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.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Dolphin delights

Whilst onboard the crew transfer vessel for the 24 hour passage to Paramaribo I had two great encounters with bow-riding cetaceans. First up were Atlantic spotted dolphins and then a couple of hours later the same thing happened with Long-beaked common dolphins. A real treat to watch both species cavort in the pressure wave ahead of our bow. 

Long-beaked common dolphin
Long-beaked common dolphin
Atlantic spotted dolphin
Atlantic spotted dolphin
Atlantic spotted dolphin