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.

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