All in all, a fairly low-key weekend. On Friday I joined Peter Alfrey at Beddington for a couple of hours. We enjoyed the (very white) juvenile Glaucous, the regular juvenile Iceland and a chunky first-winter Caspian among the large numbers of gulls using the (for now) still-active landfill site. I also glimpsed a Mediterranean Gull, which I think gripped Pete off a bit as they've gone very scarce here in winter.
Glaucous Gull flies in front of the Beddington 'Death Star' - much more on this obscenity at Pete's blog.
On Sunday I popped over to see the Horned Lark at Staines, but it was favouring the south side of the causeway and, on a bright morning, was therefore into the sun all the time. The drake Greater Scaup was on show at the north-west end of the South Basin. Then, in the afternoon, I headed over to the WWT, which was pretty quiet - a 2cy Yellow-legged Gull was as good as it got.
The only thing I photographed at Staines on Sunday - A380 aircraft always look impressive in the air!
While at Choshi Port, Japan, in late January I happened across a ringed, but somewhat unhealthy looking, adult Vega Gull. My assumption was that this might have been ringed locally but, when it transpired that it didn't belong to a Japanese scheme, my ears were pricked.
I've just had word back from the Bird Ringing Centre in Moscow that this is a Russian bird. It was ringed in the Chaunskiy district of Chukotka, Russia, on 22 July 2017 and my sighting at Choshi is the first since then. More impressively, Choshi is 4,107 km from where this bird was ringed - quite incredible, and easily my 'furthest' recovery. In London, where we deal mainly in Herring Gull rings, I usually see London-ringed birds, that have just about flown across the breadth of the capital, or, more exotically, birds from Suffolk or Yorkshire. Occasionally there's a more interesting Common, Lesser Black-backed or Great Black-backed from elsewhere in Europe.
To get such a recovery on this Vega perhaps isn't too surprising given where they breed, but I was nevertheless flabbergasted when I opened the email first realised just how far away from Choshi this bird had been ringed!
How far the Vega Gull has travelled - so far that you can see the corners of the earth in this Google Earth screenshot!
Adult Vega Gull 'G4Y' - looking rather worse for wear. Perhaps not much left in the tank for this bird.
It's been a particularly quiet weekend around my local spots, with precious little among the gulls. Aside the usual Bittern and Jack Snipe combination (which are always nice), the highlight of the weekend was a smart Black-tailed Godwit on the wader scrape at WWT London on Sunday afternoon.
Black-tailed Godwit, WWT London, 4 February 2018.
Herring Gull Y:G41 originates from Rufforth Tip, North Yorkshire, where it was ringed on 30 June 2017. Since then it's been seen intermittently along the Thames in west London, popping up again this weekend.
I was out of the country when the American Horned Lark first appeared at Staines Reservoirs, Surrey, last November. Arriving back on the Tuesday after its initial appearance, I gave the lark a few hours before work that day, only to miss it - was seen again later that day, but then disappeared for the remainder of 2018.
So it was with mixed emotions that I read the news on 22nd that the bird was back. Pleased that it had reappeared, but less pleased with the fact that I was sat in north-eastern Hokkaido, Japan. Of course, its presence hardly detracted from where I was, having spent an afternoon enjoying superb views of Red-crowned Cranes, but it was still a little galling that it had chosen the exact week I was away to reappear. Given it had only lasted a few days at Staines on its last visit, I wasn't hopeful for it to hang on for my return on 27th.
Surprisingly, it did. Daily messages of it showing well along the causeway were a little galling, so it was a pleasure to read it was still there on 27th and, early on Sunday, I headed over to Staines. Happily the lark was still there, and showing well on both sides of the causeway. It was also quite vocal, uttering a call reminiscent of 'our' Shore Lark but perhaps not quite the same. At a range of 15 metres, the views were fantastic through the 'scope, although just a tiny bit distant for my 400mm lens. It didn't help that there were about 50 excitable birders following its every move - I'm sure if there was a small crowd there it'd probably feed right up the bank, almost to the railings. What a great bird, too - clearly strongly reminiscent of flava but differing in size and shape (it appeared a bit smaller and slimmer) as well as plumage tones (more rufous/vinous, darker and colder browns/greys).
