Friday, 9 August 2019

Summer Gulling, having a Caspian blast

3 juvenile Caspian Gulls were present amongst several hundred large gulls on the rising tide (Thames) during the afternoon of Sunday 04 August 2019 around Erith Pier, London. Loafing (no pun intended) on the shore on the incoming tide and attracted by the sliced offerings from dedicated gull watchers most of the gulls on show were immatures. These included juv. Herring Gulls now present on the river with over 20 juv. Yellow-legged Gulls, some flying around like 'greased lightning' in a feeding melee. Several Lesser Black-backed Gulls added to the plumage conundrum and Black-headed Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls and the first Common Gulls of the autumn were noted, including a smart fresh juv. Common.

Arriving on site early afternoon and some of the country's top gull watchers were present, namely. The first 'Casp' had just flown in, a small dark plumaged bird that seemed to have an injured leg. It quickly relocated to the adjacent jetty where it was reluctant to move until forced to shift further up the jetty by the covering tide. Concerns were raised of its welfare, or was it just very tired, fresh in from the continent? Later it perked up and would compete with others for the loaves on offer. It stayed more or less with the gull flock throughout the rest of the watch. A second bigger bird flew in much later and stayed only for a short while, whereas the third bird seen shortly thereafter was again different to the other two and stayed to the close of play. All had distinct plumage traits of this taxon and varied in appearance such as their size (this would point to Bird 1 = female and Bird 2 = male) and in their state of post juvenile moult.

Probably seen around 40 Caspian Gulls in GB infrequently over the last 20 years, but this being only my second time of seeing juv. Caspian Gulls, the first was the aggressive youngster present back home at Ingbirchworth Res, South Yorkshire in July 2016, a German ringed bird from Brandenburg (yellow ring X215). Given my lack of frequent sightings of this species I'm till getting used to the features of this wonderful Larid, and I show the photos below without detailed analysis. However, I would like to draw the reader's attention to an excellent Birdguides article written by one of the observers (Josh J), an article focusing on the identification of juvenile Caspian Gulls. Whilst there are lots of top texts available on Caspian Gull identification I would like to think that the penny was starting to drop when reading this article on the train en route.

Summer Gulling, was certainly a blast! Tell me more, tell me did the scapulars and greater coverts look right? Tell me more, tell me more did the underwing look more or less white? 

What I will say concerning the identification of the birds on show is that in my humble opinion and not deviating from a 'happy path'- the tail, upperwing and scapular patterns on all three birds looked good from a recollection of the literature, and the underwing looked to be within tolerance. Looking at the structure, the different size and different state of moult of the three added to the fun (or stress) in naming such gulls. But simply, put all the above to one side, the most critical aspect in identifying immature large gulls will always lie with the observer's experience of the plumage and taxon. Enjoy.

Throughout the session the 3 'Casps' were called out as Bird #1, Bird #2 and Bird #3. Should we give familiar names, how about Sandy and Danny for the first two?

Caspian Gull (Bird #1)

Caspian Gull (Bird #2)

Caspian Gull (Bird #3)

Yellow-legged Gull

With thanks to the help from all birders on site with the gull ids throughout, much appreciated. More photos at Latest UK Bird Photos.

For excellent images of the Caspian Gulls present please see the twitter feeds of Rich B, Dante S and Josh J plus the blog post from Josh.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

The Birding Year continues - Spring into Summer

May Day Bank Holiday

A bit of twitching in unseasonably cold weather. On Saturday 4th May saw the half a dozen White-winged Black Terns picking at the surf of Abberton Res., Essex in a strong northerly. An hour or so later and in more sheltered south east Suffolk, the adult male Red-footed Falcon hunted from the landing lights of the old airfield at Rendlesham Forest. A Woodlark was atop a neighbouring light. Also my first Hobby of the year gave even better looks as it flew overhead ahead of a rain shower. Driving west through the Suffolk countryside mid pm towards Cambridgeshire to twitch the drake Baikal Teal at March Farmers the outside thermometer went as low as 4.5C, a little bit parky for the time of year. The drake showed at distance as viewed in a biting wind from the flood bank. It was good to bump into Nick O, a birding pal from back at Uni.

Red-footed Falcon

Then headed back home to Yorkshire and with my dad twitched the Iberian Chiffchaff and Ferruginous Duck at South Kirby the following day The former just outside and the latter just inside the Barnsley Area... wish they had switched places! The Iberian Chiffchaff performed very well, nice to hear its two song types the characteristic one ending with a rattle and another, perhaps a warm up, in the form of a harsh "chiff chiff chiff chiff chiff".

Iberian Chiffchaff

6 nights in Extremadura in mid May

Stunning scenery, hot weather and top birding, but where were the Montagu's Harriers? Many highlights, with the Trujillo Lesser Kestrels putting on a great show. One sighting of Honey Buzzard and nice views of Spanish Imperial Eagles plus other raptors. Good birding variety, not just raptors stealing the show.

More on this trip can be found by clicking here.

Honey Buzzard

Spring Bank Holiday

Always nice to get a tick on your lists. In calm sunny conditions twitched the Great Reed Warbler at Wintersett Res. with my dad early on the Saturday (25th May). The giant Acro. had now settled down into what would eventually be a few weeks stay, and was readily belting out the croaky song as we walked down the track from the Anglers Country Park car park. It showed reasonably well at the far edge of the reedbed. Yorkshire Area tick 338 (+ Fea's Petrel type and Isy Shrike type) and Barnsley Area tick 233.

Great Reed Warbler

Over this weekend along the South Yorkshire moorland edge we saw several raptors including passage Marsh Harrier and many Curlews were in the fields. Are the Redstarts  disappearing from the NE corner of the Peak District just like the Wood Warblers? On a happier note at 2pm on Spring Bank Holiday Monday (27th May) a raptor maintaing a shallow M-shaped wing profile started to circle Midhope Res., South Yorkshire. This profile ruled out the local Buzzards and grabbed my attention, scoped it and finally a passage Osprey. Got my dad and Stu G onto the bird and it then drifted off towards Ewden Heights.

A weekend in Germany

A long weekend visiting friends near Karlsruhe at the end of May / early June. Varied birding focussed in the Rhine Rift Valley with a trip to the Black Forest. The wetlands at Waghäusel were as rewarding as always with Purple Herons showing well at their nest 'towers' and Bluethroats giving their 2nd song of the season from their reedbed territories. Red-backed Shrikes present as well.

More details available by clicking here.

Red-backed Shrike

Late Spring/Early Summer

A couple of visits to Rainham Marshes RSPB, London in mid June, quiet summer birding as to be expected and the focus soon turned to dragonflies and butterflies. However, literally the first bird I saw on the Thames was a highlight, a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull feeding alongside Black-headed Gulls just off the river wall. Non bird highlights included sightings of Broad-bodied and Four-spot Chaser dragonflies and many butterfly species with notables being Green Hairstreak, Marbled White and Small Heath.

Mediterranean Gull

Marbled White

Back to the birds and there were, and perhaps surprisingly for the time of year, 1000+ large gulls about the landfill, most being Herring Gulls. On one visit in June they were spending their time either commuting between the southern slope of the landfill and the Thames to bathe. I could not pick out any Yellow-legged Gulls but a visit on the opposite side of the river to Erith Pier in early July produced this striking dark-eyed Herring Gull.

Herring Gull

Is it an Egret or Heron, Great White or simply Great?

However you may know the big white egret, be it as Great White Egret or simply Great Egret, and to confuse matters it is currently labelled scientifically as member of the Ardea (Heron) genus, it still has a wow factor where or whenever I see this species. I've been lucky to see them in the main over in NJ, USA and in western Europe, and connected with about 20 in GB to date, since twitching one in Leicestershire in July 1992.

I was lucky to find the one shown below whilst scanning the inner wetland from the Shooting Butts Hide at Rainham Marshes RSPB, London on a Sunday afternoon in late July. It seemed to fly in from nowhere. Two of these giants had been seen together at this site few days earlier, unsure if this was one of those birds, a new visitor, or perhaps a local bird that had been gin the area, on and very much off, over the last few years. The Little Egrets didn't appear to mind the company of the Great White Egret but a Grey Heron took a serious dislike to its Ardea relative.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

May 2019 - Extremadura and Sierra de Gredos

6 nights in Extremadura, Spain in mid May, 2019. This beautiful region in the centre of the Iberian peninsula offers a variety of habitat, be it plains of extensive grasslands and dehesa crossed by the occasional river carving out shallow valleys, a rocky ridge home to Monfragüe National Park plus scattered historic walled cities and towns. To the north the Sierra de Gredos mountain range on the border between Extremadura and Castile and León looks down on Monfragüe across a separating plain. These areas are well known for their birding opportunities, all are within a few hours reach of Madrid 250 km or so to the east of Trujillo. A summary of what this birding trip delivered in May 2019 follows.

For a full day by day trip report, please click here.

Trujillo and Cáceres Plains

Home to a regularly seen trio of Crested Larks, Corn Buntings and Calandra Larks found on this trip in decreasing intensity, with careful scrutiny revealing Short-toed Larks present. White Storks fed in good numbers out on the plains over which Black Kites, Booted and Short-toed Eagles hunted alongside patrolling Griffon Vultures. In lesser numbers, Eurasian Black/Monk/Cinereous Vultures, however you may know them, were seen. The song of Hoopoes provided the backdrop to most stops with the presence of Bee-eaters betrayed by their distinctive call. Spotless Starlings flocked throughout but Spanish Sparrows did so only towards the end of the trip. Rollers could be relied upon at a traditional site east of Cáceres where the only Great Bustards of the trip were seen. No Sandgrouse seen which was disappointing but Woodchat and Iberian Grey Shrikes could be counted upon perched along roadside fences, with packs of Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies moving through the dehesa in quick succession. These were some of the many highlights but the lack of Montagu's Harrier compared to years past was worrying. Monty certainly got a raw deal, just one 1st summer male sighted, were they moved on because of early season harvesting?

 Great Bustards

                                                          Iberian Grey Shrike

The Río Almonte valley south of Monroy was very birdy, offering a nice variety be it nesting Little Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper along the riverbed, secretive Hawfinch and Golden Oriole hiding in the trees along the valley bottom, Black Storks or wandering Griffon and Egyptian Vultures overhead alongside the 2 Eagle species mentioned above.

                                                                Black Stork


So who would play second fiddle to the masters of this National Park, the Spanish Imperial Eagles? You could argue the sighting of a smart Honey Buzzard looking tiny alongside a Griffon Vulture, a Golden Oriole breaking cover to take a dislike to a Black Kite, displaying Blue Rock Thrush or the Alpine Swift giving Crag and House Martins a flying lesson over the Tagus. But what about the Nightingales trying to out sing each other or the six Black Storks circling the Peña Falcon, where a Short-toed Eagle hovered from a ridiculous vertigo inducing height? This area offered a great variety of bird species from the small to the very big, there was always something to look at. The natural beauty of the River Tagus carving out its path was not to be forgotten.

Spanish Imperial Eagle


Sierra de Gredos (over in Castile and León)

Offering Alpine habitat and a respite from the heat of the plains (24C on the only visit, compared with 36C on the same day in Trujillo). Following the Gosney Guide to Finding Birds in Extremadura a walk south west from the Platforms towards Laguna Grande across Alpine Meadows and into the broom scrub. After a picnic stop this area eventually gave up its 'no spot' Bluethroat. Also, Ortolan Bunting and elusive Water Pipit seen, plus a chance encounter of a displaying male Rock Thrush. The Iberian Ibex allowed for photos, a few seen close but also up high on the most precarious mountain top tracks. At the car park Rock Bunting looked for scraps from the visitors and could be 'ticked' on arrival before getting out of the car.

Rock Bunting

Rock Thrush

The walk out from the Plataforma reminded me of the walk out from Mortimer Road up to the Ewden Cabin on the South Yorkshire moorlands, surely you can see the similarities?

Sierra de Gredos

Up to the Ewden cabin

You may argue that only one of these upland locations holds Bluethroat, Ortolan and Rock Buntings, Griffon Vultures, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and Iberian Ibex in the summer, but both Skylarks, Dunnock, Raven and Northern Wheatear can be seen at both localities. Ok, the very studious / pedantic reader may note that the latter has a different subspecies at each location.

The drive up to the Sierra from Trujillo doing a zigzag along the motorways was over a couple of hours, not the most direct route but easy driving. The plains separating the Sierra from Monfragüe was home to an amazing density of Black Kites, many gliding low over the motorway. En route every pylon seemed to have a nesting pair of White Storks, a sight very much repeated throughout Extremadura.


The walled city perched above the southern Extremadura plains home to a beautiful square (Plaza Mayor) with its nesting White Storks, 'fluty' Spotless Starlings and Common and Pallid Swifts tearing above the historic rooftops. Crag Martins flew by at a slower pace. The aerial avian delights also included a wandering Lesser Kestrel or two from the nearby bullring colony and a Black Kite causing panic among the Feral Pigeons in the early mornings. The historic city with its picturesque square and its medieval churches and convents attracted visitors and locals alike to take in such sites, including enjoying an evening meal eating out at many of the restaurants about the square. The Lesser Kestrels showed well at the bullring a gentle 15 minutes walk down from the Plaza Mayor, where it wasn't a surprise to have flyby Bee-eaters, Swallows, displaying Spotless Starlings, singing Serins and a glimpse a Booted Eagle whilst waiting for a Lesser Kestrel to give that sought after flight photograph. The variety of bird species encountered within this urban area just shows how rich the bird life continues to be in Trujillo, whose relative ease of access by car from Madrid to the east or Seville to the south offers an excellent base for birders visiting Extremadura.

 Lesser Kestrel

For a full day by day trip report, please click here.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Two beema or not two beema - that is the question!

Two beema, or not two beema, that is the question: not to forget those head scratching ones that are the Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail intergrades!

I don't know if Shakespeare was a birder, but if he had visited Cyprus in late March / early April he would have marvelled at the wonderful 'Yellow' Wagtails moving through. The grasslands at Paphos Headland, and links-like short grass cover found at Cape Drepanum, Timi Beach and Mandria held, at times, many feeding feldeggs. Their call edging towards that of Citrine Wagtail but not quite there.

Given the numbers, sometimes 200+ in a wandering flock, what else could be found amongst a wave of Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtails? Several elusive Blue-headed, one or two Grey-headed and many variable Black-headed 'intergrades' were often present, but how about Sykes's Yellow Wagtail?

A starting point to identification, namely looking at the plate showing the head patterns of male 'Yellow' Wagtails in the 'Collins Guide', together with my 'basic' interpretation -

  • Feldegg (Black-headed Wagtail) - uniform black head appearing to extend onto the nape, full yellow throat.
  • Flava (Blue-headed Wagtail) - blue head with a white supercilium, yellow throat with a hint of a white submoustachial stripe.
  • Thunbergi (Grey-headed Wagtail) - very dark blue/grey head with slightly darker ear coverts, and a hint of a white submoustachial stripe against a yellow throat.
  • Dombrowskii ('Black-headed intergrade') - dark blue/grey head with a striking white supercilium, yellow throat and a white chin.
  • Superciliaris ('Black-headed intergrade') - black headed with a striking white supercilium appearing broader behind the eye, and a yellow throat.
  • But is it that simple when it comes to intergrades? What about Xanthrophys ('Black-headed intergrade') - not shown in the 'Collins Guide' but from a web search, characterised with a yellow supercilium?
  • Beema (Sykes's Yellow Wagtail) - pale blue head with a white supercilium, extensive white on the ear coverts, white throat merging without a clear demarcation into yellow underparts.

Can all of the following photographed in Spring in Cyprus be identified to type?


Are these two wagtails examples of beema (Sykes's Yellow Wagtails)?

Wagtail #1, Timi Beach, Cyprus, April 2019 (x2)

                                       Wagtail #2, Akrotiri, Cyprus, April 2019 (x2)

Dombrowskii / Superciliaris / Xanthrophys 

Is it possible to separate the intergrades, or are the ones shown below best left as Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail intergrades?

                                                 Wagtail #3, Cape Drepanum, Cyprus, April 2016 (x5)

                                   Wagtail #4, Cape Drepanum, Cyprus, April 2016 (x1)

                                            Wagtail #5, Akrotiri, Cyprus, April 2019 (x1)

                                               Wagtail #6, Cyprus, March 2018 (x2)


Sadly the only photo I have of this type.

Grey-headed Wagtail, Timi Beach, Cyprus, April 2019 (x1)


A stunning taxon.

Black-headed Wagtail, Cyprus, April 2016 (x1)

                                  Black-headed Wagtail, Paphos Headland, Cyprus, April 2019 (x2)