With our office upping sticks and relocating to 'work from home' mode, I left London on 18th and headed back to Lincolnshire. At the time I was thinking that it might just be for a few weeks or so ... how wrong I was.
Prior to lockdown coming in to force on 24 March, I was able to get out and do a bit of birding locally, although weather was generally clear and cold, with an at-times biting north-easterly airflow.
This wasn't exactly optimal for an early rush of migrants, which was a shame after mid-March's big push of Northern Wheatears. That said, there was a fantastic movement of Whooper Swans on 19-20th. This seemed particularly pronounced on the latter date, when I had 233 in six flocks move over Baston & Langtoft Pits (BLGP) in two short sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening. Imagine how many must've moved during the entire day! In the darkness later that evening, some time after 10.30 pm, we had a big flock fly low over the house, audible even inside.
Wildfowl was pretty much the main order of the day(s); late March is a very dynamic time for ducks especially and it was interesting to watch how numbers varied as the days passed. By the end of the month the last Goosanders had departed from local spots, particularly Deeping High Bank but also various pits.
Highlight of the pre-lockdown period, though, was a stunning juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard between Deeping St Nicholas and Deeping High Bank, first found by Jake Williams on the evening of 19th. He watched it gradually moving north-east until it was lost from view, and we all feared it was a migrant that'd never be seen again. But the chilly north-easterly was at least good for something, and that was keeping the buzzard in the area for at least a few days. Mike Weedon and I had some great views on the morning of 20th of this wide-ranging bird. A really pale individual, the head looked almost white at distance, especially when it was sat against the dark of the many tilled fields.
I had one check of the Peterborough gulls on 21st, although it was a bright and blustery day. As usual when conditions are so, the birds were nervy and restless, rarely settling and not really allowing the option for scrutiny.
Probably the best bird I saw at BLGP prior to lockdown was a male Bar-tailed Godwit at lunchtime on 21st. This was all a bit random, being the first March record I'd had at the pits and dropping in on a sunny day. It had gone by mid-afternoon. The bird was just beginning to colour up, with a reasonable amount of brick-red flecking appearing on the breast and belly.
The evening of 22nd was productive, with a female Ruff bearing a lime-coloured leg flag (identifying it as a Norwegian bird; alas I couldn't get close enough to read the lettering) and a winter-plumaged Water Pipit at Wader Pit (alas now not much of a pit for waders, with very high water levels after the winter rains), plus a migrating Short-eared Owl moving at considerable height to the north.
Then, on 23rd – the final day of 'freedom', if you like – I headed to Willow Tree Fen for dawn, with Garganey in mind. It was a stunningly crisp and clear morning, with gorgeous golden light illuminating the scrape. Very satisfying it was, too, to locate a pristine drake Garganey asleep among the mass of Teal and Wigeon. This has always been one of my favourite species, and every encounter is something to be cherished. However, frostbite was soon getting the better of my fingers, so I left fairly quickly – but not before a half-dozen Whooper Swans had moved through and a Eurasian Curlew flew overhead calling.
And then came lockdown ... naturally, birding becomes a luxury at such times and I am blessed that my short daily route can take in at least some of BLGP. So, I'm fortunate that spring is far from totally written off, even if it won't be as bird-filled as it might have been if I'd been able to get out around the Peterborough area during April and May. Any highlights from the short forays that the situation allows will appear here in due course.
I re-visited the west coast Ireland from 13-15 March, this time heading north to Sligo and Donegal, before continuing back south to Kerry for the final day.
One bird I was really keen to see was the American Herring Gull at Sligo Harbour, found by Séamus Feeney while we were over in late February. It was actually a bit of a pain, with several visits to the harbour area throughout my first morning producing only a five-minute showing before it disappeared once more. That said, the bird was every bit as impressive as it had appeared in Séamus' photos. It was big, bulky and dark, with amazing detail in the rump, tail and upperwing. Not pretty, but spectacular nonetheless.
