Friday, 30 September 2011

How many more Semi-p P's?

We all appreciate that these cryptic little things are under-recorded... with over 200 seen in the Azores, they're obviously getting to Britain and Ireland more frequently. With the recent bird at Ventry, Kerry, and a report of a possible in Gloucestershire (that doesn't appear to be one IMHO, despite its diminutive size) it's fair to say this species is 'dish of the season'. What's more, Birdwatch magazine whacked an article on Semi-P P identification in their latest issue.
Semi-P Plover Terceira May 2011 - typically, in all plumages, the dark lores are confined to where it meets the upper mandible. A nice meagre looking bill too.
Semi-P Plover Terceira May 2011 - and obvious, but less prominent wingbar than Ringed Plover. Look at that lovely round face and eye ring; semi-p's are real cuties!
All I can say is please, please don't let this article  provide us with the 'DCC syndrome' of a few winters ago all over again. What I mean is that the same magazine released an article on the identification of Double-crested Cormorant and then, hey presto - we were in for a winter of discontent... Alton Water, Prescot Reservoir and Chew Valley Lake.
Semi-P Plover Terceira, Sept 2009 - obvious yellow eye-ring with a short supercilium behind the eye.
 I'm no expert on the species, but I have found a couple on the Azores over the years and, when you've only got a few Ringed Plovers to search through and the odds are stacked on your side to find one, they're not all that tricky believe it or not - the call is diagnostic, but you can do them before that. Let's just get it right this year with Semi-p P's - the punks have started it off meticulously and nicely. Don't be the one to f*ck up all the good work.  You've been warned!
Semi-P Plover Terceira, Nov 2008 - this bird is just like the Dawlish bird was. A real retard (in terms of moult).
Semi-p Plover Terceira Nov 2008 - a real cute looking thing but look at the extensively orange base to the bill and the narrow breast band meets - Ringed Plovers show more of a 'dabbed oval' at the breast sides.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Wish you were here?

I certainly do. It's already kicked off on 'the rock' with a crack team of Scandinavians (including 2009 big hitter Olof Jonsson) there scouring Corvo. In the first two days, they've managed a rather nice 1st-winter male Dickcissel, a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron (yeah ok, they're pretty common this year!) and an Ovenbird. Not a bad start and just the beginning of another autumn on this ultimate vagrant trap of an island.

I've got 3 and a half weeks until I get back out there... but I lucked out with the Northern Flicker there last year, so hopefully some quality will stick around for 'teacher's week'. What's more, I wouldn't mind being in the position of whacking systems coming through in late October, and a load of yanks to find. One of the great things about going to Corvo late is you've pretty much got the island to yourself.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo Corvo October 2009
Indigo Bunting Corvo October 2010
Semipalmated Sandpiper Corvo September 2009

Monday, 26 September 2011

Mega south-east score

On Saturday night, a juvenile Pallid Harrier found by Chris Gibbard at Cliffe RSPB, Kent gave me a good excuse to venture slightly further out of London than normal. I picked John Archer up shortly after 7am, arriving at Cliffe a bit after 8am. As I'd faffed around getting petrol, we missed the bird leaving its roost area and spent an hour or so scanning the fields north of the 2nd viewing mound in vain. With high tide being mid morning, we bust a move to the Flamingo Pool to see what would come in while a few others headed off east towards Northward Hill to try and locate the harrier.

Ok, so it didn't take long after we'd split up to receive a text from Barry Wright saying that he'd refound the Pallid Harrier at Northward Hill. But, with distant views and John having seen one at Tacumshin a couple of weeks ago, we hung on in there at a rather birdless Flamingo Pool. We'd been told that the wader action often happened on, or shortly after high tide, so joining themany Avocet and single Dunlin it was nice to see a fresh juvenile Curlew Sandpiper and then a juvenile Spotted Redshank drop in. Not exactly the hordes of smalls we'd been hoping to scan through. But then - all of a sudden - whoosh; a load of Grey Plovers and smalls came in to join the party.

