Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Another Azores season over

A Myrtle Warbler breaks cover on the island of Flores soon after its discovery.
It's good to be able to report back on another successful Azores trip, this year with a group of six very enthusiastic birders. Those who hadn't done small-island, off-the-beaten-track birding before quickly discovered that to a large extent it's about finding your own birds. Common species are there in abundance, but in this mid-Atlantic outpost it's about sifting through the regulars to find the gems. More than anywhere else on this side of the pond, the Azores have become the place to seek out rare American strays, and in October nowhere offers a better chance - but sometimes the islands make you work for the rewards.

This elusive Mourning Dove finally gave itself up moments before we had to check in for departure from Flores.
No two trips are the same, and this year’s – my 13th visit – contrasted strongly with last October’s. I’m in the process of producing a trip report but, for now, essentially we started well with the endemic Azores Bullfinch and a flock of five Ring-necked Ducks, had a sensational arrival day on the outer island of Flores before hitting a quiet spell, but then ended with a major flourish on Terceira. This year’s group voted Myrtle Warbler the bird of the trip – a great find by group member Max Dettori on Flores – but other highlights included American Black Duck, Wood Duck, Surf Scoter, Semipalmated Plover, Wilson’s Snipe, White-rumped, Pectoral, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher and Mourning Dove. Provisionally, the trip total at least equalled my highest previous total for this itinerary – a great collective effort by the group. Ahead of the trip report, I hope these images from the trip will provide a suitable taster - more to come!

Head to head: juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper (front) and Semipalmated Plover share a puddle on a Flores football pitch.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Dungeness day out

Second-calendar-year Herring Gull - still looking very immature, but a year old based on outer primary tip shape.
This may or may not be the same individual - one of a good number of Herring Gulls around the fishing boats.
Walking on water - best view of the underwing and characteristic pale inner primary 'window'.
After an unusually pungent session with gulls at my regular landfill study site on Friday, I needed a change of scene so today headed out of town – for gulls on the coast. Dungeness is well known for Yellow-legged Gulls at this time of year, and recently has also produced Caspian Gulls (see Mick Southcott’s superb photos of the latter here). After checking the ‘patch’ off the power station, where the best larid was a diminutive Little Gull (with two juvenile Yellow-leggeds also briefly seen), I met up with Mick, Richard Smith and Shaun Harvey by the fishing boats for an impromptu photography session.

Arctic Skua off Dungeness today.
This Sandwich Tern did its best to evade the skua in a prolonged chase offshore.
Some fishing trips proved free of hassle from skua raids, with adult Sandwich Terns able to feed their full-grown but still-begging youngsters.
As it turned out, neither Yellow-legged nor Caspian Gulls played ball while I was present, but we had great opportunities for practising on a range of Herring and Great Black-backed Gull plumages, as well as Sandwich Terns and a few other species. We were joined by observatory warden Dave Walker for a while, enjoyed views of two (possibly four) Arctic Skuas offshore, and saw a dark calidrid shoot past that was most likely a Purple Sandpiper (unfortunately too quick for me to get the scope on it).

Great Egret calling in flight at Denge Marsh, an increasingly reliable site for this British scarcity.
Pit-stops - literally - at the Hanson ARC Pits and RSPB reserve followed, adding species such as European Golden Plover (flock of 220), Ruff (two juvs), Greenshank and Sedge Warbler (singles of each), and then I called in at Denge Marsh on the way home to be rewarded with not one but two Great Egrets in the north-west corner. After the Somerset Levels, this is perhaps one of the most regular sites for the species in Britain – potentially the UK’s next breeding location? Also present here were Marsh Harrier, about 25 Yellow Wagtails and a calling Kingfisher, all on top of a day list which also included Arctic Tern (three juveniles on the patch), Black Redstart (male on the power station) and a fine male Clouded Yellow butterfly.

