Saturday, 19 December 2015

Bugs life plus

Just finished my survey time off Senegal so here's a selection of some of the fauna that I saw during the voyage.
Grasshopper with a smile!

African Monarch

Pomarine skua

Sudan Golden sparrow

Sei whale

Fraser's dolphins

short-finned pilot whales

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A siege of egrets?

I admit I had to go online to find a collective term for egrets. I found that a group of herons are referred to as a scattering, a sedge or a siege- so I assume these apply to egrets too? My ship has been working mid way between Dakar, Senegal and the Cape Verde archipelago- for the past 10 days or so we have been circa 150+ nm from the nearest land and remarkably I have seen over a 100 egrets flying over the ocean. The birds have usually been in small flocks of 2 to 4 birds with a single flock of 8 being the largest group. All the birds have come up from the south and south west and been observed battling their way into the NE F5/6 winds that have been prevalent during my time here. Many of the birds have landed on the ship and taken advantage of the many wind-blown insects that have accumulated on the decks. I can't work out where these birds have come from or where they are trying to get to- I assume they have rounded the 'bulge' of west Africa to the SE having been displaced over the ocean and are desperately trying to get back to the coast of Mauritania or thereabouts. I have identified cattle egrets, a couple of great white egrets and what I think are probably intermediate egrets on account of their greenish lores and dark-tipped bills. All other species observed on migration here from blackcaps, redstarts, kestrels and swifts have all been heading south- as expected at this time of year- so a bit of a migration/displacement mystery to add to the many that I have encountered over the years, but a spectacle to be enjoyed anyhow. 

a chart showing my recent position

probable intermediate egret
probable GWE (left) and intermediate (right)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Cape Verde shearwaters

Some years ago (I'm too polite to say exactly how many) a group of intrepid birding greats including the likes of Tony Marr, Dick Newell, Richard Porter and Robin Jolliffe undertook a series of pioneering trips to Dakar, Senegal. These very capable birders embarked on a series of pelagic trips and recorded thousands of the fabled Cape Verde shearwater (Calonectris edwardsii) in the waters off Senegal. Additional, impressive passage counts of more familiar species such as Sabine's gulls and Pomarine skuas were also recorded. Years later, the immense potential for superb sea watching off Senegal continues to steadily gather momentum. 

Over the past few years I have spent a number of occasions with Tony, sea watching at the Butt of Lewis. During our many birding conversations we often discussed the possibility of me finding the  elusive Cape Verde shearwater, whilst undertaking my numerous surveys off the West coast of Africa. Despite much time scrutinising sea birds off the likes of Morocco, Mauritania and further south Gabon and Ivory Coast I have never managed to find one of these birds. Over the last week I have been working off Senegal and have enjoyed watching Cory's shearwaters on a daily basis- a few birds may have been candidates for Scopoli's shearwater  and I have also seen two great shearwaters and a solitary Manx shearwater. A few days ago whilst studying the Cory's I noticed some 'large shears' that although superficially resembling Cory's, appeared a tad smaller and slimmer (by about 10%?). These birds appeared slightly stiffer-winged, and possibly had slightly faster wingbeats- I'm trying not to string anything here! With better views the birds appeared to have more chocolate brown tones to the head as opposed to the generally diffuse greys of the Cory's. These birds also have more brown on the underwing. In certain light conditions the birds appeared rather 'capped'- something the Cory's never showed. Upon closer scrutiny it was apparent that the birds had thinner, grey bills although this has proven difficult to utilise as a useful field characteristic except when the birds ventured very close in and under very good light conditions. Generally though, the lack of a typical Cory's massive, yellowish bill can be a useful indicator under the right circumstances and with birds that 'cooperate'! With increased practice I have managed to pick up a few birds at greater distances, based on the faster flight action and generally slimmer/darker jizz, although readily admit it is not easy! Having managed a few photographs I was delighted to see that they were indeed Cape Verde shearwaters- a seabird 'lifer' for me. 

