Monday, 22 October 2012

Azores 3: Flores, Terceira and home

Flores performed brilliantly this year, and among the many highlights was this Northern Parula which I was delighted to find at Ponta da Fajã - a great bird for the group. It stayed several days.
The best find for the group was this Tricoloured Heron, which flew out of the quarry at Cabo da Praia as we arrived, never to be seen again. It constitutes the fourth Western Palearctic record of this American species.
It's hard to blog about birding in the Azores without sounding overly enthusiastic, but without doubt our tour that concluded yesterday was the best in my 11 visits to the islands. The group was hopeful that the archipelago would deliver American birds, and did it just - every day we had a major Nearctic vagrant, almost always with an exciting supporting cast, and everyone got involved in the fun. In brief, after São Miguel we visited Flores and Terceira and between us found Wilson's Snipe, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Parula, Bobolink, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting and the fourth-ever Tricoloured Heron for the Western Palearctic, as well as locating the endemic Azores Bullfinch, logging 22 species of shorebird (including an unprecedented c260 White-rumped Sandpipers!) and twitching two Double-crested Cormorants. The final total of 'Yanks' for the group is provisionally 20 species - phew! I'll aim to post some more images when I return from another visit to the islands in early November, when I'll be speaking at the 2nd Azorean Birdwatchers' Conference, but in the meantime these shots of Yank landbirds will give a feel of the unique experience that is autumn birding in the islands.

This Bobolink was seen on both visits to Ponta Delgada, at the northernmost tip of Flores, but it was never showy and quickly disappeared on both occasions.
Ponta Delgada also produced another major American surprise, this time this stunning Rose-breasted Grosbeak which showed well to all of the group.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Azores 2: back to Blackpoll

Record shot of today's mega - Blackpoll Warbler at 'Phyllo Wood', Sete Cidades.
It rained last night in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel. A lot. It often does here in the mid-Atlantic, but with westerly winds in October, rain has a greater significance. So I shelved my original plan to head east and look for waders, and instead went to the crater lakes in the west - initially with wildfowl and waders in mind, admittedly, but also in the hope of a migrant in the small wood between Lagoas Azul and Verde. I'd barely arrived when a couple of Common Waxbills dropped in to a tree on the edge of the wood; I 'pished' to catch their interest and take some photos, when something else came in behind them. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed two white wing-bars and greeny-yellow plumage, diffuse underparts streaking and an insectivorous bill: BLACKPOLL WARBLER! *&?!*^ I could hardly believe it, yet there it was right in front of me, flitting about on lichen-covered branches. I fired off some shaky record shots in the poor light (above), mindful of the need to document the record - there have been just four prior to this autumn on the Azores, so with one on Corvo earlier in the week this is the sixth. Other highlights today: Pied-billed Grebe, Peregrine Falcon (38 records prior to this year), White-rumped Sandpiper (a brace in the morning then an amazing 30+ in the afternoon, the latter found by Gerby Michielsen) and an adult Roseate Tern at the harbour outfall in Ponta Delgada. Picked up a tired but ready-for-it group from the airport this evening - looking forward to showing them around in the morning.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Azores 1: Corvo and back

One of seven often approachable White-rumped Sandpipers at Mosteiros, São Miguel.
All of the White-rumps were juveniles, with their tell-tale chestnut-tinged cap, ear-covert spot and mantle 'braces'.
So many birds, so little time - and ditto internet access, so I'll be brief. I arrived on the Azores three days ago for a few days ahead of leading the annual Birdwatch magazine reader holiday around the islands. With just a morning to spare on São Miguel on 10th I visited Mosteiros and rounded up seven White-rumped Sandpipers and a Eurasian Spoonbill, before returning to Ponta Delgada and finding the islands' fourth-ever Caspian Tern in the harbour (perhaps the same bird being responsible for a previous unconfirmed report of Royal Tern).

This very lost Caspian Tern, a moulting adult, is just the third record for the Azores. Here it shares a jetty in Ponta Delgada harbour with distinctively plumaged 'Azores Gulls' (true atlantis Yellow-legged Gull).
Then it was straight on a plane to Corvo, teaming up with Josh Jones and Danish birders Jens and Lars en route, before dropping off luggage at the Comodoro and getting a lift from Kat up to Ribeira da Ponte, where a Chinese-whispered Blue-winged Warbler had become a Magnolia Warbler by the time we got there. Elusive at first, it finally gave good enough views in the canopy before I left to try not for the 'mega' Wood Thrush on the island (more time needed) but for American Cliff Swallow, at least one of which appeared in a flock of hirundines above the Miradouro.

