Sunday, 22 October 2017

Shetland - starting the late shift

I decided to give Shetland a go during this half-term break, just like I did last year where I had some success (which I never got round to writing up!). I really was in between coming here or giving SW Ireland a blast what with Storm Brian having just hit. And of course, having done Corvo from 2009 to 2015, there was always that as well to consider within my week slot. But despite it being rammed full of yanks out there, I've come to the conclusion that 5 days on the island really isn't enough while getting caught out over there by birds in Britain (Eastern Crowned Warbler x2 and Chestnut Bunting) really isn't very pleasant. So that is why I am sitting writing up the last couple of days here in Lerwick!

I really wished there were more people opting for the late show here because with these favourable conditions there must be so many quality birds going undetected. The signs are obvious just with what has been found on tomorrow's date, 23rd October - Cape May Warbler Unst 2013, Chestut-eared Bunting Virkie 2012 and Rufous-tailed Robin Fair Isle 2004 - but still everyone feels that it is too late. It is quite nice though to be able to go from site to site, seeing nobody but there genuinely must be so many birds not being found up here.
Brambling Geosetter, Shetland 21st October 2017
Anyway, so having landed yesterday morning, I spent the day in South Mainland. Loads of Redwings around, as well as good numbers of Brambling and Goldcrests. They were the stand out species. At Geosetter, I found a Yellowhammer which had the pulse racing momentarily, saw a late male Redstart and an eastern-type Lesser Whitethroat at Levenwick and located a handful of typically pale Chiffchaffs that seem to be the norm up here this time of year. All very enjoyable, until the conditions became unbearable late afternoon with the wind strengthening and the rain incessant. So it was off to bed for a nice 12 hour sleep, having managed just half an hour on the solo drive up.

Today dawned calmer, and a little bit brighter. I eventually decided where I'd go, and plummeted for the Vidlin area first off (I ditched Kergord as it was raining and looked set in), and set off into the small woodland by the cemetery. There were a fair few Goldcrests about, and then I saw a wing-barred phyllosc which was inevitably a Yellow-browed Warbler - nice enough, as I didn't see a single one up here during my stay this time last year! And then at the base of a mossy tree, a movement caught my eye, which quickly unveiled itself as a Treecreeper. Very content with this, and in the dark conditions, its coldness was immediately apparent and so I was happy in the knowledge this was a northern bird (subspecies familiaris). As it turned out, it was outrageously confiding and seemed oblivious to me being within just a few feet of it. 

Northern Treecreeper Vidlin, Shetland 22nd October 2017
There was also a Siberian Chiffchaff in the same bit of cover, while an amble into the village didn't produce much of note - just more Brambling, Redwings and Goldcrests. And so I decided to have a quick trip to Whalsay, which was actually a new island for me. After the half hour ferry crossing from Laxo, and a ten minute drive, the 1st-winter Steppe Grey Shrike showed itself nicely as it perched on the peat moor and telegraph wires. This was only my third one of the species, following a first-winter at Frinton-on-Sea, Essex back in November 1996 and a spring bird on the Isle of Man in 2003.
Steppe Grey Shrike Vaivoe, Whalsay, Shetland 22nd October 2017
I had a quick look in a few gardens on the way back to the ferry, but all I had was a decent sized Brambling flock at Symbister. And then back on the mainland, I paid homage to the Northern Treecreeper before heading to Lunna where I spent the last hour or two of light - a tremendous looking place but not too much doing, with a couple of Chiffchaffs among the busy Goldcrests. And that was that, back to Lerwick for the night and to decide where to head tomorrow.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

