Tuesday, October 27, 2015

And the plot thickens...

Well it's been a couple of years since I had my hands on a gull, but the good thing about gulls is that they are long-lived, fly around the world and teach us important lessons. U0JD is such a gull. I ringed it in January 2010 with Amir Ben Dov (who has recently won the Bird Photographer of the Year award) and Francis Argyle at Ashdod as a 2cy (hatched 2009). It was young and ugly back then, and to be honest we were not sure what it was. It kept returning to winter in Ashdod as it matured, and we had a idea it was a Heuglin's Gull. However, the moult was not quite right for Heuglin's (too early), in fact it was closer to Lesser Black-backed. Here you can see a collection of Amir Ben Dov's excellent images:

February 2014

March 2013

January 2012

February 2011

January 2010 - ringed 

Me and Francis handling U0JD

In April 2013, only nine days after leaving Israel, this individual was observed in southeastern Poland by Mariusz Dabek (2590 km!), and stirred quite a debate among some gull experts about its identity. There are no records of heuglini in Poland to date, and it was thought that bird is an intermedius / fuscus type thing, from the N Norway colonies. This famous bird was well documented by Amir, and has a page of its own on gullresearch.org.

A few days ago exciting news, bad rather sad, reached us from Germany: Rolf Zimmerman found U0JD's remains near Köln, western Germany, on 15/10/15. Sadly this bird will not give us anymore information, but it is interesting to think where it was heading to and from where. It's an extremely western location, and I doubt if it was heading south from the N Norway colonies. I guess that it bred somewhere in northwestern Europe, but who knows. Anyway, with such a westerly location, and rather pale mantle, it could fall into graelsii group quite OK?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Poll: birding or cherry-picking?

I had a week of torture. I sat in front of my computer at work, watching all those rarity reports pouring in from Norfolk, and I just couldn't get out until today. So today I had to decide what to do - to try and check an area with habitat to try and find my own birds, or go cherry-picking? What would you do? And there were many cherries to pick in Norfolk yesterday and today: 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, 3 Daurian Shrikes, Blyth's Reed Warbler, several Pallas's, Radde's, Hume's and Dusky Warblers, Olive-backed Pipit and a few other bits and bobs. That's an impressive line-up! I guess for the blog it would be wiser if I got great shots of these rarities, that I could promote on social media. But eventually I decided to go and try my luck in finding something new. I just know I wouldn't enjoy spending a full day chasing after long-staying rarities (that I don't 'need'). As I left home in Norwich a flock of 120 Redwings flew over, so my expectations were pretty high. I headed out to my regular hunting ground - walked from Stiffkey Campsite almost to Wells and back. The wind was too strong today which kept the birds silent and not very active away from the few sheltered spots. In the sheltered spots it was clear that there were huge numbers of Goldcrests - many new arrivals, feeding in less-than-optimal habitats, and some jumping right by my feet. I quite like this photo - the blackberries and the spider web:

They are just lovely aren't they? Can't have enough of them

In the campsite woods there was one Yellow-browed Warbler and a Firecerst with the goldcrest flocks. I then started walking west. After a short while I bumped into the Great Grey Shrike but it kept its distance and was very mobile, so no images. There were many thrushes in the trees and bushes, but because of the strong wind they refused to move out of bushes so I guess my estimate of 150 Redwings between Stiffkey and Garden Drove is conservative. There was one Ring Ouzel and one Fieldfare with them. Another Yellow-browed Warbler was somewhere halfway, and I heard and saw briefly the Pallas's Warbler at Garden Grove. It showed badly in the canopy of the large sycamores there, no photos either. There were many finches as well, about 15 Brambling. Other birds of interest were 2 Redstart and 2 Lesser Redpolls.

Lesser Redpoll

Only Brents showed nicely today, shame the light was crap. Large numbers already, and also several hundred pinkfeet were seen today.

After I was done I had time for a very quick look in Wells Woods. I couldn't bother chasing the rarities there - there were too many birders around, some running - not my cuppa birding. So I birded off the main track for a bit, more thrushes etc. and I bumped into the Hume's Warbler without planning to - heard it calling and it showed badly high up in the trees. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Shetland summary - birds, birding and people

Arrived back home in Norwich a short while ago. I want to blog about this week when the memories and impressions are still fresh. Do you remember that a week ago I posted an appetiser towards my week on Shetland? It seems so distant now. Left Shetland late in the morning but the weather was crazy this morning - no chance for birding sadly, but the storm was powerful and impressive. Gale force easterlies and heavy rain. Apparent that there are lots of birds on the ground - just around Roger's house many Redwings and Yellow-browed Warblers, but no chance for outdoor birding today. I am jealous of the guys staying on Shetland for the next few days - feels like it is going to be amazing.

