Thursday, 30 May 2013

Introduction to Bird Song - Saturday 1st June

Want to get to learn your bird calls?

The Arfon Branch of the wonderful North Wales Wildlife Trust have organised a free introduction to bird song walk this weekend.

Saturday 1 June 2013 12:00 (yes, midday - when the confusing dawn chorus will have diminished!)

Location: Rhyd-y-Clafdy on B4415, near Pwllheli SH329349

Join us for a gentle walk in the early summer countryside and learn to recognise common birdsong. Beginners welcome. Bring packed lunch.

Get in touch for more detailed directions  -  please book by calling 01248 351541.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Roseate Tern

One reported this morning at Porth Dinllaen, Morfa Nefyn. Possibly the Penychain bird from a few days ago? Anyway, a good find for whoever it was - Roseates are very scarce down this way and always a delight to see.

Unfortunately, I was out of the area when Eddie relocated it at lunchtime as well as a Black Guillemot. A dash back early evening and in a flying visit I failed to connect with it from the beach by The Cliffs Hotel. There were a few very distant terns roosting on the rocks towards Nefyn but I couldn't hang around to explore any further.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Long-tailed Skua

It had to happen eventually - and seems even more timely following my last post! This afternoon the wind was again blowing SW/W around force 5-6 with the odd shower and a good deal of sunshine. I persuaded The Urbanski Birder to join me for another look at Cricieth, arriving around 1415 hrs for a couple of hours.

Immediately, Eddie connected with a group of distant skuas on the water off the castle and when a couple flew up then dropped down (shuffling the deck for want of a better description) we were able to see the spoons and confirm them as Pomarines. It was then a case of wait and see, and as usual at this site, it took a long time for the birds to change gear, get up and fly another short distance. They are easily overlooked and visitors are advised to scan very carefully with scopes from one of the shelters to have a decent chance of ticking this species here.

In the meantime a handful of Northern Gannets, just 15 Manx Shearwaters, 8 Sandwich' and a "Commic" tern were noted with a Red-throated Diver and a few Guillemots on the sea. A fine pale-phase Arctic Skua moved west when shortly afterwards El Player (don't ask!) picked up another very distant skua. The bird was  heading our way at very long range and initially looked good for Arctic. As it got a little closer I thought I could make out a bluntish tail and considered a sub-adult Pom... but was the chest really heavy enough and surely the wings weren't broad enough at the base?

At this point a very beardy passer-by popped his head in the shelter and asked us what we were doing. I managed to multi-task by fielding his questions with one eye on him and the other still watching the mystery skua come closer and closer..... There was an ominous silence, he departed, the light improved and then our star find suddenly banked, lifted above the horizon and confirmed our growing suspicions by revealing the longest thinnest rat's tail of any skua; it was an immaculate adult Long-tailed Skua and was heading our way!

We then enjoyed a fantastic performance. The bird decided to head west then turned and headed back towards Black Rock Sands (seemingly flushing the group of 15 Poms in the process and affording excellent comparison) before starting to circle and climb high towards Morfa Bychan. It drifted a couple of hundred metres over the beach before abandoning thoughts of an overland passage and dropped back down and headed west, landing briefly on the sea in front of us at one stage before resuming it's journey, being mobbed by a Northern Fulmar at one point on the way. Great stuff! Do I  think I missed 27 of these the other day? No, but I am happy with the one we saw today.

Also passing were a couple of distant Bonxies, two unidentified tiny specks of skua over in the direction of Harlech and three Whimbrel. After a shower had passed over the Poms took off and headed purposefully west straight past us - again mostly pale-phase adults.

Happy with our session it was time to retrace our steps. A quick stop at Afonwen produced a nice Dipper before calling in at Pwllheli's harbour channel. Rhys Jones had a Roseate Tern off Pen-y-chain yesterday and we were half-hoping it might still be around. No joy, but we did manage 19 Sandwich' and 17 Commons plus a respectable 50 Dunlin and a high figure of 37 Ruddy Turnstone. The afternoon's birding ended with a beautiful sea and towering clouds as the next pulse of rain clipped the peninsula.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Skuas and other seabirds: recent reports and past experiences

This blog has been rolling along for a while now with no politics/soap opera antics - thank God! But maybe, just maybe, I am about to commit an act of ornithological slander!?