A record shot of the Magnolia Warbler, flitting through the canopy of the open laurel woodland.
Next day duly brought the Wood Thrush, fleetingly but stonkingly, plus a bonus Blackpoll Warbler at the same site. An Indigo Bunting, and later more White-rumped Sandpipers and a couple of Semipalmated Plovers on the airfield, ended a highly memorable day, while this excellent side trip concluded the following morning with the long-staying Solitary Sandpiper up on the mountain. With barely time to catch my breath on arrival back in Ponta Delgada, I again had the Caspian Tern flying over the harbour. Phew ... time to crash, and start all over in the morning. Can't wait.

Indigo Bunting on Corvo:  the species seems to be annual not just on the island, but in the same group of trees.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Vintage American year?

This migrant male American Yellow Warbler was photographed on the coast of Maine, New England, in early August this year. Such birds can cross the Atlantic rapidly if they get caught up in fast-moving depressions.
Finally, autumn is shaping up nicely. Very nicely. Birders tend to measure this time of year in terms of the 'quality' of vagrants, and on that basis we seem to be on track for a classic this year. Looking purely at Nearctic landbird vagrants, the diversity of species found on this side of the Atlantic so far has been notable; Britain has fared well but shared the spoils with Ireland, the Azores and France. Here's a summary of North American landbird vagrants recorded so far this autumn, assembled from online research (all records subject to acceptance):
  • Northern Harrier Wexford, Ireland, 6-7 Oct
  • American Mourning Dove Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, 5 Sep (caught by cat; died in captivity 13 Sep)
  • Belted Kingfisher Santa Maria, Azores, 3 & 21 Sep; Galway, Ireland, 5-6 Oct; Flores, Azores, 7 Oct
  • Eastern Kingbird Galway, Ireland, 5 Oct (first Western Palearctic record)
  • American Cliff Swallow Ile d'Ouessant, France, 3-7 Oct; Corvo, Azores, 7 Oct (4+)
  • Buff-bellied Pipit At least five reported in Britain and two in Ireland (including the first record for Northern Ireland)
  • Grey-cheeked Thrush St Agnes, Scilly, 6-7 Oct
  • Swainson's Thrush Foula, Britain, 23 Sep; Barra, Britain, 2-4 Oct
  • White-eyed Vireo Flores, Azores, 6 Oct (fourth Western Palearctic record)
  • Red-eyed Vireo Shetland, Britain, 12-15 Sep (earliest-ever British record); Corvo, Azores, 4 Oct, presumed new bird (different location) 5 Oct; Terceira, Azores, 7 Oct.
  • Northern Waterthrush Corvo, Azores, 6 Oct
  • Magnolia Warbler Fair Isle, Shetland, Britain, 23 Sep
  • Myrtle Warbler Dursey Is, Cork, Ireland, 3-6 Oct; Inishmore, Galway, Ireland, 6 Oct (1+)
  • Blackpoll Warbler Inishmore, Galway, Ireland, 7 Oct
  • Scarlet Tanager Flores, Azores, 6 Oct
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak Corvo, Azores, 5-6 Oct (2 on latter date)
  • Indigo Bunting Corvo, Azores, 4 Oct, presumed different bird 6 Oct
  • Bobolink Corvo, Azores, 22 Sep, presumed different bird 5 Oct
Sources: Azores Bird Sightings (, Irish Birding (, Netfugl (, Rare Bird Alert (

That's a total of 38 individuals of 18 Nearctic landbird species so far, with plenty of the migration season left to run. I've factored shorebirds out of the equation as waders from North America reach Europe (especially Britain and Ireland) every autumn in varying numbers, almost regardless of the weather. But special mention must be made of yesterday's report from Santa Maria, Azores, of 255 White-rumped Sandpipers on the island, including a single flock of 150 birds; this was followed today by another 100 at Cabo da Praia on Terceira, and 17+ with at least three Baird's Sandpipers on Flores. Such numbers are wholly unprecedented on the European side of the Atlantic and, as more birders arrive in the archipelago for the critical mid-October fortnight, it remains to be seen what else will be discovered there.

I will be back in the Azores shortly, most of the time leading the annual Birdwatch magazine reader holiday, and as always Nearctic landbirds will be a priority for our group. After 10 previous visits my Azores list includes 44 species from across the pond (excluding North American forms such as Kumlien's Gull and American Black Tern not (yet) accepted at species level), and there seems every chance that we'll find or see something new this time. Fingers crossed ...

* Internet access is often difficult while travelling around the islands, but check back soon for updates to this blog, and follow the news on Twitter via @birdingetc.


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