My trip to York was rather crazy. The plane left 40 minutes late, and then was delayed by another 30 because there was a fire in Edinburgh airport (!) that created a traffic jam. And then my bag never arrived. I left the airport at 14:05 hoping to make it to the 14:30 train. Almost hopeless. Luckily my taxi driver was up for the challenge and got me to the station at 14:28. Mad run in a heavy downpour, lucky I found the platform quickly. The train doors started closing when I leaped forward and jumped onto the train, Hollywood-style. Pheew. 

Now I have time to wind back and think about all the experiences I had this week. Although you would expect me to begin with the birds I saw and those I didn't, I will actually begin with the people. I traveled up with Martin and Sharon. Without each other I think we would not come up to Shetland. I was badly organized and independently I wouldn't have had enough time to get properly set up there. Without my nagging and enthusiasm I think Martin wouldn't have gone either. It was magical to spend quality time with Martin and Sharon, in the field and indoors. Martin's good spirit is infectious and he constantly motivates me to go out and explore. Thank you Martin.
And through Martin I got to make new friends. First of all Paul Harvey and Roger Riddington. Two very special and dear people. I read about them from a very young age, so I knew about their birding career. They are both phenomenal birders, and I enjoyed every minute of birding with them. I especially enjoyed observing them working a patch together, such as Sumburgh Lighthouse circuit that they must have done together hundreds of times before. In SAS-like manner, they both know exactly what to do, and exactly what the other is doing; no words are needed. Epic. This week I got to know them properly. I knew Roger from before, but during this week our friendship strengthened, together with his lovely wife Agnes. I stayed with Paul all week. His open house is so warm and everyone feels there so welcome. Incredible laid-back hospitality - truly outstanding. And then Peter Colston, Tring legend, who stayed at Paul's as well. Again, it was awesome to spend time with someone I read about from the age of 10. He is a cool guy, lots of fun, and together with his mate Tony they made a great team. And then there were all the other locals who made me feel so welcome - Gary, Becca, Phil and Ayda-Ruby - you are all stars! Thanks a lot. Thanks to Shetland Bird Club for inviting me to talk - I really enjoyed it. Will and Pierre - great spending time with you guys, thanks so much.

Peter Colston, Martin Garner, moi, Paul Harvey and Roger Riddington

And what about the birds? Well, it was a difficult week. First of all, the hard work: during this week I walked through miles of iris beds, peeped into numerous gardens and pished more than I had ever pished before. And all of this for rather little reward. I did find some decent or half-decent birds (Blyth's Reed Warbler, Red-throated Pipit and Bluethroat) but in spite of my efforts I didn't score any higher than this. I was very happy with the Pechora Pipit, it's a bird I had wanted to see for many years. The Arctic Warbler was a good bird though it showed badly. Other than that there was the impressive influx of Yellow-browed Warblers, and several other quality scarcities such as the cracking Lapland Bunting. 

'My' Blyth's Reed Warbler in Toab

Wet Pechora Pipit, Norby Loch

Yellow-browed Warbler, Whalsay

Lapland Bunting, Sumburgh Head

But generally birding was very difficult and offered little reward, partly because of the non-favourable weather conditions, and partly because that's how birding in Shetland is. The only way to appreciate the birding there is through a long-term, multi-year relationship with the place. A one-week gig is almost certainly bound to disappoint, but then probably every two or three years you hit it right with the most incredible birds in the WP. 
What did I miss this week? I could have gone for the Swainson's Thrush on Unst, but that would be a mad rush and would cancel a lovely evening we all had together at Roger's. So I decided to give it a miss. Siberian Thrush is a proper monster mega, but there's no way I would be able to get to Fair Isle and off the island in time to head back home today. And the bird was not showing actually. There were a few other rarities around I didn't go for - American Goldy, Eastern Subalp Warbler, Rustic Bunting and a couple of OBP's. I guess that if I had my own car I would gone for at least some of those. However I was dependent on others to drive me so I did not try very hard to get to see them. I always chose to try another patch to find my own birds - it was more enjoyable than a daft twitch. 