A day of two good halves

It isn't often I venture too far out of London these days. But given that it was over two decades since I saw my last British Rock Thrush, as well as fairly poor local coastal potential, a quick trip along the M4 and into Wales was in order. Dante, Josh and I set off at a very reasonable hour and arrived on cue - just as the male Rock Thrush was relocated.
Rock Thrush Pwll Du, Gwent 14th October 2017
The bird favoured a fairly spectacular setting at Pwll Du quarry, Blorenge, Gwent and was pretty active on the grassy slopes before headed up onto the rocks later in the morning. It was a really good bird, much better than I'd been expecting and despite the gloom, it showed nicely. I'd also never seen a Rock Thrush in autumn anywhere, so that added interest and I still need to do a bit of reading up on ageing but with the reddish underparts, defined pale mantle patch and what seemed like rounded tail feathers, I guess the adult prognosis must be correct.
Rock Thrush Pwll Du, Gwent 14th October 2017
With little else to do locally, we headed back towards London late morning as the tide was favourable for a bit of Thames gulling. Having dropped Josh off at Hammersmith, Dante and I headed east to Thames Barrier Park where we met up with Jamie P. Within an hour, there was our seventh Caspian Gull of the season (1st July to 30th June) and it was a German ringed 1st-winter. Not a bad bird at all, especially given it was from the infamous 'swarm' colony at Grabendorfer See, Brandenburg where it was ringed as a chick on 29th May this year.

1st-winter Caspian Gull X841 Thames Barrier Park, London 14th October 2017
There were also three Yellow-legged Gulls about too, an adult and two first-winters.

Just one more week left of school now before half-term, so I'm hoping there is still life left in the autumn. I've still yet to decide where to head - Shetland, Scilly, Ireland, Hebrides - but one thing is for sure it'll be far away from London...

Saturday, 7 October 2017

American duo at Oare Marshes

It's now just two more weeks until I have the freedom of a week wherever the weather dictates - could be Shetland or may even contemplate going way out west if this westerly weather continues. It was certainly an eventful week of yanks the week just gone, but despite headliners of Cedar Waxwing, Cliff Swallow and Scarlet Tanager there hasn't been anything for me to make a sudden move on. And so, with an open morning keeping me in London til midday, Dante and I headed out to Oare Marshes, Kent for a couple of hours late this afternoon.

Oare is always full of waders, and a nice place to spend a bit of time, so it was great to see the target bird - a Wilson's Phalarope - twirling around before I'd even stopped the car. It was a nice first-winter and much more advanced than one I'd seen in Lancs earlier this autumn. Initially it showed well until some plum decided to noisily crash their tripod over the fence just so they could get a yard closer. Inevitably, the bird flew and never came back close again.

1st-winter Wilson's Phalarope Oare Marshes, Kent 7th October 2017
The longstaying adult Long-billed Dowitcher was also on East Flood, and despite the murky conditions, was showing the best I'd ever seen it. Now in its full winter body kit.
adult Long-billed Dowitcher Oare Marshes, Kent 7th October 2017
A couple of Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers, colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits and a nice flock of Golden Plovers were also about. A pleasant effort, but with waders and gulls so far this weekend and last, it isn't ideal times for this time of year. Some decent passerine action is needed before the month's out...

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Another day and two more Casps

With strong southwesterly winds, any chance of passerine migration around London was going to be limited. So I opted with a sleep in to rejuvenate, and then met up with Dante mid morning. After the inevitable boredom in Russia Dock Woodland, with just a Chiffchaff and a couple of Goldcrests to show for our efforts, we headed to Hornchurch CP where I got a second helping of the Spotted Crake. And it was Dante's first, and it showed fine in the gloom, despite a load of cows munching through its favoured habitat, loads of dogs barking and the usual Sunday morning plebs shouting the odds unnecessarily.

So that was that, and it was back to the serenity of Thames Barrier Park with eight loaves of bread and a blustery wind 'in your face' wind. Loads of birds were about, just as the first mud was becoming exposed - often the best time here, as it is the first place to get mud on the ebbing tide (and the last mud on the incoming tide). As it turned out in the couple of hours we were here, Dante and I had two 1st-winter Caspian Gulls (both new individuals) and nine Yellow-legged Gulls (two adults, 3rd-winter, two 2nd-winters (including 'pinky', a distinctive bird from last winter and four 1st-winters). All very nice, though as the years go on, these Caspian Gulls become more variable and you'll notice how retarded moult wise the second bird is: -
Caspian Gull bird one

1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 1st October 2017
Caspian Gull bird two

1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 1st October 2017
And so another week of work begins.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Late September and watching gulls...