Identification is fairly straightforward at these distances! 

Monday, 9 November 2015

SEO migration

I'm back at sea- currently on a survey vessel off the coast of Mauritania/Senegal. I have been busy setting up the project but found time to snap a few shots of a wonderful short-eared owl that circled the ship before alighting and appearing to look for a suitable roosting site. There seems to have been a significant movement of these birds through much of the western palearctic recently, so I assume this is one of those migratory birds heading south to spend the winter in Africa. Wonderful birds.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Hot patch

Firecrest Durness
Firecrest- a patch tick!
As most patch workers will appreciate, sometimes it is easy to go for many a month or even a year or two with very little reward- but still we feed our addiction and keep plugging away in the hope of turning up a good bird on 'our patch'. If memory serves my last 'good' bird on a local patch was a grey phalarope back in 2009! Anyway, this week after getting back into local birding after the autumnal delights of the Hebrides and Northern isles I finally found a new patch bird in the shape of a delightful firecrest! Although not great rarity this is a very significant find in Scotland and particularly in the highland region where it is still a description species on account of it being recorded on less than an annual basis. I have managed to see the delightful bird on 3 of the last 4 days and am hopeful that it may over winter- it is in classic, sheltered habitat that should sustain it through the winter months. Having said that, last night was clear and fine and I couldn't locate it today. By a strange coincidence I had a day birding in the Durness region yesterday where I found another firecrest whilst in the company of Peter Stronach. Two birds, two descriptions and a patch tick! 
Firecrest in Durness

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Wilson's warbler, Port Nis, Isle of Lewis

Don't have much to say about this- I was fairly speechless when I saw the bird and although my photos. don't give the bird the full credit it deserves, some of the amazing shots put out on the various bird news services say it all- probably the best best bird I have seen in Britain! 

However, I will briefly thank Tony Marr and Roy Dennis for finding the bird and putting the news out so that others could enjoy it and also express thanks to the owners of the property who so willingly allowed several hundred birders access to their private garden. 

The vast majority of birders on site were incredibly pleasant, helpful and well behaved but I'm amazed at the 60+ year old chap from down south who squeezed through the legs of the patient crowd on all fours to get to the front of the crowd and then stood up in front of us and totally ruined our view and photo. opportunity- cheers mate whoever you are! Why is there always one? ;) Fortunately I stayed around and got better views later in the day when the minority hooligan element had dispersed. 

Shetland phase II

Back to Shetland for some more quality birding. This autumn has been fairly quiet by Shetland's usual high standards. Weather systems were largely benign, with no predominant airflow from either the east or west- just big lumps of high pressure sitting over the Northern isles- beautiful conditions for being in the field but not great for bringing in migrants. The priority for me and my fellow birders was to work habitat in the hope of finding our own birds. Although we worked very hard for a considerable number of days, our 'self-founds' were limited to a bluethroat, a Richard's pipit and a little bunting. The quality of birding was still very good however, and I have to remind myself that seeing Great grey shrikes, Red-backed shrikes, Richard's pipits, OBP and Dusky warbler in addition to heaps of YBW's is not to be sniffed at- especially now that I am back home in the birding 'black hole' of the NW highlands! We cut our Shetland time a day early to dash south for the little yellow gem found by birding friend Tony Marr on Lewis...........  of course that meant missing a red-flanked bluetail and a cattle egret- but I'm sure there will be further opportunities to catch up with those!..........

Barnacle geese over Lamda Ness, Unst.
Bluethroat, Quendale (not found by us!)
Little bunting, Toab
Red- backed shrike, Burrafirth

Dusky warbler, Sandwick

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Shetland- birding 60 degrees North.

