Saturday, 29 December 2012

First white-winger of the season

At the end of the wettest year on record in the UK, the weather so far this winter has continued the trend, being generally vile with plenty of rain and wind. Yesterday brought both in fair quantity to my Rainham patch, which is looking more waterlogged than I have ever seen it before in 25 years or so - some of the reserve trails are so submerged in water that fish have apparently been seen swimming across the paths!

Second-calendar-year Caspian Gull at Rainham - a beautiful and textbook specimen.
Seen more than four hours previously but only as it took off, this may or may not be the same Caspian as above.
I was off piste today looking at the gulls in the south-west corner of the area, near the stone barges - a good move, as it turned out. The stars of the show which included eight gull species were a first-calendar-year Iceland Gull - seemingly the first 'white-winger' of the winter in London - plus four Caspian Gulls (an adult, a third-calendar-year and two second-calendar-years) and 15 Yellow-legged Gulls (of all ages, and including a colour-ringed third-calendar-year which was not marked locally). I'll have more images to share as soon as I get time to upload them, but in the meantime enjoy these clips of the Iceland Gull (above) and one of the Caspians (below - the first second-calendar-year of this species that I've been able to film).

Friday, 21 December 2012

Christmas goose

Adult dark-bellied Brent Goose just south of Cheshunt this morning.
With no sign of the world ending after all, I decided to head north today to just beyond the London recording area to Bramfield, Hertfordshire, the churchyard in this small village having recently produced regular sightings of the elusive Hawfinch. My route took me up the A10, near Cheshunt - still within the official London Area - where there is a regular wintering flock of European Golden Plover, so I decided to stop en route to check them. The plovers were absent from their usual field, but in their place, bizarrely, was an adult Brent Goose. With a chain of goose-filled lakes and gravel pits less than a mile away running the length of the Lea Valley, it was a truly odd location for this coastal species to choose.

Brent Geese are recorded from a dozen or so sites in London each year, but birds away from the Thames and the major reservoirs are very rare, with perhaps just two or three a year. I first saw this bird around 09:40 and it was still present when I left at 10:00, but I doubt it will linger for very long on farmland so close to traffic thundering along the A10.

After that unexpected success, it was a quick run to Bramfield. Up to five Hawfinches were seen this morning, but only one came within range of the camera - and then only fleetingly for the record shot below. Always a great species to see, it was one of six finch species in the churchyard, although the Raven which flew over, 'cronking' loudly as it went, was surely a rarer bird locally. Also noted were Lesser Redpoll, Eurasian SiskinEurasian NuthatchYellowhammer and a distant flock of at least 1,000 European Golden Plover in flight with a much smaller number of Northern Lapwing. A circling Red Kite nearby completed an excellent visit.

A Hawfinch perches momentarily before disappearing.
After that I took the long route home, calling in first at Hilfield Park Reservoir, back inside the London Area. Here I met Steve Murray, who kindly let me in as his guest, and in a short but worthwhile session I picked up the female Scaup which had been seen the previous day along with a first-winter bird, which was no longer present. Three Ruddy Ducks - a family party according to Steve - were the first I'd seen since January; from memory, there's now thought to be fewer than 100 left in the country post cull. A brief visit to Stocker's Lake afterwards provided great views of Common Goldeneye, but the Red-crested Pochards recently present had moved on. Nonetheless, a decent day's haul for the time of year.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Bittern roosting at dusk

The small reedbed at Fishers Green, in the Lea Valley just north of London, often hosts Eurasian Bittern in winter, and sometimes up to three are present. This bird was seen mid-morning today, but not again by the time I arrived at 2.45pm. Just as I was about to leave at 4pm, with the light fading rapidly, it suddenly emerged from hiding and clambered straight up to the top of the reeds to roost - perhaps surprisingly, they are capable of supporting its weight. Presumably, roosting in this way keeps the bird safe from predators such as Foxes. I filmed these three short sequences in HD using a Canon EOS 7D with EF 500 mm F4 lens and 1.4x extender - thanks to my son Ed for joining them together and editing this clip.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Arctic 'snowball'

Yesterday might have ended in style with London's first Buff-bellied Pipit, but it began with an even rarer vagrant. While 'only' a subspecies, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll is - away from the Scottish islands - a rarer bird even than Buff-bellied Pipit. Still considered an official rarity in Britain, unlike the increasingly numerous subspecies exilipes (Coues's Arctic Redpoll), nominate hornemanni Arctic had occurred here on just 90 occasions to the end of 2011. Mainland occurrences have been non-existent (or almost so) until this year: after a belatedly identified bird in Norfolk in the autumn, this individual at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, found its way onto many lists, including mine. It was still there today, presumably equating the windswept environs of Orford Ness with the inhospitable landscape of its native Greenland and northern Canada - well worth a look if you haven't yet been to see it.

Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll: note the fluffy 'snowball' appearance, with unmarked white rump and undertail coverts, and little in the way of streaking on the flanks. The very pale smokey greyish-white ground colour of the upperparts almost says Ural Owl (if you've had enough to drink and don't have a very good monitor). A hint of the 'chamois' tones to the face remain, presumably having worn paler during the autumn.

There are many references on redpoll identification, a subject I'm not going to go into here in any detail, but I came across an interesting online article by Andrew Kinghorn yesterday which I hadn't seen before. I also highly recommend Andy Stoddart's 'Redpolls photo guide' in the December 2011 issue of Birdwatch (not currently available online).
Even with no reference point for size, this redpoll screams 'large'. Its habit of feeding on weed seeds on the beach, perhaps coupled with its size, apparently led to it originally being identified as a bunting of some kind. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

London's first Buff-bellied Pipit

Buff-bellied Pipit at Queen Mother Reservoir today. Like all British (but not European) records of the species, this bird is of the nominate North American subspecies rubescens.
I was about 130 miles away when news broke today of a Buff-bellied Pipit on the edge of London, at Queen Mother Reservoir - a site with restricted access. The omens weren't good, especially as the bird hadn't been seen for several hours by the time I arrived back from Suffolk early afternoon. But you won't see anything if you don't try, and persistence eventually paid off - well done to Bob Watts for relocating this mega American vagrant, which showed well for the next 90 minutes feeding hyperactively along the water's edge and eventually proving very confiding. Day permits were hastily made available for the bargain price of £2 by the Berkshire Bird Club, and all credit also to Michael McKee for finding the bird in the first place and facilitating access.

Queen Mother Reservoir is in Berkshire, and also partly in the London Natural History Society recording area. The latter is a 20-mile radius from St Paul's Cathedral, and I measured the boundary precisely on Google maps to ascertain exactly which part of the reservoir is within the LNHS area. The short answer is most of it, except the far western side; the Buff-bellied Pipit was on the eastern side, and so it is certainly a first record for London.

There has been a significant and sudden rise in the number of Buff-bellied Pipits recorded in Britain in recent years, with 10 of the 27 records accepted to the end of 2011 occurring in 2010-11 alone, as against just four records prior to 2005 (British Birds 104: 619 and 105: 613-614). In Iceland, where there are very few active observers (apparently fewer than 30 or so), this species has a better long-term track record with nine accepted records up to the end of 2006. When I was there in October last year I went to twitch a Buff-bellied Pipit and found another one at the same site. Subsequently, I think a third individual was also discovered there, and my recollection is that these weren't the only records in Iceland last autumn. Perhaps we in Britain are now experiencing the same phenomenon that has brought this species more regularly to Iceland in the past. Alternatively, perhaps it is just better observer awareness of the species' field characters.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Snow in London

The start of Monday's session at Rainham Marshes was interrupted by news of a Snow Bunting on the river wall - an excellent find by Dave Smith (thanks to Andy Tweed for the call). Having already got going on gulls near the stone barges, I decided to chance it and leave the bunting until later in the day. Eventually sating my larid quest with three Caspian Gulls (a metal-ringed adult, presumably 'GC', and first-winter and second-winter birds) and about 20 Yellow-legged Gulls, I headed off in search of the bunting mid-afternoon. Fortunately, it transpired I was at the wrong end of the river wall, so I ended up walking the length of the shoreline between Aveley Bay and the reserve centre, and flushing two Jack Snipe, a Common Snipe, six Rock Pipits and a single Water Pipit in the process. Eventually, after a call to Dave Mo to confirm where the bunting had last been seen about four hours previously, I refound it nearby, foraging in the tide wrack - a typically confiding and showy bird, and my second at the site in two years.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

House of Wax(wings)

One of today's three Waxwings, back in the garden for the second consecutive winter.
Late yesterday afternoon, while scavenging for firewood in a skip down the road (as you do), I heard a Waxwing fly over. It was just before dusk and I assumed the bird was going to roost - but where had it come from? Last winter we were treated to great views of Waxwings from the house when a flock arrived to strip all the berries in the next road, so this morning I went to check - one Fieldfare was an excellent local bird, but no Waxwings. A half-hour tour of the local area to try and seek them out produced another Fieldfare, a fly-over Siskin and four Lesser Redpolls in nearby birches, but not the target species. Just as I was about to turn back into my own road, however, three crested silhouettes on top of a distant tree forced me to a halt: Waxwings! The tufted trio promptly flew down to feed on berries at eye level, and I began snapping away. After a couple of calls to friends to tip them off, I settled back in at home and watched (and filmed) them from my window. They spent most of the day quietly resting in the top of a large beech, in between shorter bouts of feeding, before finally flying off south just after 3.30 pm. There's still some berries left - perhaps they'll be back tomorrow.

