Sunday, 14 October 2012

Acro confusion:

A few photo's I had of an acro at Whitby yesterday. It fed almost exclusively in long grass and low bramble, only occasionally popping up into low branches of elderberries. I watched it on and off for nearly two hours, and still not really sure what species it is. It didn't have a tail, which didn't really help.

FWIW, I think the photo's make it look a little warmer than it was in the field, adding more brown tones. They are unedited. I should add i was veering towards Blyth's in the field, but the tertials are worrying me.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Spanish seawatching


As usual, big gap between posts (and I know I still haven't finished the one from Egypt, hopefully I'll post some catch up photo's soon), but the last trip I went on was really good, so thought I'd write a post before I forget to do it.

Spain August 2012

So when planning a seawatching trip earlier this year, I only really considered Bridges of Ross or Cornwall. That was until I went on a pelagic from Lanzarote (hopefully photos to follow soonish) in July, and chatting to Daniel Lopez-Velasco, realised how easy and relatively cheap a few days at Estaca de Bares, Galicia would be, and with previous day counts of thousands of long-tailed skuas, 4 pteredromas, south polar skuas etc etc etc my mind was made up.

So on Friday of the August bank holiday, I touched down at Asturias airport (with Easyjet), picked up the hirecar and met up with Dani. 2 hours later we were at Estaca de Bares, watching a trickle of fully spooned poms and sum-plum arctic skuas go by at closeish range, along with some lingering cory's, balearics and sooty shears. I headed back to the town that evening pretty happy with a few good birds, promise of north-westerly winds the next day, and met up with some of the Spanish guys from the Lanzarote pelagic for a great dinner full of fresh seafood for the princely sum of 15euros.

The next day I was up early(ish), the dawns are later in Spain, to get to the headland for about 07:45, for the best passage of the trip:

Saturday seawatching

In 13 hours:

202 pom skuas (mostly summer-adults with full spoons, some within 100m of headland)
62 arctic skuas
14 bonxie
4 long-tailed skua
5 great shearwater
grey phalarope

Plus a sprinkling of waders, terns and plenty of cory's, manx, sooty and balearic shearwaters, both moving and feeding in the area.
(These are just the totals of what I saw, I'm sure the recorded totals for the day were considerably higher)

On Sunday, Dani had a pelagic organised from Malpica, leaving at 08:00. The flat calm conditions were a blessing in the small fishing boat, with only 10 people on board, it made the perfect scenario for getting incredibly good views of seabirds. The result was incredible, undoubtedly the most enjoyable pelagic I've ever been on, some great birds seen astonishingly close, with one incredible highlight.


1 Fea's petrel; first definitively identified in Spain, see Dani's website, Reservoir Birds (or Birding frontiers) for some stunning pics. It gave at least two passes, coming very close to the boat c20-30m I guess, but we were all incredibly excited at the time.

3 wilson's storm-petrel
4 long-tailed skua
c25 pom skua
c8 bonxie
c15 arctic skua
c150 sabines gulls
c25 great shearwaters
2 grey phalarope
10 european storm petrel
Dani seemed a bit disappointed with storm-petrel numbers, but very pleased with the Fea's.

(the numbers are all a bit rough as I was enjoying myself too much to keep an exact tally)

Celebrating a first for Spain

We dashed back to Estaca for the evening, to catch the end of a decent passage of skuas and terns. Dani picked out another Pteredroma sp. (all pteredromas are currently left unidentified from land at Estaca), probably Fea's, from the headland. Unfortunately I was unable to get on it, despite it feeding offshore for a while.

On Monday I was at Estaca de Bares again for a much quieter day, with light south-westerly winds. The species list was pretty similar to the last few days, but with much lower numbers the day really dragged. However the highlight came in the evening, just before dusk. With everyone else packing up before a rainshower hit, I was having one final scan when I picked up a bird at midrange. It took a few moments before I was sure I hadn't gone mad or seen one too many Cory's, but soon the shout went up of another pteredroma, but the bird soon landed on the sea. Antonio picked it up again a few minutes later, before it ditched again, appearing to land with some possibly roosting shearwaters. Was this the same as yesterdays bird, coming back to roost in the same spot as the night before? Timing and behaviour certainly seemed to suggest so.

