Friday, 30 March 2012

Odds and sods

One of seven Little Ringed Plovers seen south of the river today.
There are a wealth of good sites south of the Thames which, mainly for logistical reasons, I don't visit as often as I would like. So today it was time to renew my acquaintance with two of them - Crayford Marshes, on the south shore of the river, and Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve.

Thanks to Kev Jarvis's spot-on directions I quickly caught up with the overwintering Spotted Redshank at Crayford - an excellent local record. Earlier on Kev had had a European Shag fly upriver with an adult Great Cormorant, and fortuitously the same birds came back past an hour later while I was on site. Two Little Ringed Plovers on a nearby flood were my first of the year and completed a very worthwhile visit.

Adult Red-breasted Goose at Sevenoaks WR: where did it come from?
Notwithstanding obvious question marks over its origin, it was unringed and appeared rather wary. Honest ...
Like most of the industrial Thames riverside these marshes will have changed beyond recognition over time. Two centuries ago they were doubtless truly wild, barely inhabited places. Back in early 1776, somewhere in this area following a severe frost, Britain's first Red-breasted Goose was shot here. There were no geese in view today, so instead I had to head south to Sevenoaks, on the fringe of the London recording area, to see ... an adult Red-breasted Goose. There are always question marks about lone adults of this species in Britain, especially inland; this unringed bird was actually quite wary, taking to the water when someone appeared on a nearby bank, unlike a lone White-fronted Goose and the local Greylag and Canada Geese. An Egyptian Goose completed an unseemly trio of feral goose species.

A pair of Mediterranean Gulls was a surprise at Sevenoaks WR, but they didn't stay long.
Sevenoaks also produced a fine pair of breeding-plumaged Mediterranean Gulls which indulged in some brief display before heading off high to the north. Kingfisher,my first Willow Warbler of the year and five more Little Ringed Plovers added further interest in a short visit to this excellent local reserve.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Spring has sprung

One of six Peacock butterflies seen in the Broxbourne-Amwell area today.
With record-breaking March temperatures in parts of Britain at the moment, it's no surprise that spring seems visibly early this year. Apart from an early-awakening Red Admiral in February, I'd seen no butterflies until today - and then all of a sudden logged another five species. First up was a Holly Blue in the garden, followed by Comma, Speckled Wood, two male Brimstones and at least six Peacocks in the Broxbourne/Amwell area.

The excellent woodland at Danemead produced this dapper Eurasian Treecreeper.
Birds also featured, of course, not least this smart Eurasian Treecreeper at nearby Danemead. Also present in the Danemead-Broxbourne area where somewhere close to 10 Eurasian Siskins and two Common Buzzards, as well as the expected woodland species. There are plenty of summer migrants in now, but it'll have to wait a couple more days until I have the time to search them out properly.

The bird sang frequently in the afternoon sunshine ...
... and remained in view for an extended period.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Azores 2: gulls, and then some

Chalk and cheese: a second-winter Kumlien's Gull mixes it with three first-winter Azores Gulls on Terceira.
The second leg of this trip takes place on Terceira, where I arrived yesterday afternoon. Despite the fierce winds and overcast conditions things got off to a good start, with Semipalmated Plover and Semipalmated Sandpiper at Cabo da Praia and a (or should that be 'the'?) Hudsonian Whimbrel in with a Eurasian Whimbrel flock which landed on rocks while I was gulling nearby. And have I been gulling ...