UPDATE: indeed they were, dividing most of the next day between berry-stripping and resting. By the following morning, however, all the berries had gone - and so had the Waxwings.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Something completely different ...

Name that gull - if you can.
... but what? When I first saw this gull at my regular study site the other day, I did a double take. The strikingly white wings and bicoloured bill made it look potentially exciting, if not downright exotic. Some second-winter beast from the Pacific, perhaps? Or perhaps not ... its plumage looks in decidedly poor condition, not just  those heavily worn wings, but also about the head. Some tell-tale pale grey feathers are also visible on the mantle. Almost immediately on finding the bird it flew off through the throng of feeding gulls, but soon after I relocated it in a loafing area, where it promptly went to sleep. The image below, taken just before it did so, reveals it to be a second-winter bird - I presume simply a very unhealthy European Herring Gull, although in this state it's hard to tell to be sure.

Another view showing the wings above and below, and the tail. Second-winter European Herring Gull, presumably?

Friday, 23 November 2012

Colour-ringed intermedius

First-calendar-year Lesser Black-backed Gull of the subspecies intermedius. This individual was ringed as a chick in north-east Denmark in June this year. Note the new first-winter mantle and scapular feathers.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are a very familiar sight in London, where the subspecies graellsii has a small but increasing breeding population, with far larger numbers in winter. Smaller numbers of intermedius-type birds also occur outside the breeding season, and are best identified in adult plumage when their blackish upperparts stand out in contrast to the dark lead-grey of graellsii. Identifying intermedius at other ages is much trickier, if not sometimes impossible with complete certainty, and it has been suggested that the two subspecies may represent only one clinal taxon (Olsen and Larsson 2003).

I found the above first-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull on 16 November on the Thames at Rainham, and was immediately struck by its unusually pale head and underparts contrasting with darker upperparts. Only after I started photographing it did I realise it was sporting a smart blue colour ring. I've seen blue-ringed Lesser Black-backeds from the Low Countries here before so forwarded details to a scheme there, only to be told it was in fact a Danish ring.

V.MOL reveals a rather strongly barred rump and uppertail, among other features.
Thanks to a prompt response from Kjeld Tommy Pedersen, I now know that V.MOL was ringed as a chick on the Danish island of Hirsholm, in the Kattegat between Denmark and Sweden, on 26 June this year. Geographically this is close to the edge of the range of intermedius in southern Scandinavia; head south-east into the mouth of the Baltic from here and nominate fuscus ('Baltic Gull') takes over. This was not only my first colour-ringed Danish gull, but also welcome confirmation from a British perspective of the appearance of first-winter intermedius.

UPDATE Today (26 November) I found V.MOL again at the same site - remarkably among thousands of gulls in the area - and it was within 100 m of where I first saw it 10 days ago! It spooked quickly but I managed to fire off this shot to show the underwing pattern, something I wasn't able to observe last time.

Ten days later, here is colour-ringed intermedius V.MOL again, showing off the axillary and underwing pattern.
I've also created a Google map to show the distance between ringing and observation sites - 588 miles in this instance. I'll be plotting further colour-ringed Lesser Black-backed Gull sightings on this map in due course.

View Lesser Black-backed Gull in a larger map

Friday, 16 November 2012

Friday gulling

One of three Caspian Gulls today in the Rainham area.
Gull numbers are starting to build up nicely for the winter now, and I spent five hours working through them today on my local patch at Rainham Marshes. Visibility ranged from poor to abysmal, with fog hanging in the Thames corridor and failing to clear even by the afternoon. There were no major surprises, but I eventually managed to dig out three Caspian Gulls (the bird above/below, probably a fourth-winter, and two first-winters) and at least 15 Yellow-legged Gulls. I also checked colour many rings, and hope to report back in due course with some interesting results, including for a young intermedius-type Lesser Black-backed Gull which was wearing a continental ring. In the meantime, here are a few photos from the session.

First-winter Caspian Gull - one of two present this afternoon (the other individual being notably darker).
At least 15 Yellow-legged Gulls were present in the area, some already looking in breeding condition.
From left to right: adult or near-adult Yellow-legged, argenteus Herring and graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gulls.


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