Monday, 23 January 2017

Mid-January patch efforts

It remains cold across much of Britain, particularly the south-east, and such conditions usually mean winter birding is at its most productive in London.

It was grey and misty when I headed out late morning. An impressive flock of Tufted Ducks has formed on the Chiswick-Barnes stretch of the Thames, although the amassed group of 101 failed to throw up anything more interesting.

The wetlands centre was pretty decent - great views of two Bitterns including the below individual, which bizarrely stood more or less motionless on the frozen ice in front of Headley Hide for 10 minutes, before slinking off back in to the reeds. A Jack Snipe was flushed by crows just before Wildside Hide, flying around my head a few times before dropping back in to the reeds. I glimpsed a Water Pipit on the grazing marsh and heard the Bearded Tit pinging in the reeds on one occasion. Nine Pintail included six drakes but wildfowl numbers seemed slightly down on my visit the previous week, presumably because of the freeze. A flock of Fieldfares moved through and both Cetti's Warbler and Water Rail were new for the year for me. About 40 Herring, 10 Lesser Black-backed and a few Great Black-backed made up the gull flock.

You ain't fooling no-one, pal ...

That's more like it.

A check of the Hammersmith-Fulham stretch of the River Thames revealed my first Yellow-legged Gull of the year, a rather smart adult, among just 30 or so Herring Gulls. A Little Egret was at Chiswick Eyot mid-afternoon, another new bird for the year for me.

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, Fulham, 23 January 2017

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Pine Bunting!

After the autumn's record influx, it seemed inevitable that the odd Pine Bunting would be unearthed in the British countryside this winter. By the end of 2016 that inevitability had not yet materialised, but it was on New Year's Day that a female was found at Venus Pool, Shropshire. Unfortunately it proved extremely elusive and was seen well only the following day; it was reported on subsequent dates but always briefly and many left the site having dipped.

Pine Bunting, along with Aquatic Warbler, has sat at the top of my 'most wanted' list of birds to see in Britain for years now. I dipped the Choseley bird twice back in the day and, unable to get a lift to Worcestershire in 2005, it's been a long wait for another. I've always found it an interesting species - females are subtle (thus providing a genuine identification challenge), there's always the hybrid issue to consider and overcome, and males in particular are really dapper birds. It's also one of those species that you feel anyone has a fighting chance of finding given their penchant for turning up at otherwise uninspiring inland sites. The problem these days, as much as any other, appears to be finding flocks of their fast-declining western counterpart, Yellowhammer, to search through. It's quite depressing how depleted this species is in the British countryside even compared to when I started actively birding in the early to mid-2000s, when its populations were already severely reduced from historical levels.

New Pine Buntings have been popping up all over Western Europe on what seems like a daily basis this January, and another in Britain never seemed far away. Step forward Chris Gomersall, who did a fine job by pulling out a stunning male from among a big Yellowhammer flock at Dunnington, just east of York, on Friday.  The bird showed a few times over the Saturday and so I decided to head for the site early on Sunday in order to try my luck. The main problem was that I didn't have my telescope, and this was most definitely a 'scope job. On arrival a big crowd of birders were looking in to a rough field at several hundred metres' range - not something my 8x bins were ever going to deal with!

After a nice catch-up with Andy and Vicky I decided to make use of myself and head off to explore the surrounding fields, in the hope that I might stumble across birds that were remotely close enough to check with binoculars. The sheep field where the bird had been seen on Saturday seemed a good place to start. Quite amazingly, no one else was looking and so I carefully walked the field edge, sifting through the various species feeding in the field or sitting in the hedgerows - there were plenty of Yellowhammers, a few Reed Buntings, various finches and lots of winter thrushes.

The whole place seemed very 'birdy' and undisturbed, so I decided to sit down by the fence. This caused the sheep to spook and consequently flushed everything up in to the trees, but soon enough birds started dropping back down. I sat there for about 10 minutes before, suddenly, an unmistakable brown-and-white head pattern appeared among a small group of Yellowhammers at 50 metres' range. No doubt that it was the male Pine Bunting, and in fantastic light too! The bird was extremely wary and mobile - even the excited reach for my camera caused the flock to pop back up in to the trees - but soon it came back down. I made a few calls to friends in the main crowd and awaited their arrival.

Uncropped (top) to ultra-cropped versions of the same shot ... the Dunnington Pine Bunting

I had a few brief views over a five-minute period, with the bird landing no more than 20 metres away at one point. Unfortunately it sat still, facing away, for about five seconds before bolting off again. If only it'd fed there for a little longer and turned to profile..!

