Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Early 2019 Birding - Bonaparte's Gull the headline act

January birding over 3 weekends at Rainham Marshes RSPB produced typical winter visitors including a nice build up of duck in their winter finery, nervous Lapwing flocks hosting a few Golden Plovers and a lone Ruff, and fly off at any moment Rock and Water Pipits which did just that along the Thames shore. A Brent Goose flew off the reserve heading towards the Dartford crossing mid month. Marsh Harriers showed very well throughout my visits and that rarity of the month, fine calm and sunny weather, saw the Harriers become more airborne on one visit. A couple of Peregrines, one a feisty juvenile that had yet to hone its hunting skills and the other, an adult staring menacingly at the occupants of the Target Pools from its pylon perch on the 3rd weekend visit. Of the waders the wintering Avocet flock continued to enjoy Aveley Bay and scattered groups of Black-tailed Godwits chatted away to each other when feeding on the exposed mud. Back over the river wall cryptic plumaged Common Snipe showed in big numbers along the edges of Purfleet Scrape but prolonged scans did not reveal any by the name of 'Jack', still time to connect with them here this winter.

It's winter 'gulling' season and from past experiences back home in Yorkshire an increase in Great Black-backed Gull numbers mid winter usually leads to sightings of the 'white winged gulls'. Particularly around mid January there was a noticeable increase in GBBs along this section of the Thames shore, compared with back in December. I came across a candidate white-winger that was hiding amongst its commoner gull friends on Wennington Marsh (19th). From first look surely it was an immature Iceland Gull, very white with small head and a fair primary projection. A closer study with the help of a few of the local birders soon suggested otherwise. The pure black bill, the extensive white upperparts without obvious flecking, still early in the 'gulling' season for it to be so white for what was perhaps a '1st winter' bird (dark eye). Also, was the obvious primary projection so obvious? Local knowledge was that a leucistic Herring Gull had been spotted and photographed a day or so ago in the area and the thinking was that this was the same bird. Nevertheless, an educating 'Larid', grainy record photo below of it in flight when it looked chunky. A shame it didn't stick around for a longer study.



Waxwings are annual winter visitors in varying numbers to these shores, their smart crested appearance gives them a look like no other species found in GB, and they prove to be of interest to birders and non-birders alike. Whilst birders await an irruption year, this is not such a year, but any sighting is always nice. One in central London just east of Euston station was hanging around a single Rowan tree whose berries were coveted by Blackbirds and wandering Redwings alike. Connected first thing one morning a couple days or so before the tree was stripped of its fruit.

Bonaparte's Gull, on appearance could be described as the North American equivalent of our familiar Black-headed Gull. A scarce to rare visitor to the UK with new birds usually found in Spring with a bias to the west / south west. Several (east) sightings along the Thames over the last few years probably refer to a returning bird which then settles in at Oare Marshes in Kent during summer. News broke (20th Jan) of an adult winter found across the Thames from the Rainham Marshes area (directly opposite Coldharbour Point). Another fantastic spot by some of the capital's dedicated gull watchers. At the time I was across the river at Rainham Marshes RSPB having completed a WeBS count along the shore from near the Stone Barges to the RSPB centre. Soon back up river to Coldharbour Point but the sunlight and distance counted against me as the 100s if not into the 1000s of Black-headed Gulls flew around Erith Pier. No chance of spotting in such conditions.

The Bonaparte's Gull was seen throughout the following week so I was off to Erith the following Saturday (26th) from dawn to late afternoon. The fact that the gull apparently favoured high tides and such tides were in the hours of darkness that weekend, this resulted in a no show all day to all comers. Literally 1000s of Black-headed Gulls were seen and a 2nd winter Yellow-legged Gull was present in the morning. An adult Mediterranean Gull sporting a partial black hood joined a flotilla of Black-headed Gulls as the tide finally began to rise late afternoon. Highlight was the Morrisons all day breakfast that showed very well but briefly just inland of the pier late morning.

