Sunday, 15 October 2017

Gulls in The Algarve October 2017

Steve asked about the gulls after my trip report to Portugal didn't mention any.

Portimao has a large fish harbour, which of course attracts many gulls throughout the year. The temperature during my trip regularly reached 35 degrees C +, so maybe this was the reason there were fewer gulls around than normal. It appeared that the Lesser Black-backed Gulls had not arrived in big numbers.

That said on my first visit I noticed an 3cy Azorean 'type' Gull peering down on me from the rooftop. This is my Azorean at the portico fish harbour, but so far no decision has been made on the previous two, so I will wait a while before documenting it fully. The light was very bright, so it was difficult to reproduce the correct grey tone of the upperparts.

Many of the Yellow-legged Gulls frequenting the harbour and the beach where we stay at Praia da Rocha are ssp. lusitanius. 1cy michahellis are more advanced in their moult having also moulted some coverts by October. Lusitanius 1cy can be told by the lack of covert moult and usually their small size. It is easier in January/February when the differences are more obvious.

1cy Yellow-legged Gull (presumed lusitanius)
Amongst the Lesser Black-backed Gulls that had arrived I recorded colour-ringed birds from England, France, The Netherlands, Norway, Scotland and Wales. There were also some that had been ringed in Portugal.

HLP ringed by the Severn Estuary Ringing Group
Dutch ringed N||9 LBBG Enjoying an Early Morning Paddle
As well as the big gulls we did come across nine first-winter Slender-billed Gulls near Faro.

And of course a few Audouin's Gulls and some Med Gulls but these were shy this time around.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Back to Shawell

At Shawell today I dropped straight back into the groove.

Eight Caspian Gulls today plus a German ringed hybrid that I saw last month. 5 1cy and 3 2cy.

Four German ringed gulls from the mixed colonies. Three looked good and the other was the hybrid mentioned above.

One was a new 2cy bird which posed nicely.

In addition I read an impressive 36 colour-rings.

2cy Caspian Gull X072

1cy Caspian Gull

Friday, 13 October 2017

Portugal October 2017- A Record Breaking Trip

I have just come back from another trip to The Algarve. This time we decided to make an attempt to see as many species as we could. My previous highest trip total was 135 species.

The first day is always a chilled out affair with a nice walk around Praia da Rocha and Portimao. Five Pied Flycatchers and a single Spotted Flycatcher in a small park were good, but the highlight was a Caspian Tern right by the road bridge over the River Arade.

We picked up our small hire car the next morning and I decided to head to the raptor watchpoint at Cabranosa which is close to Sagres. Just beyond Cabranosa is Cape Vincente, where, during the right conditions, raptors and other migrants are funelled down to the land's end of Europe. Many of these birds are juveniles that haven't learnt the correct route to the short sea crossings from Spain to Africa. Birds were passing overhead. Ten Booted Eagles, a Short-toed Eagle and two Egyptian Vultures were joined by a couple of Black Storks. A Hobby was a first ever in Portugal for Dawn and I and a Mistle Thrush was a good bird to get under our belt.

Egyptian Vulture

Black Stork

Short-toed Eagle

The Ria Formosa area always produces a good count. A full day in the area should produce about 70 species. Arriving before it got light was a good plan as two Tawny Owls were calling by the golf course. A Garden Warbler was another good one and we soon added a male Little Bittern to the tally. At the west end of the Ria Formosa Natural Park we ended up with a total of 70 species. On the other side of Faro is a small reserve in the Natural Park that we last visited during our first trip to Portugal in 2013. The prize here was a Red-necked Nightjar that we accidentally flushed. It flew around us only just off the floor. The sun highlighted its lovely rufous colour. It landed but just behind a hump. It then flew once more before alighting under cover and out of view. At this point we left it, but we were very happy indeed. The day finished on an impressive 80 species and a total of 90 for the trip.

