Saturday 31 December 2011

Fuerteventura: Desert Specialities

OK, so the title gives the game away for anyone still puzzled by yesterday’s mystery photos. The ever-observant RB had it right: Suzanne and I spent Christmas in the Canary Islands. And the mystery bird? If you can’t work it out from the destination, I’ll return to that later in this post…

Over 12 days, we toured around quite a bit, starting with four days on Fuerteventura, then taking an internal flight over to Tenerife. In the middle of our stay here, we took the RO-RO ferry over to La Gomera and spent three days here over Christmas itself.

We’ll write up a full trip report with site details and a complete trip list ASAP, but in the mean time, the next few posts will concentrate on the best photos from the various islands.


Fuerteventura, as the image above suggests, is largely covered by stony desert and low rocky mountains; fresh water and therefore anything more than low-lying scrubby vegetation is at a premium. We spent most of our time either searching for desert speciality species, or checking the few areas of water where the range of birds was wider. The few coastal resorts are a bit grim, so although we stayed in a suite in one of these (Caleta de Fustes), we were out and about pretty much all day every day.

Although we spent a good few hours seeing not a lot, in the end we managed to clean up on all the ‘target species’ in one magic session on the plains near the Embalse de Los Molinos. First, as we drove in down the dusty approach track, a few Cream-coloured Coursers were running alongside:


I reckon these are just superb birds – always on the move, charismatic, and often pretty confiding for photos. They also look and sound great in flight, so when you’re stood in the middle of nowhere and pick up a few flying over it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Arriving at the end of the track, I was delighted to find a raptor perched out on the plain – a lucky encounter with a Barbary Falcon. It clearly showed rufous markings on the back of the head, and had a paler mantle tone than would be expected of Peregrine, though I gather hybrids are now thought to occur on the islands.

But I’d seen coursers and falcons before, in Morocco, and my number one target proved harder to find. We had already looked unsuccessfully at Costa Calma and la Oliva for Houbara Bustard, before I started scanning the rocky plain east of the reservoir, more in hope than expectation. These wandered into view…


My initial thought when I found the first bird was of some sort of weird domesticated turkey-type creature, before the brain kicked in and I realised that Houbara really are that small! Over the course of the next hour or so, we determined that there were at least two pairs of bustards wandering around in a fenced goat enclosure. Although they remained too distant for good photos, and disappeared all too easily in what appeared completely open habitat, scope views were excellent on a rather grey and cloudy day.

While standing around enjoying these, a couple of groups of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew past – bonus! Large flocks of Lesser Short-toed Lark also buzzed around, easily a hundred strong.


On the reservoir, waterbirds included close on 200 Coot, 120+ Ruddy Shelduck, 6 Teal, 2 Wigeon, Green and Common Sandpipers… and two rather less expected visitors from the USA: female Ring-necked Ducks.


These had been around for a while, so I couldn’t claim genuine surprise, but American vagrants are always good to see in Europe. Apparently a Lesser Scaup had been seen a few days previously, too, but we couldn’t find this.

On our way back out of the site, we paused to scan the hordes of sparrows by the goat farm in Las Parcelas, hoping for one more desert species. It took a little while, and we only saw two, but eventually Trumpeter Finches were found and photographed.


And finally, what of the mystery bird? Yesterday’s pic illustrated a female Canary Islands Chat. In fact, this one:


These are actually the most notable species on the entire trip, in a world listing context, since they’re only found on Fuerteventura, and the total population is apparently not very well known – less than 20,000 individuals, and possibly much less. (See info from BirdLife International, illustrating the variance between different survey results.)

We encountered these at a number of sites, including Embalse de Los Molinos, the Barranco de Gran Valle on the Jandia peninsula, Barranco de la Torre, the Fimapaire valley east of La Oliva, and finally Vega de Rio Palmas, where the most confiding birds posed for these photos. While the females are strikingly pale, almost grey and white, the males are very smart – rather like you imagine a cross between a Stonechat and a Whinchat would look.


Friday 30 December 2011

Back home – but from where?

After a late night arrival in the UK, eventual escape from the UK’s shambolic passport control system, and a mercifully painless drive home, Suzanne and I are back from a fantastic Christmas break. I’ve taken at least 600 photos, and Suzanne a similar number, so it might take a while to get them properly organised!

