Saturday 31 December 2016

Surf Scoter at Rutland Water

On Tuesday an immature scoter was spotted off the dam at Rutland Water. Its identity was revealed when it wing flapped and showed plain brown wings. Velvet Scoters have a white wing panel, so this bird was a first-winter Surf Scoter - a county first!

I was at work most of this week, so I had to wait until this morning to go for it. I thought I'd made a bad decision setting off early as it was very foggy on route. Luckily the fog wasn't too bad near the dam, although it was still very murky.

The Surf Scoter was still associating with a small flock of Tufted Ducks near to the shore about halfway along the dam.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Shawell Again

Since my last update I have visited Shawell a few more times. One of the highlights for me is welcoming back returning colour-ringed gulls. The Herring Gull pictured below returned to Shawell on December 17th. It was ringed in Finland in 2007 and since 2014 it has wintered at Shawell. Today I saw a Herring Gull that was colour-ringed near Kings Lynn. I have seen that one (1Z1B) ever winter since 2012. I also saw German ringed Caspian Gull (XNDJ) again today - that one has also been returning to Shawell regularly since 2014.

Adult Herring Gull (note the yellow legs), Colour-Ringed in Finland C02CN

The A5 Lagoons are a bit hit and miss these days, due to disturbance from various creatures including a man who walks round the edge of the lagoons fairly regularly. I haven't caught up with him for a chat yet, but I will. As a consequence I have been devoting most of my time to watching the gulls at the sand quarry next to Cotesbach Landfill site. The good thing there is that all the gulls have there legs out of the water. As a result I get to read more colour-rings.

There are at least seven Caspian Gulls around at present: three adults, one 4CY, two 3CY, one 2CY and one 1CY. The 1CY was seen by Martin Elliot, but I can see from his photo that I saw it in both September and October.

The 2CY in the video below showed very well this afternoon. The video doesn't do it full justice as the lovely silver grey of the mantle and the median coverts has lost something. Nevertheless it shows how distinctive the body shape is compared to the nearby Herring Gull.

Friday 23 December 2016

Merry Christmas

Wishing Everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - thanks for visiting my blog during 2016.

Saturday 17 December 2016

Caspian Gulls and Other Stuff

Today was another dull day at Shawell, but the sun was shinning when I called in for my lunch break mid-week. Whilst I was eating my sandwiches the gulls were enjoying a splash about. One of the nearest gulls was an adult Caspian Gull, so I took lots of photos of it. The light was a bit harsh, but some of my digiscoped efforts turned out OK.

Adult Caspian Gull, Shawell 14/12/16

Adult Caspian Gull, Shawell 14/12/16

Today I saw five different Caspian Gull at the Shawell. One was a bird I have seen three winters in a row now, but the others were not so distinctive. Many of the Caspian Gulls return to Shawell year after year. It is not always easy to know whether I have seen them before without a colour-ring to help, however. I managed to photograph three of today's Caspian Gulls. The light was really awful, so photography was quite a challenge.

Adult Caspian Gull, Shawell 17/12/16

Adult Caspian Gull, Shawell 17/12/16
Adult Caspian Gull, Shawell 17/12/16

A Herring Gull that was ringed in Finland reappeared today. I have now recorded it three winters in a row at Shawell. It is a yellow legged individual with lovely long wings.

Finnish Ringed Herring Gull (C02CN)

I also saw a Lesser Black-backed Gull that I first saw back in 2013. This one was ringed as a breeding adult on the Isle of May, Scotland in 1991, so it is over 30 years old. It colour-rings are wearing out, the green one with the white letter M has migrated up its leg and the orange and red uncoded rings have broken up and become one ring.

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, Shawell 17/12/16. Ringed on the Isle of May as an Adult in 1991

Saturday 10 December 2016

A Damp December Day at Shawell

Did it get light today? Very difficult conditions.

The gulls are a bit unpredictable at present - maybe the mild weather. The lagoons were the best spot until a buzzard came a hunting.

A first-winter Mediterranean Gull was a nice surprise. These are much rarer at Shawell than Caspian Gulls - I have only found 18 since 2012.

First-Winter Mediterranean Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, December 10th 2016

I'd love to be able to see all the gulls gathered together in one area at the moment, as I'm sure there must be more Caspian Gulls around. I had to settle for just one adult today. Compare its clean looks to the scruffy appearance of the Herring Gull. The small head and beady dark eye also help to separate it from the Herring Gull.

