Monday 24 September 2012

Semipalmated saviour...

.... of a pretty difficult weekend in Cork and Kerry. Also saw a really good looking near-adult Azorean Gull at Rosscarbery at dawn on 22nd, although it flew off pretty quickly. Much better than the 'thing' at Rainham. The best bird of Sunday 23rd was a Reed Warbler on Valentia Island.

Monday 17 September 2012

American Golden Plover

Rich, John and I were fortunate to stumble across this newly-arrived juvenile American Golden Plover on Keel golf course, Achill Island on Saturday 15th. It's a particularly fresh individual, with smart golden upperparts - definitely the brightest individual I've seen.

I think it rates as one of the best birds I've ever seen in Britain & Ireland. Sure, it's 'only' an AGP, but is there anything better in birding than sitting in some far-flung destination watching a transatlantic vagrant at a range of five metres with your mates?! It's the fourth American Goldie that I've been involved in the finding of, the last of which was on the very same golf course - in fact, we found the 2011 bird just 50 metres from this latest individual!

Achill Island 2012, round one

The weekend has passed, and I've just enjoyed another great couple of days in County Mayo with John Archer and Rich Bonser. As always, we concentrated on the magnificent Achill Island - a wild and spectacular outpost in westernmost Ireland that must be an imposing (though attractive!) sight for Nearctic birds arriving in off the Atlantic. Over the past couple of autumns, I've been fortunate to find nine individuals of five Nearctic species on the island. With one eye on the remnants of Hurricane Leslie tracking northwards towards Iceland and the north of Scotland, the aim was to try and add to that tally.

Add to it we did. Bird of the weekend was a fine juvenile American Golden Plover on the golf course at Keel, which had evidently just arrived mid-morning on Saturday 15th and kept close to a European Goldie that was already present. On our first walk of the golf course hadn't revealed this bird and, with the addition of a flyover Pec Sand on the Sunday morning, illustrates why checking and re-checking sites in the west is crucial to finding birds. The plover was so good that it deserved its own post...


The Pec was one of two heard-only individuals over the weekend; the other was a single observer record for yours truly at Corragaun Lough which I could hear flying around as I crossed over the the channel - hands full of shoes and optics and water over the knee didn't help in the bid to see it. A Jack Snipe at Corragaun Lough on Sunday was a welcome Irish tick.

Nearctic waders are obviously great, but the find of the weekend goes to the juvenile Black-necked Grebe we picked up at Lough Doo on Saturday morning. This is a real mega out west; who knows where it has come from. We didn't see it Sunday but it was apparently still there.

Lough Doo Monster

The brief summary above has painted something of a rosy picture of the weekend. Don't get me wrong, I loved it - particularly watching the AGP in the glorious light of Saturday. But, it was hard work this year. Wader-watching in County Mayo is not for the faint-hearted. Last year's trip was exceptional; this year was much more typical! Furthermore, wader numbers seem poor this year - we had Dunlin at just a handful of the sites (Corragaun/Achill Sound/Roonagh), when in normal years they are at most sites. Although you don't necessarily need Palearctic waders to bring in the rares, it does help to concentrate them.

Thanks to Rich and John for a great weekend of company, and it was great to meet Nick Watmough on the Saturday as well as Achill semi-resident Michael O'Brien. Cheers guys.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Mid-September Caspian Gulls

Today, I spent about 90 minutes in Butts Hide at Rainham, during which I saw the juvenile Baillon's Crake for about 3 seconds as it ran across a gap in the reeds. Nice bird, but I must admit I felt a huge sense of relief on seeing it. Why? Because it meant I could get back to the landfill site and look at the gulls, of course!

In two 90-minutes sessions today (mid-morning and early afternoon), I had at least five Caspian Gulls, with at least three 1cy birds seen. Interesting to see how worn all three were, being well advanced in their moult towards first-winter plumage.

Bird one was a really bulky-looking beast with a hefty bill. Note that the vast majority of the scapulars have been replaced, and also how worn the coverts are:

Bird two was perhaps the 'best'-looking of the lot, initially picked up flying around over the tip when the pale underwing could be seen with ease. A classic in all respects, this one is less advanced in its scapular moult than bird one, but note structure (long legs, parallel bill, rounded head etc). It looks really similar to this one I had in Peterborough last year.

