Sunday, 30 October 2011

Journey's end

Sad to think that, having moved through Scandinavia and crossed the North Sea, most probably in a single flight, this Brambling got no further than the Norfolk coast before coming to a premature end. I picked it up on the coast road at Kelling soon after dawn today; it may even have arrived at night (when some Bramblings migrate, unlike most other finches). Perhaps it was drawn to lights along the road when it was struck by a passing vehicle. Even in death, it is a creature of beauty, with strikingly tortoiseshell colours and the tell-tale head and wing markings of a male in winter plumage.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Azores: days 5-7

Good numbers of Great Shearwaters were lingering in the channel between Flores and Corvo.
Arm's length views of Great Shearwater were had from the boat.
Three islands in three days was bound to produce a flurry of good birds, and though the wind stayed east, we continued to rack up some great sightings. The trip across to Corvo was a little on the bumpy side but 30 or more Short-beaked Common Dolphins right around the boat and big numbers of Great Shearwaters among all the Cory's were welcome distractions. The only storm-petrel was seen just a few inches away soon after arrival - a Leach's, in the hands of a SPEA seabird worker who was preparing the recovering waif for release. Heading the line-up of Corvo rarities from the east was a Eurasian Kestrel - a species far rarer in these islands than, say, Semipalmated Plover.

A crowd gathers around an exhausted Leach's Storm-petrel, picked up in the harbour on Corvo.
A record shot taken at vast range of the ring-tail Northern Harrier we ran into on Flores.
It was the turn of raptors again the next day on Flores when star bird-of-prey spotter Christine (who found the kestrel) picked up a harrier on Flores while I was momentarily away from the group, checking out a sleeping duck which turned out to be a Garganey. The raptor flushed all the wildfowl, including the drake Wood Duck and the Garganey, from Lagoa da Lomba before disappearing. We set off in rapid pursuit and Suzanne eventually relocated the bird over distant moorland, where scope views confirmed it as a Northern Harrier - a great find, particularly as it is now an impending split from Hen Harrier. Other goodies we came across during the day included Little Stint and Snow Bunting, as well as a terrific roadside view of Woodcock in broad daylight.

Woodcock can be very difficult to see well in the Azores, but no one told this bird ...
On our last morning on Flores, we took in a small wetland which turns up the occasional duck of interest. Even before we'd got out of the car, another Woodcock just a few feet away feeding out in the open gave extended views at close range. On the lake a rather drab wigeon with orangey flanks looked interesting at first but eventually proved to be a female-type Eurasian. Undeniably vagrant at the site, however, was a Great Egret which flushed, despite our cautious arrival; its greenish tibia suggested it was probably of European origin. We followed that up at a nearby site with a pukka American Black Duck sitting near five close-ish congeners, at least four of which (and possibly all five) I felt were hybrids. A final check of Lomba and also Lajes then saw us heading back to the airport at Santa Cruz, a second Great Egret in the harbour there - this time probably American - being our last vagrant for the island before departing to Terceira.

One of two Great Egrets we found on Flores, this bird's greenish tibia suggest it is of European origin.
As sometimes happens in the Azores, with everyone checked in ahead of schedule the plane departed 30 minutes early - perfect in the circumstances for us, as it allowed time for a quick pre-dusk check of Cabo da Praia. There we met up with some familiar faces from Corvo and elsewhere, and enjoyed an unexpected wader fest which included our first Semipalmated Sandpiper of the trip, as well as two White-rumped Sandpipers, a Semipalmated Plover and three Ruff, also new to the trip list. It set us up well for a full day on the island the next day - our last before heading for home.

On our second Terceira visit we finally added Semipalmated Sandpiper, an almost expected vagrant, to the trip list.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Azores: days 3-4

After dipping by 10 minutes yesterday, we could not have hoped for better views of White-tailed Tropicbird today.
How best to sum up the last two days of dawn to dusk birding here in the Azores? The agony, the ecstasy and the agony again would just about do it, certainly for our time on Flores, where we are currently residing.
This most westerly European island has provided exhilaration and frustration in imbalanced measure, most of it on account of one of the rarest seabird vagrants to reach the Western Palearctic.