'North American Horned Lark' (presumably alpestris/hoyti), Staines Reservoirs, 28 January 2018
Had a nice day at Dungeness with Rich, Dante and Niall. En route we stopped at Crayford, where a Mediterranean Gull was seen among the good numbers of congregated birds at Jolly Farmers.
Then it was down to a rather breezy Dungeness fishing boats, where the regular Caspian Gull was still performing well - this bird is easily the most photographed Casp in Britain this winter and has probably been seen by hundreds of birders since it turned up in September. Still, it's a very elegant individual and always worth photographing.
2cy Caspian Gull, Dungeness, 7 January 2018
Moving down to The Patch revealed thousands of gulls feeding around the outflow, although the light was challenging to say the least. Thankfully the regular juvenile Glaucous Gull performed well overhead, although the 3cy Iceland Gull was a little more difficult to pick out among the throng. An adult hybrid Black-headed x Mediterranean Gull was the first I've seen of this cross in Britain (I'd previously seen a couple in Ireland, both on the same weekend trip).
2cy Glaucous Gull, Dungeness, 7 January 2018
The RSPB reserve was somewhat devoid of gulls, yet the presence of a drake and redhead Smew, a female Ruddy Duck (my first in the UK for some years) and a bunch of Goosander were pleasant.
After a quick trip to Lade for some stodge from the local store it was back to the fishing boats, where Mick, Richard et al were photographing a very smart 3cy Caspian Gull on arrival. No hint of a p10 mirror, it was otherwise a very contrasted and crisp bird that was easily picked out from among the Herrings with the naked eye. It was blowing an absolute gale from the ENE, which made photography a real challenge given the position of the sun.
3cy Caspian Gull, Dungeness, 7 January 2018
With nothing else on show, I took some photographs of the gulls floating in the gale. There was evidently quite a lot of food washing up on the beach as the gulls were actively feeding ... and ignoring the less appetising loaves we were chucking out!
A good first day of 2018 at the WWT - or rather afternoon, as I didn't get out until gone 1 pm (and not because of a heavy night).
One of the first birds on to the 2018 list was Greenfinch, a species which took me the best part of a month to connect with at the start of 2017. I've seen quite a few already this winter, so perhaps they've had a better year than of late.
Highlights throughout the afternoon included nice views of a Bittern sat up in the reeds, a pair of European Stonechats showing well and a Jack Snipe in full 'bob mode'.
Of course my attention is always drawn straight to loafing gulls on the main lake and wader scrape. With the tide right up throughout daylight hours making gulling on the river a non-starter, the reserve was my only hope. A reasonable initial tally of 80 Herring Gulls was logged, and among them I soon picked up what looked like a third-winter (4cy) Caspian dozing among those gathered distantly on the wader scrape. A couple of hours later and the bird became a bit more active, soon confirming its identification as a rather smart Casp.
4cy Caspian Gull, WWT London, 1 January 2018
There's always turnover here during the afternoon although, a couple of Herring x LBB hybrids aside, nothing else of interest was seen until after sunset, when a flurry of gulls of arriving gulls revealed a second-winter Yellow-legged Gull and then what immediately looked to be a familiar face, soon confirmed by a red ring inscribed 'G0UT'! This was the first time I've seen G0UT since July and my, what a disappointment. There's no doubt it's got Caspian in it (and that predominates), but it must be a bird from one of the mixed colonies in Germany - look how generally retarded the plumage feels (a la 3cy Herring rather than Casp), and those extensively pale-fringed tertials, as well as the rather stubby bill. All a bit grim, but nice to know it's still around and I look forward to watching how it develops in the coming months.