So in the meantime, here’s a couple of snaps straight out of the camera that illustrate the main reasons for our choice of destination: awesome scenery (this shot taken on Christmas Day!), and a few noteworthy birds to see.

Question is, for those who don’t know, where did we go (and what’s the bird)? Leave a comment if you can guess…



Sunday 11 December 2011

Stats for 2011

After a weekend primarily concerned with catching up on sleep, working through a Christmas party hangover, and drafting an economics essay, I’ve been feeling the need to engage in something vaguely bird-related this afternoon. So I’ve been updating my records, keeping track of the rarities and scarcities I’ve seen in 2011. Although the year’s not out yet, I reckon the chances of seeing much more are pretty slim, given our plans for Christmas, so I’ll get in ahead of the inevitable flurry of ‘review of the year’ posts…

2011 was another acceptable year for British lifers, with 11 new species finding their way onto my list, taking the total up to 426 (BOU). Things were surprisingly quiet through the spring, though White-throated Robin and Roller in the space of a week got things ticking along nicely. I was pleased to see two long-awaited ‘tart's ticks’ fall in midsummer, too (Cory’s and Western Bonelli’s). Unlike last year, Shetland didn’t hit the jackpot in September, but the Yankee double-act on Scilly were both stunning. The autumn has been remarkably protracted as well, and a couple of late bonuses got me into double figures:

Lesser White-fronted Goose 2-Jan-11 Buckenham
Rufous Turtle Dove 26-Feb-11 Chipping Norton
White-throated Robin 7-Jun-11 Hartlepool Headland
Roller 13-Jun-11 Hollesley Common
Western Bonelli's Warbler 4-Jul-11 Arnfield Reservoir
Cory's Shearwater 9-Jul-11 Porthgwarra
Black-and-white Warbler 17-Sep-11 Lower Moors
Sandhill Crane 4-Oct-11 Boyton Marshes
Northern Waterthrush 28-Oct-11 Lower Moors
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 19-Nov-11 Chew Valley Lake
Western Sandpiper 2-Dec-11 Cley

11 ticks is pretty much par for the course – just below my average for the last nine years. What that actually reveals, though, is that I must be twitching more seriously and travelling further for new birds these days, since you’d naturally expect to see less and less each year as the game gets harder. Not sure how long that trend will continue – having twitched Scilly twice this autumn, I’m not sure there’s much further to go!

But extending the data sample beyond just lifers, there’s a few more insights to be gained. First, it reveals a few notable ‘multiples’ in 2011: 18 Yellow-browed Warblers (Shetland clearly still good for something!), 17 Sabine’s Gulls and 13 Grey Phalaropes (both boosted strongly by an excellent Pendeen seawatch). Then there were 4 Cattle Egrets, and 3 each of White-winged Black Tern and Woodchat Shrike. And my first Western Bonelli’s Warbler was followed by a second just a few weeks later… how often does that seem to happen?!

So where have I seen all these birds? Along with day-to-day records in an old-fashioned notebook, I keep track of all rarities and a range of other ‘notables’ in an Excel spreadsheet. (The list of species recorded is influenced a bit by my east coast background, so things like Balearic Shear and Storm Petrel are on there, alongside scarcities like Lapland Bunting and Yellow-browed Warbler). This makes it very easy to summarise where I’ve seen the decent birds. This year, the number of records per county looks as follows. (Note that The charts indicate ‘species days’ – so loads of Poms somewhere on a single date only counts as one).


But I haven’t always birded from Shetland to Scilly each year – compare to the overall totals, since I started birding. (This includes only the counties where I’ve seen more than ten notable birds):


No prizes for guessing which county I grew up in! I’m quite surprised that there’s such a gap between Norfolk and Suffolk (since as a kid, it seemed that we were down at Minsmere every other weekend)… but the spreadsheet never lies. It does illustrate how much you can see with a few trips to Scilly or Shetland, though – relatively few days birding there in the autumn really racks up some quantity. Continuing on a similar theme, the next chart looks at the best sites through my historic records:


Check out Rainham! Better than Minsmere, Porthgwarra and Dungeness! Unsurprisingly this isn’t a particularly accurate stat – it’s simply boosted by multiple days with Caspian Gulls, Penduline Tits and Serins…

But Cley genuinely is head and shoulders ahead of everywhere else: the only significant multiple here is Temminck’s Stint (seen at least one here five times, including two triples). It’s clearly delivered plenty of real quality, as well, with no less than eight lifers over the years. Minsmere comes second with six, and Titchwell with five.