Male Clouded Yellow - unfortunately a slightly blurred shot, but I was glad to get something on a species which habitually sits with its wings closed.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Spot Red at Rainham

Adult Spotted Redshank at Rainham RSPB today: up to three have been reported recently. 
Spotted Redshank is something of an oddity on migration. At favoured sites it is present in numbers from midsummer annually - obvious examples are the RSPB reserves at Titchwell (Norfolk), Minsmere (Suffolk), Old Hall Marshes (Essex) and Elmley (Kent) - but at other seemingly suitable wetlands nearby it can be relatively rare. My patch at Rainham RSPB is an example of this phenomenon. For the last two winters a single bird has overwintered on the Thames foreshore just across the river at Erith, but it rarely strays to the north side despite plenty of good feeding habitat; perhaps the absence of shopping trolleys, bollards and dirt bike riders is the problem. Passing migrant 'Spot Reds' are also a novelty at Rainham, so I was delighted to see this adult today while leading a walk with Bob Watts for about 20 people celebrating the birthday of upcoming young birder Henry Wyn-Jones. Such is the species' scarcity in London that it was a lifer for Henry, and views like this one are therefore especially welcome. It was one of 65 species I logged during the morning's visit, the other highlights including a Garganey, two or three Hobbies, two Common Buzzards, two juvenile Curlew Sandpipers (even rarer at the site than Spotted Redshank), 12 Greenshank (a very high count), two Black-tailed Godwits and three Yellow-legged Gulls (juvenile, second-winter and adult).

Here's a couple of Spot Reds I prepared earlier, for comparison: a nice dusky juvenile (above, Norfolk, 28 August 2011), and a first-winter, aged by its unmoulted juvenile wing coverts (below, Thailand, 10 February 2011).

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Wryneck on the patch

The Wryneck crouches in dense cover in a doomed bid to avoid relocation.
Played an unusual game of hide and seek on the patch this morning - and finally won. Interesting migrants have been thin on the ground in Alexandra Park recently, other parts of London scoring more highly. That changed when Andrew Gardener flushed a Wryneck early doors from the ditch on the south side of the cricket pitches - a terrific find, although the bird promptly disappeared. Five of us scoured the area systematically over the next couple of hours and were close to giving up when I glimpsed a shape drop low into a willow from the other side of the cricket pitch; though very distant and a split-second view, something said this was going to be the bird. We rushed over, approached slowly and the Jynx was broken - out came a Wryneck. It perched on a nearby fence where everyone got to see it, before flying back closer to a hawthorn for even better views. We watched it on and off for 20 minutes or so before a Carrion Crow eventually flushed it, at which point I had to leave. Other species logged collectively on what proved to be an excellent day on the patch included Hobby, 2 Spotted Flycatchers, 2 Whinchats, 2 Northern Wheatears and 4 Lesser Whitethroats. Let's hope that collection stays for tomorrow's guided bird walk and ringing demo in the park, which starts at 8am in The Grove.

Whinchat at the nearby location of Hampstead Heath, on 29 August. Two were in Alexandra Park today.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Postcard from the Pacific North-West: 1

Surf Scoters complete the spectacular view from 4th of July beach on San Juan Island, Washington State. In the background is the imposing 10,781-ft Mount Baker, some 60 miles to the north-west in the Cascade Mountains on the mainland.
 As much as I love blogging about birds, there are times when it has to take a back seat - times like holidays with the family. We spent the second half of July and early August in the Pacific North-West, mainly in Washington State but with a final stop-over just inside Oregon. I visited this part of the world 10 years when co-leading a Birdwatch reader holiday, and also spent a fortnight just across the Canadian border one autumn, so it was good to be back and also take in a few new locations as well. While it wasn't possible to blog on the road, birds did feature - how could they not? Even just soaking in spectacular vistas like the one above, birds were a perennial part of the backdrop. I'll post a little on the trip in the coming days, once I return from the British Birdwatching Fair, but in the meantime, here's a taster - one of the more special species we encountered along the way:

Grey Jay in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park - this inquisitive northern species has a habit of coming after your food!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Crossness strikes again

Adult (or second-summer) Bonaparte's Gull at Crossness, London, today.
I ended my post yesterday with the stop-press news that a Bonaparte's Gull had been found on the Inner Thames at Crossness. It was still present today, so I had to make the awkward cross-city journey to 'sarf' of the river to spend some time with this third-ever London bird. And what a peach it was too.