The next day we received a text from Georgina (our daughter) saying Monarch Holidays who we were travelling with had gone bust. Ah well we said that is a problem for another day. The uplands at Monchique beckoned and so we put our worries aside and headed off uphill. Woodland species are on offer here and we picked up some good ones including a Long-tailed Tit. We walked up one of the taller peaks called Picota. The forest shades out the sun for most of the walk but near the summit there is no hiding from the sun and it was very warm. We sat looking down to the forest below when I noticed a large raptor flying below us. It was a big one and as soon as I got my binoculars on it I called juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle. Watching birds of prey from above is always special. A juvenile Blue Rock Thrush and several Dartford Warblers also helped move the list on. After a pleasant walk downhill it was time to drive up to the highest point called Foia. This hill is over 900 metres tall and is the highest point in The Algarve. Here we enjoyed drinks and an ice cream. A juvenile Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush had been seen a couple of days before and I was hoping it was still around. There was no sign of it around the summit, but I eventually found it on a rocky outcrop slightly downhill. I had lost Dawn by this point to her reading book!

Distant Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Foia

The total had now reached 118 species.

Tuesday is traditionally Castro Verde plains day and so why change. It was very hot inland and that reflected in the lack of birds. At Guerreiro a couple of juvenile Bonelli's Eagles were roosting: one on a rock and the other on a fence post. A few Calandra Larks were song-flighting and 20 Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over. No bustards were visible. Most of the day was spent searching for bustards and eventually we found nine Great Bustards. A Tawny Pipit was a good find and six Griffon Vultures passed over in a line.

The total was now 132 and close to our previous best.

A trip to Salgados Lagoons was sure to get us some new birds. This site is the best place to find Yellow Wagtails (presumably Iberian) and it didn't disappoint. A female Ferruginous Duck was an excellent find and that one drew us level with our previous best trip total.

By the end of the day we had reached 140 species and we were only half way through the trip.

The Sagres Bird Festival had begun and I had booked on a Pelagic Boat Trip. Fewer seabirds were around than in previous years but still those onboard enjoyed close views of Cory's Shearwater and European Storm Petrel. We also saw Great and Balearic Shearwater.

European Storm Petrel

After the boat trip I dragged Dawn from the Cafe at the harbour (she doesn't like small boats) and we headed to the raptor watchpoint at Cabranosa. Before venturing up to the viewpoint we enjoyed our sandwiches and I noticed a group of large birds of prey. I could see 20 or more Griffon Vultures and amongst them were two slightly smaller vultures. These two lacked the contrast across the wing that Griffon Vultures show and they were immature Ruppell's Vultures a new bird for me.

Ruppell's Vulture with Griffon Vultures and Black Kites (Ruppell's is third from left)

There is a large pine forest at Cabranosa, so after the birds of prey passage had quietened down we went for a walk. In the forest small migrant birds were trying to find shade. Our first Redstarts of the trip made themselves obvious as did lots of Iberian Chiffchaff contenders. A juvenile Ring Ouzel looked slightly out of place in the forest.


Presumed Iberian Chiffchaff

At the end of the day the total had reached 147 species.

The lure of Cabranosa's raptor passage was too much and so we returned the next day. A Lesser Spotted Eagle (Clanga pomarina) had been seen the previous week, so when it or another reappeared all those present were very very happy. Amazingly we also picked up a second year Pallid Harrier.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

153 species so far.

Next day we birded the Ria Formosa area near Faro in the morning and then went up in to the hills above Faro. A couple of Wood Pigeons was a major find near Ludo Farm. In seven trips to The Algarve this was our first record of Wood Pigeon.

Our total was now 157.

It was back to the Monchique area on Sunday to look for some of the species we had missed on our first visit. An adult Hobby whizzed over us as we were sorting ourselves out ready to set off walking. We had missed Iberian Green Woodpecker the first time, but managed to catch up with one this time. A Grey Wagtail was a good one feeding on the road on the wooded slopes of Picota. Large butterflies always fly around the bushes on the top of Picota. The Two-tailed Pashas are my favourites.

Two-tailed Pasha

In the afternoon we tried our luck again on Mount Foia. Loads of large dragonflies were hunting, but none allowed close approach. I decided it would be worth walking downhill to a small reservoir to see if any of the dragonflies were resting by the water. I noticed a falcon flying towards us and something about it excited me. It wasn't quite right for a Hobby as it looked like an adult that lacked its red trousers. On its second fly past I managed to get some photos. It wasn't a dark phased bird so I wondered if perhaps it was just a Hobby. Eventually it moved on and so did we. Higher up we saw what at first glance appeared to be the same bird, but no it was a juvenile Hobby catching dragonflies. In fact there was three of them. Also about 20 Ring Ouzels were milling around in the same area.

Back at our accommodation I reviewed the photo of the falcon and could see that it wasn't an adult, but neither was it a juvenile. It had moulted its two central tail feathers and the new ones could be seen to be longer. It coverts were also darker than the rest of the underwing. Only Eleanora's Falcon amongst the falcons of the region have longer tail feathers as adults. So its powerful wings, plumage and longer adult like central tail feathers all added up to it being a possible second calendar-year Eleanora's Falcon. However, ageing it isn't that straightforward, as there appears to be little wear to the secondaries and primaries. The contrast between the coverts and the outer wing is good for Eleonora's as is the long tail and the chestnut wash to the vent. The white on the face and breast has been mentioned as a feature of Hobby although neither of these features rule out Eleonora's

Possible Eleonora's Falcon
Possible Eleonora's Falcon

We were now on 160 species.

For our last full day of the trip I couldn't resist dragging Dawn back to Cabranosa for one last raptor festival. We weren't disappointed as the Lesser Spotted Eagle reappeared and showed well. We even saw a late Bee-eater and a couple of Turtle Doves.

Honey Buzzard

Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagle

This gave us a grand total of 162 species for the trip. We had missed a few that we usually see but I am really happy with the total. The Algarve is a superb birding destination - well worth a visit.

Back to Monarch, we had absolutely no problems and waiting on the runway to bring us home was a Boeing 777-200. The American crew were a pleasure to fly with. My only complaint was the flight was too short to finish watching the complimentary film!

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Yes You Guessed It - More Caspian Gull Stuff

It's been a great couple of months for enjoying the young Caspian Gulls at Shawell. These are the vanguard of a major range expansion of this species. Herring Gulls need to watch out or they will find themselves pushed out.

A juvenile Caspian Gull was a major prize a few years ago, but now you could reasonably expect to see one anywhere gulls gather in large numbers in England. Of course you need to have done your work to understand how to identify them.

The window of opportunity is quite tight, as they begin moulting almost as soon as they have made it here. In fact most have replaced a few scapulars by the first or second week of August. By mid-September some are in almost complete first-winter plumage. This is one of the ways of helping to distinguish Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls from Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in their first few months. However, by mid-September quite a few of them are moulting too although they still look fresher. Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls are born about a month earlier than the other two.

A Juvenile Caspian Gull's plumage is quite dull. The one below is typical of what to look for: very little patterning on the greater coverts (GC from now on). The inner GC are plain dull brown and the outer GC are a mixture of off white and brown. The darker inner GC often appear similar to the Nike swoosh logo. The median coverts (MC) and the lesser coverts (LC) are plain brown with buffish edges (if you don't know the feather tracts I'm talking about just enjoy the pictures). Of course the small head, long legs and the long winged appearance all help.

Juvenile Caspian Gull, Shawell, August 10th 2017

The one below shares all the feature of the one above and has a real dagger of a bill. Caspian Gulls love to just sit about.

Juvenile Caspian Gull, Shawell, August 12th 2017

The next one was quite distant, but you can still see the general plumage features and the washed out brown colour really shows well in this image. The whiteness of the head is a helpful although only when seen in conjunction with the rest of the features. The hanging rear belly is another feature of Caspian Gull, but it's not always like that and they can lose it two seconds after you see it.

