I headed down to Dover with Rich Bonser early on Saturday morning. Rich has adopted Langdon Cliffs as a patch and is trying to get down there as often as time allows, but productivity this September has been severely hampered by the uninspiring westerly weather conditions that have dominated throughout. As such, the breath of an easterly overnight Friday into Saturday was not something to be sniffed at and we arrived at the National Trust car park at Langdon a little after 7.30 am.
Although the wind was in the right direction, the sky was cloudless and a fall was hardly on the cards. That said, Chiffchaffs seemed to be vocal around the car park area and a handful of Meadow Pipits were moving overhead. Annoyingly a Coal Tit refused to show itself well enough to establish whether it had come from the continent – it was calling a lot and flying around restlessly yet never alighted long enough to judge plumage tones. Perhaps telling was that it was the first Coal Tit of any variety that Rich had seen here since he saw two continental birds here in October 2015. Thankfully, however, a couple of Black Redstarts proved a little more obliging ...
Curiously, one of the Black Reds was obsessively harassing another unusual visitor to the Hole – a Little Owl – which was getting a hard time from just about every other small bird in the vicinity, including several Yellowhammers and Chaffinches. Other 'oddities' included a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Merlin flying over, plus four Jays. Rich scored singles of Firecrest and Common Whitethroat, while I had a couple of Siskins and a Swallow over, plus up to five Stonechats scattered as far as Fan Bay – although that site was otherwise disappointingly quiet.
By 11:00 the area was getting increasingly busy with grockles filing through on their way for a glimpse of Dover's famous white cliffs. With bird activity on the wane as the day became increasingly warm and sunny, we decided to leave the Hole behind for another weekend.
With very little happening anywhere in Kent, there was only one way to turn: London's gulls. We headed for Crayford, where a pleasantly gull-filled Jolly Farmers greeted us on arrival. I picked up a nice first-winter Caspian Gull almost straight away, while a presumed hybrid Caspian x Herring announced itself shortly afterwards. The latter was asleep with head tucked in when I picked it up. On the covert and tertial pattern, I called it a Casp. Then it woke up and stood up ... head/face is extremely Herring-like and, to me, it looks a middle-ground bird showing features of both species, as you'd expect a hybrid to.
Regular bouts of disturbance (travellers, fireworks, sirens and so on) made the gulls quite restless as they commuted between Jolly Farmers and the nearby lake at Bob Dunn Way. Numbers soon began to disperse as the warm afternoon allowed them to thermal up high and disappear in all directions. And so with that we decided enough was enough. A Grey Seal was seen on the river at Thamesmead during a brief stop, but that was otherwise it for notable sightings. I eventually got home about 6 pm, a full three hours after leaving Crayford ... driving in London can be utterly infuriating at times!
Quite extraordinary scenes in the Thames Estuary off Gravesend today. Late this morning, Dave Andrews sensationally found a Beluga Whale while conducting survey work by the river just east of the town. There have been a couple of recent records from Britain and Ireland, but both from coastal localities and involving brief sightings. Therefore, to read that this one was lingering and seemingly quite content with its unusual choice of location, it was impossible to ignore driving the 30 miles down the road to try and see it.
I arrived on site around 13:00 and saw the whale almost straight away. As is often the case with cetacean sightings, views were generally frustratingly brief and underwhelming as the whale surfaced, usually a few times in short succession, before it dived again, sometimes for up to 10 minutes. In fact, the 'beak' and tiny black eye of the whale were only glimpsed on a couple of occasions, although seeing its upper half was considerably easier. At first it was actually quite close in, near the Kent side, but latterly moved over towards the Essex side of the river, rendering views distant even through the telescope.
Beluga Whale is an extreme rarity in Britain, with 15 or so previous records. Most of these have involved brief sightings, often in hard-to-reach places (e.g. Shetland). Therefore one lingering at such an accessible location is a real turn up for the books and has the potential to spark a huge twitch. As for the whale's prospects, things may initially seem bleak but Belugas are well known for being estuarine species, routinely feeding in shallow waters. This one appears in good condition, with no signs that it is struggling from injury or illness. It was fascinating to learn that one survived several weeks in the River Rhine, Germany, in May 1966 (more here). So, hopefully this particular individual will be fine.
I've just uploaded a photo album from my Colombia trip in June 2017 to the Photography section of my website. Either click here to view or click on the Buff-tailed Coronet below ...
As previously mentioned in yesterday's Irish trip summary, a point-blank juvenile Eurasian Dotterel proved the highlight of five days' birding around County Mayo. When Dave Suddaby initially texted with the news, he'd mentioned it was with a flock of European Golden Plovers and any hope of obtaining images seemed virtually non-existent. How pleasant it was, then, to turn up and find the bird on its own in a field of cows, performing to within metres ...
The bird was initially a little wary of us and at one point flew off, calling regularly, but soon returned and got used to its new cohabitants, unconcernedly feeding to within a few metres of us for the hour or so we spent with it.
The bird itself was absolutely pristine, with bright buff and peach tones to its upperparts and breast. I was intrigued by the brownish, diffuse 'barring' on the belly, something I'd not noticed before. All in all, it was a fantastic experience, hampered only by the very dull and breezy conditions, which made photography a little less straightforward than it perhaps should have been.
I've just returned from a long weekend in County Mayo with Kit Day. As always at this time of year, American waders were our primary focus, but alas it proved a slow five days for arrivals from across the Atlantic. In fact, a scour of the loughs of south-west Mayo on Thursday and then Achill on Friday produced barely any noteworthy birds, save a colour-ringed Eurasian Curlew at Mulrany and the usual assortment of species, most notably good numbers of Chough on Achill. Such is the nature of the beast when birding out west – when it's quiet, boy is it quiet!