Just had a great few days birding Shetland with some of my birding friends from the Scottish Highlands- Al Mcnee, Bob Swann, Richard Rafe and Peter Stronach. After initially twitching the amazingly tame Long-billed dowitcher just north of Burravoe, we decided to go and search for our own birds as opposed to just twitching the 'big' arrivals. It is probably a little early for the main event with regards to migration, although we met with varying degrees of success, clocking up two western Bonelli's warblers including a group 'self found' at Sumburgh. Other birds found included a red-backed shrike, six or so yellow-browed warblers, a couple of barred warblers and a number of pied flycatchers. A gropper found in a bed of nettles at Sumburgh initially had everyone's pulse racing! The Sumburgh Bonelli's was very interesting as we had initially tried to find the elusive booted warbler. Once again a pale warbler was encountered in awful light and in wet conditions and following fleeting glimpses of the bird in flight, it took the more senior and capable birders of the group some effort in deciding that the bird was a Bonelli's sp. and not the booted! Amazingly in the low- light and wet conditions no greenish hues could be seen although photos. of the bird showed otherwise! It was finally confirmed as a western Bonelli's after it was trapped, ringed and processed by some of Shetlands' finest. We later saw another western Bonelli's at Burrafirth and the good light conditions made that identification far more straightforward- especially as it had been previously found and identified by top, local birder, Brydon Thomason of Shetland nature. Hearing this bird call was a useful learning process for me. Of course, with some very challenging conditions we did not get everything our own way and dipped Pallid harrier, Booted and Eastern Olivaceous warblers but we also managed to accumulate a trip list of 97 species over our four days including marsh harrier, little stint, garganey, ruff, lapland bunting, red-breasted fly, common rosefinch, lesser whitethroat and jack snipe. A great trip North! I'm going back up in a couple of weeks with Shetland Nature and can't wait!
I have put a couple of phots. below comparing 'our' Western Bonelli's in the awful conditions with the one we later saw on Unst, showing the obvious effect good light conditions can have on the same species.
Western Bonelli's at Burrafirth
Western Bonelli's at Sumburgh
Long-billed dowitcher near Burravoe
Red-backed shrike, Sandgarth.
Grasshopper warbler, Sumburgh.
Yellow-browed warbler, Isbister. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Red-footed falcon

During last Friday mornings' shopping expedition down to Inverness, news came through that the red-footed falcon was still located at Girdle ness so I quickly curtailed my time in the Eastgate shopping centre and headed off for Aberdeen. A few hours later I arrived at the golf course and amazingly upon arrival saw the bird from the car as I pulled up. The light was poor and the foggy conditions were not ideal for photography although the bird was very confiding and allowed a number of birders to get great views.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

ID blooper- my white- throated-non-barred-eastern sub- Ruppell's warbler!

I hold my hand up and readily admit I made a howler of an ID blooper near the Butt of Lewis last Friday! I don't feel the need to make excuses- I have never considered myself to be anything other than an average birder with (obviously) limited experience of many tricky species. I still learn something new whenever I'm in the field. However, the way things transpired with subsequent suggestions of mega and rare bird species, coupled with a couple of negative/petty comments suggests that it may be beneficial to put the record straight.....