They whizzed around for a bit, before inconveniently ditching down to roost on the saltmarsh at the northeast end of the pool (distant from the footpath). However, a small number of Dunlin and Grey Plover settled down to feed in the closest area of the pool to where John and I were standing. At c.150m range, there in amongst the Dunlin were half a dozen smaller birds... juv Little Stint, juv Little Stint, juv Little Stint, juv Little Stint, juv Little Stint and then, hang on, a pretty obvious juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper!

Now I'm well-versed in Semi-p identiification having done so many Irish trips in recent years (and found the species too). But this is Kent, and this is the second county record and the first since I was 3 years old. It's not like Ireland either... you need a description (in Ireland, reliable observers - of which I am apparently one(!) - don't need to stoop so low as to provide a description of such a menial species) and you can't just get up close and personal to nail those close scap markings or get the semipalmations. This is shitty old Britain, where you'll get a warning from a nob jockey RSPB voluntary warden for getting too close to juvenile waders that wouldn't give a toss as they've never seen man before. But anyhow, we had to watch this cold-toned juvenile bird at distance as it fed lethargically with the Little Stints.

The bird was pretty pot-bellied, proportionately shorter-legged in fact than the Little Stints with a nice deep-based, slightly decurved bill that was longer and thicker tipped too. It was also a lot more chilled out in its feeding action too. The mantle and tertials were all concolourous grey, with slightly pale edgings and zero hint of any mantle braces or rufous edgings. The coldish brown/grey tones continued on the breast sides, with a bit of streaking in it too. Nicely darkened ear-coverts, dark crown and supercilium just made this bird one of those 'typical' Semi-p's (and I've seen and found some tricky ones, including one particularly warm toned bird on Corvo in September 2009). Anyway, back to today and after 15 mins of viewing the flock got disturbed and took flight to the main roost. Only a couple of the stints came back to the feeding area, and that was that for the Semi-p. A few other birders arrived but to no avail, with all the birds roosting in the saltmarsh. We moved on, seeing 4 Gannets on The Thames off Cliffe, and at Grain managed the dizzy heights of a single Wheatear amongst the chav scum...
Ian had found four Avocets at Cross Ness on the early morning tide, so we headed back into London to see what was on the ebbing tide late afternoon. Buoyed by a few reports from the West London reservoirs - including a flock of 30 Sandwich Terns - we arrived at the outfall off the golf centre. Immediately, there was a ghost of a tern in front of us and at the same time the Spot'shank style calls coming from the middle of the river quickly sealed a nice moulting adult Roseate Tern - a mega for London. It all became a bit bizarre though as we could sometimes hear it calling when it didn't seem to be there. And after a bit of head scratching, this was solved when it caught a fish and a 1st-winter got fed! I'd never really had any experience of 1st-winter Roseates, so this was a nice learning curve - it looked like a pale, subdued Common Tern, with that typical long-bodied appearance, slight flush and fairy-like flight action.That barred juvenile mantle had already been moulted through.

Spurred on by the haul of a Semi-p and a couple of Roseates, I managed to pick out a juvenile Garganey in amongst the Teal on the Thames foreshore before the light started to go and my hoovering chores back home beckoned.

Sunday was considerably better than Saturday when I gave Rotherhithe a go, with the joys of Inner London birding producing 'highs' in the form of a couple of Egyptian Geese in Southwark Park, a Little Grebe, a few Chiffchaffs and this repulsive creature...
Greylag x Canada Goose, Southwark Park

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Last Sunday in Clare...