For the last few days a White-tailed Tropicbird has been appearing late afternoon at the coastal village of Fajazinha, even perching briefly on buildings before returning to the sea, and when I arrived with the group yesterday afternoon a text from Staffan Rodebrand revealed it was back. Cue a mad cross-island dash for this much-wanted bird, only to arrive and be told we'd just missed it. Mortified was not the word, but we took it on the chin and elected to try again the following afternoon.

At times the bird flew right over our head, sometimes attempting to land on buildings.
Today it paid off big time, with one of the most extraordinary encounters you can imagine (and thanks to Hugues Dufourny for the timely text). At one point this whip-tailed wanderer was flapping just above our heads, checking out the perching space on a house in the village centre, and even attempting to land on the village church right by the bell. Eventually it behaved more sanely, flying down the valley back towards the sea where some cliffs made for rather more appropriate habitat. Gleaming white when its plumage caught the sun, especially at range, up close it was more subtly toned with creamy-buff tinge on parts of the head and body.

So that came good, unlike what was surely one that got away. After the tropicbird we visited Ponta da Faja, the recent temporary home of a Swainson's Thrush. While 'squeaking' in an area of overgrown orchards and fields, I glimpsed a movement of something coming in to investigate - it quickly flew through cover around us in a semi-circle and went into the hedge behind me. I turned and squeaked some more, and could again detect branches moving, but could not properly lock onto the skulker through the dense foliage. Another squeak from me, and this time it responded with several harsh, scolding cat-like calls in quick succession. It had to be a Grey Catbird, a species I know well from North America, and a distinctive call with which I'm very familiar. I immediately got out my iPod and tried to lure it in with a recording, which was almost identical to what we'd just heard. Alas, the bird did not come out this time, presumably having already sussed us out, and further searches of the area by dusk proved fruitless.

All this in a day which started with a vagrant Barn Swallow which I picked up in the lane next to our guest house, and then a far rarer vagrant Wood Duck (albeit one which may have been present for a year, on a lake where two were found last autumn).

One of the three Semipalmated Plovers at Cabo da Praia, Terceira, yesterday.
And then there was yesterday, with a brief stop-over on Terceira producing the goods with Great Egret, Hudsonian Whimbrel, three White-rumped and two Pectoral Sandpipers, and best of all three Semipalmated Sandpipers which briefly but impressively indulged in some unseasonal courtship display. At least one Ringed Plover tried to get in on the action but was soon seen off; could such behaviour be a precursor to a breeding attempt in the Azores, as has already happened with Killdeer? We shall see ...

Also at Cabo was a trio of juvenile White-rumped Sandpipers.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Azores: days 1-2

The endemic Azores Bullfinch took a bit of finding today in heavy rain, but then showed well.
For the last few years, October has been synonymous with one place for me: the Azores. I first visited the islands in 1994 but have made frequent visits in recent times, and for the last four Octobers have led a Birdwatch magazine reader holiday to the islands. Yesterday a small group got together for the 2011 departure, which sees a tweaked itinerary to focus even more on the potential for finding vagrants.

Having flown out via Lisbon, where we contrived to expand the trip list (successfully) by adding a couple of non-Azorean extras, we had business to attend to on São Miguel. For the full story you'll have to see the trip report which I'll publish online post trip, but in brief we succeeded in our main target for the morning, the endemic but sometimes very elusive Azores Bullfinch.

Delighted to find this Killdeer on a farm pond near Ponta Delgada today.
Poor weather hampered play from thereon in until mid-afternoon when, after we had scoured various wetland sites, I finally found a Killdeer on a farm pond near the capital - only time for record shots of this distant bird, but its juvenile Eurasian Spoonbill companion proved far more obliging (as did two more which we found on a flooded roadside field a little later).

