Monday 16 December 2019

Caspian Gull, Snaresbrook, London, December 2019

Best raptor species in the world? It's a tie between (Western) Osprey and (Northern) Goshawk.

Best gull species in the world? It's also a tie, this time between Sabine's Gull and Caspian Gull.

Why Sabine's Gull?

No reply necessary, just have a look at that plumage?

Ok, they look more stunning in real life than a scanned grainy image of a photo, the olde worlde equivalent of today's boc photo!  - Farmoor Res, Oxon Aug 2001.

Why Caspian Gull?

No longer a mythical species, but they can be tricky to pick out of a gathering of gulls no matter how experienced the birder. 

  • Firstly, is the gull you're looking at a Caspian Gull, or do you just want it to be a Caspian Gull? We've all made that judgement call.
  • Then when we think you've nailed it, is the individual a pure Caspian Gull, or with Herring Gull genes? A colour-ring on its leg from the continent may help with such head-scratching (the birder that is) individuals.
  • Can they vary in appearance like the Herring Gull complex. Some may say they are just another member of the Herring Gull complex.
  • Some birders say they are easier to identify in immature plumage, is that really true?
  • One question we can all agree on the answer to is, are we still learning? Always!
I've mentioned previously that because I seldom see this species, every encounter is like seeing this taxon for the first time. This understanding can be helped by having the chance to see and study returning individuals, just like the Eagle Pond, Snaresbrook, London bird, now in adult plumage. The photos below are of it on 01 December 2019 a week or so after it returned to this urban pond.

It was tolerant of the Black-headed Gulls but not too friendly towards Herring Gulls. It chased a similarly aged Herring Gull around in flight over the pond, when they both banked you could see the subtle difference in the shade of grey of the upperwing. The Caspian Gull being a shade darker than Herring Gull, though not as dark grey/blue toned of a Yellow-legged Gull.

More photos of the Caspian Gull at 'Latest UK Bird Photos'

Video footage of this gull from 01 December 2019 uploaded at my 'YouTube Channel -2019 Playlist'

Saturday 23 November 2019

Birding Blog Update Oct/Nov - or a wintering Finsch, wandering Pink-feet and waders in for the winter

Rainham Marshes RSPB, London - November 2019
Early to mid November and much needed water on the reserve making the site a haven for wintering duck. Whistling Wigeon, calling Teal and the quiet Pintail present for the season. Buzzards are now to be expected and Marsh Harriers spook the duck and Lapwings. Of the waders in the area about 700 Dunlin to be found on the Thames shore, their presence a bit erratic due to a wealth of feeding opportunity along the river and the state of the tide. Up to 500 Black-tailed Godwits find the reserve's Target and Aveley Pools sanctuary at high tide with Curlew present, several commuting between the Thames shore and the winter flash. A flock of about 30 Avocets could be in for the winter. A lone (the same?) Brent Goose seen on a couple of visits, they always give the impression of not sure what to do next once having flown around Aveley Bay. Passerines on site include wintering Stonechat and a cracking Firecrest on the woodland edge mid month. Barn Owl hunting the marsh late afternoon mid month.

Barnsley Moors - October 2019
Despite the rain and generally leaden skies a couple of visits saw Buzzards airborne and Sparrowhawks and Kestrel hunting the moorland edge. No obvious Crossbills as present earlier in the year, no doubt they will be wandering around the woodlands that cloak the reservoirs on the South Yorkshire moorland edge. A few Bramblings noted at a couple of sites, could it be a Brambling winter, or will they move through? Characteristic of this area are groups of Fieldfare looking for food. Nice views of one flock of about 500 Fieldfares that hosted several Redwings. One morning, and before the fog rolled in, turning into low cloud cover, 3 skeins of Pink-footed Geese (170 + 150 + 95) flew quickly east over a moorland valley.

Still hoping for a 'Rough-legged' winter!

Cyprus - October 2019
A visit in mid October produced a nice variety of species. It was hot throughout but the afternoon breeze made birding comfortable. Raptors were a highlight, aren't they always! Young Eleonora's Falcons tussled with each other along the cliffs northeast of Akrotiri and nearby down on the peninsula Red-footed Falcons and Hobbies hawked insects over Akrotiri Marsh (Phassouri Reedbeds). In the north west the dry landscape about Evretou Dam saw 2 Goshawks move through, the local Long-legged Buzzards, keeping a close eye on them. Likewise a flock of terrified Woodpigeons. Greater Sandpipers had returned to Paphos Headland for the winter and the first returning Finsch's Wheatear played hide and seek at Anarita Park. Out east Oroklini Marsh glowed in the early evening light home to a roost of Cattle Egrets, Greater Flamingoes and hundreds of White Wagtails with a very good supporting cast including Spoonbills, Ferruginous Duck and Water Rail amongst others.