While I was waiting for the smiths to put in a performance, I paid a couple of brief visits to Doorly Park, on the other side of Sligo Town, where the regular adult Ring-billed Gull kept me entertained. It was a nice bonus to come across a second bird, also an adult but clearly different on head moult alone, back at the port while searching for the AHG. The decline in the species has been stark over the past five years especially, as I recently bemoaned in the February trip blog, so finding one anywhere in Europe now makes for a good day.
Leaving Sligo at lunchtime, I birded up the coast to Killybegs and saw next to nothing of interest. So, it was a relief to quickly find a couple of Iceland Gulls and a Glaucous Gull at the head of the tidal estuary on the approach road into the famous fishing town. I was starting to become a little worried that it was going to be a quiet visit prior to this, so was pleased to find the port full of trawlers and plenty of gulls about. Numbers were in to the low thousands, the vast majority being Herring Gulls. Given the dreadful winter for both white-wingers, a total of seven Iceland and three Glaucous Gulls by dusk was probably not a bad result in the end.
Despite its obvious track record and continued potential, I have to admit that I find Killybegs quite a frustrating site to work. Views are often not great: birds are mobile, often distant, and have a habit of disappearing. They're often skittish, especially in the inner harbour. If there are lots of boats in, as on this visit, viewing is quite difficult and restricted. If only you could still get in the port compound itself, where there's loads of free quay space and lobbing bread out would no doubt quickly concentrate lots of birds and views would be so much better.
I gave the area another go the following morning, but it was clear that several trawlers had left, taking a good proportion of the birds present yesterday with them. Just two apiece of Glaucous and Iceland Gulls had revealed themselves by mid-morning, so I got back on the road south. Calling in at Sligo again, the weather had deteriorated significantly and it was now dull and windy, with squally showers. Nonetheless the American Herring Gull put in a much better performance than the previous day, this time almost exclusively on the ground.
I then headed over to the Mayo coast and worked Achill Island and the south Mayo loughs until dark. It was really rather quiet everywhere; not a single winger to be found, and my efforts were saved by the continuing presence of the Green-winged Teal at Keel and Lesser Scaup on Lough Doo, both of which were additions to my non-existent Achill list. Otherwise, it was a female Greater Scaup at Lough Baun, west of Louisburgh, that represented the next-most significant bird. The sight of a massive female Peregrine finishing off a freshly caught adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was impressive, if sobering. And at least the sunset was nice.
I drove down to Kerry during the evening, arriving in Tralee a short while before 11 pm. The next morning I started at Dingle Harbour, where a subtle adult Kumlien's Gull was among the good numbers of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls in the harbour itself. The demarcated grey was most apparent in p10 and could be seen in the field at times, but was also obvious in photos on p9 and, in the close-ups, a tiny bit was on the outer web of p8, too. Nearby Milltown produced a couple of juvenile Iceland Gulls. Unfortunately, the rest of the peninsula was a bit quiet.
Having dipped it in February, I was keen to see the adult Kumlien's Gull at Tralee, so retraced my steps back there for late morning. I saw it a couple of times, but generally overhead as it hung in the wind; it never seemed interested in coming down for the loaves. A bit more contentious was a near-adult Iceland-type here. It had been around a few days but seemed to show faintly darker outer webs to p9-10 in most photos (although not all), with an apparent darker leading edge to p10. In addition, the upper-part tone was perhaps a bit darker than typical Iceland (accounting for the bright sun at the time). On this basis it's a Kumlien's too, admittedly a pretty crap one, but it feels like it falls in a bit of a grey area and perhaps I'm looking too hard and some of these things are photo artefacts.
I spent the early afternoon covering the prime gulling sites on the Iveragh Peninsula. There were good numbers of birds at both Reenard Point and, especially, Portmagee. The regular adult Iceland was still at Reenard but, despite perhaps 400 birds present around Portmagee, no white-wingers were to be found.
Castletownbere in Cork was the next port of call, where I bumped into Fionn Moore, but the American Herring Gull appeared to have gone – two Iceland Gulls floating about there, though. A couple of Med Gulls in Bantry Creek were the best in that immediate area, but Baltimore was deathly quiet on Sunday evening. And that concluded another entertaining – if not spectacular – few days out west.
There are, as always, plenty more photos of the star birds in the photography section of my website.
