Sunday, 29 April 2012

Wet, wet, wet

One of two first-summer Little Gulls at Staines Reservoirs yesterday.

But great, great, great. Or at least that’s the theory. The weather forecast for this weekend in the South-East was the kind that separates birders from ordinary mortals, putting smiles on our faces and strange pumping motions into our firsts while others cancel long-standing arrangements and prepare for a lockdown. Driving rain and north-easterlies potentially up to gale force were indeed the predictable the outcome of a recently introduced government hosepipe ban.

Little cracker: Staines is the prime location for Little Gulls in the London area.
My own plans were already a departure from the norm, with my wife heading off to the States for a week and two teenagers to look after. The only thing for it was to turn adversity into victory, starting with yesterday’s early morning run to Heathrow. After bidding Hazel a fond farewell, I took the scenic route home via Staines Reservoirs, where heavy rain and a lack of shelter made for damp but potentially interesting conditions.

This second-summer Little Gull is very adult-like but for the dark markings in the primaries.
Soon after arriving on the causeway I picked up a smart second-summer Little Gull, looking very adult-like but for tell-tale dark subterminal markings on some of its primaries. A little further on, a distant Black Tern was my first of the year, while two more Little Gulls, both first-summers, duly put on a fine display of dip-feeding. I met Bob Warden and another birder on the causeway, and Bob duly got me on to the long-staying European Shag, a lingering London scarcity which I last saw back in January. While we chatted, in excess of 600 Common Swifts hurtled around in a presumably vain attempt to find insects on the wing. 25+ Common Terns and an Oystercatcher also made it into the notebook.

Brent Reservoirs produced Black Terns, the birds sometimes showing well perched ...
... and in flight while attempting to feed in steady rain.
After Staines came a second pit-stop on the way home at Brent Reservoir, where three Black Terns were showing rather better than the earlier bird as they hawked among at least 18 Common Terns and more swifts and hirundines. Despite the downpour, both Sedge Warbler and Common Whitethroat were in full voice along the bank.

Hirundines were a feature of both reservoirs visited on Saturday, with House Martins arriving in good numbers.
Sunday’s forecast looked better still, and a Thames river watch was certainly on the cards. But what of my two charges? There was only one thing for it – lead by example and teach them survival skills. Providing little more than 15-tog duvets, central heating, a larder full of food, a host of electronic entertainment options and most other modern creature comforts, I left them to it and set off early in hellishly wet weather to meet up with Jono Lethbridge and David Bradnum at Grays, on the very edge of the London recording area. 

We watched the river as hard as anyone can look at an empty grey area of water for a couple of hours, but with just two Grey Plover flying downstream, a brace of Common Sandpipers and seven or so Common Terns, we fairly quickly reached the limits of our collective patience. A pit-stop for breakfast en route to Rainham proved ill timed, as Andy Tweed rang from the visitor centre there to report an Arctic Skua. Long gone by the time we arrived, the day was saved by a Great Skua flying upstream about half an hour later. This was the third Bonxie I’ve had in 40 years of birding in London – all of them since January 2010. 

The last weekend of April is peak passage for Bar-tailed Godwits, and if it coincides with easterly winds,
they will move through London - and sometimes in numbers. These six birds, photographed in heavy rain from the north bank of the Thames at Rainham, were on the Dartford foreshore on the south side.
Copious texting, tweeting and phoning meant that the same bird was also picked up by Shaun Harvey and Rich Bonser further upriver. We kept up the vigil, noting six Bar-tailed Godwits, two Sanderling and a Grey Plover on the foreshore, but the only passage of note in the next three hours involved two Arctic Terns. I called time on proceedings before lunch, returning home to find two happy offspring who’d enjoyed the run of the house in my absence – and even started their homework. I will have to go birding more often.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Name that gull 2 ...

Can you name and age this gull? Answers welcome in the Comments box below.
After my last mystery gull post drew a unanimous response with the correct answer (but see my comment below under 'Name that gull ...'), it's clearly time for another test of larophile wits. Have a go at the above bird, which I photographed in western Europe last year - can you name the species and age the bird? All answers welcome, so please feel free to comment.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Last Caspian of the season?

Today's heavily worn second-calendar-year Caspian Gull at Rainham.
I put in a brief gulling stint in the Rainham area this morning, but numbers of birds are well down now and the effort produced little reward. Best in class was this second-calendar-year Caspian Gull, badly in need of a new set of feathers. Five Yellow-legged Gulls added some interest, but otherwise the action was new migrants rather than attention-grabbing larids - Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern Wheatear, singing male Common Whitethroat and two Common Terns on the river were all noteworthy. Probably time to draw a line under another gulling season on the Thames, and focus attention on the potential spring brings.

It's getting late for Caspians in London - how long will this bird linger?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Name that gull ...

Test your ID skills and have a go at naming this relatively pale first-cycle gull, here surrounded by the local atlantis form of Yellow-legged Gull (or 'Azores Gull', if you will - and I do).
I've been going back through hundreds of gull images from last month's superb Azores trip, and came across several of a bird which puzzled me somewhat at the time. The default gull in the islands is the local atlantis form of Yellow-legged Gull, which is distinctly darker in immatures plumages than nominate michahellis; adults also have characteristically streaked heads in winter, again unlike the typical birds we know from Britain and continental Europe. But other gulls regularly occur - indeed, on one day during the last trip I logged a (record?) total of 10 species. So what's this bird then? I have an opinion but would welcome others, so please leave a comment with your suggestion and reasons.

The same bird in flight, showing the upperside in detail ...
... and landing, with half a view of the underwing. What's your opinion? Comments welcome.

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