The same pond hosted this obliging juvenile Eurasian Spoonbill, a scarce bird in the islands ...
... while nearby we were astonished to find two more feeding in a flooded roadside field.
Towards the end of the day another 'Yank' was reeled in in the form of a Pied-billed Grebe, so the trip is shaping up very nicely indeed. Roll on tomorrow ...

Also welcome on the day list was this Pied-billed Grebe (right) among Eurasian Coots at Lagoa Azul.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Flava of the month

The rather grey flava wagtail at Kelling Water Meadows - note the yellowish tinge on the undertail coverts.
I had to spend the day in Norfolk yesterday, not birding unfortunately, but I did manage to make time to call in for half an hour at Kelling Water Meadows. The Jack Snipe and Lapland Buntings of recent days weren't on show, but a juvenile Little Stint and this interesting flava wagtail were both notable.

Front-on, the bird appears more strikingly monochrome, though with a slight pinkish tinge on the breast.
The wagtail was feeding among cattle, in typical flava fashion, and stood out immediately as unusually monochrome for a flavissima Yellow Wagtail. It certainly wasn't entirely grey, black and white, as the putative and now-split Eastern Yellow Wagtails that reach Western Europe seem to be - note the yellowish tinge on the undertail coverts - but it was different enough to warrant attention.

Plumage, date and location suggest a continental origin for this bird, but its subspecific ID remains unconfirmed.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely to be identified to subspecies with any certainty, although local speculation has focused on the possibility of Blue-headed (nominate flava) or Grey-headed (ssp thunbergi) Wagtails. According to the bible on this family, Alström and Mild's Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America, such mainly grey-and-white birds are most likely to be first-winter females, but the majority of individuals at this age "are not safely identifiable to subspecies, owing to even larger overlap between the different taxa in plumage characters than in adult female winter plumage". Local birder Malcolm Davies reports that up to three such individuals have been seen in recent days at Kelling, and the calls are typical Yellow Wagtail-type calls (though this bird didn't vocalise while I was watching it).

So no firm conclusions on current knowledge, but an interesting bird nonetheless.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

What goes around ...

Far adrift from its North American migration route, this much-travelled Sandhill Crane made landfall in Scotland and was subsequently tracked southwards along the east coast, eventually arriving at Boyton Marshes, Suffolk.
Had the Sandhill Crane lingered in Aberdeenshire, I might well have spent last weekend in Scotland rather than Iceland. It didn’t so I didn’t, and that, by rights, should have been that.

Come Monday, however, the extraordinary Sandhill saga resumed with the news that the bird was lingering at Boyton Marshes, Suffolk, having turned up there the previous day after being tracked along much of the English east coast. My flight from Reykjavik hit the tarmac at Gatwick around 1 pm, and an hour later I was heading north on the M23. The family were expecting me home in north London, but I knew they would understand … all it would take was a 150-mile detour and an extra three hours at the wheel (plus a couple more on foot) before I made it home.

Preparing for departure - the restless crane gets itchy feet.
So at about 5 pm, after an unexpectedly long walk from the village of Boyton, I reached a small crowd on the seawall overlooking an area of rough pasture. And there in a distant ditch was a red crown patch on a long grey neck, occasionally poking upwards into view. As soon as I set the scope up the bird jumped up out of the ditch and stood in full view on the bank, an amazing and incongruous sight in this remote Suffolk setting.

We have lift-off - but it proves to be only a temporary relocation northwards.
As I started to take photos, the crane began running along the bank of the ditch, beating its wings to gain lift, and flew in a tight circle before heading north – a brief but spectacular encounter. It came down almost a mile to the north, but close enough for a few more scope views on the walk back to the car. I was shattered after the early start, flight, long drive and foot slog, but had enough adrenaline in the system to keep me going for the drive home. What a finale to the weekend’s birding.