The number arriving birders was never going to help - the increased movement and commotion clearly wasn't to the feeding flock's taste and they quickly moved away down the hedgerow, back west towards the original field. I always find bunting flocks can be very nervy and thus the utmost care needs to be applied when trying to watch them, even when on your own. The birds were very edgy with just me there, so it's no real surprise that they moved off when more started to arrive. A shame, but I think the bird was seen on back over in the other field on a couple of occasions shortly afterwards. Clearly this is a challenging bird to see but the corner of the field at 53.9679, -0.9678 seems to be a good area for feeding birds, and is well worth focusing on if visiting in the coming days. The Yellowhammers (and Pine Bunting) spent most of their time feeding around the fallen tree about 30m along the hedgerow running WSW back towards the farmhouse.

Given the autumn's arrival and the numbers just over the Channel in e.g. the Netherlands, there must be so many out there waiting to be found in unsuspecting patches of the British countryside. Hopefully a few more individuals of this brilliant species might be found before spring.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

A quieter weekend

I covered the Thames between Barnes and Fulham daily over the weekend without any decent reward. Gulls numbers were in the main quite low, even on Sunday, and the often awful weather conditions didn't help for seeing anything else. The best thing I could sift from among the gulls was this presumed hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull - it looked more obvious in the field, but you can still see the tepid yellow leg colour and slightly darker mantle than argenteus Herring, as well as the typical black bills markings that you often see on hybrids of this age (rather similar to in LBB).

Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull, Fulham, 15 January 2017

I decided to join the WWT this weekend, primarily so that I can have regular access to the London Wetland Centre. My first visit, in the rain on Sunday afternoon, produced the same first-winter Caspian Gull I saw on the Thames last week (I suspect it's spending most of its time in the immediate area) from Peacock Tower as well as singles of Bittern, Water Pipit and Jack Snipe - the latter was often swimming around in the open, quite strangely. Other notable local birds included a drake Pintail and male Stonechat.

First-winter Caspian Gull, London Wetland Centre, 15 January 2017

Friday, 13 January 2017

Caspian Gull XDFE relocated in Norfolk!

The 4cy Caspian Gull I saw on the River Thames in Fulham on 6 January was seen yesterday in Thetford, Norfolk, by Dawn Balmer. It's unequivocally the same bird - the bill pattern has several unique features that are easily recognisable and plumage looks identical too. No doubt they'll see it again and find I read the ring wrong ... :-) here's XDFE as a first-winter at Dungeness in August 2014.

Kudos to social media and the hyper-connected contemporary birding scene for this coming to light.

Caspian Gull 'XDFE', Thetford, Norfolk, 12 January 2017 © Dawn Balmer

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Showy Caspian at Hammersmith Bridge

I've been hoping for one of these on my adopted 'patch' since I started looking at the gulls properly last summer. Rich, Jamie and Dante have been gripping me off with their shots of ever-present Caspian Gulls in East London but I've kept the faith with the stretch of the River Thames between Chiswick and Fulham. Finally, it's paying off. After Friday's brief third-winter, which was not photogenic in any way, I was suitably thrilled to pop my head over the river wall at Hammersmith and see this first-winter Casp gazing back at me.

I was initially a bit concerned about the mucky underwing and structure but Rich quickly allayed my fears and, having watched and photographed it for an hour or so, I'm happy it's more than fine for pure cachinnans. The first of many happy encounters here, I hope!

And a slightly larger photo ...

Friday, 6 January 2017

First patch Caspian Gull

I've decided to try and be a little more proactive about my birding in and around London in 2017 - it's about time I accepted that this is where I live, the birding will never be vintage and it's about making the most of what's in front of you.

The first step towards this is of course to adopt a patch. It'll inevitably lead to uninspiring, gull-heavy blog posts throughout the year, particularly given that Larids offer just about the only consistent point of interest in Central London, but I guess it's better than nothing ...

So, my adopted 'patch' will be the River Thames between Barnes Bridge and Craven Cottage, Fulham. This includes Leg o' Mutton (Lonsdale Road) Reservoir, where mature woods and dense patches of scrub should offer a glimmer of hope for interesting passerines at the right times of year. It'll likely end up including Barnes WWT, too, when I finally get sick of counting Herring Gulls and Cormorants on the river itself.