Last day of September and I am watching gulls. Not ideal I know, but with tiredness from the week just gone creeping in it meant plans to search for yanks in Cornwall went by the wayside. I had a bit of a sleep in, checking just Rotherhithe, and then set off to Dungeness with Mick S and Richard S for an afternoon session by the fishing boats.

After an hour and a half of very little, this 1st-winter Caspian Gull all of a sudden turned up. A fairly decent bird, with a lovely pale underwing: -

1st-winter Caspian Gull Dungeness, Kent 30th September 2017
There were also three Yellow-legged Gulls about, with an adult (possibly the same bird as last Sunday), 2nd-winter and 1st-winter (with a slightly deformed bill) as well as at least three 1st-winter Mediterranean Gulls.
1st-winter Mediterranean Gull Dungeness, Kent 30th September 2017
2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Dungeness, Kent 30th September 2017

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Still got love for the shrikes

I had a day out in Kent today. Decent southeasterly winds but it was a beautiful day; never great in autumn as it doesn't necessarily feel that 'rare'. Dante and I started off early and did the area immediately east of Dover at White Cliffs and then headed into Langdon Hole. I've always liked this place, despite having never seen anything there, and unsurprisingly didn't bump into anyone birdy. Mind you, our haul was pretty bang average with 3 Lesser Whitethroats, a Wheatear, a Willow Warbler and c.25 Chiffchaff for our efforts. There was a scattering of Yellow-browed Warblers just around the coast, but we drew a blank this time.

And so we headed to Dungeness where there was already news of a Red-backed Shrike in the desert area. It took us little time at all to see it, where there was a pleasantly small crowd with the bird sallying from hawthorns just behing 'Southview', the house where almost to the day a couple of years ago I saw that monster yank Acadian Flycatcher. Anyway, enjoy the shots of this presumably Scandinavian waif.

juvenile Red-backed Shrike Dungeness, Kent 24th September 2017
There was also a Pied Flycatcher in the moat by the bird observatory, and a brief hour or so around the gulls produced a superb adult Yellow-legged Gull as well as a Norwegian 2nd-winter Great Black-backed Gull that was about last weekend.
adult Yellow-legged Gull Dungeness, Kent 24th September 2017
Anyway, we headed off back to London a little bit too early as we got a text from Mick S when we were between Lydd and Ashford, about a 2nd-winter Caspian Gull that had come into the fishing boats feast early evening. You can't see everything is what I tell myself, but let's hope this is the pinnacle of being gripped this autumn!

Saturday, 23 September 2017


Late September and it should now be getting to the business end of the season, and with Black-billed Cuckoo and Siberian Thrush turning up in the week (neither of which I hadn't seen thankfully), my hopes were high for a weekend of bush whacking. But when Friday came, things looked flat so that was that for today. A day in London...

But it wasn't all bad. A visit to Hornchurch Country Park provided me with probably the best views of a Spotted Crake I have had this century. I grew up seeing a good number of these lads when I was a regular visitor to the reserve formerly known as Inner Marsh Farm, but since living the dream here in London unsurprisingly the urban habitat hasn't been suitable for such regular encounters. I really enjoyed this bird, and the place had a nice vibe to it too.
juvenile Spotted Crake Hornchurch CP, London/Essex 23rd September 2017
 Thirty minutes later, after savouring the delights of a Hornchurch Tesco, it was off to the Roding Valley. A small lake just outside Buckhurst Hill provided a pretty strange setting for a stripy headed juvenile Red-necked Grebe. I can't remember where the last juvenile I saw that looked as fresh as this was, but it is a plumage I'm not completely sure I've ever seen before. And rather predictably, the bird showed nicely too.
juvenile Red-necked Grebe Roding Valley, London/Essex 23rd September 2017
Two great birds within metropolitan Essex, inside the M25 and both only half an hour or so from home. I couldn't not get my gull fix though, and so before the two star birds of the day, Rotherhithe produced a regular 3rd calendar year and there were two 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gulls loving the loaves at Thames Barrier Park.
3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 23rd September 2017

