Saturday, 22 February 2014

Double vision

Second-calendar-year Iceland Gull yesterday - a work of subtle beauty.
Reports of a 'juvenile' Iceland Gull at the stone barges on the Thames in east London in recent days led to queries as to whether it was a different bird to one seen previously in nearby Crayford. On 21st February I was able to spend the morning on my gull study site in the area, a private industrial facility, and I hoped there would be a chance it put in an appearance. Sure enough, at 08:20 I picked up a distant small white-winger, and a quick glance confirmed it was a second-calendar-year Iceland. I got record shots and footage of the bird, which didn't hang around for more than five minutes or so before moving on.

The Iceland Gull plays gooseberry while a pair of European Herring Gulls get in the mood.
Almost half an hour later I picked up the bird again - or so I thought. This time it showed better, and I was able to get decent images, three of which are reproduced here. Once again the bird was only on show for a few minutes and then it took off in the direction of the river.

On the move again. Note the smooth-toned underparts and beautifully marbled uppertail coverts and vent.
Little more than an hour later and it was back again in the same spot - just after it was reported by BirdGuides as sitting on the gantry at the stone barges at Rainham. This immediately prompted me to check my images, and interestingly the bird in the first of the three appearances, although distant, appears to have a mainly blackish bill, a small tinge of pink being largely confined to the base of the lower mandible. The bird which turned up thereafter, as these images show, has more extensive pink on the basal half of the bill, albeit rather dusky hued in tone; it also appears to be paler around the eye. An Iceland Gull has also been seen at Beddington in south London recently, and could easily be a commuter to or from the Thames. Two or three at the same London site on the same day is a rare event, but not unprecedented.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Gull excursion

This fourth-calendar-year Great Black-backed Gull, ringed on an island off Denmark, teamed up with local Great Black-backeds on the River Thames today - its furthest south 'recovery' point.
In a good morning at my gull study site on the Thames today, seven species included two different second-calendar-year Iceland Gulls (more on those in a separate post), two Yellow-legged Gulls (second- and third-calendar-year birds) and this well-travelled Great Black-backed Gull (above left), bearing a distinctive Norwegian ring. The great thing about the Norwegian Colour Ringing Scheme is that you can obtain an instant history when reporting details of one of its birds.

As its online history shows, JW933 visited eastern Britain in its first two winters, but was always reported from Suffolk and hadn't been seen as far south as the Thames before. Other Norwegian birds have, though, including this distinctive leucistic bird photographed last month further east along the river. Recording and reporting colour-ringed gulls is curiously addictive and rewarding on a personal level, but also important to help build up knowledge of where 'our' birds come from. A mixed flock of wintering gulls somewhere like the Thames may be largely comprised of common species, but more often than not they're a mix of local birds and migrants from elsewhere, something difficult to establish without the use of colour rings.

JW933's longest journey yet.

Monday, 17 February 2014

After the storm surge

Cley beach in Norfolk and its changing landscape, remodelled after December's storm surge.
I hadn’t been up to north Norfolk since the major storm surge in December, but had heard from friends living there how devastating the effect had been on the local landscape. Yesterday I paid brief visits to Cley and Salthouse, as well as my ‘away’ local patch of Kelling, and to the untrained eye the main visible impact appears largely confined to the narrow coastal strip along and behind the beach.

The beach shelter at Cley coastguards - no longer ideal for seawatching.
Here, immense quantities of the shingle ridge – previously the first and last line of defence against the sea – have been shifted, and presumably also lowered where the sea came through and flooded the marshes. Perhaps it's that invisible impact that will prove to be the worst, with saltwater inundation in one major storm-driven tide damaging the freshwater and brackish ecosystems that have been nurtured over many years on these reserves.

