31 October 2009

Couldn't hit a phyllosc's arse with a banjo

Went looking for a Gwentish Yellow-browed, Firecrest or better today (it would appear my rampant ornithological optimism persists). Magor Marsh was very quiet: 1 Blackcap, 1 Stonechat, 1 Kingfisher, 3 Water Rail, 1 Tawny Owl and 4 Cetti's were about the sum of it. About 600 Woodpigeons headed westwards with the odd Stock Dove but the only other vis mig consisted of a few thrushes and a very few Skylark and finches. On the way to Redwick found a flock of approximately 300 pigeons/doves, managed to count 80 Stock Dove before the local Buzzard flushed the lot,... keep double-checking the pigeon flocks folks. Redwick was dead-diddly-dead-dead, much deader than the shot Rook in the village that some little scrote had winged (presumably under licence, though I doubt it) and left to crawl into a bush and die.

Approximately a 50:50 split in this pic; one odd thing, all the Woodpigeon reports on this side of the estuary today were of birds going west, over on Severnside they were flying east ('ow queer!).

30 October 2009

The poetry of logical ideas

Finally managed to muster the gumption to roam the patch this morning. My presence in the zone, however, proved fitful at best and it was no surprise that I failed to find some skulking monster (or, indeed, anything even bordering on noteworthy). A decent number of big obvious things were knocking around though, in the form of Woodpigeons; had 600+ in the air early on and, at regular intervals, several flocks in the low hundreds. Very few of the birds seemed to be heading in any particular direction though, and quite a few were ditching on the reserve, I wouldn't have wanted to guess how many birds were involved but, luckily, I managed to recall Friedrich von Furtwängler's equation*, a quick application of which produced a figure of 1,267 which sounds about right. Where would we be but for Herr von Furtwängler eh? I'll tell you where - up Cosby Kids creek without any propulsion, that's where. Anyhoo,... a few finches, Skylark and thrushes were also scudding about, as were half a dozen Stonechat, a couple of Blackcap and a Chiffchaff.

A moment of Columbid indecision over the Newport Wetlands [it helps if you squint a little].

*I know this is teaching grand mama to suck eggs but, just for completeness, von Furtwängler's equation for g (the guesstimate) is as follows:
g = (d2u/dx2) + L sin u
where d is the number you first thought of, u is average flock size, x is Hirshvogel's constant and L is the length of time between joy and despair. [Apologies for the inaccurate formatting of the equation (just one of the vagaries of Blogger I'm afraid)].

29 October 2009

Azores FAQs: part three

Is there another option to Corvo? Yes there is, and it's not rocket science. Just 15 miles away is the much larger island of Flores, the accommodation is bountiful, the list of rarities found to date isn't too shabby (e.g. this autumn Upland Sandpiper, Magnolia Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Baltimore Oriole) and, with a bit of organization and amiable weather conditions, day-twitching Corvo is a possibility (day trips to and from have been undertaken by birders on three occasions in the last two years). So far, the number of birders on Flores has been limited, certainly not reaching the density of those on Corvo, however, with a decent number of people looking, there is every possibility that Flores would start to turn up everything its smaller neighbour does.

Autumn birding on the Azores, this year there was literally a kaleidoscope of Nearctic waders in the quarry,... at least through Peter's scope.

Yet to come in this gripping series - The darkside of Corvo: why you might actually prefer somewhere else (seriously).

PS. Getting to the Azores is oh-so-slightly more taxing on the planet than popping to Scilly, if you do decide to go, at least offset your flights (not a perfect solution but the least a travelling birder should be doing nowadays). Companies with carbon offsets approved by the Government Quality Assurance Scheme for Carbon Offsetting include: Carbon Footprint Ltd, Carbon Passport, Clear, PURE the Clean Planet Trust, and Carbon Retirement.

28 October 2009

Azores FAQs: part two

Why is it difficult to get accommodation on Corvo? It's simple, there are very few places to stay on the island, 16 people can stay in the Comodoro guesthouse and another dozen or so elsewhere. Most of these places are booked up by the regulars and the situation is further 'complicated' by tour groups booking up twin rooms for single occupancy (filling, with one dude, a room which could otherwise hold two decent birders). Realistically, your options on Corvo are restricted to: 1. going 'out of season' which will see you choosing between sitting under a blocking Azores high in September or making do with the rump of migration in increasingly inclement conditions in November; or 2. joining a tour and, in effect, paying for someone to take you twitching. There is a third way though for which, in true Doctor Who fashion, you'll have to tune in tomorrow (or, failing that, at some point over the next few days)...