Juvenile Caspian Gull, Shawell, August 24th 2017

By early September some of the scapular feathers have been replaced and a greyness starts to appear. The coverts still show that plain dull brown colouration.

Moulting Juvenile Caspian Gull, Shawell, September 9th 2017

You can clearly see the replaced scapulars on the next one

Moulting Juvenile Caspian Gull, Shawell, September 16th 2017

The next two images are of a German ringed bird X454. This one is a little trickier because it often looks a little short legged and dumpy. Not all the time though and care has to be taken with judging Caspian Gulls jizz, as they are very good at being shape changers. As you can see it has already moulted some of its median and lesser coverts, which is very good Caspian Gull pro feature. Its juvenile coverts are all OK, as are its tertials. I will give it the benefit of the doubt, but with the proviso that we watch it develop - good things these colour rings. Not all Caspian Gulls are sleek with a long straight bill and super long legs.

First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell, September 16th (X454)
First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell, September 16th (X454)

X739 is a smart looking bird although my photo hardly does it justice. As you can see this one has moulted its scapulars, but none of its coverts yet.

First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell, September 14th (X739)

The next one a first-winter has moulted its mantle and scapular feathers plus a few median coverts and is the most advance one I've seen so far.

First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell, September 16th

The last one X735 is a stinker. If you look closely its greater coverts are chequered and its jizz is more like that of a Herring Gull. Also the size of the markings on its scapulars are a little too bold. I might be doing it an injustice, but I think its a hybrid HG X CG. Its colour ring is not visible but it is the one with its head up.

First-Winter Hybrid, Shawell, September 16th (X735)

Saturday, 16 September 2017

A Barrow Load More Caspian Gulls

I had a great day at Shawell today - 32 colour-rings read and six or seven more Caspian Gulls found.

The highlight amongst the colour-rings was a crop of juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls: two from Norway, and singles from the Channel Islands, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands.

An obvious Caspian Gull hybrid from Germany was also interesting.

Here's my favourite Caspian Gull of the day:

First-Calendar Year Caspian Gull, Shawell 16/09/17

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Moulting Juvenile Caspian Gull

I had an hour after work at Shawell yesterday and three of the Caspian Gulls that I saw last Saturday were still there. This beast is a real smart creature - and a real bully.

I have now seen 49 different Caspian Gulls (give or take a few, as some duplication is inevitable especially as the juveniles age and alter their appearance).

Sunday, 10 September 2017


Whilst I was in Scotland a couple of weeks ago I took a visit to Burghead and I was pleasantly surprised to find about 90 Kittiwakes roosting on the seaward side of the Harbour wall.

Amongst them was a juvenile with a series of uncoded colour-rings. After a bit of detective work I managed to find out that it had been ringed at Finistère, Brittany, France on July 5th 2017. This is quite an impressive northward dispersal from its natal colony. I also learnt that it's mother has reached the ripe old age of 22. 

The Kittiwakes proved to be very photogenic especially the juveniles.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Caspian Gull Extravaganza at Shawell

It has been another busy two weeks. I was in Scotland on holiday last week so no time for blogging and this week has been all about catching up and becoming a Grandad!

My son's partner Trina gave birth to a wonderful baby boy called Riley.

I managed to steel a few hours at Shawell today and what a session I had. Three colour-ringed Caspian Gulls were the highlight, but in total I had ten Caspian Gulls. Seven juveniles that were all moulting into first-winter plumage, but still very juvenile like and also three second-summers/winter.

The first Caspian Gull in the video is the one with the bi-coloured bill (black tip pink base) the other two are fairly obvious: the one with the yellow colour-ring and the one on it's own.

Two of the colour-ring Caspian Gulls were from near Bad Duben and the other one from Grabendorfer See - Germany.

