Friday, 25 March 2011

Flying kites

Red Kite on a close fly-past - some terrific views of this comeback raptor today.
Inspired by my recent success with Goshawks, I decided to make the most of the warm early spring weather and head out again for more raptors. The venue was a site in the London area which, though productive for birds of prey, is not one where Goshawk can be expected. Nonetheless, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and, more recently, Red Kite have all been reliable there, so with the mercury rising unusually quickly for March, a good morning was on the cards.

Common Buzzard on the move - one of the darker individuals seen today.
And so it proved. During the course of a couple of hours, the maximum counts (that is, numbers of the same species in view at once, to avoid possible duplication) peaked at six Common Buzzards, four Red Kites and three Eurasian Sparrowhawks. It seems amazing to be able to log these kinds of numbers within a (long) stone's throw of the city, but raptors have bounced back from the murky days of the Seventies and Eighties when DDT and eggshell-thinning (among other factors) led to such a crash in populations. In those days you would have been lucky to find a single buzzard within 50 miles of London, and unless you were a Welsh hill farmer Red Kites were just a fantasy.

Red Kite (upper bird) and Common Buzzard share a thermal ...
The views were terrific, too, at times with all three raptor species in view together. I did glimpse another large 'BOP' briefly head-on at some distance before it pulled its wings in and then plummeted into the back of a wood - perhaps just a silhouetted Common Buzzard, but I'll be back to check the site again just in case anything more interesting is hanging around ...

... before the titans clash. Interestingly, the kite bosses the buzzard and the latter drifts off.
Also seen today: c.8 Siskin, 1 Lesser Redpoll, 5 Redwing, singing male Common Chiffchaff, Stock Dove, Skylark and Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Hawk-watching

Second-calendar-year Northern Goshawk: still in essentially juvenile plumage, this bird would be hard to mistake for anything else (including Eurasian Sparrowhawk, even if the latter is often mistaken for the former). Note the buffish background wash to the streaked underparts, as well as wing shape and structure.
Just a quick post after a successful session looking for Goshawks (is there a better way to spend a warm morning in early spring?). I tried a site where a friend succeeded in seeing this difficult species last year, and was delighted to find a displaying pair which took to the wing within 10 minutes of the sun coming out. On their second showing the adults were joined by a second-calendar-year bird (above and below), and it was this individual that ended up coming closest.

The same second-calendar-year bird as above, more distantly but showing the classic cross-shaped profile when the wings are extended. The heavy body and rounded tail corners can be seen well here.
One of the adult birds photographed at the same time - even in this poor-quality record shot taken at great range (this is a close crop), the whiter, finely barred underparts, pale underwing and head pattern are evident.
For comparison, here is an adult female Eurasian Sparrowhawk I photographed at Falsterbo, Sweden, back in early September 2006. Note the longer, square-cornered, tail, more slender body and tail-base, and rather neckless jizz.
Even at great range, the in-flight profile of a 'Gos' is distinctive. Note the prominent head, deep breast and relatively broad 'arm' on the wing. 'Sprawks' never look like they mean business in the same way.
A couple of Eurasian Sparrowhawks also appeared during the morning and showed just how different these two Accipiter species really are. A few other good birds were in the area, too, including several singing Woodlarks, numerous Common Crossbills and Siskins, and my first Sand Martin of the year winging its way north.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The real teal? Hmm ...

A record shot of the Connaught Water Green-winged Teal or hybrid (left), with a drake Eurasian Teal (right). On the former, note the 'incomplete' fore-flank stripe, narrow white scapular line, breast colour and head pattern.
There's been a bit of debate about the male Green-winged Teal found last month at Connaught Water, on the edge of Epping Forest, and as it's a true rarity in London I've visited the site a couple of times recently. The identification would probably have been resolved more easily if it swam around on the lake like most ducks and showed properly, instead of behaving like a Woodcock and standing motionless in the leaf litter on a wooded island, usually asleep - which is what it's been doing both times I've looked for it. The island is some distance from the bank, so close observation has been difficult thus far.