The next day, the weather looked even worse, so after a few quiet hours in the morning, I headed off to the Somiedo Biosphere reserve, about 3.5 hours away (only 1.5hrs from Asturias airport), to look for European brown bear. After a few slightly disconcerting hours in the midday heat with no people and no bears (but some mouflon) I got some good gen from a bar in Caunedo, and made my way to a picnic table at the base of El Llamardal at about 6pm, where half a dozen Spanish guys were already watching a bear on a hillside about a mile away. Despite my complete lack of Spanish and their understandable lack of English, they were very friendly and put my scope on the bear for me as the directions were entirely lost in translation. I spent a happy 2 hours watching it wander from bush to bush happily feeding on berries.

The next morning I returned to the same spot, and to my surprise, there was a mother and cub bear in the same area, again happily feeding, and a 3rd (4th over the two days) darker, almost black bear feeding above them. What a fantastic morning, and what a shock only 5 hours later to be back in a rainy, drizzly Stansted.

All in all, a truly fantastic trip, and so close to the UK.

Feel free to contact me for any more info on any of the above.


Saturday, 21 April 2012

Egypt 2012 - The Nile Valley

First up, a warning. If you are reading this as preparation for a trip to Egypt soon, think very hard about your trip. We had a very difficult time of it due to a massive fuel crisis all over the country. Our first experience of it, on the first night, was an hour and a half wait at the pumps, we didn't realise at the time, but we had got off pretty lightly. After that, we drove past multiple closed stations due to lack of fuel, had to wait 5 hours plus for fuel to arrive at one station, and queued for many, many hours at other stations. We had to organise an expensive trip in a locals vehicle to get to Shalatein and back as no-one could guarantee petrol in the three stations between Lahami and Shalatein (there wasn't any in the end, but some did arrive whilst we were there). If you are still going, make sure you keep a very close eye on the news to find out what is happening with the fuel crisis, and talk to the locals to find out where has petrol, and when its arriving, although they quite often didn't seem to know either.
Above photo's from Tut Amon Fishponds and the Nile. The 1st April saw me heading out from Gatwick to Hurghada with Josh Jones and Rich Bonser on a birding trip to Egypt. Expectations were high for lots of high quality birding, although we had been warned by Rich that it wouldn't necessarily be as relaxing and pleasant as our Spanish jaunt this time last year. Our plan for the week was to get the Nile Valley section of our trip done first, hopefully cleaning up some of the trickier speciality species, before having a few days to relax and look for migrants on the Red Sea. We knew it was going to be less than luxurious, with a long drive, a high density of people and lots of pollution. I wasn't quite prepared for how bad it was.

It got off to a bad start; a long drive down from Hurghada to Aswan was greatly extended by queues for petrol, police checkpoints, unplanned police escorts, and mountainous speed bumps every kilometre or so on on the road (for several hundred kilometres). We had planned to get there for around midnight and find a room; we finally rocked up at 4:30 and spent a few fitful hours napping in the car. Our days birding began with a brief walk around Aswan, picking up commoner species like gull-billed tern, eastern ollie, masked shrike, purple gallinule, Nile valley sunbird, lesser whitethroats littering every bush, and our only white-winged black tern of the trip.

Proper birding commenced with a guided tour (you can only get in with a guide) of Tut Amon fishponds. This was a pretty good site, with a series of saltpan-type lagoons holding a nice variety and quantity of birds, but it took a bit of searching before we found the target, three-banded plover, apparently at a breeding site on the edge of Lake Nasser with a couple of Senegal thick-knees. By that stage, we had already notched up the likes of clamorous reed warblers, graceful prinia, spur-winged plovers, night, squacco, purple and grey herons, more sunbirds and masked shrikes, temminck's stint, wood sand, LRP, bluethroat and many others. The guide was decent, but disappeared pretty quickly after finding us the plovers. If you wan't to go, you'll need Hosni, his e-mail is

 The rest of the afternoon was written off queuing for petrol, but we did have the advantage of getting plenty of time to meet up with Aswan fixer extraordinnaire Yasser. He was fixing us up with the boat trip the next day in Abu Simbel, and suggested we also went on one down the Nile that evening from Aswan. At $10 each, we jumped at the chance to fit in a bit more birding. In the end, it was a great idea, one of the more relaxing experiences of the trip, lots of birds, good views and a chance to get out of the smog, noise and heat of Aswan. The next day we were up early (no sleep for the wicked, or WP tick-obsessed), to make the organised convoy down to Abu Simbel for African Mourning Dove, and a 4 hour trip on Lake Nasser. In the end, the convoy was pretty pointless, as we had to do 50mph to make sure we could get there and back on one tank of fuel with no hope of petrol at Abu Simbel due to the crisis, and the convoy soon left us far behind.