WWT or not, the patch fits comfortably within to the Patchwork Challenge area remit. So, I might as well give that a go too. Happily it'll qualify for the 'green' mini-league as I do all of my birding here either on foot or via bicycle. As such you can expect to find me loitering somewhere near the bottom of the table come December.

The River Thames at Barnes - the west end of the 'patch'

In the meantime I paid my first visit of 2017 to this stretch of the Thames today. Highlight was by far and away a third-winter Caspian Gull on the river off Lysia Street, Fulham. This is the same spot where I had an Iceland Gull in early December; birds seem to gather here routinely and it could be a fruitful place if watched regularly.

I identified this bird in the field as a second-winter (3cy) which, if you look at the perched shots, is fairly understandable. It was actually the presence of a green ring on its left leg which gave away this bird's age. Green XDFE was ringed as a chick at Gräbendorfer See in eastern Germany in June 2014. It has only been recorded a few times since, including at Dungeness in September 2014, and this is the first time it's been seen since summer 2015.

Actually there are a few tell-tale signs that this bird is in its fourth calendar year, but these are more apparent in flight. What is really striking is the restricted white in the outer primaries - with the restricted white mirror on p10 only, these look much more typical of a 3cy rather than 4cy bird.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Pre-Christmas Iceland Gull

Best bird of a couple of days' searching around Peterborough was this juvenile Iceland Gull at Dogsthorpe Tip on 23rd. I was genuinely surprised to see it drop in to the pit given how scarce both white-winged gulls have been up to this point. Despite good numbers of gulls, nothing else of note seen - not even any Casps.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Ringed Black-headed Gulls on the Thames

Here are a few ringed Black-headed Gulls that I had on the Thames last week ...

1) Adult yellow ' 2PJB', Barnes, 5 December. Ringed at Pitsea, Essex, in March 2016. More details here.

2) Adult white 'EE5T', Fulham, 5 December 2016. Ringed as an adult at Griend, Netherlands, on 6 June 2016. First recorded in the UK at Hyde Park, London, on 19 October before my sighting in Fulham.

3) Adult metal 'HV11.766' ringed as pullus at lake (55.1192, 23.7542) north of Kaunas, Lithuania, on 18 June 2011. Not recorded subsequently until in Chiswick on 2 December 2016!

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Masked Wagtail

Britain's first Masked Wagtail (Moticilla alba personata) was identified in the small Pembrokeshire village of Camrose earlier in the week. While not (yet) a split, this particular individual was a real looker and it seemed rude to pass on the opportunity of joining Richard Bonser and team and heading west this morning.

The bird performed well on and off from around 08:20, often to within just a few metres as it fed on the road and along driveways. It seems very settled here, familiar with its surroundings and it would be surprising if it doesn't spend the winter here. It's a fantastic bird too, and well worth a look - tick or not.

Thanks to Rich for driving.

Masked Wagtail, Camrose, Pembrokeshire, 3 December 2016

Friday, 2 December 2016

Iceland Gull in Hammersmith!

I went for my first bike ride along the Thames for a couple of weeks this morning in the hope of finding a Caspian Gull. I had a Lithuanian Black-headed Gull at one of my usual spots in Chiswick (I'll blog about this bird at a later date) but only about 30 large gulls, so decided to continue east past Hammersmith Bridge and down towards Fulham.

This turned out to be a good move as I stumbled across a juvenile Iceland Gull among about 80 large gulls on the river adjacent to the Wetland Centre. This was actually the first time I'd biked down here this winter and it was nice to find a new spot for loafing gulls at low tide - Chiswick has generally been poor for numbers of large gulls in the past month.

Initial views of the Iceland Gull, Fulham, 2 December 2016

Eventually the bird showed pretty well, although steadfastly refused to show any interest in the four loaves of bread I threw at it. As such the scope for flight shots was minimal (I only grabbed a few as it flew past me towards Hammersmith) and I had to make do with perched shots at an awful angle and against a typically grubby Thames background.

After about half an hour the bird decided to fly off west upriver, over Hammersmith Bridge (thus in to my regular 'patch'!) before turning north and disappearing off over the West London skyline. It turns out that this is the same bird seen by Pete Alfrey at Beddington on 24 November and then by Dave Harris in the Island Barn Reservoir roost on 28th - not that that's surprising, given that there are so few Iceland Gulls in the country at present.

A white-winged gull with Hammersmith Bridge in the background - the stuff of dreams