A section of boardwalk, presumably from the reserve at Cley NWT, now on accidental 'loan' to Kelling ...
... and no longer leading along the 'Autumn Trail' as advertised.
I was told the storm surge had completely obliterated the North Hide at Cley. I found what appeared to be part of it – and a section of boardwalk and a nature trail sign – about a mile and a half eastwards inland from the beach at Kelling! Needless to say it is no longer fit for purpose, even if two sections of boardwalk were impressively still joined together (quality NWT workmanship!). Here’s a few more images from the coast over the weekend:

Looking west from Cley coastguards to Blakeney Point.
Cattle pasture inland from the sea at Kelling, scoured out by the tide.
Most of this old pillbox at Kelling was submerged under shingle previously, but now it has walk-in access.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Park life

Couldn't resist a couple more images of our local Smew, which continues on the boating pond in Alexandra Park today - the first site record for 27 years. It can be showy too ...

... although on a mid-week lunchtime visit there was no sign, so I resorted to adding a few more images to my Common Gull portfolio.

Adult Common Gull, showing black on the outermost six primaries, with significant white mirrors on P10 and P9, white 'moons' on P6 and P5, and a complete black band on P5 (on some black extends to P4).
Third-calendar-year (left) and second-calendar-year (right) Common Gulls, showing the obvious differences in upperwing and tail patterns and leg colour between these ages.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Smews bulletin

Total. Utter. Mega. Yesterday's red-head Smew at Alexandra Park, north London - the first site record for 27 years.
Work has often kept me away from my local patches this winter. Too often. I am reminded of one of them every day, the offices of Birdwatch looking out west across the skyline of Alexandra Park in north London. I also live near the park, and happened to be working at home late yesterday afternoon while our central heating was being repaired. Just as well - with about 20 minutes of daylight left, my mobile rang with news from budding young birder, all-round-naturalist and photographer Henry Wyn-Jones of a Smew on the park's boating lake. If you knew the lake, and you knew Smew, then this is about as improbable as Environment Secretary Owen Patterson MP receiving a standing ovation in Somerset (or indeed anywhere). But I also know Henry, a sharp observer, so within two minutes was in the car with my camera and binoculars aiming to get there before while there was still light.

An anxious few moments followed when I arrived to see no bird or birder, but within a couple of minutes Henry and his mum Sarah appeared and pointed out the bird, which had just sailed into view at the west end of the lake. Stunning! A red-head, it showed perfectly at the back of the flock of wildfowl assembling as Sarah scattered some food, but kept a healthy distance and dived occasionally in search of more appropriate morsels. In more than 40 years I have never seen a Smew this well, nor ever on this patch - the last record in Alexandra Park was as long ago as 9th February 1987, making it rarer locally in recent years than the likes of Great Egret, Alpine Swift, Wryneck and Yellow-browed Warbler, the last of which have appeared more than once.

The light was fading fast so I only had time to take a handful of images at high ISO and slow shutter speeds, plus some short video clips. It was twitched after dark by park stalwarts Bob Watt, presumably by street lighting! Big thanks to Henry, who despite his youth has already demonstrated a natural talent for birdfinding and nature photography - see some of his excellent images here.

Congratulations to local youngster Henry Wyn-Jones for locating this rarity and putting out the news so quickly.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Norwegian tourist in London

Adult male European Herring Gull Larus argentatus - a southern Norwegian bird wintering in London.
On a visit to my gull study site in east London at the end of January, I saw this adult European Herring Gull with a colour ring from an unfamiliar scheme. A quick check online back home showed it to be from southern Norway. It was ringed near Mandal, Vest-Agder, on 25 May 2008 and has been seen in that area on no fewer than 23 subsequent occasions in the summer months. Two further resightings, both in winter, came on 24 November 2012 and 23 November 2013 from Pitsea, Essex, further east along the Thames. It's fascinating to think that this bird has appeared there on only two dates but almost exactly a year apart; it also makes you wonder where else it has wandered in winter, unobserved, in the 2,077 days since it was first ringed.

J0105 when it was ringed on 25 May 2008 in southern Norway - it was already then at least four years old.
Thanks to Nils Lorentzen for permission to use this photo.
Vest-Agder is within the breeding range of the Scandinavian subspecies argentatus, southern birds of which are said to move less than their northern counterparts in winter. The map below shows J0105's longest journey this winter, though of course it surely won't have travelled direct across the North Sea, instead probably moving south along the west coast of Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands before heading west to the Thames Estuary. Where next?


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