Sunday, 29 July 2012

Bar Harbor pelagic

Great Shearwaters were a constant presence out on the open ocean.
North-east Maine's inshore waters are rich in food, a resource shared by marine life, birds and humans. Sailing out through the flat calm waters from Bar Harbor, our base here for a few days, it appears that much of it is destined for restaurants and shops - the surface of the ocean is littered with buoys marking the position of lobster pots as far as the eye can see. But get out a few miles further, and seabirds quickly dominate the view.

Petit Manan's lighthouse and buildings loom out of the fog as we approach the island.
I joined a birding and whale-watching trip organised by Bar Harbor Whale Watch, on board a high-speed catamaran heading out to Petit Manan Island, home to thousands of breeding seabirds, and then beyond that to the open ocean, primarily for whales. It's a trip aimed at the interested public, rather than birders and cetacean-watchers specifically, but I was impressed with the level of information given by the on-board naturalist guide, Julie, over the tannoy.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Maine butterflies

Some beauties from our first week in northern Maine:

American White Admiral is now regarded as conspecific with Red-spotted Purple, its more southerly counterpart.
This beautiful Black Swallowtail was feeding on clover near Solon.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

On tour in New England

The views from Mount Washington, the highest peak in the north-east US, are truly breathtaking.
With summer conspicuous by its absence so far in Britain this year, our long-planned family holiday could not come quick enough. Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, just as Friday afternoon traffic was beginning to get heavy, the timing was not immaculate, but it was just great to be back in the States. The journey north to New Hampshire took considerably longer than it should have done, but eventually we pitched up at our first base, North Conway on the south side of the White Mountains.

Myrtle Warblers were common on the mountain. This male is carrying food to its young ...
... while other juveniles have already fledged.
My birding priority here can be summed up easily: Bicknell's Thrush. This high-altitude Catharus breeds in a restricted area of north-east USA and south-east Canada, and most sites require a fair hike. Not so Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England, courtesy of an eight-mile occasionally vertiginous route to the summit. I discovered that the Mount Washington Auto Road is the oldest man-made attraction in the US, and had read online about excursions there to see Bicknell's Thrush. Late July is probably at least four weeks past the ideal time to search for the species, but needs must - plus, I had the latest gen from the site courtesy of Howie Wemyss, who went out of his way to make my visit to Mount Washington a success.

Red-breasted Nuthatches 'beeped' away in the stunted spruces, and occasionally showed well.
Much rarer for most would be this Boreal Chickadee.
To cut a long story short, it took two mornings with very early starts, a good few hours of working the mountain between 3,700-4,200 ft, and a lot of looking at seemingly thrush-less habitat. After a false alarm on the first day with a Swainson's Thrush, I finally got a repeated response on the second when playing a recording of Bicknell's, and eventually a quick view of the target bird. So job done, and though the look was brief, it was all the more enjoyable for having had to work hard for the bird. If you're ever planning to come to Mount Washington to look for Bicknell's Thrush, I suggest mid-June is a better time, and avoid weekends when the inevitable crowds cause more disturbance. Also, make sure you drop by the visitor centre and ask the helpful staff for the latest information - without Howie's local knowledge, I would have struggled to locate the right sites in this vast area.

Up near the tree line, White-throated Sparrows were the most obvious passerine.
Several Cedar Waxwings were also a welcome sight.
The icing on the cake today was not on the mountain, but on a nature trail back down near the visitor centre. A short stroll looking for butterflies ended abruptly when the beast below emerged from cover at a range that was too close for comfort. We stared hard at each other, I grabbed a couple of shots, and then made a wary retreat while making myself look big and maintaining eye contact. I've had a bear run-in before and had no wish for a repeat episode - still, a fantastic way to end the day.

I came face to face with this beautiful animal today. Not sure who was the most surprised, but fortunately he was more interested in eating blueberries than bothering with passing birders. Note the missing ear, a sign of past conflict.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Brief encounter

Red-backed Shrike is always a welcome find in London, though not unprecedented in early July.
With summer well and truly rained off in much of Britain this year, it seems like we have gone straight from spring to autumn - a feeling reinforced for birders in the London area by a procession of rare and scarce migrants which began in early May (see blog posts passim) and has yet to end. The latest notable find, courtesy of Pete Naylor, was a smart male Red-backed Shrike at Lake Farm Country Park in Hayes. As the species no longer breeds annually in Britain, perhaps this is a wandering unpaired bird, or conceivably a failed breeder from the Continent already on the move again. It was rather elusive today but after about an hour with 20 or so observers looking, I managed to locate it briefly perched up on a bramble, and then again lurking lower down in a patch of umbellifers. Another absence followed, but finally it flew over me towards the east side of the site, where another observer refound it in the perimeter hedge. I never tire of looking at shrikes; a notable species in the capital, this is my first since the spring 2010 male at Richmond Park.

The bird, a smart adult male, eyes a passing hoverfly (or is it a bee?).

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Egrets - I had a few

Little Egrets are taken for granted in the South-East these days, a far cry from their status in the not-so-distant past - it was an official rarity in Britain until as recently as 1991. Although common now at Rainham it is harder to find in spring and early summer, when many birds presumably return to colonies to breed. By mid-July this process must be concluding, as evidenced by at least eight birds back on the reserve today (an increase on the last couple of weeks). I filmed this bird as a test for the movie mode on my Canon 7D - note how it stirs up the mud and water with its left foot, than succeeds in catching a prey item.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Wanted: London bird photos for the annual report

Can you help? The next London Bird Report will be going to press soon, and I'm currently in the process of finalising the image selection. I took over as Photographic Editor back in 2001, and the number of images used has since grown from nine in the previous year to 50 in the last (2008) report. As ever, in the 2009 edition I'm hoping to increase the selection, improve the quality and feature stand-out material from new contributors, so last-minute submissions are welcome. If you have suitable photos taken in 2009 within the London Natural History Society recording area (a 20-mile radius of St Paul's Cathedral), then I'd like to hear from you.