Having been out all morning looking for migrants at the Butt of Lewis in challenging conditions (Near gale- NNW Beaufort F7/intermittent, persistent rain and very poor light), I worked my way down to the dense cover of the garden at the rear of what used to be the Eoropie tea room. At about 30 metres from the garden I had a split second flight view of a 'sylvia sp.' that I initially thought could be a whitethroat. I saw the bird alight briefly and dive into dense foliage. Later, I managed a few dreadful photos of a pale grey, skulking bird in the swaying and buffeted vegetation. After 20 minutes or so, the bird again showed fleetingly and appeared sluggish and heavy. It was a pale bird against a dark background and in the wet and gloom I fell into the trap of thinking the bird was bigger than it obviously was. Soaking wet and cold and with rain on my 'foggy' glasses, bins and camera I trudged back to my accommodation to dry out. I downloaded some reasonable shots of ruff and black-tailed godwits taken during a 'dry' interlude and sent off a few shots of those to some birder friends and without really thinking I also attached my best 'whitethroat' shot. Later, after a shower and much coffee, I pondered the rest of the photos and realised with some consternation that the bird was not a whitethroat, but that it reminded me of a couple of barred warblers I had seen previously on Shetland during similar autumnal conditions. I sent out photos to some very capable and respected birding friends asking if this skulking bird could be a barred warbler. The photos were not great and they concluded the following morning that it was a 'probable' barred warbler although I must stress that it was my call. Later I met up with a local birder who asked if the 'barred warbler' sighting/photos could be put out to a 'local' email group to which I readily agreed. At the time I was not aware that the email distribution included RBA admin. and Birdline Scotland! I decided to go for a sea watch at the Butt for an hour, enjoyed a few sooty shearwaters, then once again returned to the tearoom garden. As I approached the garden the local birder pulled over and said 'Andy- I have been trying to phone you'! I have good news and bad news....... your bird is not a Barred warbler- it's a probable Ruppell's warbler- yikes! To be totally honest I had to look in a field guide to check exactly what a Ruppell's warbler looked like! I felt excited but also rather sheepish in consideration of the implications of my ID error and felt a strong desire to put my head down a rabbit hole! The rest is history. The weather improved, the bird was seen by two other observers and much better photos. were obtained. With further, better quality, photographic evidence available to the wider birding community, the bird was subsequently re-identified as a probable eastern subalpine warbler. Having now seen the other observers' superior images, I admit to being rather horrified at how different the bird looks from when I first saw it in the field when much of the plumage detail, leg colour and bill size were far from obvious. 

I received two, petty messages, from unknown 'birders' that were childishly rude and very critical of my error- these were immediately consigned to the bin! I also received a number of texts, phone calls  and emails from a number of very good birders from the Highlands, Hebrides, Shetland and Cornwall who have all been very supportive and have pointed out that many birders make mistakes when in the field and that most criticism comes from those armchair birders that rarely get out in the field in poor conditions. The digital age has become a welcome tool in sorting out tricky birds but gives little or no reference to field conditions and in some cases it has become far too easy to look at others'  photographs post sighting, from the comfort of warm, dry rooms with field guides to hand. I made a mistake yes, but it has been a useful learning curve and certainly won't stop me from getting out in the field and continue trying to improve my birding abilities. Hopefully the next time I find a rare bird I'll be able to ID it accurately. I would like to thank the birders who have been supportive - you all know who you are! Many thanks also to those gifted birders (sorry- don't know your details) that contributed to the debate with suggestions of Ruppell's and ultimately eastern subalpine warblers - hopefully a little more has been learned about the identification of these birds by the wider birding community and that can only be a positive. When all is said and done the bird is still a great record for the Outer Hebrides- now I have to sort out what the description criteria are?....

my 'Barred' eastern subalpine

black-tailed godwit

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Flight ops.

As is so often the case, a vessels' helideck often proves attractive to passing migrants. I assume from the perspective of a migrant bird it is the most attractive, safe option- generally clear of obstructions, normally devoid of personnel due to the exhaustive HSE rules n regs. and in wet weather it is often similar to a fresh water pool- obviously attractive when flying over the open ocean. On my latest survey it attracted two cattle egrets, semipalmated plovers, a semipalmated sandpiper, two least sandpipers and several passerines including fork-tailed flycatcher and small-billed elaenia- the latter bird proving very difficult to identify as initially it was thought to be one of the Epidonax flycatchers moving down from North America. A short-tailed swift did a number of incredibly fast sorties around the ship and eventually roosted under the helideck for a nights rest. 

cattle egret
Fork-tailed flycatcher
Least sandpiper
Semipalmated plover
Short-tailed swift- at speed!
small-billed elaenia- photo. Chris McCullough.