I’d intended to write up last Sunday’s Irish events on Wednesday. However, after receiving a much appreciated call from the identifiers of the Weir Wood Long-toed Stint just as the school day ended, more important things took precedence and I managed to see this bird rather better than I’d expected. It’s been quite good value reading all the nonsense on the internet - inevitably by the usual suspects – though rather irritating at the same time. Nevertheless, it’s pretty criminal that this bird continued to be called a Temminck’s Stint for a whole week; even with distant car park views, it was evident that it was not this species due to a combination of size, structure, leg size and brightness of mantle. A tale of two stints... the Red-necked was a Little, the Temminck’s was a Long-toed. Who’d have thought it...
So, back to the task in hand, and to explain what happened last Sunday. With a total of at least 865 Sabine’s Gulls seen off the Bridges of Ross the day before, and all the seawatching I’ve done over the years there, it was really too good to turn down the chance of being there Sunday morning. It had been blowy overnight – still from the northwest – so much so I’d strategically parked my car by The Lighthouse Inn to sleep, as sleeping in the car park at the Bridges would have meant a rather rocky night. Anyway, to cut to the chase I got in one and a half hours of seawatching – not nearly enough  - but this produced Sabine’s Gulls at pretty much every scan (at least 40 in total including a nice flock of 7; adults and juveniles seen) as well as 4 juvenile Long-tailed Skuas (still an Irish rarity) and 2 Grey Phalaropes along with decent numbers of Bonxies, Arctic Skuas, Arctic Terns and Manx Shearwaters. Spray was a bit of an issue, with the foam party ensuing due to the swell and wind direction.
8 of the 9 Buff-b Sands at Loop Head (the 9th is just to the left and out of this photo!)
I headed straight up towards the lighthouse at Loop Head, after reminding Killian about ‘those’ Skuas off Graciosa earlier this year, forking right at ‘the barn’ – the famed accommodation that Franko and I had frequented for several years. I stomped around The Fodry, and after a single Golden Plover flew over and then ditched down, I was led to the ‘wader flock’ that comprised of 4 Golden Plover and 9 Buff-breasted Sandpipers (the remains of a record equalling flock of 15 there midweek). The bastard GPs were skittish, and this caused the BBS flock to get up and go too. So, like last weekend, those usual up close and personal BBS views eluded me. A couple of Lapland Buntings flew around as I headed back to the car, and Chough were as usual pretty common and nice to see.
Beady-eyed Borefinch, Loop Head
I drove back from the lighthouse towards Kilbaha, and Niall and his Dad – along with Brian Porter – flagged me down as they’d found a Common Rosefinch. Unbelievably in the same place as where James Hanlon, Adrian Webb and I found one whilst dipping a Rose-breasted Grosbeak back in October 2000 (though according to John Murphy – the main man of Clare – most have been found in this specific spot at Loop). Anyway, back to today, and after a short while the Rosefinch popped up in Walsh’s garden where I was able to take a couple of shots. There was also a Willow Warbler, and it was as pleasurable as always to have a look in Gibson’s Garden – nothing present, but nice to relive the Canada Warbler for the umpteenth time.
Good old smurf... being able to con Clare County Council into making this sign that's located by Keating's Pub, Kilbaha; love the Canada and Myrtle Warblers along with the REV and GW Teal!
The Clare sites along the coast from Loop Head as far north as Liscannor were pretty crap, with the ‘highlights’ being a first-winter Mediterranean Gull at Liscannor and 9 Curlew Sandpipers (4 at Liscannor and 5 at Kilcredaun Bay). I had a nice sleep for an hour at Quilty, which was well needed after the past 24 hours of pretty exciting birding, and headed – via a relatively birdless Lough Atedaun – back towards Shannon Airport. I had a look at the lagoon before I caught my flight, complaining with Owen Foley how high the water levels were (the only waders able to get onto it these days are Blackwits). But Owen found a Blue-winged Teal there last year, almost to the very day... so it was worth a look at the quackers for sure. And what happened this evening? Well, a Blue-winged Teal was present again and a nice way to end the trip (and a good one by Owen).
Curlew Sandpiper, Liscannor, Clare
And well done to JJ and Staines on their smashing Mayo trip this week where Semi-p’s were following them around like a bad smell. Plus some nice other yank wader finds – AGP, Spotted Sand,multiple Buff-b Sands, Pec and a R-n Phal. So this rounds off another Irish trip for now... September trips are blinding over there; you should give it a bash one day.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Yank haul in Mayo