In the bottom line, the combination of great companionship, good birds and being on such a special island made this trip unforgettable. I am not a Shetland virgin anymore, and I hope the next trip will be even better. So till next year - so many thanks to all those involved, including my amazing wife that without her support this trip wouldn't have happened. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Shetland day 6 - many non-sibe thrushes

Woke up early in the morning and the weather conditions were ideal. Walked out with Pierre and immediately we had a flock of Redwings overhead. We both said: today is a day for a Sibe Thrush. We were so right and so wrong. 
We headed off to spend the day on Whalsay. In the morning the weather was quite nice - sunny with a moderate easterly wind, but during the day the wind picked up considerably (now there is a gale outside). We first checked the famous plantation - it had a few Redwings, a Brambling and little else. When we returned there around noon it was packed full with fresh migrants - several yellow-brows, many Goldcrests, Pied Fly and a few others.

Redwings - when it was still sunny

The plantation

During my week on Shetland I probably saw more than 100 birds but I just cannot have enough of these stunning little sibes:

Yellow-browed Warbler


We then continued checking iris beds, crop fields and gardens all around the garden. The wind made birding more difficult. We came up with nothing of real interest. Another Pied Fly, Whinchat, Lesser Whitethroat etc. I had three flyover Redpoll thingies and a flock of about 30 Twite: 

'Shetland' Wren

Hedgehog - introduced like all mammals on Shetland. Rather sinister-looking.


Around noon news broke of a Siberian Thrush on Fair Isle. Classic. Pierre immediately started calculating how to get there on time before the winds were too strong, and to get off on time for his connections to Corvo. After a few phone calls we figured out that flights for the day were cancelled because of the wind, and anyway the bird wasn't really playing ball over there. So we gave up the idea and continued birding in more leisure. We finished up on Whalsay and went on to check some sites on the east coast. More thrushes, yellow-brows etc. but that's it.
Today was my last full day on Shetland. It was a good day despite not seeing anything rare. By the sound of the wind outside I doubt if I get any birding done tomorrow morning before I head back home. We'll see. Good night.

Shetland day 5 - Lap Bunt but not there yet

Winds dropped today and it was an exceptionally calm day, sunny at times. This raised hopes for new arrivals. Well, that hope was almost completely false. I spent most of the day with the Dream Team, Roger and Paul. We started off with the Sumburgh circuit. Some stuff moving about up in the air - several Lesser Redpolls, Siskin and quite many geese. In the bay several Slav Grebes and Long-tailed Ducks:
Long-tailed Ducks - juveniles

Slavonian Grebes

Then we had a thorough look around Quendale. Also today the iris beds did not deliver. One Common Sandpiper and a Whitethroat were new. There were two Great Northern Divers there as well. I did play around with the Fulmars a bit.

Amazing scenery off the end of Quendale head

After lunch the news about Swainson's Thrush broke. I decided not to go because it would have been a mad dash, and I preferred to stay in the south and look for my own birds. Mistake? 
In the afternoon we checked Sumburgh head. A very showy Lapland Bunting (adult male?) was at the carpark. Lots of admirers there. Stunning bird! 

The view off Sumburgh Head was stunning:

Fair Isle was visible in the distance:

Last place we checked was Scatness. Roger found a very unsettled Sibe Chiffy but by the time I joined him it had evaporated. 
Lovely evening with all the team - certainly pumped me up with energy for tomorrow. Weather is looking promising. Hope my last day on Shetland delivers.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Shetland day 4 - Red-throated Pipit and more

Had another great day today on Shetland. Headed out early onto Scatness. Paul dropped me off and just a few minutes after I had started walking I heard a familiar call - Red-throated Pipit! I quickly located the bird flying overhead. The wind was blowing hard from the southwest so it quickly flew northeast, and it gave another 2-3 calls before I lost it flying in the general direction of Sumburgh. While watching it I reached for my phone and tried to sound record it but all I got was the wind... Luckily I am well familiar with this call - common species in Israel. Nice one.
Otherwise it was still pretty quiet. I had one nivalis Snow Bunting and about 8 Northern Wheatears. There were many skylarks and Meadow pipits around but I couldn't relocate the red-throat or find anything else. On the wetland there were 8 Whooper Swans and a nice selection of scarcish Shetland ducks - singles of Pintail, Gadwall and Shoveler. Also 1 Jack Snipe.

Snow Bunting

Northern Wheatear

Whooper Swans

Roger graciously picked me up and we went on birding. First we checked Durigarth. No White's Thrush in the famous garden - we had to settle with this handsome male Lesser Redpoll, rather scarce on Shetland:

Then we checked Rerwick  - nothing there apart for a Great Northern Diver in the bay.

In the afternoon a visit to Lerwick with Martin and Sharon. We first tried the OBP - there were many birders there, some stringing Meadow and Rock Pipits in the process of hanging around... We didn't fancy that activity very much, so we went to have another look in the harbour - again many Eider and about 20 Black Guillemots.

Dodgy OBP (Rock Pipit)