March is as good a time as any to be out checking London's gulls for unusual visitors. There's always plenty of turnover at the numerous sites we keep an eye on, but especially so at this time of year as birds are very much on the move. As such, it can be particularly hit and miss along the Thames.
Rich, Dante and I met up at Greenhaven Drive, Thamesmead, on Saturday morning and after an hour's bread chucking got the feeling that, in the mild and spring-like conditions, that it wasn't going to be a 'hit' day. Aside the usual posse of Yellow-legged Gulls – 12 in total here throughout Saturday – there didn't seem to be all that much doing, so we decided to relocate to Erith Pier.
Erith is another site that suffers from patchy form in the winter months – those glory days of late summer 2019, when the surrounding river was swamped with Yellow-legged Gulls and it proved such a reliable bastion for close Casps, seemed a long time ago. Despite plenty of birds about, we'd seen nothing after the best part of an hour and so it was a bit of a surprise when Dante authoritatively announced: "Iceland in the melee!"
A small bird, this dainty, dove-like glaucoides is a very similar but nonetheless different juvenile to that seen at Thamesmead earlier in the year (which was also found by Dante at Erith). It had been at Rainham on a couple of days in the week, so it wasn't hugely surprising to see it come in and chow down on the sliced wholemeal. Naturally, views were decent, if a bit frustrating for photos, and it even had the decency to pose on the famous jetty for a short period.
Buoyed by this, it was back to Greenhaven Drive for high tide. As is normal, it took a while to concentrate birds and it was only after a half-hour or so, just after Rich left us for afternoon family duties, that the first Caspian Gull came in. A first-winter with strongly marked scaps and distinctive covert moult, I quickly recognised it as a bird I'd seen on Rainham tip on 28 January but not since.
A short while later a second arrived, a year older this time. Quite crisp and pallid in appearance, it only had the faintest residual markings on p10 but otherwise looked pretty nice.
Final stop of the day was Jolly Farmers at Crayford, which has been more miss than hit this winter. However, among the big numbers of gulls present (perhaps the most we've seen here this winter), two different second-winter Caspian Gulls were found, including the returning P:895 – the first time I've seen it since at Rainham in early December.
After the success of Saturday, hopes were high for Sunday. And it really felt like Greenhaven was going to come into its own at any moment, with more large gulls there than any of us had seen previously. But, despite lots of turnover and hundreds of Herrings, we could only muster a handful of Yellow-legged Gulls. Such is the fickle nature of London gulling.
In fact it was just as we were packing up that bird of the day appeared, a near-pristine adult Mediterranean Gull. This superb bird transpired to be sporting colour rings (as this species so often is!) and the red ring had us excited – ZHJ9 was a Czech bird! This is the first Czech Med Gull that any of us have seen, and the data indicates that it was ringed as a chick at the nest near Šenov, in the far east of the country, on 8 June 2017. So, a young adult only in its third winter, and the final of nine gull species seen over the weekend. Not bad at all, and a good advertisement for March gulling in the capital.
It had been a number of years since I'd done any winter birding in Ireland, so it was with anticipation that I headed over to Cork and Kerry for a couple of days at the end of February – along with Dante Shepherd, for whom it was a first trip to Ireland.
All in all it proved a decent trip, with a good selection of gulls in addition to a couple of Ring-necked Duck, the Pacific Diver at Crookhaven, some fantastic Badger views and, of course, the superb Irish scenery and hospitality. The arrival of Storm Jorge on Saturday more or less wiped out that afternoon for birding; it was hard enough to stand up at times, let alone raise the binoculars.
The visit had partly inspired by the appearance of a couple of American Herring Gulls, one in Cork and and the other in Devon, which suggested that the incessant storms of recent weeks had produced a small arrival of the species – as one of those on my 'most wanted' list of finds, it seemed a good option to get in the mix out west and see what happened.
Alas there was no quality find, but the Castletownbere American Herring Gull, found by Fionn Moore back at the beginning of February, showed about as well as it could have done. A few photos can be seen below, but plenty more can be found in the Photography section of this website.
