Sunday, 26 June 2011

Summer in Rotherhithe

A beautiful day, if not a little quiet on the birding front. Although Black-headed Gulls are now back in town, after the usual few weeks of near-absence - over 200 on the Thames this evening, though no juveniles just yet.

Rotherhithe is the only site in Inner London where Common Terns breed, and they usually settle down a little later than less urban locations. Therefore, it was good to see the first of the year's chicks at Surrey Water yesterday - at least one pair also is still incubating.
Vocal Common Tern
Inner London's first Common Tern chick of 2011
A visit to Burgess Park also produced a pair of Egyptian Geese protecting their nest - it was none other than these two vocal birds, that I photographed in Southwark Park in March, that had settled down and were still just as loud and territorial today as they were three months ago. Although you can't see it on the top photo, the gander bears a metal ring on its right leg.

Egyptian Geese in Southwark Park, March 2011

Egyptian Geese nesting in Burgess Park, June 2011

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

June - the good times

I might be wrong (that German Long-toed Stint would be appreciated over here), but until the start of return wader passage in late July, we're now into the birding doldrums. So, time to have a quick look back at a few glory days in June...
Locally in London: -
Squacco Heron, Cross Ness, London, June 2007

And on a national scale, the month can produce some real quality birds - such as the first Citril Finch for Britain: -

 And a bit further away still...
An inquisitive Great Grey Owl chick in Finland, June 2008

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Another White-winged Scoter...

You wait an eternity, having previously toyed with the idea of a perhaps a glacial treat in Iceland supplemented by a scoter. And then, just like London buses, two come along at once. First it was the 'rhino from the east' in Ireland that exceeded all expectations - excellent views and distinctiveness all set against the spectacular scenery of The Iveragh peninsular in County Kerry.
drake Stejneger's Scoter, Rossbeigh, County Kerry March 2011
And then, almost like a compare and contrast exercise, along came the subdued deglandi that I saw yesterday in grim weather in Aberdeenshire. Rather ironic for the American not to be big and brash, but this young drake was a subtle, interesting bird. Fortunately, having driven through the night, I arrived in the grim hours at Murcar and immediately got onto it, watching it continually for 10-15 minutes at much better range and viewing conditions than I'd expected. Certainly the most subdued immature drake in the flock - a tepid bill colour, with a distinctive nasal protrusion (lacking the killer rhino-effect of the Stejneger's of course!) and some lovely brown flanks that contrasted well with the Velvet Scoters of similar age.
drake King Eider on the Ythan Estuary

The trip up north was supplemented by some excellent views (again in the rain) of a drake King Eider on the Ythan. Lovely to be back there, bringing back memories of the youthful excitement I had when I first went there with my Dad in April 1996.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

One shrike and you're out?

I'm currently trying to sort out some stuff for an article in one of the birding journals, and this is involving a bit of musing around the 'isabelline shrike' complex. Shrikes are one of my favourite families of birds - charasmatic and characterful, colourful and to boot they often show themselves rather well.

Over the last few years, through a fair number of trips to the Middle East, I've seen quite a lot of these birds; differing markedly in colour. Just have a look at these spring birds, both stonking birds at both ends of the extreme: -
male Turkestan Shrike (ssp. phoenicuroides)

male Daurian Shrike (ssp. isabellinus)
So, it's unfortunate that bar spring passage, Turkestan Shrikes are pretty hard to find and my winter trips have largely been full of Daurian Shrikes. So here are a couple of more subdued birds: -
check out the warmish tones to the underparts, pale base to the lower mandible with a relatively indistinct supercilium to what you would expect on a Turkestan Shrike.

A pretty typical looking 1st-winter Daurian Shrike, though some birds can show a fair bit more chevroning on the flanks with a nice placid brown tone to the upperparts and overall creamy warmth to the underparts.
And now for this bizarre creature, seen in April 2007: -
This bird is a bit battered, and has an extraordinarily contrasting tail that is deep in colour. It's short winged, with only a handful of primary tips exposed beyond the tertials. However, the centres of the primaries and the tertials are still pretty dark (even though the edges are cream). Presumably an extreme Daurian Shrike, perhaps coming from the east - recent research indicates a cline of Daurian into Chinese (ssp. arenarius - if this is a valid subspecies?)
Ok, and now it's time for bed.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A late spring evening



Northern Lapwing
What with all the rain today, the warm glow of yesterday evening seems a long time ago. It's not often that I get to go out of London these days (at least in this country!), so a Kent records committee meeting was an excellent excuse to reacquaint myself with the joys of the English countryside. The entrance track to Elmley RSPB was alive with bird activity - Yellow Wagtails, Marsh Harriers, as well as some rather territorial Oystercatchers and Lapwings.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

White-throated Robin

Old school mega
We've not been short of quality birds so far this year in Britain and Ireland, what with a drake Stejneger's Scoter frequenting the picturesque Iveragh peninsular and a Slaty-backed Gull surviving on the far less picturesque rubbish dumps of the Thames Estuary. I'm not turning my nose up at these two 'firsts', but there is something special about seconds and thirds. Probably the years of looking on forlornly through my childhood at those photos in Vinicombe's 'Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland' or those gripping finders' accounts in British Birds/Birding World.