27 October 2009

Azores FAQs: part the first

I'm going to be providing short and sweet answers to one or two queries regarding the Azores over the next few days, first up - Why go to the Azores when you can go to Canada or the USA?

Why indeed. Well, whatever you think, and despite the fact that Corvo is on a different tectonic plate to the rest of Europe, the Azores are in the Western Palearctic. If you define yourself as a local birder you probably spend a fair bit of your time searching your patch for local rarities; if you see yourself as a UK birder you may well end up on the Scillies or Shetland each autumn looking for a first for the UK; however, if you define yourself as a Western Palearctic birder you might just think about visiting Iceland, Kuwait or the Azores seeking that species never before seen in your native biozone. Personally, I don't go to Corvo to see Nearctic passerines, I have done that at Point Pelee, Long Point, Point Reyes, etc. I go to Corvo to find Nearctic passerines in a vagrant setting, it is a very different thing.

Of course, there is also the additional interest in all things Macaronesian; there is all manner of stuff to exercise even the most addled of ornithological minds; it's not just the thrill of stumbling over yankee passerines, there are seabirds and island endemics too, hell, even the Starlings seem to be genetically distinct.

See,... totally different (or, if you are struggling, try reading this).

Tomorrow - the accommodation conundrum.

24 October 2009

Questions, questions, questions

Q. Brown Shrike?
A. Hmmm, don't mind if I do.
Q. Eastern Crowned Warbler?
A. Oh, go on then.

Two trips, two ticks. The supporting cast wasn't too shabby either...

22 October 2009

Damn, the plane didn't crash

Back in shitey-blighty again. The final morning on Sao Miguel produced a couple of Blue-winged Teals but very little else and, before I knew what had happened I was back in the midst of the M25,... now, can I muster the effort required to go looking for late autumn sub-rares on the Gwent Levels?

Must... fight... urge... to... hibernate... zzzzzzzz.

20 October 2009

Easing to a halt

The last full day on the islands consisted of all the fun of Furnas (Sao Miguel) and all points east - Azores Bullfinch, the oh-so-wild Wood Duck, Pied-billed Grebe and a couple of Ring-necked Ducks. Having previously written about the dubious Wood Duck, I won't bore you with another tirade regarding it's origins; instead, a couple of pictures, firstly the Wood Duck, followed by one of his bestest pal.

19 October 2009

Bad time to leave

A nice little system promised new arrivals, experience indicates the village fields are often their first stopping point; and so it was that Peter and I found ourselves circumbobulating the lower fields this morning accompanied by the clickety-clickety of tamarisk in a westerly. Result - naff all. A well-timed coffee and cake stop avoided a couple of bands of rain but, by the time it had dried-up we only had an hour before check-in, we had to make do with a quick blitz of the fig groves. Result - two new Yellow-billed Cuckoos and the Baltimore Oriole. Can't help but feel we left something behind out there, perhaps another tanager or a nice sparrow, let's see what the chaps turn up over the next day or two.

18 October 2009

Ultimate blank

A night disrupted with barking dogs, shouting locals, a bloke road-testing his quad at 03:40 and all manner of comings and goings meant I had absolutely no intention of doing anything requiring energy today. Spent the morning watching Short-beaked Common and Bottlenose Dolphins interspersed with periods peering into tamarisk scrub, the highlight though was not twitching the White-eyed Vireo (always nice to push the boundaries of ornithological nonchalance); after a veeeeeeeery long lunch-break a circumnavigation of the village produced a megaton of dolphins over which a feeding frenzy of Cory's included at least 1 Great Shearwater,... naff all else in the bushes and fields though.