This largely mild winter has proven another poor one for white-winged gulls, so our tally of 13 birds wasn't all that shabby considering the overall lack of either species in most areas. Glaucous Gull was the more numerous, with eight seen compared to just five Iceland Gulls. Both are always good value and throwing bread produced good views of almost every individual seen, even those on some of the more remote beaches. Needless to say, there were some fantastic photo opportunities and I think Dante was pretty blown away by how co-operative they are out here, particularly when compared to the distant views usually endured at Rainham Tip.
One thing that has changed very rapidly in the time that I've been birding is the number of Ring-billed Gulls around. Even on some of my trips in the early 2010s, 'Ringers' could be relied on at multiple sites along the west coast of Ireland, often in their multiples and usually involving birds of all ages. For a younger birder like Dante, what was once reality for us elders now seems like utter fantasy. We just about scraped a single adult out of the trip – the regular individual at Tralee – despite intensively covering just about every notable gull site between Clonakilty and Limerick via Dingle. Even a decade ago, you could have expected close to 10 birds on this same stretch of coast (click here for more on the changing status of Ring-billed Gull in Europe). These Irish trips just aren't the same now that these charming North American visitors are less conspicuous.
Despite not being the most vintage of Irish trips, and being somewhat brief in its nature, it was a nice reminder of how enjoyable winter birding out west can be, even in an 'average' year. No doubt Dante will be back again, too ...
Lots more photos from the trip can be found at joshrjones.smugmug.com/Birds/British-and-irish-birding/2020/.
It's been another pitiful winter for white-winged gulls across Britain, with disappointingly low numbers nationwide and particularly so in the south-east, where they're always thinnest on the ground.
So, it was a bit of a surprise when Dante found this bird with George Gay at Erith Pier just after Christmas. Since then it's become strangely loyal to Beckton sewage works and the adjacent creek at Creekmouth. Sometimes it is one of the only large gulls present!
When I saw it on 28th, the bird was loitering on the sewage tanks and only viewable through the fence. Fortunately I'd come prepared with several loaves, so started lobbing them into the creek. The bird couldn't resist the sound of the squabbling Black-headed Gulls and came in pretty quickly, giving fairly good photo opportunities.
It's only the second Iceland Gull I've seen in London, following the bird I found in Hammersmith back in December 2016 (which, incidentally, has recently returned for its fourth winter running and is now in pristine adult plumage).
In terms of birding, 2020 has picked up where the past couple of years left off – my first full day out in London on Saturday naturally focused around gulls and little else.
It seems we've had a bit of an influx, perhaps caused by the recent winds. Overall numbers were higher – Saturday morning's congregation on the landfill site at Rainham was easily the biggest I've seen all winter. We always speculate as to what cause these influxes – cold weather is usually the answer, but in this mildest of winters it does seem something else is at play. Perhaps when it gets a bit windy offshore, birds have a habit of seeking shelter in the estuary?
Whatever the reason, it does seem that we've had a bit of an influx of Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls, the former being particularly welcome as it's been a pretty lean winter for the species so far. Interestingly I noticed more Lesser Black-backs on the tip than I have done for a couple of months, so perhaps these have moved in and brought some Yellow-legs with them.
What's also stark is the strikingly high proportion of second-winters of each species, which reflects last winter's high numbers of first-year birds – and is also a hint that the 2019 breeding season was poor (we know that seems to have been the case for Caspians at least, judging by comments from ringers in Germany and Poland).
I started at Rainham, where I quickly racked up five Caspians on the tip within an hour, although viewing was a little tricky due to the incessant south-westerly wind. These comprised an adult I didn't recognise, two second-winters (one new, another fairly unimpressive bird that had been seen by Rich and Dante on 10 December) and a couple of first-winters, again one being new for me. This fresh bird was good value; it was great to watch it 'albatrossing' and throwing its weight around on the tip, and it should be quite easy to track it by its distinctive replaced central tail feather.
It seemed like a lot of birds were already going onto the river by 11 am, so I headed around the south side to Erith Pier, where Dante and Rich had arrived a short while before. They'd already had a good start to the day with at least one 3cy Caspian, the returning Caspian x Herring 'X90A' and double figures of Yellow-leged Gulls.