The black hood reaching further down the nape and around the throat, as well as the shorter and more slender black bill and smaller size, are clear distinctions from Black-headed Gull (behind).
Bonaparte's Gulls in full breeding plumage are rare in Britain, most being seen in winter or spring - or, in the case of the long-staying bird this year at Oare Marshes, Kent, as first-summer (2cy) birds. There is speculation that the new arrival at Crossness may actually be a second-summer (3cy) on account of the tiny speck of black in its primary coverts.

The pale under-primaries are just about visible in this shot. Note also the pinkish-red legs.
The two previous London records of Larus philadelphia both also come from Crossness, and were as recent as spring 2012 (an older record, previously accepted, is now under review and expected not to survive). Might this latest bird be one of those two returning? The finder of the 2012 individuals, Rich Bonser, was there today at the gathering for this adult, as were Jono Lethbridge, Mick Southcott, John Archer, James Lowen and many others. While Rich and I were chatting, the finder of the latest Bonaparte's, Mike Robinson, also appeared. He played down the find, putting it down to luck, but should be very pleased with discovering such a notable American vagrant in arguably the month it is least expected to appear.

Obvious here in the centre of the frame, the Bonaparte's could sometimes go missing among the large and mobile gathering of adult and juvenile Black-headed Gulls at the sewage outfall.
This record is a reminder that Crossness is right up there with Rainham and Beddington as one of the top three gulling sites in London. As well as the three Bonaparte's Gulls I was fortunate to see the Franklin's Gull present here in April 2000 - neither species has yet appeared at Rainham or Beddington, though both have their own claims to fame. Such birds are a reminder to keep looking at gulls throughout the year, and to never give up.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Summertime ...

Second-summer Yellow-legged Gull - a typical individual.
... and the gulling ain't easy. I'm sure that's what DuBose Heyward  meant to say when penning the lyrics to Gershwin's jazz standard. The supposedly warmest months of the year can be a challenge for followers of the larid faith, with the wintering flocks long departed, migration over and almost all adult birds back in their breeding areas. My Thames-side study site still has gulls, often hundreds of them, but sifting through the massed ranks of typically ragged, moulting immatures in dry and dusty conditions is not always rewarding.

A different bird of the same age - note, for example, the different covert and tertial patterns.
In my very limited time away from work projects in the last six weeks I've squeezed in just three short trips to keep an eye on the gulls on my patch. Yellow-legged Gull is my main target, and I've been monitoring the number of summering non-breeders, a few of which are shown here. The number present on 14 June was 15, rising to 17 on 18 June, when the first returning adult appeared. Today, 6 July, I was pleased to find 29 present, though just two were adults. Within a month, mature birds may dominate as more arrive from south-west Europe - this species is most numerous on the Thames in late summer and early autumn, with fewer in winter; by spring it's often hard to find.

Comparison of same-age Yellow-legged (left) and European Herring Gulls: note the former's darker, more solidly ash-grey upperparts, less chequered wing-coverts, 'cleaner' head and underparts, more adult-like bill pattern and yellowish legs. Although there is huge variation, Yellow-legged often looks more advanced at this age.
This morning's session was the most productive, with some 1,100 gulls of eight species present:

  • European Herring Gull: the most numerous species by a nautical mile. Today's gathering included what looked like a very worn, darker-mantled 3cy argentatus-type, but with pale yellowish legs.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull: the second most numerous species, mainly comprising graellsii types but occasional darker presumed intermedius or so-called Dutch intergrade birds. Interesting colour rings noted on three individuals from different schemes - more news soon I hope.
  • Yellow-legged Gull: of the 29 present, 3cy was the commonest age class.
  • Black-headed Gull: initially 39 in one area, but numbers built during the morning to 100+, mainly on the wing catching flying insects.
  • Great Black-backed Gull: five individuals at most.
  • Caspian Gull: three today - my highest summer count. A small adult, presumably female, was seen well at close range, and there were at least two 3cy birds.
  • Mediterranean Gull: sometimes difficult to get on the Inner Thames in summer, I was delighted to pick this species up on call while driving past a large group of hawking Black-headeds. On inspection, there proved to be three individuals - two pristine breeding adults and a hooded 2cy bird.
  • Common Gull: rarest of the rare in midsummer, just one 2cy bird present briefly before flying off.