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

School madness - YBW

What a bizarre, exciting experience today. Those regular readers will have read that my day job is rather detached from the (perceived) serenity of birding. I'm in charge of behaviour in an inner city London school. So there I was mid-morning, sitting in the internal exclusion room on a timetabled period of supervision where if kick offs happen around the place, then the perpetrators come my way. Fortunately there hadn't been any referrals so I was getting on with the typically copious workload. And with the window open, there was a moment of madness, a really bizarre sensation. It was crystal clear, and surrounded by high rise buildings there was real crispness and clarity when I heard an unbelievably out of context upslurred, high pitched disyllabic 'tswee-eet' that is such a familiar sound in autumn these days. But hang on... I'm in Central London, it's not the coast and this is work. It continued to call several times in quick succession.

Not quite sure why I bothered, as it was obvious that there was a Yellow-browed Warbler in the isolated single tall tree outside of school here in Elephant and Castle, but I quickly whacked a bit of xeno canto out. And in true form, the bird sallied down and revealed itself as a smallish green warbler to my naked eye. Always scornful of no bins sightings when assessing other peoples' records, I legged it outside to my car and got my bins and back up to where the action had been. A bit of xeno canto later, and with the bird still calling, I got some decent views of a nice fresh looking Yellow-browed Warbler whacking about and doing its thing. Quality stuff - and with it now being 10.30am it was off to break duty, teaching and then meetings/sorting nonsense out til 5.45pm. The joys of work.
The Yellow-browed Warbler tree surrounded by South London urbanity

I couldn't find the Yellow-browed Warbler late on, and I know that one birder had a search mid/late afternoon and couldn't find it either. No surprise to be honest, as past form over the last 8 years has made me conclude birds quickly pass through due to the marginal habitat. I've had Reed Warbler, Willow Warbler and a fair few Chiffchaffs over the years and I can't remember one hanging about long.

Just shows that it is all about context, and it is the first Yellow-browed Warbler I've found away from what you'd describe as typical coastal locations. Where of course I've found a fair few over the years. But when you're a London birder on 70+ hours or work a week, you bloody punch the air when you get results like this. True urban birding - The Urban Birder would be proud.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Staying local with little reward

It's this time of year where I tend to float about based on the weather, and if there isn't anything obvious then my local gulls get a look in. Last Sunday, feeling a bit jaded from the previous day's travel to the Hebrides and back, found me at Thames Barrier Park. A couple of times a year, they close the gates on the barrier for routine maintenance and the gulls go wild. Despite the large numbers, there was no Caspian Gull unlike the week before. Around eight Yellow-legged Gulls, but that was it. And because there was so much food, they weren't that fussed about my loaves. Meanwhile back in Rotherhithe, this third-winter bird was a bit more obliging on the slipway just east of Greenland Pier.
3rd-winter Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 10th September 2017
 I stayed local today too, for my sins. A walk around Russia Dock Woodland was quiet, with little of note. Genuinely, it was a really quiet day - four Yellow-legged Gulls (adult, two 1st-summers and a juvenile) at Thames Barrier Park, nothing of interest at the O2 and then just the presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach in Rotherhithe last thing.
adult Yellow-legged Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 16th September 2017
3rd-winter presumed Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull Rotherhithe, London 16th September 2017

Sunday, 10 September 2017

A great start to the autumn

I genuinely cannot remember how many years the thought 'will this be the year we get an American Redstart?' has come up in conversation. For birders of my generation, brought up on books like Rare Birds by Cottridge and Vinicombe, it has been a very long time coming since those fabled American Redstart sightings at Kenidjack, Cornwall in 1983 and Galley, Cork in 1985. To a decent extent, it is these 'old school' birds that feel better than firsts as they're what you've been brought up on.

