graciosa. As well as being the second record for the Azores, it is perhaps also the most westerly record of the species anywhere in the world.
With no sign in the original area, I headed west a little and parked up on a hilly road with a panoramic view. Fairly quickly a raptor drifted into view, but that was immediately identifiable as a Black Kite – only the second for the islands. Somewhat gobsmacked, I watched this vagrant drift past and grabbed a few records shots, and then scanned again before locating two Common Buzzards interacting with a third buteo - what I took to be the mystery bird from earlier on, though I can't be sure it was the same individual. Several features were wrong for Rough-legged Buzzard, indicating that perhaps it was a different bird. It was chased off by the local buzzards which, as well as being almost invariably rather dark, were in comparison clearly smaller and shorter winged.

A vagrant buteo on Graciosa, but which one? Note the pale eye and tail barring, indicating the bird is a juvenile.
This poor record shot, taken at great distance and cropped right in, at least gives an idea of the patterning and wear on the upperparts, as well as the wing profile.
Parting shot: here the mystery buteo (left, in the distance) is seen off by a local rothschildi Common Buzzard (right, foreground). Note the clearly smaller size and shorter wings of the latter.
Two adult rothschildi Common Buzzards - the endemic Azorean subspecies - for comparison, with a darker bird ...
... and a slightly paler adult (most rothschildi seem similar to these two birds, with little variation in my experience).
After it was lost to view I headed back over the hill, and again picked up the Black Kite, flying east. To my astonishment it was then joined by another raptor, also a buteo, but this bird was strikingly white on the head, body, upperwing coverts and underwing. In the Azores, experience has shown that almost anything from virtually anywhere can turn up, so a sensible policy is to shoot first and ask questions later. I fired off a few frames before the bird departed and, with no raptor references to hand, picked up on the process of confirming identifications after the trip.

Juvenile white-morph buteo Common Buzzard - apparently a first for the Azores of the nominate subspecies.
Having considered my own views and contacted several others, the consensus on the white hawk is a juvenile white-morph nominate buteo Common Buzzard from continental Europe – apparently a first for the islands. Opinion is more divided on the other buzzard, with juvenile Common Buzzard (again nominate buteo) followed by cirtensis Long-legged Buzzard the most popular choices, but even a couple of suggestions for Red-tailed Hawk (eliminated by one raptor expert). More comments on this bird are welcome, and thanks to Dick Forsman, Bill Clark, Peter Alfrey, David Callahan and numerous others for feedback and references so far.

The second Black Kite of the trip was actually the first for the islands, this long-stayer lingering on Santa Maria.
As for Black Kite, by dint of a chronological quirk I went on to see the first for the Azores too – after finding the Graciosa bird, another individual I saw at the dump on Santa Maria two days later must surely be Alan Vittery’s first Azorean bird, originally found there in June last year and seen intermittently on many subsequent occasions. Santa Maria also produced more House Martins – many more, in fact, with a total of 162 birds including 97 together over Ponta do Malmerendo indicating a major displacement of this species (the previous all-island total was 234 birds). I even had a couple of Common Swifts in with one flock - a species rarer here than Yellow-billed Cuckoo (although I know which I'd rather have found!).

The first Woodchat Shrike for the Azores, a nominate male, appeared all too briefly on Santa Maria.
But the best was saved for last. On my final morning on Santa Maria, and indeed the Azores, I headed back to the airport to check on the Killdeer pair (see previous post). Yet again I was stopped in my tracks, as I could see what was clearly a shrike perched distantly atop a dead stump. Through binoculars it was immediately identifiable as a Woodchat Shrike, though almost as quickly it flew across the track and up onto a fence, then into a restricted area. I sped down the track and located just in time to grab a few record shots before it flew out of view, not to be seen again. Only subsequently did I discover that this was another first record for the Azores – a great way to end another superb trip to these birdy islands.

* Coming up: Madeira and the Desertas


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