With Rich Bonser due in on Saturday morning, we left Achill to him and headed for a second go at south-west Mayo. As it had been on Thursday, Corragaun Lough was bizarrely wader-less. However, Roonagh Lough was much 'birdier' and Kit soon picked up a couple of Golden Plovers feeding in short grass just south of the outflow, while good numbers of Ringed Plover and Sanderling, plus a few Dunlin, were roosting on the beach. As we walked down to the outflow, the plovers flushed and then I heard a distinctive prrrrt call a couple of times – it was a Pectoral Sandpiper and the bird duly flew into view, landing alongside the plovers. Here it began to feed happily and we thought it would be game on for photos – until a yellow-bellied Common Snipe flushed out the adjacent marsh, taking the Pec with it, until we lost it as a speck in the sky to the south. Back to square one ...
Still, it was at least something, although it didn't prove the precursor of a flood of transatlantic arrivals! With Rich reporting little among the usual suspects around Achill's hot-spots, we decided to continue north and explore some new sites that I'd not previously visited. First up was the estuary, beach and machair at Dooyork – there's a fantastic area of saltmarsh here, but it held nothing on our visit (and just a few GPs were noted on the beach). Then we moved up to Trawmore Bay where, as we sat scanning the Sanderling and Ringed Plovers out on the mudflats, we received a BirdGuides message about a Baird's Sandpiper, in Mayo, at ... Trawmore beach! Eh?! Well, as it transpired, it was a Dave Suddaby find earlier in the day, just as the tide had begun to drop. With the tide now well out (it was around 16:30 by this point), the waders were scattered for miles and there was predictably no sign of the Baird's ... so with that it was back to Achill to meet up with Rich and have a few pints.
We gave the regular Achill sites a hammering on Sunday morning, albeit with the same result – zilch. Then it was onto Trawmore Bay to catch the falling tide. This is a great site ... the birds are close and the viewing sheltered from strong W/SW winds. A juvenile Curlew Sandpiper was nice, but the Baird's didn't come in during the hour we spent on site. Dave Suddaby then texted to say that he'd found a Dotterel on the Mullet, near Cross Lough. With little else on the cards, Kit and I said our goodbyes to Rich (who was heading back to Dublin via Sligo) and headed round to Cross Lough to have a look at what would be an Irish tick.
We were fortunate to find Dave still on site as we pulled up on the south-west side of Cross Lough. His description of it as a "typical Dotterel" pricked our ears and we were thrilled to find it was indeed a showy bird. As far as I can recall, it's the first confiding juvenile I've seen anywhere. Despite the attention of several boisterous cows, we were able to score some pleasing images of the bird over the following hour. A juvenile Ruff was also seen nearby.
As it turned out, this was the bird of the weekend. Who'd have thought it – a weekend on the west coast of Ireland, in strong westerlies, and the rarest bird is one that has come from some way east of Mayo. Such is the unpredictability of birding.
Monday once again proved a quiet affair, with strong winds and some torrential rain. The Golden Plovers on Keel Golf Course had built up to six birds, although contained nothing rarer, nor did the 80-strong Ringed Plover flock (no sign this year of the Semipalmated, despite plenty of searching). A handful of Dunlin were among the Sanderlings and Ringed Plovers at Tonatanvally, while numbers at Sruhill Lough were scant all weekend. We did Roonagh and Corragaun Loughs on our way south back to Shannon Airport, finding a dead Glaucous Gull at the former and 17 Ringed Plovers at the latter (the first waders we'd seen here on this trip!), but nothing more exciting. Our final stop was Nimmo's Pier, where a loaf of bread failed to draw in the adult Ring-billed Gull seen a few days previous.
So, a quiet trip out to Ireland on this occasion, but it's rare to leave completely empty handed. And, while the Pec didn't linger and give itself up entirely, it constitutes a fairly satisfying result given the overall lack of American waders in western Ireland so far this autumn. And the Dotterel was class ...
I went down to Langdon Hole (just above the Port of Dover) with Rich and Jamie on Saturday morning. A light scattering of migrants included singles of Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart and Whinchat, up to four Black Redstarts, six Spotted Flycatchers and a few Northern Wheatears, plus a scattering of common warblers. A 1cy Yellow-legged Gull also circled over and it was nice to see and hear Ravens. Hardly ground-breaking stuff, but no doubt the first of many visits to this promising area.
In the afternoon I called in at Fulham to see if there were any gulls around. The gamble paid off with around 350 large gulls present, including adult and 1cy Yellow-legged Gulls and a dark juvenile Caspian Gull. In flight the bird showed a nice tail band but had a very heavily marked rump and uppertail. Perhaps the legacy of Herring genes somewhere down the line, but the bird was structurally very good and otherwise looked fine. You can also see a couple of nice anchor markings on the moulted scapulars. Photo opportunities are never good on bright afternoons in Fulham and the unbroken blue skies of Saturday meant that I had to settle for record shots almost directly into the sun; these never make judging plumage tones easy and the below images make the bird look somewhat darker than it actually was. Nevertheless, it is quite a well-marked individual with quite a bit of muckiness on the flanks and underwing etc.
I had another look in the Fulham/Chiswick area on Sunday, although gull numbers were slightly lower. Nevertheless Herring Gull Y:G41, a yellow-ringed bird from York, was again in Chiswick (having first appeared here last winter) and a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls were by The Dove pub in Hammersmith.