American Redstart nearly happened for me in September 2008 when one was found late one afternoon in southwestern Ireland at Mizen Head, County Cork. Getting there early next morning, in sunlit skies and a light wind, it was evident that that bird had done an overnight bunk. I did manage to see one mid-Atlantic, high up in the treetops and looming darkness of Ribeira da Ponte, Corvo in October 2015, but when another magic Bruce Taylor find developed on Thursday evening it was game on again for that all important British and Irish perspective...

Friday loomed pretty wet, but I was still in London due to critical child protection commitments, but when it was confirmed (rather unsurprisingly given the overnight conditions), I made arrangements to travel up on Saturday. And thankfully that 'unprofessional' day delay didn't have repercussions and the bird was still about. So by early afternoon yesterday, we'd had an enjoyable landing on the famous beach airport at Barra, a quick taxi drive up to the church at Eoligarry and this...
American Redstart Eoligarry, Barra, Outer Hebrides 9th September 2017
I always say this, but I can't think of a species it doesn't apply for - you really cannot go wrong with yank passerines, particularly their warblers. Give me 6 weeks of westerlies over 6 weeks of easterlies any day, as the real big ones like this travel alone. Transatlantic passerine vagrancy is the best we get in Britain and Ireland - these little birds, a matter of grams, manage to do that ocean crossing, every year. Presumably only the strongest make it, which makes the birds you actually see that bit more impressive. Those Sibes have it easy!
site of the American Redstart on Barra
And it's often the location too. Albeit usually a real pain to get to, particularly in the past decade where the shift away from Scilly has continued, these mega yanks can be in some quality places. Just thinking off the top of my head about the big ones I've seen this millenium - Blue-winged Warbler, Hermit Thrush and Northern Waterthrush Cape Clear, Canada Warbler Loop Head, Purple Martin Butt of Lewis Scarlet Tanager Garinish Point, Alder Flycatcher Nanjizal, Ovenbird St. Mary's, Northern Parula Tiree, Yellow Warbler and now American Redstart Barra. Admittedly the Acadian and Alder Flycatchers at Dungeness and Blakeney had a slightly different feel, as east coast yanks do, as did the overwintering Northern Oriole in Oxfordshire.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Back home and into this season's Casps...

I spent a couple of hours on the Thames late this afternoon, having fully maxed out my summer holiday before back to another year of beasting and drudgery tomorrow. I only got back from a quick trip to the Azores late last night, so after whacking in five loaves with the weekly shop this afternoon, I dutifully sloped off to feed my larids.

Nice and grey, cool and a bit murky. Just the job for a bit of gulling at Thames Barrier Park. And it was straight into the Caspian Gull action, even before Dante and Jamie P arrived, with this lovely 1st-winter coming straight in. I was pretty pumped by this bird, as it was my earliest ever 'bird of the season' in London and has arrived 17 days before our first last year. And to boot, it is a thug of a bird with no disputing its identity. With its advanced moult, pale underwing and seemingly clean genes there'd be an assumption it comes from east of Germany...

1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 3rd September 2017
And that wasn't the end of the Caspian Gulls, with Jamie picking up a 2nd-winter bird too. A relatively small and dark bird, that isn't the best structurally. But what is most interesting is that this is the same bird that turned up last winter that we called 'Mucky' - see photos here. This is the first example of a returning individual without a ring on this stretch of the Thames. No major surprise, given that there are regularly returning birds with rings all over Britain but interesting all the same.
2nd-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 3rd September 2017
There was also another '0.5' bird. Well outside the realms of a pure Caspian Gull, but probably some genes in there somewhere.