A grab shot of a flying Yellow-legged Gull to show the distinctive combination of ash-grey saddle and blackish tail band below white rump and uppertail. Again, note the more adult-like bill.
Interestingly, there were no juvenile gulls of any species - the first young locally bred Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls can't be too far away, while fresh juveniles of the earlier-breeding Yellow-legged Gull should already be heading north towards Britain. I may not get a chance to visit again until August, by which time the gull landscape should look very different.

* * STOP PRESS * * After my Thames session this morning, news broke of a Bonaparte's Gull upriver at Crossness sewage outfall. A superb discovery by Mike Robinson, it represents just the third London record and could relate to one of the two 2cy individuals seen there in spring 2012. Well done Mike!

Friday, 14 June 2013

Spooner and tiger

Bonus bird: Eurasian Spoonbill. Photo per Howard Vaughan/ELBF
This is the lowest point of the low season for gulls - everything breeding elsewhere, no migration, and too early for interesting juvenile birds to start appearing. So with all that in mind, I decided to head to the Thames this morning to do some gulling at my study site - nothing ventured etc. First, to head off what seemed like impending larid disappointment, I called in at Wennington Marshes just west of Rainham for a quick scanning session from the Mound. Having ensured that none of the several hundred swifts on view had any interesting white patches or other physical deviations from the norm, I started scanning eastwards across Rainham RSPB reserve. At about 08:20, I picked up a large white bird arriving from the south and losing height fast - Spoonbill! Circling downwards on rigid rather than bowed, egret-like wings, and with outstretched neck and unfeasibly long black bill, there was no mistaking it even at this considerable range. It then vanished from view, but while searching I also managed to pick up an adult male Marsh Harrier. After calling Howard Vaughan and Martin Holm in the reserve centre the Spoonbill was relocated and enjoyed by quite a few birders: I never did get to see it again because it continued its journey north at 12:05, while I was still gulling.

Cream-spot Tiger moth sheltering on the car ...
Before that, however, while checking the car I was amazed to discover a brightly marked moth hiding under the back edge of the bonnet. It had got in just below the windscreen wipers and was presumably sheltering from the wind, and perhaps also enjoying the warmth from the engine. I'm not an active moth-er but instantly recognised it as a tiger moth; from the description I gave Howard over the phone he suggested Cream-spot Tiger, and on checking the field guide back home later on that's exactly what it appears to be. I took these two images with an iPhone 4S - not for the first time, I'm quite impressed with the detail provided by the built-in camera (these shots are cropped to a width of 800 pixels)..

... and released on a nearby verge.
After that excitement it was time for gulls, and the session did indeed prove worthwhile - full details in the next post.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Quail up close

Common Quail favours weedy grasslands and fields, but can be very difficult to see.
For those enjoying BBC Radio 4's current Tweet of the Day series, I thought I'd share are a few images of today's chosen species: Common Quail Coturnix coturnix. It's a good candidate for a programme which aims to help listeners discover British birds through their songs and calls, as you're far more likely to hear this diminutive gamebird than see it in the field.

When giving its distinctive call, a repeated qwip-qwip, the male puffs its chest out and throws its head back.
Other than when accidentally flushed, many observers rarely see Common Quail in the open, and find it especially difficult to get clear, prolonged views. That's my typical experience in Britain too, but in the Azores, where I took these images, the species can be easier to see.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Song to start the day

  Common Blackbird - song by birdingetc

Here's a burst of Blackbird song to start the day - recorded in my garden using a handheld iPhone. This is the male that allowed me to approach it closely during winter; the female has been around less in recent weeks so may have a nest somewhere nearby.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

In support of Badgers

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Last Saturday wildlife supporters from across Britain descended on central London to show their disapproval for the coalition government's proposed trial cull of Badgers. It was important to be there, and I took along my daughter Ava, also a big wildlife fan, for her first-ever demo. The cull, aimed at combating bovine TB, won't succeed in its aim for several reasons, not least because it will simply be impossible to kill every single infected Badger - while at the same time slaughtering tens of thousands of healthy animals. Ultimately, vaccination of cattle has to happen, and the latest estimates indicate it will cost less than the cull.