17 October 2009

King of the hill

A quick semi-visit to the caldera produced 2 Ring-necked Duck, Tufted Duck, Pintail and Great White Egret. Then it was off down Ribeira da Lapa (or whatever the valley is called where I found the White-eyed Vireo last year). After another near death experience and, whilst attempting to photograph a frog for Frenchman, said Frenchman radioed through with news of 2 Dotterel on the slopes high above me (10th record for the Azores). Well, who could turn down a nice little trip for a trip. One bust lung and three years shaved of my lifespan later, and I'm peering at a couple of lurvely waders. Then, mid-morinellus, Pierre appears over the horizon and announces the fact that, on the opposite side of the hill are two Buff-bellied Pipits. So, that's two European vagrants on one side of the hill and two Nearctic vagrants on the other, I do like it when that sort of thing happens. Trouble was the pipits had gone by the time we'd scooted back up there and took an hour and a half to relocate at which point they, rather handily, reappeared at my feet. The rest of the day was filled with a meander back, a drawn-out coffee break and an hours seawatch (10 Great and 1,000s of Cory's).

16 October 2009

Happy ending

Yet another morning not seeing Philly Vireo was saved by an afternoon during which I managed to add Turtle Dove and Baltimore Oriole to the Azores list and, whilst watching Pierre's Yellowthroat, found another in the same bush only my one was one helluva better specimen. There are currently three Yellowthroats on the island, making six in total since 2006.

15 October 2009

I have looked into the void

I spent every daylight hour looking for Philadelphia Vireo and Chestnut-sided Warbler today. The highlight of the day was cracking my skull against a tree, a right old tooth rattler, pretty much summed up the day. I'm fast approaching the point where the vegetation is closing in and the winnowing wings of the Corvo demons haunt my every step but, apart from that, I'm enjoying every moment. The fact that I am being lead a merry dance through the nine circles by a couple of bundles of Yankee feathers shouldn't detract from the fact that we had double-figures of American landbird species on this island today (Yellow-billed Cuckoo,  Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Yellowthroat, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Bobolink and Baltimore Oriole) - a WP record?

Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in! Er,... guys,... it's a horse.

PS. For those who aren't long-term followers of these ramblings, previous year's Corvo gubbins can be found by clicking here(ish) 2006, 2007 and 2008.

14 October 2009

And still they come

The wind made Agua (Chestnut-sided Warbler site) and do Vinte (Motown Philly Vireo site) flipping hardwork today, in short, it was what the French call "Furr-king rur-bish". After an interminable period watching branches lashing to and fro, I was saved from this personal hell by a report of an "unidentified warbler with yellow underparts" in da Ponte which rapidly became a Yellow Warbler. Not quite as rapidly, but in reasonably short order, I'd seen it and bagged a record shot as it fed in the dense canopy. So far our top-bollock photographer hasn't got an image so this is a Gwent Birding exclusive...

Good huh?! Tell your friends, you saw it here first,... or don't, I couldn't give a tinker's cuss.

Last year's American Great White Egret is still going strong, stronger probably, it's semi-bust wing is no longer bust. [Edit: it turns out this is almost certainly a new egret, there is another in the caldera]

Just in case you are yet to ride the Corvo blog merry-go-round, there is yet more of this inconsequential garbage at www.corvo2009.blogspot.com. www.peteralfreybirdingnotebook.blogspot.com.

13 October 2009

Chicken oriental

Found Indigo Bunting today but it paled compared to another self-find - Willow Warbler, yay Azores list! Mind you, the bunting also had it's arse kicked by Pierre and his Chestnut-sided Warbler but the less said, at this point, about that the better. Also got Alpine Swift, another Azores mega, and the Philly Vireo has reappeared, something else on tomorrow's to-do list.

Another for the CPR chaps.

12 October 2009

Discovering Canada

Three hours in the Heart of Darknessesque Fojo paid off today when a movement in a sunny patch of foliage became a yellow-bellied pink-legged pulse-racer, then a slatey-blue backed gem and then, eventually (whilst I was shouting "Canada Warbler Fojo" into the walkie-talkie), a balls-out bespectacled beauty. Unfortunately, being the nice guy I am, my brief impersonation of a public service broadcaster meant I missed the first opportunity to get a photo. The bird then proved to be a bit of a bar steward, instantly disappearing for an hour and a half, then showing to Ferran, disappearing for another hour, reappearing momentarily in front of me, avoiding detection for another 30 minutes before, finally, giving itself up to all ten of the assembled masses. Being in the depths of Fojo, there was more vegetation between eye and bird than is strictly necessary (or fair) and light was a mere memory, as a result my photographs are more an experiment in abstraction than accurate illustration (got enough to get it past the CPR though).