First Calendar-Year Caspian Gull, Shawell September 9th 2017

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Norwegian Gulling Trip

Last year I found a colour-ringed gull at Shawell that had been ringed in a Baltic Gull colony in Norway. The Horsvaer archipelago is the home to about 400 pairs of Baltic Gulls Larus fuscus fuscus. However, Norwegian gull colonies are tainted with a reputation of containing both pale and dark backed gulls. The adult gull I saw at Shawell (J727) looked the part - small and elegant, long-winged and very black. However, another gull from Horsvaer had been recorded in Britain and that one looked a little too pale.

I had been chatting with Morten Helberg in Norway who had been studying the gulls on Horsvaer and he invited me to come see for myself. It took a while but on August 1st 2017 I flew to Oslo and met up with Morten.

Morten knows how to show a visiting birder a good time. He whisked me off to the local tip where we were soon enjoying close up views of colour-ringed intermedius Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls.

Lesser Black-backed Gull L. f. intermedius

Next he had set up an impromptu ringing session. We went to another tip and set up a portable trapping rig. Loads of bread and dog biscuits attracted a group of gulls almost instantly. Once that trap was full we rushed over a threw a blanket over the trap. The main prize was an adult Great Black-backed Gull. The GBBG was ringed by Jon Evenrud and it managed to take some chunks out of his arm. Morten showed me how to ring the gulls and then set me loose. I ended up ringing two juvenile Herring Gulls although Morten fitted the colour-rings as they required a bit of practice.

And then it was off to the beach where Morten lassoed gulls to order.

Second Calendar-Year Herring Gull

I stayed the night at Morten's place where he has a lake on his doorstep as well as a forest. Before bed we enjoyed close views of a couple of Eurasian Beaver and a Nightjar.

The next morning we re-visited the tip and read lots of colour-rings. The highlight for Morten was reading the metal ring on an adult Great Black-backed Gull from Finland. Afterwards we caught a couple of flights north and ended up in a lovely town called Brønnøysund, which is in Nordland. We were to spend a couple of days checking the gull colonies on a series of islands collectively named Horsvaer. Our boat man, Runar,  collected us from the airport and within minutes we were on board his boat and making ready to set sail.

Runar's Boat is Called Teist, Which is Norwegian for Black guillemot

The sea was flat and in no time we had reached the islands. The skipper steered us to a sheltered mooring just as it was getting dark. Not far away on the nearest island a White-tailed Eagle was roosting on a wooden pole and Black Guillemots were splashing about near the boat. 

I woke early and the scene that awaited me as looked out of the port hole took my breath away.

I spotted my first Baltic Gull of the day before the rest of the crew were up. It was perched on the pier behind the fishing boat in the picture above.

Once we had eaten breakfast we put to work ringing the Baltic Gull chicks.

Adult Baltic Gulls with Two Chicks Bottom Left
Baltic Gull, Horvaer, August 2017
Baltic Gull, Horvaer, August 2017
Baltic Gull, Horvaer, August 2017
Presumed Baltic Gull Chicks
Presumed Baltic Gull Chick

Over the two days we ringed just over 60 presumed Baltic Gull chicks and one Great Black-backed Gull chick. This is represents a good breeding season for the Baltic Gulls, as often they struggle to fledge any. It was surprising to see that some pairs were still incubating eggs whereas some pairs had young that were on the wing. The overall situation was that the Baltic Gulls looked the part small, elegant, long winged and very dark looking. We did, however, find a couple of pale backed Lesser black-backed Gulls although we couldn't be certain if they were breeding in a mixed pairing. They weren't paired as they were about 45 km apart.

The islands they nest on are a far cry from the roof of the Braunstone Industrial estate in Leicester where their closely related cousins breed.

Abandoned Houses at the Location of the Last Colony on the First Day
The Sun Setting at the End of My First Day on Horsvaer

Brønnøysund is famous for Torghatten mountain - a rock with a hole through it.
Legend tells of a warrior who shot an arrow through the rock - or something like that. We came across the mountain when it was almost dark, but you can get the idea from the photo.

Torghatten mountain

A fantastic trip - thanks Morten.