The first bit of interest to arrive at the famous pier was a 2cy Caspian x Herring Gull – a bird with plenty of covert moult but far too much in the way of Herring influence for it to sneak through as a pure Casp, for example the head and bill, short wings and overall uniform-ness. It was also a really ugly bird!
While we were watching this, two different first-winter Caspians came into the melee, allowing some close comparisons with the 'mule'. The first flew circled overhead a few times, looking fairly disinterested, before heading off downriver. The second, however, got stuck in to the offerings, gave decent views and was calling regularly.
Then an adult Mediterranean Gull arrived, the first I have seen in London since the summer (which in itself was a very poor season for the species, with just a few seen). Meds are pretty scarce in London in winter so it was welcome, even though it had a nasty leg break. Perhaps this limb will fall off at some point.
A third Caspian Gull then appeared, this one a familiar bird that I'd first seen with Dante at Rainham back in early December. It's a distinctive individual, with an obvious pale tip to the lower manible and a noticeable pale skirting to the coverts, creating a 'double wingbar' impression.
Annoyingly, what would have been the bird of the day flew straight through and didn't stop – a big and imposing second-winter, with superb plumage (look at those p10 mirrors!) ...
We then had a quick look in at Crayford, where there was a good turnover of birds and a couple of Caspian Gulls – single second and third-winters – dropped in to bathe on Jolly Farmers. A good end to a good day.
For several years I have been saying to myself that I must make a later autumn trip to Achill Island than the usual mid-late September foray for waders. Finally, this was the year that I managed it – admittedly only for a long weekend – but it's safe to say I am now hooked on the idea going forward!
Autumn 2019 had been shaping up as a promising one for American landbirds, exemplified by a run of late-September finds, notably including French firsts in the form of Ovenbird and Blackburnian Warbler, as well as a rush of Red-eyed Vireos in Britain and Ireland. The opening days of October brought Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Black-and-white Warbler to Scilly, and the forecast for the period from 5-8 October – perfectly coinciding with my trip – looked very exciting for further arrivals, with long warm fronts trailing off two separate fast-moving low-pressure systems. The first was due pass during the early hours of Saturday 5th, with the second arriving on Monday 7th. Game on!
The Friday turned out to be somewhat tumultuous, firstly because the gearbox fell apart on the hire car during my drive over from Dublin to the west coast. Having sorted this out I eventually reached the Mayo coast around midday, but despite plenty of common waders around the usual sites in South Mayo, notable birds were lacking. I then made the silly decision to try and twitch the reappearing American Black Tern at Nimmo's Pier, which was well gone by the time I pulled into Galway. Nonetheless, consolation came in the form of a nice fish supper at McDonagh's with Niall Keogh. Another old friend was seen at the pier slipway itself – the returning adult Ring-billed Gull. I think this bird has been present every year since I first visited Nimmo's in 2008. After accepting that the tern was a dip, I drove north up to Achill and pulled in at the Achill Sound Hotel some time in the mid evening.
Saturday dawned breezy, grey and rainy – at least the front had arrived as predicted. With the weather filthy, I did a circuit of some of Achill's wader sites, albeit without seeing much, before heading for the epicentre of Achill birding – Keel Golf Course. Achill stalwart Micheál O'Briain was already on site looking at the best selection of waders I have seen there since I first visited in September 2008. There were Dunlin and Ringed Plover aplenty, with several European Golden and, more surprisingly, a trio of juvenile Grey Plovers. Micheál and I had a good chat before were were joined by Derek and Majella Charles, who were also on Achill for the weekend. After the usual greetings, we all went our separate ways and, with the rain easing a little, I decided to take a walk across the golf course to made sure it was checked properly. It was here that I had my bird of the day – a delightfully confiding Snow Bunting.
The skies suddenly cleared during the afternoon and I met up with Micheál at Corrymore House, which I and many others rate as one of the rarest-looking gardens on the Irish west coast. It's the obvious first point of arrival for any American landbirds, yet also a last port of call for anything coming from the east. In the calm of the late afternoon, my first Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn confidently flitted about the garden's only sycamore, and there were also a couple of Chiffchaffs in the adjacent fuchsia hedge.