Had a good day out at Dungeness with Rich and Dante today. We had a six and a half Caspian Gulls - two first-winters (a really nice one and a less nice one), two third-winters and two adults plus a hybrid first-winter.
Most of these were scattered around Burrowes Pit at the RSPB reserve during the day, although the better of the two first-winters showed well near the fishing boats for a little while in the morning, albeit not long enough to really blow it away - but thanks to Martin for letting us know about it. Numbers were generally quite low around the fishing boats today, presumably due to the settled weather conditions.
First-winter Caspian Gull, Dungeness, Kent, 16 December 2017
I also managed a few photos of the hybrid, a bird that I assume is, as Rich would say, 'German muck'. At a distance it looked quite Casp-like but, on better views, clearly wasn't, looking much more like a Herring with some Caspian qualities at closer range. It's quite a washed out bird and, in flight, looks pretty Herring-like with a huge window on the inner primaries. Underwing was pale, being a latte colour.
Caspian x Herring Gull, Dungeness, Kent, 16 December 2017
It was otherwise a very pleasant, if cold, day's birding around the Dungeness peninsula. We enjoyed singles of Long-tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebe at Lade Pits, a pleasing 16 Bewick's Swans and a flyover Merlin from Cockles Bridge and Great Egret, two Ravens and six Goosanders on the RSPB reserve.
Fuerteventura is a cheap place to visit in the depths of winter and, with its targets all relatively easy to see, it can comfortably be cleaned up in a weekend. With little else on for the second weekend of December, I'd booked flights with Jet2 from Stansted (£130 return including a hold bag) at the end of November.
Fortuitously, a few days after booking, the Western Palearctic's fifth Dwarf Bittern was found just a stone's throw from the airport, and it was no surprise then that this proved the first target on arrival on Friday afternoon. I was accompanied by Ed Stubbs, who'd been tempted to book his flights when the bittern broke, and we were enjoying this mega Afrotropical vagrant within minutes of arriving on site on Friday afternoon.
Dwarf Bittern, Llanos Pelados, Fuerteventura, 8 December 2017
Also here were a couple of pairs of the local race of African Blue Tit, at least five Fuerteventura Chats (the first I'd seen since I was a young lad on holiday with my parents), several Egyptian Vultures and a variety of waders including Green Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plovers. As it transpired, this was actually one of the birdiest spots we visited on the entire island - no wonder it's produced both the bittern and (apparently) Allen's Gallinule in recent weeks.
Ed had booked a very reasonable apartment in Puerto del Rosario (£20 pppn) - dodgy door aside, it was excellent value. After some tapas and a few cervezas with Ed and Alan Lewis, we got our heads down.
We were at Tindaya for first light and had soon bagged a couple of Houbara Bustards - a new bird for both of us. We saw a total of five, but none was really close enough to be well photographed. Just a single Cream-coloured Courser was seen plus a handful of flyover Black-bellied Sandgrouse and the usual Southern Grey Shrikes, Berthelot's Pipits, Lesser Short-toed Larks and Trumpeter Finches. It was then back to the airport to collect Rich Bonser and chauffeur him to the bittern which, again, was showing on arrival - sounds like we've been quite lucky as there are stories of birders waiting for hours. The bittern showed terrifically, albeit in the strong early afternoon sunshine, as did a pair of Fuerteventura Chats.
Dwarf Bittern, Llanos Pelados, Fuerteventura, 9 December 2017
Fuerteventura Chats, Llanos Pelados, Fuerteventura, 9 December 2017
We spent some time searching sites along the coast, all of which turned to be absolutely pants, so we headed over to the reservoir at Los Molinos. Here there was a throng of noisy Ruddy Shelducks, a male European Stonechat and a few Spoonbills and Snipe.
Ruddy Shelducks at Los Molinos, 9 December 2017
Another pleasant evening of Spanish cuisine and beers followed, with another early morning start at Tindaya on the Sunday producing at least four more bustards and, finally, a showy one that walked across the track in front of us.