Adult Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, December 10th 2016

Friday 9 December 2016

Dusky Thrush

As you might know, a first-winter Dusky Thrush was discovered in Derbyshire earlier this week. Large crowds gathered and the TV cameras arrived. I had been very busy one way or another mid-week, so I put it to the back of my mind. However, I eventually succumbed to the pressure and decided to try a quick dash to Beeley this morning.

Beeley is a small village, so I'm sure the residents are quite amazed by the invasion of birders. They seemed to be enjoying the event and were making the most of it. Tea and buns were on offer and I'm sure the village pub has done well out of it.

Anyway the bird was showing on arrival but distantly. Eventually it headed to a small field and fed on apples. Photography was very difficult due to needing to get close to the bird, but there was a 2 metre tall wall in the way. I did manage a few record shots by standing on my tip toes, but they are nothing to shout about.

Mission accomplished and back to work before I was missed - result!

First-Winter Dusky Thrush, Beeley, Derbyshire, December 9th 2016

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Yellow-legged Gull pretending to be an American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus)

I checked Facebook's Western Palearctic Gull Group this morning to see if I had any comments on a selection of photos I had posted. Staring back at me was a gull that I was very familiar with and it was captioned as an American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus). I knew when I saw it back in November that it was something interesting, but I could not put a name to it.

After my holiday I uploaded pictures of the gull to the Facebook group and asked for opinions. I felt that if it was the default species, Yellow-legged Gull (larus michahellis), then it was a very untypical one. The first answer I received was that it was a typical Yellow-legged Gull. Alex Boldrini from Italy suggested it was a Herring Gull, so well done to him. However, the fact it appeared to have yellowish legs pushed the general opinion to Yellow-legged Gull. Alex and I argued that it was not a typical Yellow-legged Gull, but we were shown some examples of so called similar gulls. Alex argued that they were not actually matches, but the thread dried up and we all moved on.

Well yesterday Peter Adriaens and two others were at the Portimao Fish Harbour and they independently found the same gull. They identified it as an American herring Gull.

Putative American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour

The key to the identification is only seen when the gull is observed in flight from above or during a wing flap whilst preening. The secondaries show black markings rather than vermiculations, which are shown by Old World Herring Gulls. This is perhaps something I should have known, but it just hadn't stuck in my head, probably because I hadn't seen one before. Its quite tough to learn about something you are unable to experience. The greenish tinge to the bill is said to be good for AHG and the black markings on the tertials are also a helpful feature. I have quickly learnt about these features, but things are always easier when someone points you in the right direction.

It was quite docile when I saw it and was hanging about on 'Death Row'. This is an area at the harbour where sick or injured gulls tend to congregate. As such it walked away rather than flew, so I didn't capture any flight images. 

Putative American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour

Putative American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour

Putative American Herring Gull, November 12th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour

Putative American Herring Gull, November 17th 2016, Portimao Fish Harbour
I had no idea the complexities of gull identification when I began this journey, but I am having great fun learning.

Update: since this post our bird has become the most discussed gull on facebook. Some now think it is probably a sick Yellow-legged Gull. Incidentally this was the view I took after finding it in November 2016. It returned to Portimao as a fourth-winter and its primary pattern, according to American gull enthusiasts, does not match any AHGs. However, both myself and other observers in Portugal have not seen a lusitanius Yellow-legged Gull that matches this one. The head streaking for one thing does not match any third-winters birds I've seen in Portugal. We wait its capture and DNA test if anyone is up for the challenge.

Second update: it has apparently been tested and its DNA fits YLG. The oddest looking YLG, but there you go.

Saturday 3 December 2016

A Paler Shade of Grey

Since arriving back from Portugal I have had a few successful trips to Shawell, but it has been quite hard work. Why? Well here's the list: men with guns, men with dogs, buzzards, cormorants, herons,  peregrines and foxes. I would quite happily shove the 12 bore rifles somewhere where the sun doesn't shine. 

For the next few months Herring Gulls are the dominant species at Shawell. Today I read colour-rings on no less than 13 Herring Gulls, which is the best total I've ever had for this species since I began recording colour-rings at Shawell back in January 2012.

The highlights from my Wednesday lunchtime visit and today were three Caspian Gulls and a colour-ringed Lithuanian large gull. It seems to be mostly Herring Gull, but I wouldn't rule out a bit of Caspian Gull blood.

Today's Caspian Gull was a first-winter, quite an advanced one. Not only has it replaced its scapulars, but also many of its coverts including some outer greater coverts. The other first-winter this week was not so advanced. The advanced bird was also there last Saturday.