An even more distant shot of the same bird (right), with a presumed female Eurasian Teal (left), cropped in to show
the other white vertical fore-flank stripe, which is also a little broken up.
Whatever it is, it certainly has a good quota of Green-winged Teal genes. But whether it's 100 per cent that species is another matter. The vertical white fore-flank stripes are present but arguably not correct, being rather short, not very broad, and 'nibbled away at' by the adjoining grey. Also debatable is the breast colour, which is not as saturated pinky-buff as might be expected.

Like Eurasian Teal, Green-winged has a horizontal black scapular line, formed by black outer webs to the lower scapulars, but it is often less obvious than in Eurasian; importantly, the inner webs of these feathers are brownish-grey and, while they may appear pale, do not contrast boldly with the back, unlike the broader white scapular stripe of Eurasian. In this respect the Connaught Water bird is looking ropey, showing a narrow white margin above the black scapular line which seems no different to how a hybrid would look (for example, compare the images here).

The head pattern can also be debated. There is a distinct pale edge to seemingly much of the green head sides which, though not as clear-cut as on male Eurasian Teal, is apparently more extensive than on typical Green-winged Teal (in the upper photo above it can be seen to run narrowly around the top of the green blaze and down to the bill base, rather than being restricted to the underside). The head colour itself seems very close to Eurasian Teal, not darker brown in tone (a feature mentioned in Sibley but not in the Collins Bird Guide). Check the two shots below to see this difference between more clear-cut individuals of both species, and compare the other features:

Drake Green-winged Teal (Co Clare, Ireland, March 2010). Head colour and pattern, the warmly toned breast and finely vermiculated grey flanks, appearing almost hazy, are useful supporting features to the bold vertical white stripe.
Drake Eurasian Teal (Connaught Water, Greater London, March 2011). The pale border to the brighter brown head is clearly more obvious in Eurasian Teal, though also variable. The grey flanks are much more coarsely patterned.
Taking all features into consideration, my own feeling is that the Connaught Water bird is not pure. It has been said that it probably falls within the range of variation for the species, but whether one bird should show several traits that could be attributed to a hybrid influence is debatable. Until the open wing has been well seen and, preferably, the colour and pattern on the greater coverts analysed from photos, I suspect the debate will run on for a while longer yet; in the meantime, it's not going on my year list.

A closer crop on the record shot of the Connaught Water teal published at the top of this post. The horizontal white scapular stripe is unequivocally white, a feature (albeit more prominently) associated with Eurasian Teal.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Good turnout for gull workshop

Second-calendar-year Yellow-legged Gull - note eg the neat tail band and reduced window on the inner primaries.
Since returning from Thailand things have been pretty hectic and, bar a quick trip to Chipping Norton to see the Oriental Turtle Dove plus a few hours of gulling at Rainham, there's been little time for birding .

Having passed April's Birdwatch for press on Friday night, I was back at the tip at Rainham 12 hours later for the gull workshop with Martin Garner. Along with Ian Lewington there were 10 of us in total, some participants being based as far afield as Suffolk and Portland. It was an excellent day - I'll leave it to Martin to say more (check out his excellent blog at www.birdingfrontiers.com), but here is a selection of images of some of the birds of interest. 'Incidental' birding along the way was great, too, with a ring-tail Hen Harrier, Common Buzzard, Ruff, Knot and three Water Pipits all of note at Rainham.

A different second-calendar-year Yellow-legged Gull, this one showing heavily abraded wing coverts and tertials.
This third-calendar year Yellow-legged Gull showed well on the landfill, though no adults were seen.
A classic second-calendar-year Caspian Gull - note the white head, greyish upperparts and brown wing coverts.
Based on its large size and structure, this adult Caspian Gull is presumably a male.
An adult Mediterranean Gull most of the way to full breeding plumage.
Three leucistic Black-headed Gulls were seen during the day, including this individual on the landfill ...
... and this even whiter bird on the Target Pools.

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