A full trip report can be found by clicking here.

Finsch's Wheatear - Anarita Park, Cyprus, October 2019

Brief video footage of this very smart wintering Wheatear up at Anarita Park in the hills to the north east of Paphos. A known wintering site. 

Please click here to view the YouTube clip.

Greater Sandplover - Paphos Headland, Cyprus, October 2019

Video footage of one of 2 birds present at the tip of the headland, footage taken during a very welcome rain shower.

Please click here to view the YouTube clip

Sunday 6 October 2019

Humpback Whale at Rainham Marshes RSPB

Who says looking at gulls is boring? On Saturday 05 October 2019 just before opening time from the river wall outside Rainham Marshes RSPB, London a scan across the far shore of the Thames saw several Yellow-legged Gulls on the mud amongst the commoner large gull species. Our view of the Larids was quickly interrupted as RB spotted a large mammal surfacing briefly. Was it Bob a local bull Grey Seal?

It surfaced again. It was long, dark and the body looked almost scaly in appearance or like it had a "tyre tread" texture. Almost like the tyre tread of say a dump/tipper truck. You can just about see this serrated edge in the first photo below. Within this view it then raised its tail flukes before diving, revealing splattered white undersides to the otherwise dark-edged flukes. It lowered the flukes at the same time as the lower body. A Whale sp.

It slowly headed down river being lost to view on the last submerge west of the Dartford crossing. We tried to get the message out asap for all to witness such a remarkable sight, including experts who could then pick up on the news to monitor its health.

Here are some photos of the Whale. I believe the third shows its tail-stock.

What about the birding?

A lot of movement just before opening time, again from the river wall. Bearded Tits on the move, a group of 6 looked like they could have got up from the southern end of the reserve and they left high, calling as they headed N/NE up the Mardyke. Meadow Pipits trickling through and a few Chaffinches over, House Martins noted moving high and a few Swallows as well. Aveley Bay held double figures of Avocets a lone Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff with Teal numbers on the increase. In a warm spell during the afternoon up to 4 Buzzards were in the sky over the reserve with at least 2 others moving through, and a couple of Sparrowhawks kept an eye on the Buteos. Almost forgot, around 10 Yellow-legged Gulls on the Thames shore and a Brent Goose did a u-turn over Aveley Bay and headed west mid morning.

Whale Update - Tue evening

On Sunday its identity was confirmed by observers along the Thames as a Humpback Whale and it's health was monitored since by interested expert parties. It was found to beach on Monday and sadly found dead off Greenhithe late on Tuesday. A very sad end to a beautiful creature.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

The Rare Passerines to the, the Rare Waders to the left...five. The Rare Waders have it, the Rare Waders have it!

Wednesday 18 September 2019 and the Long-billed Dowitcher was showing well on The Moat at Fairburn Ings RSPB, West Yorkshire. Difficult light conditions to photograph and video this rarity from North America. A Cetti's Warbler called and a Marsh Harrier circled a nearby Flash. Back home on the South Yorkshire moorlands a skein of about 70 early Pink-footed Geese flew east late afternoon.

Thursday 19 September 2019 and up on the South Yorkshire moorlands Meadow Pipits were moving west throughout the day, a small trickle, and possibly a few Buzzards over as well were not local. A family party of Stonechats were nice to see as was a Wheatear.

Friday 20 September 2019 and a twitch out west. First up the 2 moulting American Golden Plovers on a pool at Lunt Meadows to the east of Liverpool. They showed well despite being chased around the scrape by Lapwings. A Common Sandpiper and Ruff noted with several Buzzards in the area. A nice surprise was a calling Raven flying over.

Up the road near Southport a Red-necked Phalarope was spinning away in between roosting Black-tailed Godwits as viewed from Nel's hide at Marshside RSPB. Whilst feeding it was trying to avoid a Black-headed Gull determined to chase it around the pool. All of this to a cacophony of returning Pink-footed Geese, and perhaps the surreal sight of about a dozen Cattle Egrets walking amongst the resting 'Pink-feet'.

Blackpool Tower, a year tick, could be seen in the distance, and I was soon heading that way where on the outskirts of the seaside resort a Pectoral Sandpiper, presumably of Nearctic origin, was to be found feeding on the edge of the small flood by the car park at Blackpool Wake Park. It was spooked on one occasion flying around the site giving a distinct 'preet' call, before settling back down. Of note were 2 more Ravens that flew from a nearby building.

Saturday 21 September 2019 and birding out east at Spurn, East Yorkshire where a Red-breasted Flycatcher showed nicely in the trees at the back of the Crown and Anchor car park, Kilnsea. Not much else in the way if scarce or rare migrants. Saw several Stonechats in the nearby Triangle where a Yellow Wagtail flew south. Double figures of Mediterranean Gulls (equal spread of 1st winters, 2nd winters and adult winters), joined Black-headed Gulls following the plough in fields behind the South Bird Observatory building. A variety of waders present on the quickly receding tide at the Humber shore. Migrant Hawker dragonflies showed well as did a single Wall Brown butterfly on the riverside path in the Kilnsea Triangle.

Sunday 22 September 2019 and a quick look on the moorlands produced a variety of birds ahead of a front slowly encroaching from the south west despite showery, muggy and misty conditions. Jays were obvious this early in the autumn, perhaps indicating an irruption year from the continent this autumn? A twitch to Old Moor RSPB for a local patch tick in the form of 4 Mandarin Ducks at the Willow Pool.

More photos at Latest UK Bird Photos.

Tuesday 10 September 2019

BB Rarity

Quite a rare one at that, the Kynance Cove Brown Booby.

Here's my two penn'orth on Saturday pm sightings of the Brown Booby. It should actually be my £7.40 worth as it includes a tale of a bacon baguette, a mug of tea and indigestion.

Firstly, on site from before 6.30 am scanning the rocky outcrops and, unbeknown to most if not all on site, the assembled 30+ carloads of birders were not far enough to the west to be able to look back at the 'Booby's' roost site. No sign first thing of the rarity from the slope above the cafe. Loads of Manx Shearwaters moving by in search of feeding grounds out in the bay were nice to see. I picked out a Balearic Shearwater lazily flying by early morning, and throughout the day it would be possible to pick up a, or the same or a couple of Sooty Shearwaters amongst a pack of Manxies. I noted an Arctic Skua and a Bonxie early morning with one of the latter seen briefly mid afternoon. Back on land a couple of Peregrine sightings and a Buzzard flew by, but they could not compete for the wow factor won by the group of 7 Choughs that showed on and off as the morning warmed up. They were perhaps puzzled to see humans with tripods scattered across their perfect grass covered hillside. Viz-mig saw hirundines moving along the coast, mainly Swallows and House Martins with a single Sand Martin picked out. Grey Wagtails, Meadow Pipits and a few calling Tree Pipits added to the migration with a few Wheatears around and local Rock Pipits were easy to see.

The 2 pm sighting

Mid afternoon and will the rarity show? Time for lunch at the cafe in the Cove and as I was ordering the bacon baguette and mug of tea just around 2 pm I noticed folk 'high-fiving' outside the far window. As the scene outside the cafe was predominantly tourists with a few birders, and not knowing the people concerned, I thought it was simply friends greeting each other. Placed the order and went outside and a birder was beaming and explaining to a tourist of the Brown Booby, one of many such instances throughout the day. He saw me and asked if I had seen the Brown Booby, they had just had it fly in the bay at the south end of Kynance Cove but it was currently lost to view. A little confused, this soon turned to excitement of the sighting and I joined the 3 celebrating birders at the side of the cafe scoping without success to relocate the rare Sulid. I gently grilled the sighting, let's be honest don't we all on a bird of interest, and was impressed with the details. I believe they had alerted birders on the grassy bank near the cafe, at least one from the bank (or cafe?) got onto the Brown Booby. Patiently waited for the bird to show without luck, with only a bit of bacon butty indigestion to note. Therefore, time for a different approach, I joined the birders on the grassy bank north of the cafe scoping the far bay and it's headland to have a wider view looking back into the far bay as well.

The 4 pm sighting

Still focussed on the far headland I was lucky to be a couple of feet away from a birder who noted a dark 'Gannet' about the headland, mentioning that to the assembled mass.

I quickly got onto the bird as it moved right over the rocky outcrop leading away from the edge of the headland into the bay. Instead of continuing out to sea it then flew back left and towards us flying this way for quite a few seconds before turning away only to then to go behind the headland. It soon appeared again and did the same flight out and then back behind the headland. As the second pass was being made a shout of 'BOOBY!!!' broke the air from birders at the cafe, the guys who had the 2 pm sighting, one of them popped up and we exchanged gen. Basically, they had independently seen the same bird fly back and forth, the immature Brown Booby.

Over the period of its passes by I noted the following on scoping the bird at zoom, and present the details "without prejudice":

  • Flying over the rocks. Hooded appearance same tone as upper-wing contrasting with pale under-parts. This piqued my interest.

  • Turning to fly away. The upper-parts were brown, clear and distinct at range. The brown was vivid against a deep blue sky and this feature got me zooming in!