Sunday morning dawned beautifully calm and bright. News had come out overnight about a Black-and-white Warbler on Inishbofin, an island viewable with the naked eye from Achill on a clear day – like this morning! Having let both Derek and Majella as well as Micheál know, I think we all felt equally gripped yet invigorated at the same time. Looking back on things (and speaking entirely selfishly!), it was probably at this point I should have gone straight to Corrymore for another look. Yet with a couple of hours before breakfast to play with, I instead opted for a quick look at nearby Dooega before heading out to the western point of the island.
Two new species for Achill were found on Sunday. The first of these, I came across at Dooega. It was beautifully calm with not a breath of wind in the valley there, and all the birds were showing well. It was one of those mornings that you think that if there's something there to find, you'd have found it. And that was the case with the Reed Warbler in sallows down by the beach ... yes, apparently a first known record for Achill!
I was really impressed by Dooega and think that countless good birds must have been missed here over the years, from both east and west. No one ever looks. However, I felt like Corrymore was definitely the place to check as the sun gradually rose into the sky. I knew Micheál would likely already be there and it was with both excitement and trepidation that I saw his name on my phone when it started to ring. "Josh ... I'm at Corrymore ... there's something here."
It sounded like views had been brief and unfulfilling, but the description of a bird with a "spiky bill and two white wingbars" certainly spurred me on. I was only minutes away and found myself sat staring with Micheál at the same bank of fuchsia as we'd done the previous evening, yet this time we knew there was something in there. It felt like a much longer wait than it probably was, but not long before 11:00 I noticed something interesting moving through densest parts of the fuchsia. A bit of pishing and there it was, staring curiously back yet remaining concealed enough not to give a particularly clear view – a Baltimore Oriole.
Derek and Majella were instantly informed and were on site very quickly, just in time for us all to enjoy the best views that the oriole gave at any point during its four-day stay, even sitting up on the telephone wires by the house for a good 30 seconds. While not the brightest of orioles, it was nonetheless a beautiful bird and just a fourth for Ireland. What terrific and deserved discovery for Micheál, who certainly puts the time in on this wonderful island. It is, incidentally, the second North American passerine he has found on the island (and, more specifically, in the Corrymore garden) following a Red-eyed Vireo in October 2014. Given that he is the island's most regular birder, yet is only over for at most a couple of weeks in the entire autumn, the great potential of Achill no doubt goes unappreciated.
Having enjoyed fantastic views of the oriole, I decided to leave the scene and redouble my efforts by combing the gardens of Dooagh and Keel. Many of these are quite small and threadbare in terms of cover, so it felt like there would have been a very good chance of finding anything that might have been there on such a calm day. Alas there was nothing, with just a couple of Chiffchaffs the best I could encounter, although a Yellow-browed Warbler was heard in the ever-appealing 'art gallery garden' in Keel (this undoubtedly the best cover on the western 'arm' of Achill and, I imagine, where a fair few American landbirds must have ended up over the years).
The weather gradually worsened again into the evening on Sunday, and Monday dawned windy and rainy once more – a sure sign that the low had arrived. It was the dire conditions which meant that I didn't rush to get out in the field ... and in turn had a bit of time trawling the internet, found this video of the 'nightjar' in County Antrim and promptly stuck the news out on BirdGuides that the bird was in fact a Common Nighthawk ...
In fact, the nighthawk become an increasing distraction throughout the day. I spent much of the morning and early afternoon birding around Dooega, which was infinitely windier than it had been the previous day and thus much harder to cover. Nonetheless, four testing hours produced a Yellow-browed Warbler (the first to be recorded in the village) and a couple of Chiffchaffs, but no vireo, Catharus thrush, cuckoo or otherwise.
It was as windy as ever during the afternoon and news that Stuart Piner was watching the nighthawk gracing the skies above the River Maine in Galgorm saw me eventually cave in to changing my plans. The wind wasn't forecast to drop on Achill until at least Thursday and, despite Derek and Majella sorting me out with a really lovely B&B for the night, needs must and I decided to head to Galgorm for first light on Tuesday.