The streaked hood, often most obvious on second-winter birds, gives Azores Gull an appearance of its own.
This first-winter Mediterranean Gull is a long way from home - next stop America?
This flock of Black-headed Gulls merits closer scrutiny - can you spot anything different?
Today, gulls were my prime objective. So after checking the wetland in town and scoring with Wood Duck (I assumed this bird had left as it wasn't visible yesterday), I did my rounds of the island, taking in a fish quay, tidal quarry, farmland, rubbish tip, reservoir and finally beach. The end result was no fewer than 10 gull species, at least three of them originating from North America - for gull watchers, it doesn't often get much better than that. The breakdown is as follows:

Whether it's European or American, this Herring Gull is a rarity on the Azores. The ID is a work in progress.
  • Mediterranean Gull - first-winter.
  • Ring-billed Gull - 12 (four adults, three second-winters and five first-winters).
  • Common Gull - adult.
  • Black-headed Gull - c 40  in one flock.
  • Bonaparte's Gull - one with the Black-headeds.
  • European or American Herring Gull - adult in flight only (working to try and resolve this ID, but it's tricky).
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull - 10+ around the island.
  • Great Black-backed Gull - seven in total.
  • Azores Gull - 2,000-3,000 of the endemic atlantis form of Yellow-legged Gull.
  • Kumlien's Gull - second-winter seen at two sites this afternoon.
Adult (left) and first-winter Ring-billed Gulls on the beach this evening - two of the 12 present by dusk.
The head says adult, but the spread wings and tail reveal the tell-tale darker markings of second-winter plumage.
A first-winter Ring-billed Gull forages on the tideline before going to roost.
With just 41 records in the Azores until the end of last year, this adult Common Gull (left) is a far greater rarity locally than the second-winter Ring-billed Gull which is keeping it company.
I think it will be difficult for me to surpass that gull species total anywhere else in the Western Palearctic, at least any time soon, and the quality of rarer species - and in the case of Ring-billed also the quantity - makes it a stand-out day that I won't forget for some time. In the meantime, time for some shut-eye ...

And though gulls were today's big prize, there were others - not least this smart drake Wood Duck.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Azores 1: ducks deluxe

One of the two drake Blue-winged Teal which have overwintered on Sao Miguel (there were originally three).
After an unfeasibly early start yesterday, I was on Sao Miguel by lunchtime ready to begin an exploratory late winter/early spring trip to the Azores. A day and a half later and I'm shattered - but it's been well worth it. Haven't got time right now to do it justice in words (though watch out in Birdwatch for more on this in due course), but hopefully these images will do some of the talking in the meantime.

A drake Lesser Scaup (right) with two drake Ring-necked Ducks today. Just outside this picture were a female Lesser Scaup and three Greater Scaup - an impressive mixed flock in a European context.
The same lake held a pair of Northern Pintail (drake above left) and two American Wigeon (above right).
Though the mix of species is different, the dominance of quality American vagrants and a few other surprises echos the theme of autumn tour I lead. Of course, in autumn migration is taking place and the possibilities for exciting birding are even greater, but already in 36 hours this trip has exceeded expectations.

This long-staying American Coot (rearmost bird) is still keeping company with its Eurasian cousins.
Large gatherings of atlantis Yellow-legged Gulls (better known as Azores Gull) often attract other larids, this wayward second-winter Iceland Gull being a case in point.
Not all vagrants are from the west, as this beautiful Purple Heron proved yesterday.
 Special thanks to Gerby Michielsen, who as always has been a big help, and keep tabs on the Twitter feed on my homepage for interesting sightings as they happen.

Friday, 16 March 2012

White-winged bedlam

Second-winter Kumlien's Gull (left) with adult Lesser Black-backed Gull of the subspecies graellsii.
The dark pigmentation in the primaries tips was not always obvious when the bird was perched, even at close range.
With temperatures edging into the high teens this week and the first summer migrants arriving in numbers in southern England, it feels like the gulling season is drawing to a close. So only one thing for it: give it a final go! This morning was going to be my last chance for a couple of weeks, so before most of the winter's birds ship out I headed over to Rainham Marshes as much out of duty as expectation.

Good move, however ... within five minutes of arriving I picked up a white-looking gull loafing among the Herrings and Lesser Black-backeds. Despite numerous visits to the Thames this winter I hadn't scored any large white-winged gulls, and had resorted to twitching Beddington on the other side of town to get a fix of its Icelands. I therefore almost expected this stand-out individual to be the famous leucistic Herring Gull that bears the ring number SH1T - an occasional visitor to Rainham (and also Beddington). Instead, when I got the bins on it alarm bells rang immediately - this was clearly an Iceland-type, but looking at it rear on there was obvious dark pigmentation on the white-edged outer primary tips: it surely had to be a Kumlien's Gull.