Finally, it’s interesting to break the records down month by month. The chart below shows lifers on one scale, and rarities and scarcities on the other. No surprises here – there’s a notable pick-up in spring, especially May, and a bigger one in autumn. (It’s also clear you should go on holiday in March!) In the autumn, you can see a slight difference in trend between lifers (which peak later, in October), and other ‘notebook padders’, peaking earlier in September.


Sunday 27 November 2011

In the wilds of Thurrock

Been out to the east of the London area this afternoon with Paul H, primarily to count waders as part of Dave Morrison’s co-ordinated high tide roost survey. The saltmarsh and industrial structures generally hold fairly large roosts, and with a particularly high tide predicted, we were hopeful for a decent selection of birds.

Thurrock should definitely be classified as an urban site. It certainly lacking in classic wilderness scenery, though compensation is provided in the form of an extensive selection of graffiti on the river wall. Amongst the repetitive primary colour ‘tags’, a proportion of the panels are quite impressive.



And the entrance to the site features the most bizarrely contrasting pair of buildings you could imagine – St Clements church, and the enormous Proctor & Gamble factory looming behind it:


Once we’d made our way along the river wall, out of range of the sweet smell of Persil, and past Stone Point, we picked out a wader roost site on the south shore. Numbers weren’t anything spectacular (c350 Redshank, c100 Dunlin, 25 Curlew, 8 Oystercatcher, c30 Lapwing, few Snipe, Water and Rock Pipit), but in ridiculously warm sunshine for late November, life wasn’t feeling too bad at all.

And then Paul found these three little beauties!


Snow Bunting is not an easy bird to catch up with in the London recording area, and these were a tick for both of us (when I’d eventually managed to clap eyes on them!). Apparently my 226th in London, though I maintain I’m not really trying on that score – schlepping an hour each way round the M25 to the west London reservoirs, or crawling through to Beddington or the Wetland Centre, for species that I see regularly elsewhere doesn’t exactly float my boat!


Happy days… particularly for Paul, since he had had the foresight to put wellies on, and was able to splosh out for closer, on-the-deck views. My best photos shown here are pretty terrible, but I think you can expect something much better on his blog later!

Sunday 13 November 2011

Eastern Black Redstart, Margate

A day of many colours in Kent: black and red are obvious from the post’s title, but then bright green, flaming orange and gleaming white followed on, all set against glorious blue skies!

I made an early start to arrive at Palm Bay just before 8am and quickly found a small group of birders who confirmed that the Eastern Black Redstart (phoenicuroides) was still present. The first Black Red I clapped eyes on was a regular bird, showing well in the early morning light:


But then ‘the boy’ appeared, and proceeded to show superbly to just a few metres – it favoured railings and the seaweed-covered beach just east of the Jetski Safari office, sometimes flicking up above our heads to rest on the cliffs. It was repeatedly aggressive towards any other Black Reds that came nearby, perhaps appearing a fraction larger in direct comparison? As the sunshine strengthened, the intensity of the rufous underparts seemed to grow… and the rate of motor drives firing certainly did!


After filling my boots (and memory card) with the Redstart, I moved just down the road to check some local sites for migrants. First stop was Northdown Park, where I didn’t find much other than numerous Ring-necked Parakeets. They’re hard to resist, though – very smart!


And just down the road, I tried out King George VI Memorial Park on the clifftop at Ramsgate (brought to many birders’ attention when Andy Lawson and Rich Bonser searched the site and found a Bluetail on a rainy day a few autumns ago). The ivy-covered trees and holm oaks along the clifftop path held at least three Firecrests – for the second time recently, I spent more time than I intended trying to get photos, without really getting the killer shot I wanted. They’re just too quick!


After an hour or so checking the scrub around the old hoverport at Pegwell Bay, I headed south to try for some photos at Dungeness. My main target was the very long-staying Glaucous Gull – after a bit of research this evening, I reckon tomorrow will the first anniversary of its arrival at the site! I’ve not got a good track record with this bird, having missed it numerous times while looking for other things, but this time it was only too easy, soaring around over the fishing boats looking out for a free meal.