With that decision, another Achill trip came to a slightly premature end. I managed a few hours' kip after a fish supper in Keel with Derek and Majella before getting on the road at 03:00. To be honest, there was a bit of relief in leaving, as the wind was as bad as ever when I left the island in the early hours. Birding there on Tuesday wouldn't have been much fun. The nighthawk was seen very well in much more agreeable conditions and was undoubtedly one of the birds of the year (and well worth the effort to divert for!), but I'll do a separate post on that in due course.
Special thanks to Derek, Majella and of course Micheál for their company at various points over the weekend. Hopefully it's the start of Achill getting a bit more coverage during the peak weeks of autumn. I've vowed to go back for a week next autumn. Please reference this blog post if I don't keep my word.
Since the glut of juveniles at the beginning of August, finding a Caspian Gull in London hasn't been an easy task. Repeated visits to Erith Pier drew a blank into mid-September and the bird I had on Thursday was the first showy individual I've seen for a number of weeks. As it happened, that was a precursor to a productive Saturday afternoon at the pier, which produced no fewer than four first-winters.
The first of these was probably the least impressive. I picked it up at around 500 m range as it came to scraps being thrown out by an old lady some way upriver of the pier. In flight it looked a great Caspian Gull, with noticeable pale underwing and crisp tail band. However, by the time I'd walked round to the bird and managed closer views, I was significantly less impressed. The boldly marked greater coverts aren't typical of Caspian and my guess was that it perhaps has a bit of Herring in it somewhere. That said, everything else looks good for Caspian and the bird has even moulted a few lesser coverts already, with these apparent in the deck shot below.
I headed off to get some food for 20 minutes. In the meantime Jamie had arrived and located a first-winter Casp straight away. It transpired to be X09J, a bird that has been regular around the Thames over the past 10 days or so and had previously spent some time at Cromer, Norfolk. It's a bird from the notorious Laussig hybrid colony and isn't the best-looking Casp but, having actually seen it in the flesh for the first time, it's better than I'd been giving it credit for.
The third bird was the best of the bunch. It was absolutely stunning on the deck: beautiful white head, distinctive face, textbook plumage with diffuse pale fringing to the greater coverts and and classic tertial patterning. The retained juvenile scapulars had that uniform mouse-brown look to them, too. In flight it was quite mucky, with the underwing fairly dark and the uppertail with plenty of barring.
The fourth and final bird was an absolute unit. Jamie picked it up on the water at distance and, because of its bulk, was initially unsure on whether it was a cach or mich. Scapular and covert patterns, plus the facial expression, certainly favoured the former and that was confirmed when it did a brief fly-past at the pier.
Other bits of note during the Saturday included a Norwegian-ringed juvenile Great Black-backed Gull. Black 'JJ285' was ringed at a nest approximately 10km west of Bergen on 23 June 2019 and was still in that area on 21 July. My sighting was the first away from here.
Small numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls remain around the Thames, most of which are first- or second-winters, albeit with the occasional older bird around.
You can tell it's autumn: the weather is confused. Wet and windy for periods today, yet humid and still really quite warm in the intermittent sunshine, it was one of those days where you constantly taking layers on and off while in the field.
I headed over to Erith Pier for a few hours this morning to see what was happening with the gulls. It was a blustery day with intermittent heavy squalls, during which the wind would really pick up – but there were also sunnier and calmer periods, too. There were plenty of gulls to look through and I was only about 20 minutes in to the session when a first-winter Caspian Gull suddenly appeared, quite innocuously, among the melee, having sneaked in unannounced as they often do. It was quite a delicate bird: small, elegant and lightweight looking, with a long bill and small head. Plumage wise it was nice, with an almost complete set of moulted scaps and a very white-headed look. The underwing could have been cleaner but, overall, it was a pretty pleasant bird. Unfortunately it appeared during a dull spell and only hung around for about five minutes before flying upriver, meaning photo opportunities weren't as good as they can be here.
Shortly after the Casp, a tight flock of at least 45 terns flew past heading upriver. The calls of both Common and Arctic were clear and, while most of the birds were the former species, around a dozen of the latter were intermixed. A little later in the morning, at around 11:40, a couple of Sandwich Terns also appeared off the pier. Evidently the changeable weather had generated some sort of tern movement, something noted at other sites both around London and across the Midlands.