First-Winter Caspian Gull

Lithuanian Ringed Herring Gull

The Lithuanian gull is the first colour-ringed large gull from that country that I have seen at Shawell. I have had a colour-ringed Black-headed Gull from there though. It was ringed as a chick during May 2015 at Kretuono ež. Didžioji sala, Švenčionių r., Lithuania. 55°14'45"N 26°04'45"E.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Back at Shawell

Four Caspian Gulls at Shawell this week: two adults and a couple of first-winters. One of the first-winters was a German colour-ringed bird. It was ringed at Grabendorfer See - a large lake near Liepzig. I visited this site in April when I took part in the International Gull Meeting. Not a classic, but probably OK. The greater coverts are a little more patterned than I like, but examples like this are within the accepted variation. It has replaced at least one median covert and all its scapulars, which bodes well. Hopefully it will return each year, so we can see how it matures.

First-Winter Caspian Gull X198 - Shawell Sand Quarry
I was excited when I spotted a white gull sleeping amongst the Herring Gulls, but as soon as it lifted its head I realised something was not quite right. It had a Herring Gull like bill and structurally it wasn't quite right.  last year's 'white-winger' season started with a Herring Gull with pure white primaries as well.

Presumed Leucistic Herring Gull

Friday 25 November 2016

First-winter Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls in Flight

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of my targets for our trip to The Algarve was flight shots of first-calendar year gulls. This subject is covered quiet poorly in identification guides. Typically Lesser Black-backed Gulls appear slighter than most Yellow-legged Gulls, however, there is much overlap. The tail band of first year birds is usually diagnostic, but again there is variability. The tail band on most Yellow-legged Gulls tapers thinner on the outside edges. Lesser Black-backs generally have a broader tail band with less white on the upper tail and more black markings above the tail band. LBBGs don't usually show an obvious pale window on the inner primaries, but in bright sunshine both species showed some pale areas on the inner primaries. However, a pale window on the inner primaries is obvious on many YLGs although not a distinctive as on first-calendar year Herring Gulls.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls:

Yellow-legged Gulls:

This last one shows a wide tail band, but note it has already replaced one of its central tail feathers. It bulky size large head and short stubby black bill all point towards Yellow-legged Gull.

A Bit of Winter Sunshine

I was back down in Portugal last week enjoying some warm winter sunshine. It was around 21 degrees C everyday and the air was really clear.

One of the highlights is always first light on the steppe or pseudo-steppe near Castro Verde. I have a site that always produces some great early morning entertainment. In the half light I could already hear Calandra Larks singing and this year a new sound caught my attention. I soon learned that the sound was coming from a group of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and they seemed to be displaying. At least 20 BB Sandgrouse were flying around and doing their strange call. A single Great Bustard flew past and an Iberian Grey Shrike perched close by. A Merlin dashed across the steppe disturbing hundreds of Calandra Larks - phew it was time for some breakfast!

We enjoyed lots of great birds during the week with the wintering Bluethroats winning the bird of the trip prize. Near Faro we visited a great area where Dawn spotted a male Bluethroat perched in the open, but I was looking the wrong way and only saw its backside, as it disappeared into the reeds. On the next visit I spotted another male skulking in a ditch, but this one had colour-rings. I'm still trying to track down where it was ringed. Possibly Spain, but I haven't received a reply yet.

Colour-Ringed White Spotted Bluethroat

The area is called Parque Natural Ria Da Formosa. It is quite close to the area known as Ludo Farms. Dawn always enjoys watching the aeroplanes coming in to land at the nearby Faro airport. Ospreys and Caspian tern were fishing in the lagoons and hundreds of ducks including Pintails were dabbling. Winter plumaged Little Stints were educational and a Short-eared Owl disturbed near the track was a new Portuguese bird for me. On a reedy lake by the golf course were many more ducks and at least a dozen Western Swamphens were looking comical as normal. Little Bitterns were elusive this time, but just before we stood up to leave the hide a splendid male broke cover and posed for a few second on a reed stem.

Western Swamphen

As normal I made Dawn endure a few hours at the Portimao Fish Harbour (not everyday as she claimed when we got home). I targeted flights shots of first year Lesser Black-backed and Yellow-legged Gulls. I will put together a set of those for my next post. As well as the gulls I enjoy looking at the working boats and the old wrecks.

