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'.

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