* Thanks to David Callahan, Bob Watts and Stuart Piner of Rare Bird Alert for the updates and directions that made this impromptu homecoming twitch possible.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Iceland: days 3-4

The second Buff-bellied Pipit at Garður in as many days.
I started early on Sunday – too early for breakfast at the hotel, but I wanted to get back to Garður early doors and look again for the Buff-bellied Pipit and Pacific Golden Plover. Anyhow, after last night’s disappointing curry in Reykjavik, I wasn’t especially hungry. So with just cloud, wind and rain for company, I headed back out to the Reykjanes Peninsula and took up position on the edge of the marsh where I’d glimpsed the Buff-bellied yesterday.

Note the distinct lack of buff! This is not, apparently, a problem in nominate rubescens ...
Bang on cue, a pipit flew in, calling tantalisingly. I grabbed the camera and focused; it looked good for Buff-bellied, and I began firing off record shots. I assumed it must be the original bird, as it was at exactly the same spot, though even through the viewfinder it seemed paler underneath than I remembered, and also rather well marked on the head and breast.

Iceland: days 1-2

Blue skies and a layer of cloud hang above a wind-tossed sea. Welcome to Iceland, home of the gale-force wind.
This was an unplanned trip, in as much as while I had intended to spend a few days birding in the second half of September, heading overseas wasn’t part of the original plan. But by the time I was free to get away, Scilly’s mega-Yank phase had largely passed, London and the South-East were devoid of major attractions and the Aberdeenshire Sandhill Crane had moved on (more of that later). So Plan D was launched, and last Friday I found myself on a plane to Keflavik International Airport, where incredibly strong winds made landing, and subsequently even walking, a challenging experience.
The dowitcher sp discovered soon after arrival at Garður proved to be a Long-billed.
With a couple of hours of daylight left, I headed straight to Garður, at the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and started working the pools there. I first visited this site, and indeed Iceland, 10 years previously, and was struck then by what a ‘natural’ birding hot-spot it was. With up-to-the-minute local advice from Edward Rickson (who showed me around in 2001 and who wrote a motivational itinerary for the area in this October’s Birdwatch), I started working the pools methodically. Good numbers of gulls included plenty of Glaucous – always good to see – and while working through them I picked up a Grey Phalarope flying in.

European Golden Plover is the default shorebird at Garður, but the huge flocks harbour surprises ...
Taking up a different position to try and get better looks at the phalarope, I moved to the other side and looked back across wet fields where Eurasian Wigeon and an assortment of waders were gathering. Working through the flock I glimpsed but then lost an interesting-looking calidrid, though this was more than made up for by a dowitcher strolling out of long grass and into view. My initial delight at this self-find was tempered slightly by the later discovery that a Long-billed – presumably the same bird – had been seen almost a week previously in the area. A juvenile Curlew Sandpiper (a local rarity) completed what was a good shorebird line-up in the limited time available, and I headed on into Reykjavik to meet up with Edward and catch up on news.

... among them the occasional American Golden Plover, like this dozing adult ...
... and even Buff-breasted Sandpiper (a second Buff-breast was seen by other birders).
This included the revelation that Iceland’s first Pacific Golden Plover had been photographed during the day in the Garður area, so the scene was set for a twitch the following morning. We travelled separately as Edward had to be back in town for noon; I stopped en route to take in an American Wigeon, while the PGP duly performed early on for the masses (which in Iceland means about 10 people!). That wasn’t the case later in the day, but there was no shortage of quality birds in the general area, my own tally including two adult American Golden Plovers, single Buff-breasted and Pectoral Sandpipers, a second American Wigeon and, pick of the bunch, a Buff-bellied Pipit found by Edward (his fourth!). More shortly ...

Side-by-side comparison of juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper (right) and Dunlin on the beach at Garður.
The more brightly plumaged of the two drake American Wigeon at Njardvik.
A group of Rock Ptarmigan, looking rather more rufous than their Collins Bird Guide illustration, forage under an abandoned farm trailer - a whole three metres above sea level, and within a stone's throw of the ocean!


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