"Were Going to Need a Bigger Boat"
Sunset at Priai Da Rocha

Wednesday 9 November 2016

And More Caspian Gulls

I was out working near Shawell this afternoon and noticed the gulls were again using the flattened area on the Gibbett Lane side of Shawell Sand Quarry. It would have been rude not to have had a look at them, so I allowed myself 15 minutes. Herring Gull numbers are building up nicely now and this usually heralds the arrival of more Caspian Gulls. I quickly found a couple of adult Caspian Gulls, which were new ones, but I really struggled to get any photos that weren't completely blurred due to the very poor light.

One of the dumper truck drivers disturbed the gulls, but luckily a new first-winter Caspian Gull was amongst the group that had pitched back down in front of me. It was quite a striking individual and I fared slightly better with the camera with this one.

First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell Quarry, November 9th 2016

Sunday 6 November 2016

Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 5th 2016

It felt like winter yesterday at Shawell. There is no shelter from the wind if its coming from the north, so I just had to put up with it. I'd had enough by half two in the afternoon, but I'd had some good stuff by then.

The second-winter Caspian Gull that I saw mid-week was still hanging about.

Second-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 5th 2016
First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 5th 2016

The cold wind started to chill my bones and my enthusiasm, especially when the gulls were disturbed by a passing buzzard. Many of the gulls headed north towards the landfill site, but some came back down onto the lagoon. Surprisingly a first-winter Caspian Gull that I hadn't already seen appeared amongst them. It was a very distinctive individual and a new one.

First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 5th 2016

Watch the video below to see just how smart this one is - remember, best watched by changing the video quality to HD.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

More Caspian Gull sightings From Shawell

I called in at Shawell A5 Lagoons briefly today for my usual Wednesday lunchtime gull fix. On arrival the gull numbers were quite low, but they soon started to arrive on mass. I couldn't believe that amongst several thousand large gulls there were no Caspian Gulls. I was about to leave when I spotted a second-winter Casp. Just then Steve Nichols arrived and I told him what I'd got and gave him directions. As I gave a running commentary to Steve about what my bird was doing it became obvious we were not looking at the same gull. I panned slightly to the left and there was a first-winter Caspian Gull. This one may well be the same one that I first saw on October 12th due to both of them appearing to show quite a lot of white on the median coverts. The Second-winter has some really nice P10 mirrors developing - a feature which should separate Caspian gulls at this age from Herring and Yellow-legged Gulls.

Second-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 2nd 2016
Second-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 2nd 2016
Second-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 2nd 2016
First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, November 2nd 2016

Tuesday 1 November 2016

1000 and Counting

For a bit of fun back in January 2015 Steve Lister presented me with a UK 400 type certificate for successfully reading colour rings on 500 gulls at Shawell. He also challenged me to push on and record 1000. Well at the weekend I smashed through that target reaching 1005 by mid-afternoon on Saturday. Just like when I reached 500 it was another Herring Gull. This one had been ringed at Hornøya, Finnmark this year (full details not yet available). It had a data logger fitted to its colour-ring. 

Herring Gull (JX511) at Shawell A5 Lagoons on October 29th 2016

The 1000 gulls were 805 Lesser Black-backed, 110 Herring, 40 Black-headed, 31 Great Black-backed, 8 Caspian (2 hybrids), 3 Common, 1 Baltic (maybe 2), 1 Mediterranean and 1 Herring x Yellow-legged. The gulls came from Belgium, British Isles, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden. It took five years and at least one visit per week to reach this total. In total I made 2080 separate readings during this time, so I have collected quite a bit of data on some of the gulls. At some point I must write up my findings, but for a while longer I will enjoy gathering more information. A Yellow-legged Gull with a colour-ring still alludes me at Shawell, so I must keep going.

I read the first colour-ring with Steve Lister back in January 2012. My strike rate has increased dramatically since those days helped by my Swarovski 70 x scope and the experience I now have in looking hard enough at the gulls legs.

In addition to the colour-rings I've seen three more Caspian Gulls recently. The adult below seen last Wednesday, most likely a female, was a really smart looker. Compare the flesh coloured legs to the bright pink legs of the Herring Gull to its right. Its bill was lovely and slender. Faint streaking is just visible on its lower neck. This is a feature of younger Caspian Gulls, but also shown by some adults in autumn.

Adult Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, October 25th 2016

A new first-winter appeared amongst the Great Black-backed Gulls that were gathered on the shore. It was camera shy and hid behind its larger cousins.

First-Winter Caspian Gull, Shawell A5 Lagoons, October 29th 2016