Bird three was probably the most advanced of the bunch, with a whitish head and almost all scapulars replaced. Although superficially similar to bird one, there are differences in the moulted scapulars, and the bill is both a different shape (more pronounced gonydeal angle) and shows a more obvious pinkish wash to the base. Check out how long and spindly the legs are!

The other two birds were both 2cy, with one much more advanced than the other. Here is one of them, through the heat haze:

Also had this bird. At first, I thought it might be a Caspian Gull, but some features don't really fit - the bold anchors on the newly-moulted scapulars, the shortish legs, the dirty(ish) underwing etc. I guess it is likely a Yellow-legged Gull. Or perhaps even a Lesser Black-backed Gull. Thoughts and comments welcome.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Portland, 8th September

Had a great morning around Portland and Weymouth yesterday morning. The birds were pretty scant, but some great insects and great weather not to mention catching up with friends, both new and old. I went back for second helpings of the Short-billed Dowitcher early doors; duly located it for those who had travelled down overnight. Nice views in the low light, but quite distant and often obscured. The sunrise was pretty spectacular; you can just make out the fog rolling down off the hills in to Weymouth Bay in the distance:

I headed back up to Portland at around 08:00 via a quick stop at Ferrybridge - plenty of Dunlin and Ringed Plover plus nine Med Gulls, but nothing more unusual. Unfortunately, fog had rolled in over the isle so I decided to go and chill out at the obs for an hour or so. Personal highlight was getting my grubby mits all over this Convolvulus Hawkmoth, very much reminding me of a sleepy week I spent at the obs in August 2005 with Stephen Menzie, Will Bowell and Kit Day when just about the only thing we saw of any note were a few of these crazy moths.

Otherwise, the night's catch was pretty unremarkable, although this L-album Wainscot was smart:

Martin also extracted a rather noisy female Sparrowhawk from the nets while I was there; this was the first time I'd seen the species in the hand.

With the weather clearing up somewhat, I decided to head up to Easton to look for the previous day's Monarch. Not too long after arrival, it floated up from nowhere before sitting atop a buddleia, warming itself up in the mid-morning sunshine. Eventually it began to play ball and I enjoyed some good views, even managing some decent video footage. Bit tatty at the wingtips but a spectacular species nevertheless.

Friday 7 September 2012

Short-billed Dowitcher

What a gorgeous bird, positively glowing here in the evening sunshine. It's been a nervous three-day wait to get down to Lodmoor to see one of my dream birds - well worth suffering the Friday afternoon traffic for!

Sunday 2 September 2012

More on Azorean Gulls, I'm afraid

Went back to Rainham yesterday morning. Not as many birds around as on my two previous visits, so could only manage around 25 Yellow-legged Gulls (no Casps). After a few hours of seeing relatively little, I flirted with the idea of heading back home to bed but, on my final scan of the Thames, I spotted the Azorean-type floating aimlessly upriver towards me.

Over the next couple of hours, I only had reasonable views of it on the river and over my head as it flew back towards the tip; it proved frustratingly difficult to locate on the landfill itself, only on view for a minute or two at the most! Here are some shots, including comparisons with both Herring and Lesser Black-backed.

Quite interesting to see how it has changed in appearance. The dark subterminal markings on the bill have intensified in the onset of winter plumage, and the amount head streaking has also increased. The secondaries and tail are in heavy moult; note how the outer tail feathers (that had quite a lot of black left in them back on 21st) have been dropped, leaving a rather messing looking beast. The immature underwing coverts have also been moulted through to white, adult-like feathers since 21st.

It looks pretty decent. Moult timing seems spot on. Primaries look fine. But something just bugs me, and as such I'm still unconvinced. I'd like to see it out of the water for longer and at closer range to get a real feel for structure and jizz though.

To compare moult/plumage, here are a couple of photographs of 'real' Azorean Gulls, taken in the archipelago this week by Rich Bonser. The similarities in moult of the tail and secondaries is striking.