  • Banking to turn towards us. Shockingly white belly seen in perfect light conditions, contrasting with dark neck/breast. White on the belly extending beyond the axillaries onto the under-wing. Another key feature was the dark brown lining to both the leading and trailing edge which was very noticeable towards the join with the body. This colouration and pattern coupled with the brown upper-parts gave it a "Cory's" look. 

  • Flying towards us. Could briefly see a pale area to the gular patch / lower mandible area contrasting with the brown head and demarcated from a brown neck/breast band, the top of which seemed to look darker than the lower area of the band.

  • Flying towards us. Coming towards us at an angle the bill dominated the head, appearing to be a continuation of the head (cue comparisons with Whooper Swan and Caspian Gull) and put simply, looked like a cornet stuck on it! The bill was paler than the brown hood in neutral light. Moreover, whenever it turned its head and the sun caught the bill it glowed pale, a feature especially striking all the way along the top of the bill, and this 'highlighting' appeared to emphasise the magnitude of the bill.

  • Flight - not prolonged views to comment much on this, but it wasn't afraid of making a quick to change its path which helped to pick up the different features mentioned above.

In response to comment either heard in the field or seen on twitter:

Expected much celebration about the sightings - if you were down at the cafe at 2 pm, bacon butty ordering withstanding, you would have seen the joy of the finders. Have a look on twitter as the spotters describe the moment. A birder behind me at the 4 pm sighting proclaimed, 'That's a Brown Booby, I've seen zillions of Gannets, that's not a Gannet!'

No news put out - folk attempted but the signal was dreadful by the cafe and nearby. No suppression, nearby parties informed. This time of day saw birders scattered into loose groups covering vantage points up and down the Cove.

Whilst I always welcome debate, and folk have a right to offer opinion, words fail me when correspondents perhaps hundreds of miles away proclaim negative news acting as Judge, Jury and Executioner.

Late on, word was that it was seen from the headland of interest, in the bay to the south of Kynance Cove at 6.36 pm, i.e. the headland to which it appeared from mid-afternoon. Sorry, I don't know anymore details.

It was a day of being in the right place at the right time and importantly to seize the moment. Congratulations to the finders at the cafe, much respect! I was slightly gutted at 2 pm, but lucky at 4 pm.

Sunday 1 September 2019

Cabin Fever - a tale of a 'cream crown', a 'grey crown' and a 'white crown'

You cannot beat a bit of viz-migging and especially when raptors are involved. Many a time I've been lucky to witness cracking raptor passage in the autumn at Cape May, NJ, USA be it marvelling in the numbers involved or the buzz when a rarity is spotted such as a west coast Swainson's Hawk from way out west. Here in the UK we're arguably limited to opportunistic days on the coast at celebrated bird migration watchpoints, and without intending to be disingenuous, cannot match the famed raptor watchpoints found across the globe in terms of numbers and variety. But what about down the spine of the country? The north eastern edge of the Pennines is not the safest place for raptors as is well documented...

During the heatwave on Sunday 25 August 2019 we watched from the Cabin overlooking the Ewden Valley, South Yorkshire, to check out bird migration. First up were several Spotted Flycatchers and Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs on the walk out west, and before arriving at the Cabin a flock of 16 waders (15 Curlew and 1 Whimbrel) headed west with 20 Lesser Black-backed Gulls soon after crossing the moors. A steady stream of butterflies moving west up the valley were noted mainly Painted Ladies (50+) but several Red Admirals were also on the move.

Local Buzzards soon began to stir in the heat of the day and a passage juvenile Peregrine, perhaps seeing this habitat for the first time, exited stage left but not before sharing the sky with a Hobby. The smaller Falcon keeping a safe distance above the big wanderer. Interesting to see this behaviour play out. The Hobby relaxed soon after much to the displeasure of the Odes

Out to the east an all dark raptor appeared, its identity betrayed by its 'cream crown' that shone like a beacon, and also of having a long-ish tail. This Marsh Harrier was soon lost to view over an upland ridge but nevertheless scanning this area paid dividends as soon after a 'grey crown' raptor appeared. Noticeably lacking a dihedral profile the fact which grabbed our attention as it glided towards us before turning south, a turn revealing its distinctive tail, a Red Kite. Just after midday a gliding raptor picked up again down valley to the east had a distinctive flight profile, a shallow 'M', not disimilar to the Kite, but unlike the Red Kite it turned to reveal a gleaming 'white crown' contrasting against uniform dark brown upperparts. As it fanned its tail the dark and pale barring was visible at distance. A distinctive dark eye stripe broke an otherwise all white head. Birding Gold, an Osprey! This individual sported an obvious breast band, the bright white underparts and underwing coverts drew a "wow" from its audience as it flapped them into view before leaving to the south in a strong power glide.

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.