This is precisely the view I got on finding the little beauty - pink legs against a yellow belly and white undertail,... it's Canada o'clock!

Just to give you an idea of the vegetation, there's nothing to see here,... wait a minute!

11 October 2009

Three Azores tick day

Went looking for an American sparrow, decided to turn right where Peter went left, I found a Wheatear, Peter found a Bobolink. Luckily, I required both for the all-consuming Azores list. After a bit of fannying around the Bobolink eventually showed rather well, not that you could tell that from my pictures. After lunch took a walk to refind the Baltimore Oriole and blundered,... turned up the Rose-breasted Grosbeak instead,... DOH! A late afternoon seawatch produced thousands of Cory's and a Merlin heading off towards Flores. In this wind the Cory's were doing a passable impression of a proper seabird, shedding 90% of the lazy-poor-excuse-for-a-shearwater character and taking on their wind-inspired, almost dashing, alter ego. The Merlin, was the third Azores tick of the day, but didn't fly past close enough to allow the detection of a yankee accent.

Bobolink in the rain, moments after it was found early this morning.

Bobolink in the sun, moments after it was refound a good few hours, and one despairing Frenchman, later.

[Edit: Manuel, our erstwhile host, went and won the local mayoral elections today,... we're staying with royalty! For more information on Manuel and Partido Socialista Açores see here. Go on! You know you wanna.]

10 October 2009

Hmmm, now to think up a title

Went in search of the Philly Vireo today, unfortunately, five hours in the valley formerly known as 'the valley with no name' (now known by at least two different names, neither of which I know how to pronounce or spell correctly), drew a blank. However, a dendroica was heard and a thrush briefly seen, both by members of the French contingent. A break in the vireo hunt was provided by a quick Ovenbird twitch, the result of which was to shift my Azores list off Nelson (always a bit of a relief). On the way back I opted against yet another Rose-breasted Grosbeak in favour of purchasing a box of Bran Flakes,... I think we can all agree, a faultless display of tactical nouse.

09 October 2009

Second best is close to ideal

Arrived on Corvo around 14:00, by the end of the day we had bagged three of the four American megas on this rock. Not quite a full house but I can't moan to much. In order of photographic crapularity the three species rounded up were:

1. another Black-throated Green, hot on the heels of last year's (yawn)...

2. a Black and White Warbler (the yawning had stopped at this point)...

3. and an American Redstart (no yawning here either).

We also had time to twitch a nighthawk, flying around in the twilight. Not a bad end to an, almost, perfect day.

08 October 2009

Eerie Terceira

Pretty much relived yesterday today, the quarry had almost exactly the same birds in it plus a Greenshank and several of the inland sites were totally devoid of birds. Did manage to add Collared Dove and Curlew to my Azores list at Praia Port (the whoops of joy could be heard clean to Sao Miguel) and, whilst touring various coastal localities, we rounded up Common Scoter, Sandwich Tern (two more Azores ticks), a dose of Short-beaked Common Dolphins and a few Madeiran Wall Lizards ('category C' on here, introduced to the islands, presumably accidentally, some while back).

Two facets of gulling on Terceira, the port of Praia complete with a young lab helper...

And the tip,...

07 October 2009

Gull ID by Wertheimer, Koffka & Köhler

Following a fractious and, ultimately, unsuccessful attempt at getting to Corvo a couple of days early, we accepted defeat and set about touring the sites on Terceira. The quarry delivered the usual array of Nearctic waterfowl with 2 Semi-palmated Plover, 2 Semi-palmated Sandpiper, 1 Spotted Sandpiper, 2 American Golden Plover, 1 Long-billed Dowitcher, 1 Pectoral Sandpiper and a Blue-winged Teal. Vying for attention from the opposite direction were 1 White-winged Black Tern (2nd for the Azores), 1 Wood Sandpiper and 5 Ruff.

Praia Pools and a couple of sites 'up-country' were absolutely devoid of anything notable, however, Praia Port turned up a very early American Herring Gull.

A couple of features might make this individual potentially troublesome (with regards sneaking it past a rarity committee on the European mainland, e.g. on the deck the dark bases to the greater coverts aren't obvious and the undertail could be more strongly barred), however, a 'gestalt approach' to identifying this bird results in only one conclusion.