What kind of photos are suitable? Images of scarce and rare birds are welcome, and in some cases even poor-quality record shots of key birds will be considered if no better material is available. Equally, strong portraits and action shots of more familiar species are also desirable.

Images should be emailed to me at dominic.mitchell [at] as high-resolution jpeg files, preferably uncropped, unaltered and not resized, but if already prepped in Photoshop then saved at quality setting 11; low-resolution images designed for web use are not usually suitable. Please make sure you supply full details of species, location and date along with your name.

Please also keep the overall size of each message to no more than 10 MB, and use multiple emails if necessary. Alternatively, images can be supplied on DVD and sent to me c/o Birdwatch magazine, Unit B403A The Chocolate Factory, 5 Clarendon Road, London N22 6XJ. I can extend the final deadline for submission to next Monday, 16 July 2012. Although there is no fee for reproduction, contributors will receive a copy of the report featuring their work.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Spoonbill returns

The fact that Eurasian Spoonbill is breeding again in numbers in Britain is doubtless a factor in its more frequent summer appearances in the south of the country. The latest report of the Rare Breeding Birds Panel, published this week in British Birds (105: 352-416), confirms that after a handful of breeding attempts by single pairs in recent years, a colony of six pairs became established in Norfolk in 2010, with other summering birds elsewhere in East Anglia, and in Kent and Sussex.
Adult Eurasian Spoonbill at Rainham RSPB, 7 July 2012. Unusually for the species, it was awake for long periods.
It was for many years a difficult species to see in the London recording area, but yesterday's bird at Rainham was my third in six years (the first of those, at Walthamstow Reservoirs in 2006, being a colour-ringed Dutch individual). The latest bird was found at Rainham three days ago before reportedly being flushed, whereupon it relocated to the London Wetland Centre in Barnes - having presumably followed the Thames right through central London to do so. It seems to have preferred the RSPB to the WWT, however, departing the latter's showcase reserve and returning to the former's, where it remained on Aveley Pools and still does so this morning.
Spoonbill and Tuftie go head-to-head in an impromptu preen-off.
My visit to the site was brief, but also noted were an unseasonal Eurasian Wigeon, my first Eurasian Whimbrel of the autumn and two Green Sandpipers, a first-summer Mediterranean Gull flying upriver on the incoming tide, an adult Common Gull heading in the opposite direction (another post-breeding season first) and numerous warblers still in song, including Cetti's.
Disturbed by a passing Carrion Crow, the bird relocated to a quiet corner of the marsh ... and went to sleep.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Summer gulling on the Thames

Third-calendar-year Yellow-legged Gull: one of at least 32 in the Rainham/Crayford area of London yesterday.
While the gulling season proper is still some months away, there is good reason to be out looking at larids again right now. In midsummer every year, after dispersing from their breeding grounds further south in continental Europe, Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis begin arriving in numbers in southern England, and moving up the Thames. In due course hundreds will be present; at Rainham last Saturday we noted four on the Crayford foreshore, whereas just six days later Kev Jarvis and I had at least 32 between us.

Adult Yellow-legged Gull yesterday: birds of this species are now actively renewing their plumage.
It's possible to see all ages of Yellow-legged Gull at this time of year, with the first, fresh juveniles arriving alongside adults, but both were outnumbered yesterday by one-, two- and three-year-old birds. What's more, unlike the winter season, it's a good opportunity to observe birds in active wing and tail moult. According to Olsen and Larsson (Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America, 2004), Yellow-legged Gull begins moulting "from a few weeks to three months earlier than in Herring Gull", with "P(3)5-6 late Jul/early Aug". Here's an annotated close-up from yesterday to show what's going on in adult primary moult right now:

A number of third-calendar-year (aka second-summer) michahellis were also present, with one providing another opportunity to look in more detail at wing moult in this age class:

Third-calendar-year Yellow-legged Gull yesterday and, below, the same bird's right wing-tip:
The timing of the moult is very similar to that of the adult above. Some (but not all) of this feather detail can be worked out on birds at rest, but in flight it's easier (NB this is a different 3cy bird below):

Third-calendar-year Yellow-legged Gull in flight, showing the obvious extent of primary moult: about halfway there.
Lastly, two young Yellow-legged Gulls were my first juvenile large gulls of any species in Britain this year. While Herring Gull can be ruled out on plumage, it's less easy to exclude Lesser Black-backed Gull. However, in terms of the slight barring they show on the inner greater coverts, as well as size, structure and general appearance, I feel pretty confident that both these birds are Yellow-legged. The early date is also a plus point for this more southerly (and thus earlier) breeding species.

Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull (bird A): this youngster has already suffered some tail damage. Note the darker, plainer outer greater coverts fading to a more barred pattern on the inners, the restricted primary 'window', slightly paler head, and largely white rump and uppertail with neat, sharply defined blackish tail band.
Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull (bird B): this individual is very similar to bird A above, but has subtly different
patterning on eg the greater coverts and underwing, as well as a complete tail.
Juvenile Yellow-legged Gull (bird B again): a very smart, fresh individual, as would be expected in early July. Note the tertial pattern, with narrow, unnotched pale edges which don't extend all the way along on the outer web (some are more 'oak-leafed' than this).


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