Once it got light, migrant Ospreys were a bizarre sight adorning many of the pylons in the middle of the desert, with no water for miles. On arrival, we headed for the gardens where the Mourning doves had been found. We heard them singing as soon as we stepped out of the car, and a bit of a search found one singing from the top of a tall tree, and occasionally display flighting. After half an hour of good views, we left to get on a boat round Lake Nasser. The boat trip was great, with lots of fantastic birds, although we were clearly to early for two of the semi-hoped for birds, African skimmer and pink-backed pelican. Highlights included 3 yellow-billed storks, Kittlitz's plover, several pairs of African pied wagtails which came and landed on our boat, 19 black-winged pratincoles, 100's of waders like marsh sands, little stints and wood sands, 3 ospreys, 2 Senegal thick-knee, 250 odd great white pelican, and 50ish each of greater flamingo and spoonbill. All in all very pleasant, and we were pretty happy when we returned to shore to begin the tedious drive back.

On returning to Aswan, panic began to set in as neither petrol station had any fuel, but they did have the longest queues I have ever seen waiting for non-existent benzine. We rang Yasser, who happily got a call as fuel arrived at one of the stations, and somehow got us to the front of the queue! Incredible. We had Yasser's number for the boat trip, but he seemed exceptionally happy to help with any problems we had in Aswan, and organised the Nile boat trip for us; if you need something in Aswan or Abu Simbel he is probably the man to ask We went to bed with a full tank, and looking forward to leaving the Nile Valley the next morning.

Photo's from Abu Simbel and Lake Nasser:

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Fade to grey?

Having been back from the aforementioned Irish trip a while, I was having a flick through my photo's of the adult Kumlien's gull at Reenard point, Kerry:

Then this photo caught my eye:

I thought I had a different bird, one that we hadn't noticed in the field, paler but with still enough grey in the webs to make a decent candidate for Iceland gull. However, I looked again when I got back from Egypt (blog post soon), and there seems to be a bit of a scale in the darkness of grey shown in my photos of Kumliens gull(s) at Reenard, for instance:

I'm now pretty confused. In the field we only had one bird we thought was Kumlien's, which appeared to show charcoal grey in the outer primaries, although most of my attention was focussed on photography, rather than observation. There were certainly a few adult Icelands knocking about as well. Are there two birds, or is the camera just responsible for the colour change?

Any comments gratefully recieved.

Irish gulls are always classy

1w Iceland gull in Bantry harbour

2012 started in much the same way as 2011 ended, fairly quiet locally, but enough nationally to keep hopeful. The highlight of January was a weekend away with Cat, when I somehow managed to sneak in the time to see the western sand at Cley and the Spanish sparrow and dark-eyed junco in hampshire (she's such a lucky girl), although i did bugger my scope dipping the fudge duck at Blashford lakes.

The year really started to pick up when storms in the north atlantic caused huge wrecks of Iceland gulls on the west coast of Ireland and the Northern isles, which eventually led to decent numbers spread through the rest of the UK. Effort at the local tip was increased, and I found a very small adult Iceland, then Tim weighed in with a couple of Casps, before the floodgates truly opened, and white-wingers started popping up all over the place locally. I reckon I have seen about 10-12 different white-wingers this winter personally in the York area, and there were clearly more individuals than that knocking around. Myself and Chris Gomersall worked out we had seen 9 different Iceland gulls, of all ages except 3+4w (maybe just lack of attention), and 3 different Glaucs. Pretty impressive stuff.

Despite this, the truly astounding numbers coming from places like Killybegs were still very tempting, and I decided to tag along on a trip to Ireland already arranged by Rich Bonser and Alan Clewes. In total that trip, we had 150 white-winged gulls including 5 Kumlien's, and other good birds in the form of Todd's canada goose (found by JJ on an earlier trip), 3 Richardson's canada geese, black brant found by Alan and a scattering of ring-billed gulls. The residing memory of the trip will always be the regularity in which we found ourselves looking at flocks of white-wingers in harbours and beaches, and the excitement and confusion of trying work out counts, when often birds were seemingly everywhere, whilst also commonly having several extremely confiding birds to study and photograph.

Not gull photos:

Ok, there is a glauc in this one, couldn't get away from them...

Rich doing what he does best.

Gull photos (in no particular order):

Castletown Bearehaven, Cork:

Reenard Point, Kerry:

Bantry, Cork:

A very unconvincing 'Kumlien's' in Stab city:

Compulsory visit to Nimmo's pier, Galway

Somewhere else in Ireland: