Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Essex birds

14 February 2015

Gunners Park, Wrabness and Wallasea Island

Other than a close encounter involving a mobile phone call while parked nose to nose at the Lydd Cattle Egrets in the pouring rain I haven't seen Gary this year, so when he suggested a day out in Essex I quickly agreed. We started just after dawn on a grey and drizzly morning in the glamorous location of a car park at Gunners Park Shoeburyness. There were just two other cars when we arrived but within half an hour the car park was full and there were hundreds of joggers clambering for their organised exercise. We walked around the various patches of bushes seeing good numbers of Greenfinch, Goldfinch and a few Chaffinch but there was no sign of the Serins. We walked out into the wet grass surrounding the site finding a pair of Stonechat, seeing a flyover Little Egret and a Redshank but still no sign of those small yellow finches. As the joggers departed we decided we should push on and drove over to Wrabness. 

We found a small community store in the village that had a great little cafe for lunch, then parked up in the Essex Wildlife Trust car park and wandered down to the river. After checking a mixed flock of Brent Geese and Wigeon we climbed onto the river bank where I soon located the immature drake Surf Scoter. It was pretty distant, feeding among Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser so we walked along to the hide where the views were slightly better. There were huge numbers of waders feeding on the exposed mudflats. A Snipe flushed from the eel grass, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank, Knot and Dunlin feed among flocks of Lapwing. With little chance of the Scoter coming closer we decided to head back south and our final stop of the day at the RSPB's new Wallasea Island  reserve. 

There is much ongoing development work as they shape the land, construct paths, a visitor centre, some floods and the hides and it may be a few years before it is complete. However they have seeded the area as a giant bird table and it has attracted over 300 Corn Bunting as well as plenty of food for raptors. I soon located the Rough-legged Buzzard which gave superb views as it persistently hovered over the field. A female Hen Harrier drifted in and soon the two raptors were fighting. There were at least five Kestrels, but none of the Short-eared Owls that have been seen most days. As the light faded we headed home, having enjoyed a good day out in some new sites and seeing a few good Essex birds.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Flighty Pipits and showy Owls

7 February 2015

Shellness and Capel Fleet

Winter birding on Sheppey can be varied and exciting, with a range of raptors and high numbers of Lapwings, Golden Plovers, ducks and geese. As I drove across the island a Peregrine flew over the road and across the fields - good start. I arrived at Shellness hoping to find the wintering Richard's Pipit that has been frequenting the grassy banks of the sea wall over the last few weeks.

I bumped into another birder named John in the car park who has the same objective so while he walked along the top of the wall I waded through the longer grass at the bottom inland side of the bank. Nearer the far end John dropped down along the base of the wall, and we made it all the way to the corner having flushed just a Wren, 2 Reed Bunting and a Meadow Pipit. The long grass made hard work so I stopped on the wall and scanned across the reserve. A Common Buzzard, hunting Barn Owl and several Marsh Harrier were the highlights, though the goose flock flushed off the reserve, the White-front heading inland towards Capel and the Brents landing in the field in front of me. The leucistic bird remained being easily picked up in flight and later on the ground. Skylarks were singing as I walked back to the car, this time along the top of the wall. A flock of Meadow Pipit, a few Skylark and Reed Buntings flushed from the seaward side, but still no sign of the Richard's Pipit. 

At the car park I bumped into Chris Bond. After a brief chat we repeated the walk back to the far corner, Chris on and below the bank and me in the grass. We arrived with the same result, meeting John returning from the hide. As Chris chatted to John the Richard's Pipit called and flew out from below them. Over the next two hours Chris and I carefully tried to get close enough for photos, but the bird was way sharper than us and repeatedly flushed, flying 10m or so further along the wall. With dogs and walkers now arriving the bird became very flighty and proved a real photographic challenge. With patience and much effort I did manage a few half decent record shots.

Richard's Pipit

I spent another 20 minutes scanning the reserve picking up the Hooded Crow which was wandering around in the fields. A few White-fronted Geese had joined the Greylags and a ringtail Hen Harrier hunted briefly at the back of the reserve. I wandered back to the car getting a few more views of the Richard's Pipit along the base of the wall, and left it on the edge of the saltmarsh.

Reed Bunting
As I reached Muswell Manor a distinctive shape appeared over the grassy ground between the road and sea wall. A Short-eared Owl was hunting in broad and sunny daylight. I parked and grabbed the camera, photographing it as it made some very close passes from the car. Always a treat to watch the bird performed brilliantly.

Short-eared Owl

Hunting in daylight creates a risk to Owls in that some other crafty raptors learn how effective they can be at catching prey and how to rob them. As I watched the Short-eared Owl it suddenly dived into the long grass. A Kestrel, predicting a successful catch, flew out from the telegraph poles and immediately dived at the Owl, startling it from its prey and stealing the mouse. The Owl wasn't giving up its late lunch that easily and gave chase, but the Kestrel won out and after a brief fight flew off with its stolen meal. 

The Owl fights back
It wasn't giving up easily
And put on an impressive display, but ultimately lost its prey
The Owl flew around screeching loudly in protest, but soon got back to hunting. It covered much of the field quite methodically and made several unsuccessful dives into the grass, before it moved across the road behind my car and tried the embankments. It soon got lucky and caught a rather large vole - no Kestrel in sight and it kept its prize.

Awesome birds
Cracking views

I finished at Capel Fleet where I checked the distant goose flock - about 150 White-fronts and 50 Greylags, and the large Golden Plover flock beside the road. A few Marsh Harrier and a Kestrel added value before the cloud came in and I called it a day.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

White wingers

3 February 2015


Having been distracted and delayed on our first day by the heavy snow and the lack of a Glaucous-winged Gull or White-winged Scoter we had a busy schedule today to try to see some of the rarities that were wintering in SW Iceland. We were up early, well relatively early, loaded the car and left the hotel before dawn (note that dawn here wasn't until 10:15). I was more than surprised as we drove back up the same road we arrived on. On the journey in I could barely see the road due to the white-out conditions and had no idea of the spectacular scenery that bordered the route. As we drove out it was -15C but crystal clear and consequently superb visibility. It turned out the road ran along the edge of a huge frozen lake with views to the horizon, at times along a cliff with a severe drop - glad I didn't know that when I was unable to see where the corners were! We stopped frequently to take in the views as the sun started to rise creating some stunning skies.

Our first stop was Hrauntúnstjörn where a drake Hooded Merganser was wintering. There are three lakes here and the bird moves between them but had been seen reliably every day. However the incredibly low overnight temperatures meant even these thermally heated lakes had largely frozen, significantly reducing the available habitat. Coincidentally the first Hooded Merganser in Kent arrived at Chilham the day before an unusually cold night that completely froze the lake on which it was feeding. Next morning just a frozen lake and no birds. I tried to block this negativity from my thoughts as we checked the drinking water compound where it had spent the previous day. From the small bridge I could see not a single bird. The lake was frozen. We moved around to the large lake where 7 Eurasian Wigeon were feeding with half a dozen Whooper Swan, but no Merganser. 

Flock of Whooper Swans in a thermal stream
A flock of Whooper Swan were feeding close to the road in a small thermal stream. The middle lake held two separate flocks of Tufted Duck but no merganser. I returned to the first area and climbed one of the small hills to get a view into some of the private areas. A female Merlin darted across the top of the woodland and I could see a flock of 20 Tufted Duck on a previously unseen lake, with 3 Eurasian Wigeon, but no Merganser. With time pressing we called it a day and moved on.

Mac did a fantastic job of navigating us into Reykjavik Harbour. We drove around the dock area, which being Tuesday was much busier industrially than at the weekend. The area around the blue boat was quiet, just a couple of Iceland Gulls. In the next dock a small pontoon held a group of gulls. I climbed out of the car and scanned the flock. Right in the middle was the 3rd winter Glaucous-winged Gull - a quite distinctively long billed bird. I grabbed the camera and got a couple of shots, but as I tried to get closer two guys got out of the boat moored alongside and the gulls flushed. 

The Glaucous-winged Gull sits among Iceland, Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls
Glaucous-winged Gull
Fortunately it had flown up onto the factory roof where it lined up alongside a couple of Glaucous Gulls and a Herring Gull. It seemed to struggle for grip on the icy roof and soon dropped out of view onto the flat roof behind the ridge.

Glaucous-winged Gull and a Glaucous Gull - note the raspberry pink legs
Underwing showing pale tips to the primaries

From the back of the factory we could see the gull resting on the snow covered flat roof.