The march was a success, with an estimated 4,000-5,000 people taking part (where did the curiously biased BBC, who seemed to have banned all mention of the cull on Springwatch, get its figure of "several hundred" from?). Brian May inspired the crowd with an impassioned speech about the problem of bovine TB and the way to deal with it, which is definitely not by destroying a significant percentage of the Badger population - a shame that we have the intellectually challenged Owen Paterson MP as Secretary of State at DEFRA, and not the highly astute Queen guitarist. Wildlife legend Virgina McKenna and others also spoke brilliantly.

Dr Brian May at Badger March: articulate, impassioned and well informed, his reasoning on the cull was flawless.
Ava and I walked most of the route with Bill Oddie, who I hadn't seen in a while, but aside from Bill, Debbie Jay and Charlie Moores, who I missed while he was busy recording vox pops from participants, most birders I know were conspicuous by their absence. It's a shame more don't take the opportunity to take part in these rare occasions when a show of strength in support of wildlife is needed - it's great to be active and sound off in the Twittersphere, but we also need feet on the streets when the occasion demands it.

Ultimately, hope was pinned on the Opposition motion against the cull, which was debated in Parliament today. Labour did their best, as did nine Lib-Dem and six Tory rebel MPs, but the motion was defeated by 299 votes to 250. My local Lib-Dem MP, Lynne Featherstone, slavishly followed the coalition line and sent me a patheticly lame response when I emailed asking for her support before the vote. After the Lib-Dem fiasco over tuition fees at the beginning of this Parliament I was perhaps hoping for too much, and so it proved, but it really galls me when politicians elected to represent us can't grasp or act on the core issues.

Eurasian Badger (Meles meles): facing pointless slaughter on a large scale in parts of Britain. Photo © BadgerHero
Here is more evidence of that. As the Guardian's George Monbiot recently revealed, Prof John Bourne, who conducted the government-funded study which showed that badger killing is a waste of time and money, recalled that a senior politican said to him: "Fine, John, we accept your science, but we have to offer farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers." That kind of mangled reasoning by those who run the country, and do-as-they're-told acolyte MPs who help ensure it becomes law, is bad news on all fronts, not just for wildlife.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Second chance

Beddington's second Red-rumped Swallow of the spring.
A fortnight ago, my Sunday was almost ruined by a Red-rumped Swallow. Almost. The fact that the bird turned up at Beddington Farmlands, on the opposite side of London, when I was about to head out for the day with Mrs Birdingetc would have been more than a little unfortunate - except that this locally mega hirundine appeared to move straight through, taking with it any hopes of a much-needed London tick, but in the process preserving my domestic arrangements.

Unlike the first, this one stayed all day and performed well over the Main Lake.
Today, remarkably, a Red-rumped Swallow was again at Beddington - surely a different bird at this well-watched site, where there have been no sightings of the species in the intervening two weeks. And today, I was about to head out of the door for Rainham when the news broke, so the timing was admirable; better still, it was tipping down, making it considerably more likely that the bird would stay for at least a while.

Red-rumped Swallow was my 289th species in the London recording area.
So I teamed up with Bob Watts and we set out on a cross-city road journey which, on the Friday before Bank Holiday weekend, took as long as it normally takes me to get to Norfolk. En route David Campbell tipped us off that the bird was still there, and eventually we arrived to learn from Peter Alfrey that it was continuing to linger - result! The best part of the next hour was spent watching and photographing it as it fed low over the Main Lake in the company of a group of Barn Swallows and a single House Martin. What a terrific little hirundine, with its navy, rust and peach tones, forked tailed and frequent glides during active flight - after a while, as is often the case with this species, it became easy to pick the bird out by flight style alone, even when it was distant. More uniquely distinctive were the patches of white feathering on the upperparts, which made it stand out and, when seen well, individually identifiable (another reason why it was likely a different bird to the one a fortnight ago).