After the previous weekend’s trip to Kerry with Karen, this time (Friday 16 to Sunday 18 September) it was a solo ‘rough’ mission to the wild west. County Mayo’s a place I’ve dabbled in now and again. With the exception of Dave Suddaby who produces the goods quite regularly, the rest of the county is criminally underwatched. JJ and I have done the odd scouting mission to other sites – with the pinnacle of my birding action being a (presumed) Fea’s Petrel and the odd Ring-necked Duck - but neither of us had ever hit it during prime conditions. To date, I’d never seen a single yank wader in the county.
So with a steady stream of yankage coming off remnant hurricanes, I got the ‘usual’ late Friday evening flight from Stansted to Shannon, hired a car and headed northwest – arriving at Doogort, Achill Island shortly before 2am. If I didn’t score on this trip, then that’d be it for me and Ireland during autumn 2011. What’s more – with much higher numbers of Buff-b’s, Pecs and Semi-p’s – it’d be a little embarrassing, as well as frustrating, to come back with nada.

I got up out of the car early doors, and immediately a brisk NW wind was bringing in the squall and waking me up. I had a walk along Doogort beach – a typically lovely deserted place – with just a few smalls to show, predominantly Sanderling. The machair just beyond and north of Achill Rovers was nice and flooded, but not a single bird. The tide was high and Sruhill Lough was too choppy with just a few RB Mergs bobbing about. No sign of the usual Black Duck , but I wasn’t going to hang around too long as the place looked poor for wader score. So I headed to the golf course at Keel, drove down to the beach at Trawmore and looked back towards the clubhouse...
The usual scan got a few smalls – Ringed Plovers – and then bang! Looking through the bins, there was an obvious yank; a whacking set of long wings and scalloped upperparts got me going for the scope straight away, pretty much confirming what I’d thought straight off – a quality juvenile Baird’s Sand. Happy days, and after grafting it out last weekend in Kerry with little reward I was content. Not just with the fact that it was a nice dose of adrenaline, but I’ve moaned on to a fair few people about Achill and its potential. So I drove onto the golf course in my car to get closer views, using the car as a mobile hide. It has to be said there weren’t many waders, but they were whizzing around a fair bit. After a couple of double takes, and a bit of pondering, it became evident there were in fact 2 Baird’s Sands – a decent moment when they both walked side-by-side. Not exactly a species that regularly gets multiple occurrences, and interesting to note the difference in bill length, prominence of lores and size in the two birds.
Baird's Sandpipers together, Achill Island, Mayo

Waders on the golf course (including a Baird's Sandpiper)

Baird's Sandpiper, Keel golf course, Achill Island

stony machair adjacent to the golf course at Keel - Baird's habitat
I had an enjoyable Ham Salad baguette nearby, and checked a few bushes at the west end of Dooagh and Keem. Given that a Black and White Warbler had just broken on Scilly, joining the Waterthrush, it wasn’t a bad shout but alas that mega crippling yank passerine needed to be saved for another day.
I spent the afternoon driving around Clew Bay, checking a few spots that I’d picked using maps and Google Earth. A couple of spots looked bang on the money, but one thing you need on your side at this extensive place is the tide. High tides and low tides are crap, so it’s Blennerville all over again – you probably only have half an hour before high tide at each spot to properly assess the score.
But the area west and southwest of Louisburgh has been a recent target of mine. Roonagh Lough isn’t bad, but this trip the water levels were too high and the wind was whacking straight through it. However, Corragaun Lough is a sheer delight. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it’s possibly one of the emerald isle’s best kept secrets. If you’ve ever been to Carrahane Strand or heard about the yankage that place gets, then a lot of it is down to location and habitat (obviously!). Corragaun is pretty much the same – a huge intertidal bay that filters birds in, nice flooded machair and saltmarsh as well as being slap bang on the west coast of Ireland. Problem is, the nearest active birder lives over an hour away... and on the infrequent visits that Dermot has made he’s already scored Citrine Wagtail and Buff-breasted Sand. So with the showers getting worse and the wind getting up, it felt pretty rare as I headed off and paddled through the stream.
Grey Phalarope Corragaun Lough, Mayo
First signs weren’t good as there was nothing on the saltmarsh, and after a load of trudging managed to find a few smalls towards the lough. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a juvenile moulting to first-winter Grey Phal dropped in front of me. It was gone in an instant though, moving off before the next rain shower. Plenty of smalls were near the lough itself and a quick scan produced something of interest – nice small bill, smaller size and greyish tones immediately had the White-rumped Sand warning signs out. And after losing it for a minute or so, the third yank of the day was found. A decent enough adult White-rumped Sandpiper. The bird was relatively skittish, in amongst the throng of Dunlin, but during a quick bit of rain it came pretty close and managed to get a few shots for the record. There were a few Curlew Sands too, as well as a bright juvenile Little Stint – no chance of whacking that one in as a Semi-p!
A soaked adult White-rumped Sand looking a bit pissed off with life, Corragaun Lough