Dusky head, black tipped primaries and pale underwing tips
Upperwing pattern and black spot on tail
Black spotted tail feather

A few other birds were seen in the harbour including 15 Glaucous Gull, 30 Iceland Gull, 10 Herring Gull, 4 Great Black-backed Gull, 2 Black-headed Gull, 30 Eider, 2 Black Guillemot, 1 Razorbill and 4 Red-breasted Merganser.

Black Guillemot
2nd winter Glaucous Gull - probably a hybrid given extent of barring on undertail coverts
2nd winter Glaucous Gull
We drove over to the gas terminal and I walked out to look for the scoter. The tide was out and most of the duck were more distant, but visibility was much better and there was no wind so I scanned across the bay finding 25 Red-throated Diver, 1 Great Northern Diver, 30 Cormorant, 250 Eider, 6 Long-tailed Duck, 3 Red-breasted Merganser and 6 Gannet. However there was no sign of the scoter. Around the factories a flock of 25 Snow Bunting and 2 Raven. After a great lunch in the dockside cafe we made tracks towards Keflavik. Fortunately another White-winged Scoter had been found near the airport in a small bay at Keflavik town. Edward had very kindly provided a map and we easily found the small bay which was viewable from the road. Mac again guided us straight to the right spot and after a quick scan I found the target close in against the rocks. We got quite close and managed a number of photos. 

Adult White-winged Scoter
After preening it stretched upwards and shook itself
Brown flanks and bill pattern identify it as White-winged

After enjoying views of the Scoter I wandered along the seawall to check a couple of gull roosts on the rocks. The expected mix of mainly Iceland Gulls, a few Glaucous Gull, Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gulls adorned the volcanic black rocks. Out in the bay several large rafts of Iceland Gulls included several 'Kumliens' Gulls and a few Black-headed Gulls were feeding along the tideline.

A raft of Iceland Gulls offshore
A Kumlien's Iceland Gull
A Glaucous Gull takes flight
Iceland Gulls
3rd winter Kumlien's Gull
Adult Kumlien's Gull
Adult Kumlien's Gull
Adult Iceland Gull
Adult Iceland Gull
3rd winter Kumlien's Gull
Iceland Gull
Iceland and Herring Gulls roosting on the rocks
Time was running tight and not wanting to get to the airport late I took a few more images and did't really have time to study any odd looking birds. An apparent 1st winter Lesser Black-backed Gull was seen among the Iceland Gulls on the rocks.

And just as we needed to leave I picked up this bird resting out in a flock of Iceland Gulls. It took flight and drifted in towards the rocks. I fired off a few shots as it approach and as it landed, but had to leave before I could study it. With only these images to go on it looks like a very interesting individual, showing a number of Thayer's Gull features and probably too dark in the primaries and tail for even the darkest Kumlien's. Would welcome constructive comments.

First winter extreme dark Kumlien's Gull showing pale underwings with hint of dark primary tips.
Dark primaries and dark tail look very Thayer's like, but in range of extreme Kumlien's - see comments at end of blog
Dusky head, neck and belly
It landed on the rocks but faced towards me. I'd run out of time to try a different angle.
It appears paler in this shot, but could be exposure. The pale bill base more typical of Kumlien's
We drove to the airport dropped off the car and arrived in perfect time for the flight. Iceland had one last treat; as we taxied down the runway a grey phase Gyr Falcon raced past the window and veered away across the airfield. An absolutely awesome surprise trip that produced some really fantastic scenery, food, hotels and birds. Looking forward to returning sometime soon. 

Not having previous experience of Thayer's Gull and given its extreme rarity (just one prior record in Iceland) I sought advice from Richard Bonser, who has studied this species in California (see link). His view is that the odd gull is a nicely marked Kumlien's Gull  suggesting structurally it was too round headed with a meagre bill, that the upper parts were too hoary rather than chequered as they should be in Thayer's. He also pointed out that the lack of contrast between the inner and outer webs of the outer primaries is typical of Kumlien's. The tail band was within Kumlien's range, but at the darkest end its pale based bill was unusual, though not unknown for Thayer's. Very helpful and instructive comments, much appreciated - so much to learn. Thanks Rich.