The curious white flecking on the upperparts makes this individual rather distinctive.
After thanking Peter for letting us in to this restricted site, we nabbed a quick Tree Sparrow (Beddington still being the London hot-spot for this species, though they are apparently doing badly this year), heard a Yellow Wagtail call and then spent a mere two and a half hours driving home through traffic hell. But for views of this superb species as close as 10 metres, every minute was worth it.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Margate - twinned with Beidaihe

Britain's first-ever twitchable Dusky Thrush - debate has already started about whether there is any Naumann's Thrush influence in the plumage (the two species, formerly treated as one, hybridise in areas of range overlap).
There’s a good chance that many of Britain’s keener birders awoke oblivious to the big news of the day. While some slumbered in their pits, others who had stayed up a little later last night would have caught the late-breaking story from BirdGuides – of a female Dusky Thrush at Margate Cemetery, Kent, for its third day. You were either in Thanet at dawn and scoring, or panicking that the bird might depart too soon …

There’ll be more to come on this find of the year – not least the discussion on hybrids (with Naumann’s Thrush), which we’ll cover in the next issue of Birdwatch. The fact that news was released after 11 pm three days late appears to be due not to suppression, but down to the fact that the bird was initially believed to be a Redwing and only belatedly reidentified from a photo published on a local birder’s blog.

Just one section of the crowd present at lunchtime today in Margate Cemetery.
I had early morning commitments, not least a photography session with promising young patch birder Henry Wyn-Jones in Alexandra Park, but afterwards I rescheduled another diary date (sorry Roy) and headed on down to Margate to join the madding crowd. The bird had gone into cover by the time Andrew, Shiny and I got there, but we were among familiar faces and Tony Brown quickly indicated the area it was last seen. After a few minutes of scanning, I picked up a pale creamy-white supercilium in among the leaves, though the rest of the bird was pretty obscured in the foliage. Eventually it moved out and about and views became easier of this rare Asian stray – just the ninth British record, and the first twitchable individual bird. 

After more looks as this understated but attractive thrush as it moved around the south-west corner of the site, we decamped back to the car and London – a little more than four hours door-to-door (and 43 years to get it onto my Western Palearctic list).

Watch my short video of the bird on YouTube.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Shrike in song

Have you ever heard the fast-paced song of Red-backed Shrike? This handsome male is quietly delivering its slightly incongruous yet rapid song, which in terms of performance and volume is rather more subsong-like, and apparently also seldom heard. I've come across it on a few previous occasions, but this time during a recent trip to Bulgaria was able to capture it in HD video using my Canon EOS 7D. Select 1080p to watch it at the highest-quality setting.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Balkan bonanza

The enigmatic Wallcreeper - a star bird on any trip, and possible at close range in Bulgaria.
Question: what’s the best birding destination in Europe? The answer partly depends on your perspective – the species you want to see, the kind of terrain you enjoy, climate considerations and so on. But in terms of diversity (for which read trip total) and also sheer numbers, right up there among the best is Bulgaria.

Scrub and woodland along the Black Sea coast can be dripping with migrant passerines in spring.
Male Red-backed Shrike, a species which occurs here in impressive numbers.
In late April I had the chance to get another taste of Balkan birding myself, and was not disappointed. Although our whistle-stop Bulgarian trip lasted just four nights, travelling from Sofia cross-country to the Black Sea and back via the Rhodope Mountains, it was more than enough to illustrate the superb birding on offer.

Pygmy and Great Cormorants near Burgas on the Black Sea. The former species is easy to see here.
Scenic Lake Mandra produced White-tailed Eagle and Ferruginous Duck among many other species.
Travelling with Lubomir Profirov, Bulgarian Rarities Committee member and Balkan field guide co-author, we covered some 1,500 km by road, in the process logging no fewer than 159 species – a high total in view of the amount of time in transit. The Black Sea coast provided an excellent spread of waterbirds and migrants, from Pygmy Cormorant, Great White Pelican and Marsh Sandpiper to European Roller, Red-throated Pipit and Lesser Grey Shrike, while in the steppe, hills and mountains we tracked down a healthy range of specialities, among them Calandra Lark, Crag Martin, Isabelline Wheatear, Rock Bunting and that utter gem of a bird, Wallcreeper. Raptors were a feature everywhere, from Red-footed Falcon and Long-legged Buzzard to Lesser Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles; we logged no fewer than 16 species.