04 October 2009

You can't keep a calidrid in an aquarium!

Started birding early this morning with a quality dream about a 'Dunlin' in a fish tank. It actually turned out to be a Curlew Sandpiper running around underwater, bobbing to the surface every now and then to take a breath. Having explained to the owners that you can't keep a Curlew Sandpiper in an aquarium, I took it out, but I can't remember where I put it as, from then on, it all went a bit 'Scooby-doo ending'.

Back in the real world... a pre-dawn raid on Uskmouth developed into an almost perfect morning. Blue sky, high wispy cloud, a gentle westerly and a steady trickle of common migrants; everything you need to remind you of the allure of autumn; had a sub-rare (or better) flitted over, the picture would have been complete. Unfortunately, the 'oddities' this morning were headed up by 50 sightings of flyover Jays (usually 1-2 knock around the reserve); the single biggest flock was of 21 going east but smaller groups of birds were going in all directions, I wouldn't want to bet my house on how many individuals were involved but it was a fair few. Other birds on the move included 1-2 Redpolls, 30 Siskin, 20 Skylark, 60 Chaffinch, 2 Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a few each of alba wags and Mipit (the majority of stuff was heading west). On the ground 3 Reed Warbler, 20+ Blackcap, 10+ Chiffchaff and 5+ Goldcrest were a nice supporting cast but the star failed to appear.

03 October 2009

It's a field and it's flooded

Dawn at the flooded field, four birders (Flusher, Fiddler and two people lacking in noms de guerre) and a Pec Sand - nice start. Following the arrival of the rest of the Birders Don't Wear Plaid Club (Gwent chapter), and having been granted access, all six of us circumnavigated the golf course and effortlessly failed to find a large schreeping pipit. 'Migration in the raw' consisted of a Siskin and a few Skylark heading west plus a smattering of Chiffchaff and alba wags milling around and about. Then it was off to Redwick for the guaranteed passerine mega,... or possibly just a Garden Warbler, a Swallow, a Blackcap and a handful of Chiffchaff.

A Garden Warbler in a garden, I'd have preferred a Barred Warbler in a bar but you can't have everything can you?

02 October 2009

Non-dead Water Rails

An early start to avoid Mr. & Mrs. Joe Public and all their screaming offspring failed miserably as the first human encountered was some inconsequential middle-aged twat out for a walk with his pitiful excuse for a leadless dog. On informing the owner that all dogs (however rat-like) are meant to be tethered to their owner, I was supplied with the faultless pearl that the dog in question "doesn't upset birds and animals". I humbly pointed out that I was an animal and it 'upset' me but, unfortunately, I didn't hear his response, drowned out, as it was by the whoosh of air as my comment passed some distance over his heavily-browed cranium.

Anyhoo, once past muttley, and having been driven from the west end of the reserve by the sheer weight of decibels emanating from the power station, I did actually get to see and hear some birds. Not an awfully large number but enough to make it worth getting out of bed. Vis-mig consisted of a steady trickle of Mipits, alba wags and Chaffinch interspersed with a few Skylark, Grey Wags, a dozen Siskin and one or two Redpoll. On the deck 9 Stonechat and a fair number of Chiffchaff were about the best of it although the duck numbers were pretty good and a couple of Water Rail were showing near the lighthouse.

Short red-based bill,... slimy-green legs,... it can only mean one thing - I'm getting bored trying to turn juv/1st-winter Water Rails into something more interesting.

PS. Had a really brief view of a possible Water Shrew; shot across the path alongside the power station, looked dark as hell above and long in the body. Unfortunately, it wasn't half as amenable to study the last one I had at the reserve.

01 October 2009

Water Rail going west

A reasonable number of waders on this evening's high-tide: 1 Little Stint, 3 Spotted Redshank, 4 Greenshank, 175 Knot, 172 Black-tailed Godwit and the usual dose of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Lapwing and Redshank. However, the 'highlight' was a flyover Raven carrying a dead Water Rail, it was briefly chased by a Buzzard (which may have carried out the initial capture) but soon shook it off and made off west. Less unusual flyovers included a few alba wags, Mipit and Skylark but, in general, pretty quiet on the migrant front.

[Edit: forgot to add this pic last night, the view from the 1st platform just before calling it a day, about half the calidrids (including the Little Stint) were just to the right.]