Anyway, a Red-flanked Bluetail metamorphosed into one of Britain's most wanted - the third White-throated Robin, frequenting gardens and lovely manicured bowling greens in Hartlepool. A true old school, 'what dreams were made of' quality mega rarity. And it only cost me £18 to boot. Happy days.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Relaxing on the beach

This Great Northern Diver bizarrely decided to haul itself out of the water each night and sleep on the beach at Praia da Vitoria. It was ridiculously approachable, so much so that unfortunately meant it probably wasn't too great health wise. Earlier in the winter, when it first turned up, it was slightly oiled. However, when it did finally decide to go for a swim (it often couldn't be found during the day), it gave a quick flap of its wings and was seen to be in extremely heavy wing moult and unlikely to be able to fly. Anyway, a fantastic bird and a real bonus to see close up - particularly when it eye-balled me!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

When is a Bonxie not a Bonxie?

Skua headache...

It has been a manic few days, and my head is frazzled. Largely due to research into skuas, formerly of the catharacta variety. Firstly, it was (and still is) the task of trying to work out how many individuals were involved through photos taken and then secondly, the major task of trying to age these birds.

To put it simply, last week on Graciosa during the pelagic trips, at least three (possibly more?) of these bully boys were seen hassling the local gull and tern populations. And what I've worked out so far is: -
- juveniles (2nd calendar years) and adults are potentially do-able on moult (at least assignable to 'southern skua sp.')
- 3rd calendar year birds are not understood fully in terms of moult strategy, so are not do-able

Think about the decent nick of Bonxies on Shetland right at this moment in time - they are breeding birds in decent primary/secondary plumage. Adult 'southern skuas' breed later (in our autumn/early winter) so are now pretty screwed and in active wing moult.

A young Bonxie born in 2010 will have an earlier birthday than its 'southern skua' counterpart, probably by 4-5 months. So our northern hemisphere babies will be in a stage of moult, perhaps having even replaced all of their juvenile primaries and secondaries. Our fresh-faced southern boys/girls will be much fresher, and should still have retained juvenile feathers or at worst, be just started to moult. So here are a couple of birds to get us started.

Bird 1

This bird is presumably a juvenile that has gone through one wing moult cycle. P10 is a retained (presumably first generation?) feather while P1-P9 are newly moulted. Being so advanced in its moult cycle presumably means this is a Great Skua, as post-juvenile flight feather moult starts in March-April (as the body moult is completed) and is completed in June-late August, taking 150-180 days’. This advanced moult sequence, presuming it is indeed a juvenile, would rule out the southern hemisphere Skuas as they would not be as advanced as this bird (they would have been born later). The rather plain, concolourous upperwing-coverts also suggest a 2nd calendar year bird.

Bird 2

Presumably not a 2nd calendar year bird based on the state of plumage – two generations of ‘blotching’ in the upperwing-coverts, scapulars and mantle heavily ‘blotched’ – and bill all dark, as well as heckling on the nape (per In active wing moult – P8-10 retained (P6-P7) re-growing. The bird did not appear capped in appearance, once again suggesting a bird older than its 2nd calendar year – post juvenile moult strategies are not fully understood in both southern and northern Skuas, so here perhaps here lies the issue? If this bird is an adult, Falkland and lonnbergi Brown Skuas commence moult in February to April, completing in June-August per Malling Olsen & Larsson 1997. Also note the colouration of the two newly moulted central tail feathers.

Here's a similar take on this tricky situation by Peter Alfrey and some more shots at by Gareth Knass at

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The dangers of chumming

Monteiro's Storm-petrel
For sure, we all want to see birds well. And on Graciosa, Azores, I was treated to the best views you could imagine of both Monteiro's Storm-petrels and Wilson's Storm-petrels. Note the freshness of the primaries and secondaries on this bird (the warm season breeder) - although it's not got the best of forked tails for a Monteiro's Storm-petrel, you can rule out adult Grant's Storm-petrel (the cold season breeder) as they will be in heavy wing moult. Can you safely rule out a juvenile Grant's Storm-petrel though?

However, to get these views of petrels was not without sacrifice... as I write this, the clothes that I'm wearing are currently on their second (long) wash at 50 degrees. We had to prepare all the chum (including 45kg of rotten fish) ourselves, and my role for the week became the chum-master general while out at sea.

Note my binoculars precariously placed
Yep, they ended up in the chum after a few bouncy waves. A world first?
Temporary home for my binoculars

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Flying without wings

This will be the first of several posts based on the excellent pelagics off Graciosa, Azores, this week. Wilson's Petrels are obviously a southern oceans breeding species, so it is no wonder given their breeding cycle to see birds in heavy wing moult. There were, of course, a couple of juvenile birds - really interesting to see how fresh they were in comparison to the adults (all photos here are of adults). There were a total of 12-15 Wilson's Petrels seen, all together feeding on our chum slick 18 miles southeast of Graciosa, in an area of shallow water (300 metres depth).

Friday, 3 June 2011

Back on land after a few days at sea...

Back on Terceira after a few days on Graciosa (where there was little internet access). Plenty more to come over the following days, but the shot above show one of the Western Palearctic's rarest birds - Monteiro's Petrel, or the 'warm season' Madeiran Petrel in the Azores. Other highlights have included some wing-moulting skuas, 12-15 Wilson's Petrels and a Rough-legged Buzzard/Hawk.