Note to anyone coming to Thames Barrier Park or Lyle this winter - they have shut the car park at Thames Barrier Park, put parking meters on every single street so good luck to all! Genuinely, I have changed my routine and I now get there on the DLR instead of driving as I have been unable to find anywhere that is free parking in the immediate vicinity (and rest assured, I have tried!).
1st-winter Caspian Gull Thames Barrier Park, London 3rd September 2017

Saturday, 19 August 2017

A ringed Yellow-legged Gull today

I spent this afternoon chucking out bread and feeding the London gulls. My regular pastime. If there was actually some feeling that there was other stuff to find locally I would diversity, but what with all these westerlies, I was back to my default position. Rotherhithe, Thamesmead and Greenwich were all quiet over the high tide period and so I headed north over the river to Thames Barrier Park with the first sniff of foreshore exposed. And sitting there when I arrived was this ringed adult Yellow-legged Gull: -
adult Yellow-legged Gull YL5T Thames Barrier Park, London 19th August 2017
I quickly fired off an email to Paul Roper, knowing it was a Thames ringed bird, and within minutes he came back with an enthuasiastic reply. It had been ringed as a juvenile at Rainham tip, London on 27th August 2011 (photos of it then here) before turning at Nurlu, Somme, northeastern France on 20th January 2012 and then finally being seen the following winter, on 29th January 2013, in southeast France at Bourg-les-Valence, Drome (photo here).

So where has it been since? Who knows but presumably it is now breeding in eastern France, Switzerland or Germany, where there are a lot of lakes and few birders. And why do I speculate this orgin? From the limited evidence I have from this bird's previous movements and three ringing recoveries of Yellow-legged Gulls that I've had in London/Essex - two from the big Swiss lakes and one from southern Germany.

I had a further three juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls at Thames Barrier Park this afternoon with Dante and Jamie P, while there were three more at the O2 this evening - felt a bit cheated with this paltry total given that we'd waded through the hordes of Bros fans on their way to listen to a couple of peroxide blonds from yesteryear sing 'When Will I Be Famous'.

juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls Thames Barrier Park, London 19th August 2017

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Meanwhile back in London...

I've been away from London since my last post. Had a lovely time with Karen in Kenya and Zanzibar seeing all sorts of exotica. From big cats to whales, monkeys to ostriches, bustards to huge numbers of wildebeest. But there was one thing that was missing... not a single gull was seen! So since Sunday, I have had time to fix that with a few local sojourns.

On Sunday, I managed to get Josh J out of his posh west London quarter and over to the south and east with Dante and I. We started at the O2 where there were two lovely juvenile Mediterranean Gulls, the first of the season for me here in London and both metal ringed! With a bit of camera clicking at different angles, we were able to establish that both birds were from The Netherlands with ring codes 3740890 and 3742464, so given that they're only 1,574 digits out I'm assuming they'll be from the same colony. Let's wait and see!
juvenile Mediterranean Gull (Dutch ringed, bird 1) O2 Greenwich, London 14th August 2017
juvenile Mediterranean Gull (Dutch ringed, bird 2) O2 Greenwich, London 14th August 2017
And then onto today, where I had another juvenile Mediterranean Gull on the mud by the O2 in Greenwich today. This one was unringed, and given that I only saw one juvenile there in August last year, it seems that the increasing breeding numbers just outside of London are directly translating into more here. Though still waiting on one in Rotherhithe for the year.

juvenile Mediterranean Gull (unringed) O2 Greenwich, London 16th August 2017
Since I left in late July, for some reason, there has been a reduction in Yellow-legged Gull numbers. I've had just the one in Rotherhithe since I returned - a second-summer yesterday - while numbers at the O2 and Thames Barrier Park have been in the low single figures with mainly juveniles still hanging about. And no Caspian Gulls either, so hopefully there'll be a few turn up with the next load of easterlies.