Yellow-legged Gull numbers have evidently fallen away but, as is typical as we go into autumn, small numbers do persist and birds of all ages were seen today, even if my total did not exceed five ... a few Common Gulls were about, too.
Both species of seal also put in appearances during the morning, with a particularly impressive bull Grey causing havoc among the gathered gulls.
Leaving the pier at midday, I did the usual tour of sub-sites along the drive back towards Central London. A Grey Seal and a 2cy Yellow-legged Gull were off Princess Alice Way, Thamesmead – the latter a bird I've seen here before – and a ringed 2cy Common Gull came to the offerings at King Henry's Wharf, Woolwich. White 'JC973' is Norwegian, having been ringed on as a chick on an island on the outskirts of Oslo, and was seen as a first-winter in February just a mile or so away at Thames Barrier Park by young Dante. It was then in The Netherlands in April.
Final stop was just upriver of the Thames Barrier by the Anchor & Hope pub. A 2cy Yellow-legged Gull put in a brief appearance but, once again, there was no Casp – bear in mind that this site sits directly opposite Thames Barrier Park, it's amazing to think none the East London gullers have seen one here yet, despite small numbers of large gulls present on every visit. Nonetheless, an adult Sandwich Tern heading upriver here at 13:04 was a real bonus and a great end to a surprisingly decent day of London birding.
The August bank holiday weekend coincided with some excellent, 'drifty' weather. With the forecast looking good for some early-autumn migration several days in advance, I planned a couple of visits to the White Cliffs/Langdon Hole area – alone on the Saturday and with Rich Bonser on the Monday.
Happily the promised conditions held true and, although it was roasting hot on both visits, migration was very much in evidence and each venture proved rewarding, with two very enjoyable mornings of birding. Pied Flycatcher was, as it was across many areas, the species of the weekend, with my Saturday visit producing five and, on Monday, an impressive seven.
Bird of the weekend, though, was a pristine young Red-backed Shrike which we found early on the Monday morning. There's a really picturesque valley just north (ie inland) of Fox Hill Down, itself above the White Cliffs car park, that is dotted with hawthorn bushes, fence lines and weedy areas, and it looks excellent for migrants. I've always fancied it for a shrike, but didn't expect one on only my fifth visit to this area. First noted perched atop a bush on the far side of the valley, right at the limits for my binoculars, I could only make out a shape and assumed it might be a Northern Wheatear sitting up to take in the first rays of the morning sun. Then it sallied, quite unlike a wheatear, and a shrike seemed the most logical conclusion ... something backed up when Rich arrived with his camera, took a record shot and zoomed in (my camera screen is still well and truly broken).
Eventually we managed considerably closer views, watching this superb bird happily feeding some 15 metres away and staying loyal to the single, isolated hawthorn. Later in the morning, by which point it had attracted a small twitch, it had moved a bit further up the valley, but still remained distant from the roadside.
We were also fortunate to be underneath a couple of Dotterel that moved eastwards and out to sea over Langdon mid-morning on 26th, with Rich hearing the call and me picking up the birds in flight simultaneously. A couple had been seen in fields the previous day but soon headed off and we presume this two to have been a different pair, given that this is a traditional exit point for the species toward staging sites on the near continent and that they seemed to go straight through and out to sea towards France.
A good selection of warblers included both Common and Lesser Whitethroats in pleasing numbers. The latter especially is a great bird in autumn, with the fresh, silvery plumage always making them look rarer than they actually are! Overhead, small numbers of Yellow Wagtails were passing on both visits, with a couple of Tree Pipits also noted on the Monday. Overall, it made for a great couple of days of early-autumn birding.
Things had quietened down somewhat by the following weekend in the Langdon Cliffs environs, with the number of migrants noticeably down. Nonetheless, a few Whinchats were seen, both in the Hole and from Reach Road, as well as one or two Common Redstarts and a Pied Flycatcher.
As an aside, it was nice to find both a single flying adult and plenty of eggs of Long-tailed Blue on the Kent coast over the bank holiday weekend. Location details unfortunately cannot be revealed due to the sensitive nature of the site.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.