Spot the White-rumped from the white rumps...
With news of serious haulage at The Bridges – including a record number of Sabine’s Gulls – it was time to change tact, head south and do a dawn seawatch there. After going through the rather sombre scenery of Mayo – including the Doolagh Valley that saw one of the worst tragedies of the Irish Potato Famine (always worth reading Lonely Planet before a trip!) – I settled on a typically average SuperMacs in Oughterard and then got to The Lighthouse in Kilbaha just in time to have a couple of jars of Guiness with Niall. Owen, Killian, Noel and Brian were pretty worn out with the day’s seawatching and sloped off to bed early.
Well done to JJ and Staines for pulling out a further 2 Semipalmated, a Pec and a Buff-breast today. The lads are there til Friday so should continue to do some damage.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Ruff justice

Ok, it's been a while since I posted. Reasons are varied - busy with the start of work, but also Rotherhithe has been dead. West winds kill those nice patch scarces that come along when the east wind blows.

But, and a BIG but, the west wind has blown. Remnant hurricanes have produced the usual line up of yank wader 'freshers' that line our west shores. We've had loads of Buff-breasts and Pecs - 8 Buff-breasts today on St.Mary's could possibly be the prelude to proving Roker Martin wrong? Or will - as is often the case - autumn die on it's arse? So often I (and we, collectively) get worked up by these early low pressure systems that rip across The Atlantic in the first 2-3 weeks of September. And, essentially, all it's given me in terms of pure gold is Purple Martin (though the recent St.Kilda Blackburnian Warbler would have done too). But I do love September, as there's nothing quite like a bit of fresh yankage. Eye-balling those lost waifs that have made it from The Arctic just a few weeks after hatching. For me, there's nothing quite like it.

American Golden Plover & Buff-b Sand, Carrahane Sept 2008
 So I spent the weekend just gone in Kerry once again. This county has treated me well over the last few years, and I gave it a good bashing once again. Karen was extremely patient as always, but I wasn't able to disguise my disgust that I didn't produce much in some of the most favourable conditions I've had while I've been out there. Yes, a couple of Buff-breasted Sands would be classed as a good day back in England, but the stakes are raised out west. Carrahane Strand seems to be second only to Tacumshin for these beauties, and it was pretty predictable that I'd see a couple of them. This weekend's birds were rather elusive, favouring the masses of Dunlin so it wasn't quite as easy to get a close approach as in some years - when I've had half a dozen of them running around my feet.
Buff-breasted Sands at Carrahane... to be expected in September
Carrahane Strand

I stayed in Tralee, a decent base to explore either Dingle or The Iveragh, and a better base for Carrahane, Black Rock and Blennerville. All places I've had success at in the past. And I opted for Dingle on both days - keep the faith is something I've said a lot of times about the place. You'll go there and there'll be very few waders about but the quality always strikes. So I kept the faith and scoured Ferriter's Cove, Smerwick Harbour, Ventry, Burnham Lagoon and Trabeg at varying tidal states. 5 non-descript waders flying in off the bay at Ventry should have been Buff-b's but the blighters were Ruff; and a further 2 Ruff were found roosting on the beach at Smerwick - only to be replaced by a juv Semipalmated Sandpiper the day after (yesterday), presumably courtesy of Katia.
Semipalmated Sandpiper, Ventry - back in the day
Baird's Sandpiper, Black Rock Strand - back in the day
Bring on next weekend!