Houbara Bustard, Tindaya, Fuerteventura, 10 December 2017
The less said about the rest of the weekend (i.e. waiting in airports for delayed flights), the better.
It's fair to say that, twitching aside, there have been rather too many gulls cropping up in my birding in autumn 2017. It's a bit boring, admittedly - but when you live within the boundaries of Zone 2 on the Tube Map, there's generally not much else to look at. I'm happy to admit that I don't have the patience to sit and hope for (at best) a Hawfinch in a several-hour vis-migging session in Chiswick Park, when I can go and feed the gulls on the Thames.
For once this weekend, I found myself outside of the M25 yet not twitching. I visited my old patch, Baston & Langtoft Pits, and saw little more than a scattering of returning wildfowl. I dipped a Bee-eater on the south side of Peterborough. Then I went to Norfolk, where a blasting northerly gave hope of a decent seawatch. I should have known better than to try the exposed position of Salthouse beach, yet I could see plenty of Gannets, auks, gulls and a few Great Skuas passing by as my scope shook in the gale. The light was pretty nice, though.
Salthouse beach, 29 October 2017
A walk along the beach with my father and his dogs was bracing and birdless, but walking back along the landward side of the shingle bank produced the usual Stonechat at Gramborough Hill and, more excitingly, a single Shore Lark, which bounded westwards low to the ground, out of the wind and almost landing on a couple of occasions, before continuing past the beach car park and seemingly dropping in some way to the west of there. As far as I can recall, this is a self-found tick for me - not an easy bird to find if you live away from the east coast.
In Cromer, the first-winter Caspian Gull performed beautifully on Sunday morning. After only showing briefly a couple of times in four hours on Saturday afternoon, I had to go back for better photos. In terms of views, it's the best Casp I've seen in Britain. It's no exaggeration to say it virtually walks round your feet. It's also a really smart bird plumage-wise, bearing more than a superficial resemblance to a first-winter Common Gull - check out the scaps and coverts.
My fourth Caspian Gull of the season (adopting Rich's 1 July - 30 June cycle) was along the River Thames at Fulham late morning on Sunday 22nd. Like several other Casps in London in recent times, it bore a German ring and originates from the famous Grabendorfer See colony, where hybridisation with Herring Gull is quite prevalent.
The ring read X574, which quickly confirmed it as the same bird seen by Jamie Partridge over at Thames Barrier Park the previous day. Ironically, while watching X574, I received a message from Jamie to say he'd got the first-winter I saw in Fulham back on 19 September! A fair swap, I'd say.
Although some of the 'Casps' from this colony can look pretty questionable, it's fair to say that X574 looks fine for a pure bird. A big and aggressive beast (presumably a male), it was very vocal and gave a full range of classic cachinnans calls, which made it very easy to pick out as it swooped in to the melee attracted to my wholemeal bread offerings.
1cy Caspian Gull X574, Fulham, London, 22 October 2017
So, as mentioned previously, my fourth Casp of the season here. Though I'm already well behind Rich, Dante and Jamie's nine (as of 23/10) in the Thames Barrier/Greenwich area, I can't ever really expect to keep up with this East London hotspot given the greater number of gulls moving up and down the Thames Estuary. However, I'd be very happy if I make it in to double figures by spring (last winter I had a total of four, although at least a couple of extras were recorded by other birders).
Also on show on Sunday were at least five Yellow-legged Gulls, a very decent tally for October given that there were 'only' about 150 large gulls present (100-200 individuals is about average here at weekends). Monday's session was nowhere near as impressive - reduced numbers included 'just' three Yellow-legged Gulls and at least one Lesser Black-backed x Herring hybrid.
1cy Yellow-legged Gulls, Fulham, 22 October 2017 - the top bird has a distinctive bill and should be easy to track around London this winter. The bottom bird is regular along 'my' stretch of the river at present.