I thought that was that, but then the Bonaparte's Gull was seen at around high tide the following Thursday, I believe this was the first sighting of the week. No news on the Friday after overnight snow continuing as a wintry mix in and around London the following morning, would the bird have moved on? Nevertheless, I was back at Erith Saturday morning (2nd Feb), this time the Morrisons breakfast showed well around 0900. Soon back on the pier in a biting cold northerly wind, but at least it was dry and part sunny. The first sortie of about 20 Black-headed Gulls came in and a quick check of the bills went something like, "red, red, red, red, red, black, red, red." Hang on a minute back onto the 'black-billed' gull, its pink legs stood out as did the white underwing at the 'hand'. It was in! Quickly noted the other features including the grey neck markings, the size and shape of the bill and the overall 3/4 size build of a Black-headed Gull when it was swimming on the Thames alongside it's commoner friends. It was bitingly cold and it took an age to tweet out the sighting. The bird continued to show well for the next hour then became a little bit more elusive up to leaving at 1200. It looked like all visiting birders caught up with this Nearctic visitor in the morning.

I took a lot of photos and videos of the Bonaparte's Gull and also spent time studying it, especially in flight... the gull not me!

  • At most angles it was difficult to pick out in flight at such close quarters amongst the Black-headed Gulls, but on occasion it would stop in flight and drop to the surface like a Little Gull or Tern, sometimes dropping its feet and looking like a Petrel.

  • At other times it looked smaller in flight but then was soon lost in the melee of the comparator Black-headed Gulls. When swimming on water it's diminutive size was clearly visible.

  • It called on occasion early on, I believe a feature that led to the bird being found a couple of Sundays earlier. A distinct short 'keek', higher pitched than the constant squawking of the Black-headed Gulls, almost goose like, and a sort of call that makes you wonder, 'What is that?'

  • A distinct feature of this bird was a slightly protruding central tail feather, a wannabe Ross's Gull.

If this was the same bird I saw a few miles up river at Crossness back on 06 July 2013, the weather conditions were now so different, as in July 2013 it was an unbearable 30C, a sharp contrast to the finger numbing -2C windchill greeting gull watchers on Saturday 2nd February 2019.

In years to come the person in charge of managing bread stocks at the local Morrisons will note a spike in sales of the white slice saver loaf back in late Jan / early Feb 2019. Some will interpret this anomaly as evidence of stockpiling for Brexit, but we know different. A 'B-word' was involved, but a different one...

A selection of photos below, more at the 'Latest UK Bird Photos' page. Please enjoy.














Monday, 7 January 2019

End of Year Birding

Winter birding at Rainham Marshes RSPB is focussed on the replenished pools and any movement along the Thames. The gathering of whistling Wigeon and elegant Pintail joining many noisy Teal are some of many duck species that visit the site found just inland of the Dartford crossing to the east of London. It's easy to take the winter spectacle for granted at this well watched RSPB reserve. The rising tide force waders either onto the marsh or up river to known roosts on a daily basis with such protagonists include Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Redshank. Avocets being the exception as a small group of 20 or 30 have different ideas and it is comical to see them swimming out the tide in the relative shelter of Aveley Bay instead of jumping over the river wall onto Purfleet Scrape or one of the other pools. Lapwing numbers are building up and the occasional Ruff and Golden Plover are found amongst them. A group of '17 'Goldies' present before Christmas was noteworthy, hope they linger and increase. This may paint an idyllic scene but the peace is usually shattered by raptors in particular Sparrowhawks and Peregrines patrolling the marsh. An immature Peregrine has caused panic within the inhabitants of Aveley Pools, when it is not busy tormenting one of the several Marsh Harriers to be found on site. A couple of Buzzards tend to mind their own business as do Kestrels. Speaking of which an absence of a cold snap to date means they are not competing with this season's wintering Short-eared Owls for rodent prey along the river wall. These disagreements do look spectacular when seen previously, but could be a matter of survival for the Owl or Falcon in such cold weather. No rarities seen on or passing through the site in my end of year visits, but a Brent Goose in Aveley Bay was noted and of the gulls I've only come across 2 or 3 Yellow-legged Gulls, away from the common five, but a candidate LBB x Herring Gull hybrid was a bit of a head-scratcher.





Elsewhere in London a Peregrine watched the public along the South Bank from top of the Tate Modern as the year drew to a close, and it's now not unusual to see Red Kites drifting over gardens in the NW of the capital.


Back home to Yorkshire over Xmas taking the indirect route of the North Norfolk Coast. These expansive salt marshes held hunting Hen Harriers, including a 'grey ghost' as our North American birding friends like to refer to the nearctic equivalent. Red Kite is now a regular sight here alongside the more common Buzzards and Marsh Harriers. The fields and marshes joining Burnham Overy with Holkham were full of Pink-footed and Brent Geese although, but perhaps the 50 or so Barnacle Geese also present had probably never been to Spitsbergen?

Finally back home and the moorlands remained magical. Buzzards are less numerous and less active in the uplands than in warmer months, but several lingered. Ravens were more noticeable and a a couple of pairs reinforced bonds by 'tumbling' regularly on their sorties. Also looking skyward skeins of Pink-footed Geese were a regular sight crossing the Pennines but in no clear pattern. Some days small groups headed west, the others either out east or north. Crossbills moved locally between moorland plantations that typically cloak hidden reservoirs, and towards the end of the stay at least two males were singing at a couple of sites. Only connected with a single Brambling flying over a moorland Beck, whereas Siskin and Redpolls were more noticeable moving around the uplands. The feeders at Broomhead Reservoir were packed with Coal T and other woodland visitors. The once in a lifetime sighting of the group of Two-barred Crossbills is now over 5 years ago. I still remember that distinctive trumpet call as well as the fast Redpoll-like chatter. I still listen out for them in ridiculous hope of them reappearing, but failing that here's a photo from Memory Lane... adjacent to Rushy Lane!


Don't worry - from 2013!




A couple of visits to South Gare just beyond Redcar and on the 2nd attempt connected with the winter plumaged Black Guillemot as it swam and fed close inshore (Yorkshire-side). Not going to get into a debate on political boundaries but from a birding perspective to follow the old Vice Counties, namely VC62 (North-east Yorkshire) this became Yorkshire tick No. 339 (337 BOURC). Guillemot present nearby and the Tees mouth also held both single Common and Velvet Scoters, a handful of Eider and Red-throated Divers. The beach in the seaward side yielded a flock of Snow Buntings (28) and a dozen or so Twites occasionally joined a similar sized group of Linnets.





Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Cyprus Birding Trip Report - Oct/Nov 2018

Just under 100 species seen in Cyprus in a week at the end of October / early November 2018. A nice variety with some wintering specialities namely Finsch's Wheatear, Moustached Warbler and Armenian Gull. Was lucky to twitch a big rarity - Red-fronted Serin near Larnaca. The weather was good throughout, dry with temperatures mid to high 20s (degrees C) but comfortable, even though the constant NE wind was a bit nagging.

A good birding community on the island and thanks to all who helped me out whilst birding there and for feedback online since the trip, much appreciated.

To see the trip report please visit the tab at the top of the page: Birding Trip Reports - Other and it's the first pdf available at the Cyprus section. Enjoy.









Saturday, 10 November 2018

Cyprus Gulls (Lady's Mile) Oct/Nov 2018

A set of photos of Gulls present at the pools at the top end of Lady's Mile, on the Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus at the end of October / early November 2018.  

Several visits (29 and 31 Oct and 01 and 03 Nov) produced similar results, up to 2,000 Black-headed Gulls with a single Mediterranean Gull picked out of the flock on two visits (01 and 03 Nov) and at least 2 Slender-billed Gulls as well (01 Nov). Usually up to a dozen large Gulls were present, sometimes keeping themselves to themselves and other times mingling with the Black-headed Gulls. My interest was in these large Gulls.

Armenian Gull was at the back of my mind given the timing of the visit, i.e. the start of the winter Gulling season. I thought I would struggle to pick out Armenian Gulls from what I presumed to be more numerous Yellow-legged Gulls. Having never seen them in the field before, how distinctive are these winter visitors to the eastern Med? It transpired that most of these large Gulls were in fact Armenian Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls were particularly scarce at this location on these visits.


Armenian Gull Larus armenicus
A beautiful benign looking Gull, my first sighting of this taxon. The ring-bill of the adults/subadults, rounded head and dark eye and late wing moult were clearly noticeable. Even managed a few flight shots of one moulting adult / subadult.





























Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis
One adult photographed at this location. The bottom photograph alongside an Armenian Gull (left).







Mystery Gull
This brute had a striking black bill suggesting a young Gull, yet extensive grey upperwing on the closed wing suggested it being not so young? Smallish head, relatively feint and restricted neck streaking. What is it? Is this a big immature Yellow-legged Gull? The bill looks too? strong for Caspian Gull / influence?








Mediterranean Gull Ichthyaetus melanocephalus
A 1st winter was picked out of the throng of Black-headed Gulls. Lucky to get a clear phone-scoped image.










Slender-billed Gull Chroicocephalus genei
An elegant Gull, two shown here, they looked striking when they finally lifted their heads confirming their identity. The protruding front end as well as the pink tinged to the adult's underparts was a key feature in finding them when roosting amongst the many Black-headed Gulls.