Note the 'airbrushed' dark outer webs to the four outermost primaries in particular, and the contrast to the whiter inner primaries, as well as the strong tail band.
At range, the darkest area of the wing was actually the greater coverts, in contrast to its appearance at rest.
Before long the gulls got up, and the pattern of the open wings and spread tail was even more striking - see the images and captions above. This bird fitted the 'search image' I had since watching a second-winter Kumlien's in Ireland early last month; I was also well primed for such a bird after editing an excellent article by Peter Adriaens on separating Iceland and Kumlien's Gulls for April's Birdwatch - coincidentally published  today. Perhaps this bird was just meant to be.

I put a call in to David Callahan at the Birdwatch office to run through the features with references to the article and fully confirm my ID before putting the news out. As we were speaking, a white gull flew through the throng and I paused the conversation to eyeball it - second-winter Iceland Gull! Apologies to David for the abrupt end to the call, but the result is a few more images to enjoy:

After a lull in proceedings, I twice got distant and very brief views of a more adult-like white-winger. From the poor record shots below it looks like a third-winter, but what, exactly? There is a hint of darkness in the outer primaries and Andy Tweed told me today that there was a sub-adult Kumlien's briefly at Rainham this week which, like this bird, had a slight dark mark on the bill. Steve Arlow apparently had a similar bird over at Pitsea, only 13 miles or so downriver. I put the news out as Iceland or Kumlien's, pending better views or photos by others, but two comments so far have also suggested leucistic Herring. What do you think?

Third-winter gull over the stone barges today. Could this be the bird reported as a Kumlien's Gull, or is it even just a leucistic Herring Gull, as suggested by others?
In this shot the outer primaries appear slightly darker, but tinged brownish - shame it was so distant.
Finally, no such problems with this spanking adult Iceland Gull, another welcome find which showed very well but briefly today:

Adult Iceland Gull - the fourth and final white-winger of this morning's unprecedented session.
For the number of rare arctic gulls present at Rainham I've never known a day like it - especially as Dave Darrell-Lambert also had a first-winter Iceland Gull at the barges. Of the four birds that I found, the second-winter Kumlien's and the adult Iceland appear to be new birds, while the rather large second-winter Iceland and the third-winter Iceland/Kumlien's are most likely individuals already reported recently. In addition, I have some very distant images of an Iceland from today which may relate to a different second-winter bird - no time to analyse them now, but watch this space.

My final gull list for the morning: 2w Kumlien's Gull, 2w and ad Iceland Gulls, 3w Iceland or Kumlien's Gull, 1w Caspian Gull, ad and 1+ 2w Yellow-legged Gulls, and good numbers of Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Gull and Black-headed Gull. That's an acceptable haul for one morning. Let's sign off with that Caspian (the last of the winter?):

A first-winter Caspian Gull makes a brief appearance in the crowd.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Lophodyte tendency

Female Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus at Whetsted GP, Kent, 5 March 2012: Britain's sixth, or not?
There are definitely better ways to spend a half day than going to see a Hooded Merganser of unknown origin, but why let logic get in the way of a bad idea? With this in mind, I set off earlier in the week to Whetsted GP in Kent. Target: one North American sawbill of undetermined provenance.

Not knowing this part of Kent well, I Googled the site directions beforehand and printed them out. I’m glad I did, as it’s a convoluted schlep through Five Oak Green and a nearby farm before you realise you’re close to the right place. Before I’d even reached the farm I bumped into two birders who were keen to find out if I knew the way; apparently they’d been wandering around fields on the wrong side of the railway line for two hours, with just Fieldfare to show for their efforts.