The remainder of the daylight was spent checking the ARC pit, noting a redhead Smew and a Long-tailed Duck, plus good numbers of Golden Plover.

Monday 7 November 2011

What did YOU come here looking for?

Just been idly scanning the search terms that people use to hit my blog, primarily from Google. Most make good sense – I have indeed written some words about:

  • Shetland bird blog    [alas, no more of this for another year]
  • “isabelline daurian shrike 2011 norfolk suffolk kent”    [well, I photographed one in Shetland and saw the one in Kent]
  • “pom skua 6th november cley”    [though I still maintain the bird I photographed wasn’t one!]
  • “catharus thrush in flight”    [no photos from me on that one, but <gloat >seen a couple this autumn </gloat>]

Stretching back a little further into the archives, we find:

  • birding blogs Texas    [alas, no more of this for several years in all probability]
  • African Fish Eagle   
  • Malawi Mammals
  • real Roadrunner   [and I threw in the cartoon version for ID clarification]

All searchers no doubt very satisfied with my elegant prose thus far. But we move on down the list and find a few less obvious options:

  • “14 point Red Deer alive”    [fortunately I haven’t highlighted the location of one, since I suspect it might be doomed otherwise…)]
  • “Birds of Thailand – grouse”    [doesn’t ring any bells – though sounds like a cryptic crossword clue]
  • “a lot of parakeets in the wild”   [my photos of just two were probably a disappointment]

And then we move onto the real quality. First, I wish Jono would just bookmark my site and stop Googling for it:

  • “attractive sheep”

Yep, really. Happily I am not on the first page of results for this specialist search term, though this post may well elevate my position in the rankings. Still, there’s no such thing as bad (baaaaa-d?) publicity: ewe never know who’s going to be reading your ram-blings. (Sorry – I’ll get my fleece coat.)

And then, finally, we reach the ‘just plain insulting’:

  • “bad photography examples”

I’m not on the top ten there, either, though it’s still something a little short of flattering. If that was YOU typing in the search box: I hope you were satisfied… but if not, please come back later. I’m sure I have plenty of material right up your street!

Sunday 6 November 2011

Getting Skua’d

Had a decent day up in north Norfolk today – seems like I’ve barely spent any time there at all this autumn, very unusual for me. With a fresh northerly blowing, seawatching was clearly the way to kick off, and I arrived at Sheringham around 0715 to find the shelters fairly full already. Fortunately there was a space next to Phil (complete with stylish stay-on-sock telescope case) and I was frequently grateful for his sharp eyes and regular calls of good birds. Having done quite a bit of seawatching already this year, only one species was new – Little Auk, of which I saw two fly past and one on the sea briefly. I also missed at least another couple. The photo below was taken at Cley a bit later on as it was diving in the surf.


Over the course of nearly four somewhat chilly hours, there was plenty of variety as birds passed constantly. In particular, there was a heavy passage of wildfowl from east to west, including a few species not noted for being seen at sea:

  • 8 Pom, 9 Arctic and 21 Great Skua – plus a few unidentified Arctic / Pom types
  • 9 Little Gull amongst hundreds of Kittiwake
  • 2 Red-necked Grebe
  • 6 Shag
  • Manx Shearwater – one distantly east
  • Long-tailed Duck – I picked up one of these trying to sneak through unnoticed, heading west with three Teal!
  • 8 Red-breasted Merganser
  • 3 smart drake Velvet Scoter west
  • 294 Shelduck west – probably the biggest passage I’ve noted on the coast
  • 9 Pintail
  • 8 Gadwall
  • 6 Goldeneye
  • 5 Shoveler
  • 9 Tufted Duck
  • 41 Eider, many adult drake
  • 21 Pochard
  • several hundred each of Teal and Wigeon
  • and last but not least 3 Avocet!

Quite a list!

After a much-needed hot drink and bite to eat at the Cley visitor centre, I popped down to the beach to look for the reported adult Pom Skua, hoping for some photos. It was still present, and showing well:


But hang on… is that ringing any alarm bells for you?! The bird looked quite barrel-chested and heavy in flight, though I had a few doubts in the field about the bill and the plumage features around the head and neck, but assumed that the ID was watertight and didn’t question it. Probably should’ve done now I look at the photos, because it’s got to be an Arctic, not a Pom!