Raptors were constantly in evidence in Bulgaria, including Lesser Spotted Eagle which was on the move in numbers.
This short trip was over too quickly, but the good news is I’ll be heading back again next year, co-leading a more comprehensive tour alongside Lubo. On a more leisurely itinerary, our aim will be to round up the great majority of available Balkan specialities, and also hit migration on the Black Sea flyway at the peak time. I’ll post more details of the itinerary soon, but if you want to register your interest early then please contact Gina Nichol at Sunrise Birding. In the meantime, this selection of images will give a flavour of Bulgaria’s top-notch birding.

Male Spanish Sparrow: this species can be found in numbers in spring and summer.
Majestic White Storks build nests in commanding positions on top of village pylons, and often have an entourage of Spanish and House Sparrows occupying the 'basement'.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Arctic Tern video

Thursday's first-ever Arctic Tern on my Alexandra Park patch provided an impromptu opportunity to test video mode on Canon's SX40 HS camera. I don't shoot video often but when I do it is usually with a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 7D and prime telephoto lens. Although the SX40 HS boasts 1080p HD video, clearly the results from a handheld bridge camera will be different - though, in the event, I think acceptable. I edited three segments together for this sequence using YouTube's basic online video editor, which as far as I can see unfortunately doesn't allow any frame-cropping; to compensate for the small image of the tern, play it back in full-screen mode, and at high resolution. By way of more sample footage, the Green Woodpecker footage below was shot with the same camera at the same location the following day, and also edited online.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Another week, another patch first

Arctic Tern at Alexandra Park this morning: the first-ever site record.
Spring finally uncorked itself in London this week, a flood of migrants pouring in since the weekend and - initially at least - in unprecedented numbers. The closest of my two London patches, Alexandra Park, benefited big time in the form of a fall of Northern Wheatears four days ago, anything between 10 and 30 birds moving through during the day. I wasn't able to get there then, but I resolved this morning to put in an hour and a half before heading into the Birdwatch office. I'm glad I did.

Note the pattern and translucence of the primaries on the upperwing (above) and underwing (below).
Initially unpromising, with just the current crop of migrant Common Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps barely audible over the clatter of building work and a freshening south-westerly wind, I gave up the scrub as a lost cause and headed for the reservoir on the east side. A quick scan  revealed a tern among a few Black-headed Gulls towards the far bank, and I expected it to be our first Common Tern of the year - they are regular in spring and again from late summer. But immediately this individual rang alarm bells.

The jizz of the bird felt wrong for Common, its shape with relatively compact head and bill, 'forward-placed' wings and long rear all pointing to Arctic Tern, as did its buoyant, graceful flight. A closer look at the wing pattern was the only other evidence I needed, a long, narrow dark trailing edge to the often translucently white primaries confirming the identification.

On London's large, deep-water reservoirs in the main river valleys, Arctic Tern is more expected in spring. But here in suburban north London, on this relatively tiny water body, it is exceptional - there are no previous records. So I immediately rang around the park regulars, left voicemails and sent texts, and before too long the bird was also seen by David Callahan, Gareth Richards, Gabriel Jaime and Alan Gibson. I found it at 08:03 and it must have just arrived, as Bob Watts checked the reservoir on his normal early circuit some 30 minutes or so previously. It stayed until 09:21, when Gaz and Gabriel watched it head off east. It was the 177th bird species recorded in Alexandra Park and the third new addition to the list this year, after my Great White Egret in February and Bob's Slavonian Grebe last week. No new species were added in 2012, so we are well ahead of target!

The Arctic Tern with a second-calendar-year Black-headed Gull for direct comparison.
My Canon EOS 7D is currently in for service, so for these record shots I experimented with a Canon SX40 HS, a superzoom that I reviewed for Birdwatch last year. A dip-feeding tern in strong winds against variably glaring water, dark banks and bright sky was a good test for this model, flagging up the differences between a high-spec DSLR and a bridge camera. As record shots they are acceptable in confirming the identification, the camera just about coping with fast-changing lighting situations and the rapid, erratic movement of the bird - in normal field conditions, it performs much better. I've cropped these images and adjusted the levels a little in Photoshop, but left them unsharpened to avoid introducing more 'noise' (texture might actually be a better description). I also shot some short video sequences, and will aim to post one tomorrow to see how good the HD output from this camera looks.


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