It might have taken more than a potential Category D duck to lift their spirits, but anyhow we set off and were eventually looking at the Hoodie on the westernmost pit, diving constantly among a loose gathering of Coot in what were unseasonally windy conditions. A bonus prize was another sawbill on a nearby pit, this time an adult drake Smew.

There’s no doubting the identity of the Hooded Merganser, and those who’ve seen it wing-flap or standing on ice when the pits were partially frozen report that it is fully winged and lacks bling. So does that make it wild? Possibly – and indeed hopefully – but the truth is there is no way of knowing, and in this instance it will be down to the Rarities Committee to make a judgement call.

They’ve done this before with Hooded Merganser, but not with universal approval for the result. The bird which arrived on Portland, Dorset, as a first-summer drake on 5 June 2007 and has remained nearby in the Weymouth area ever since was unsurprisingly, though possibly unfairly, placed in Category D. A long, unrelenting stay is deemed bad for some rarities but acceptable for others – witness the Steller’s Eider on South Uist, Outer Hebrides, from 1972 to 1984 and the Black-winged Stilt at Titchwell, Norfolk, from 1993 to 2005 which the committee allowed. I don’t know how commonly Hooded Merganser is reared in captivity, but its apparent arrival point on the coast of the South-West might have been considered potentially interesting.
Eclipse drake Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus at Weymouth harbour, Dorset, 20 July 2008:
not Britain's sixth, according to the Rarities Committee.
According to past reports of the Rarities Committee in British Birds, accepted records of Hooded Merganser in Britain are as follows:
  • 2000: Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, first-winter male or female, 23 October-
    1 November. 
  • 2002: Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland, first-winter, 7-25 March. 
  • 2005: Chilham, Kent, adult female, 4-10 December. 
  • 2006: Haroldswick and Burrafirth, Unst, Shetland, adult male, 15 April-2 May. 
  • 2008: Tayport, Fife, female, 26 October-15 November. 
Interestingly, records from eastern counties outnumber those on Scottish islands by three to two. The fact that there is a previous accepted Kent record may help the Whetsted bird, though paradoxically its acceptance will skew the pattern even more away from what might be expected for a Nearctic vagrant (although the position with passage wildfowl in spring is somewhat different to birds arriving from across the Atlantic in autumn). There have been five records in the Azores too, again all since the turn of the century, so there is a nice symmetry to occurrences in Britain. We'll see ...

Monday, 5 March 2012

A mystery solved

That Barrier Reef frigatebird - now sorted.
Last July I posted about a mystery frigatebird I photographed in the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia, back in 2009. The characters it showed didn't seem to fit clearly with either Great or Lesser, the two candidate species in the area, and a good birding friend of mine who has lived in Queensland for years was also reticent about calling the ID. So at the time I solicited comments on the blog and from the Seabird-News group, but only one person was brave enough to respond.

More recently, I posted to the learned ID-Frontiers Listserv, but again received just a single reply. Fortunately, however, Philip Griffin saw that post and kindly forwarded the message to the Birding-Aus list for additional comment. That feedback was very helpful, with several replies received, and the ID now confirmed as Great Frigatebird. Summing up the reasons why, Jeff Davies (illustrator of The Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds - the BWP of Oz, as it were) commented: "The first impression from looking at your bird is a darkish throated female Great Frigatebird and that’s what I think it is. Shifting the levels around on your two images shows a blue eye-ring and the bird is lacking white tabs into the underwing, none of this is good for Lesser in the Coral Sea. I would say that the darkish throat, which is probably the reason for your caution [it was], is not a problem and within the spectrum for female Great Frigatebird." He added: "A quick qualification, I do acknowledge that the occasional female Lesser Frigate can have a blue eye-ring off the east coast but it’s not the normal appearance. So the ID should rest on the shape of the white breast patch without tabs onto the under-wing and lack of a sharply demarcated hood with white collar."

You can see the original post at (and congratulations to the first person to comment at the time, Tim Allwood, on calling the bird correctly).


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