Note the small pale area above the bill (a feature of adult Arctic that I’d never registered before checking Collins this evening), the fact that the black cap doesn’t extend down below the bill, the lack of any real breastband, and the almost uniform bill, which I reckon isn’t strong enough for a Pom. Leave a comment if you have any additional thoughts on the ID, especially if I’ve got it wrong!

After grabbing a few dodgy photos of a Little Auk drifting east, and taking a brief look at the Cattle Egret in Blakeney, I decided to turn my attention to passerines (and get out of the wind!) in Wells Woods. Just after parting with a disappointingly large sum of money for the carpark, a familiar (if somewhat dirty) car pulled up nearby driven by John F. Once he’d constructed a sandwich using some bacon from an Amazon package (they deliver everything these days…), we headed out in search of Sibe megas.

Heading towards the west side of the static caravan site, we got off to a good start as a familiar trill registered quickly enough for me to shout “Waxwing!” as it flew over our heads and into a tall tree. Another sign of winter coming soon…


Certainly not the greatest photo, but hard grey skies weren’t helping matters! Once Mr Bombycilla had headed inland, we proceeded to see… not very much! Lots of Redwing and Blackbird, and a handful of Goldcrest, but not a lot else. These Grey Partridge are quite regular in the area, but it’s not a bird I see all that often, so took a few snaps.


I’ll add just one final photo (setting the quality bar even lower for future posts!), taken yesterday on Sheppey in the drizzle. Standing on the raptor viewpoint, a lady pointed out two egrets in the adjacent field. Raising my bins I was surprised and delighted to see that they were both Great Whites! Annoyingly my camera was in the car, and by the time I’d legged it down to get it, they’d taken off and headed towards Shellness… so this is the best I got. “WOW", I hear you say. Not.


Wednesday 2 November 2011

Getting crafty

The nights are drawing in, the autumn migrants are slowly fading away to be replaced by winter visitors, and the blogging silly season is upon us.

Cast your mind back to last December…

The more attentive amongst you may recall ‘Robin the Twitcher’ making a brief appearance on these pages, having emerged from some festive wrapping paper, fresh from ever-clicking knitting needles in Norfolk. Here he is again, swotting up on some light reading in preparation for an exciting winter at the tip in Rainham, and considering a few foreign trips for the winter:


Clearly when he puts the bins down and poses for the camera, he’s far better looking than the average twitcher. Just watch out for him at the next mega, ladies.


Recently, Robin has acquired some friends. This little chap (yet to be named: suggestions?!) has kindly baked me a birthday cake, though somewhat rudely continues to remind me of my age whenever I walk into the house each evening. Thanks for that, Mum.


And just a couple of days ago, I discovered a new species to science in my front room! The Orange-headed Silky-winged Vaguely Paisley Owl (as its affectionately known) tends to favour exposed low-level hardwood perches, and although currently looking somewhat lonely, I suspect a colony may become established in the near future. Vocalisation not yet recorded, but the bicoloured wing panels and fetching eyelashes are thought to be diagnostic.


This fine beast is the work of my long-suffering and very talented wife, in a short break from working on a major cross-stitch project… getting on for 100 hours worth so far. Clearly this is far more productive and sensible than chasing around the country in foul weather hoping to see little brown lost birds and gain ticks on a pointless list… or so she tells me!

Commissions are available!

Tuesday 1 November 2011

On Fire on the Scillies…

Just a few pics from a cracking weekend in the southwest – we wondered whether pausing for the Firecrest photos had cost us the Northern Waterthrush, but happily the main attraction showed nonstop to a tiny group of delighted birders for 20 minutes later on Friday night! As usual, some of the common birds on the Scillies showed fantastically well (too close to focus on at times), and the scenery is always stunning.


Sunday 23 October 2011

The only way…

…is birding (in Essex). Thankfully, I didn’t go down to Cornwall where I would’ve dipped a Scarlet Tanager.

Too tired to write anything meaningful, but suffice to say I enjoyed a leisurely day out around Essex – there was even time for beer! Spent all morning working The Naze – so much great habitat – then Abberton and North Fambridge this afternoon. Sounds like we probably missed the big egret coming in ‘the wrong way’ tonight, but not to worry: the sunset was worth it on its own.