Flashback to yesterday. Tempted by the prospect of more spoonage - and guilty of doing very little seawatching last year, I  headed back to Cricieth. A couple of friendly guys from Wolverhampton (who seemed to know what they were looking at) had been present since 0800 hrs and left shortly after Rhys, Eddie and I arrived at 1230 hrs. They'd had around 25 Poms in the morning and we systematically counted (1235-1535 hrs) at least 35 POMARINE', 3 GREAT' & 3 ARCTIC SKUAS, 2 WHIMBREL, 7 RED-THROATED DIVER plus a few hundred Manxies, Kittiwakes and terns feasting offshore on sandeels etc in a classic Multi-Species Feeding Association as it's known in marine ornithology. A good proportion of the Kittiwakes were 2nd calendar year birds and continuing the immature theme were one or two 2cy Med' Gulls and a 2cy Lesser Black-backed. Many of the Poms were loafing then getting up and heading west out past the promenade again - including a fabulous group of 18 birds at a very respectable distance. The majority were pale-phase adults with a few intermediates, dark morphs and sub-adults. A very nice mixture.

Anyway, I get home to find Birdguides reporting 65 Poms and TWENTY BLOODY SEVEN LONG-TAILED SKUAS! Funnily enough, there have been only a handful of Long-tailed reports so far this year via the 'information services'. If you trust everything reported by them  - but that's another story!

It did seem somewhat incredible and got me thinking about the vagaries of identifying birds when seawatching. It really wouldn't surprise me if the observer(s) were mistaken... those distant Poms can look like they have really, er, long tails!

Please don't anyone take this the wrong way. I must stress that I was not there, have never stared into the salty abyss with the observer(s) concerned and am really and truly not trying to disrespect anyone - just attempting to process the report in a rational way, assume that a mistake has been made and hope I haven't been thoroughly gripped off!  Maybe a magnificent set of photographs will appear, I will be proved wrong and feast on humble pie once more :-D

But an opportunity has arisen to air some thoughts and seeing as I am in controversial mode and heading down that slippery slope anyway... I may as well attempt to get a few things off my chest and grasp the end of a ball of string that has possibly tied up some of our seabird records for a long time?

Essentially, I have serious doubts about the historical reports of a couple of pelagic birds in particular in Welsh waters. I'll start with the species above. Off the west coast of Ireland and in the North Sea, longicaudus are passage migrants, especially in autumn. Off the Western Isles the spring passage is well known. However, I really believe that most of the reports of immatures in autumn in North Wales are probably just Arctics. This is based on a sample of thousands of hours of seawatching by a small group of trusted friends who don't see them very often!

The other thing that bugged me for many years was Sabine's Gull. Again, lots of time getting battered in the sea breeze by birders I know and trust has resulted in a mere handful of records, while at other sites, especially a particularly famous watch point in Pembrokeshire they are apparently regular. On visiting Strumble Head a few years ago with a crack team from the north I was shocked to witness one of the regular guard there misidentify a Kittiwake as a Sabine's at close range! This got me wondering how many more erroneous reports there might have been of this species from there over the years and, realising that I might not be missing too many of them after all I was relieved and disappointed in equal measure!

I repeat in all honesty, that I am not trying to slander anyone. I know about making mistakes, having made hundreds over the years but I am slowly improving and appreciate any help I can get. Casting our egos aside for a minute one comes to realise that mis-identifications are absolutely crucial steps up the ID mountain. They are how we all learn as birders - especially by sharing our thoughts and experiences with our fellow devotees.

Because when we get to do The Real Thing, having departed from the comfy sofa and neat illustrations on crisp field guide pages to mountainous waves, things can get weird, really weird!  There are so many factors to bear in mind: distant birds, species out of their usual habitat, crap light, salt sprayed optics, brief views, no size comparisons, rolling seas... never mind the terrible directions (over the wave!) and sensory deprivation.

So here I am, baring my soul and confessing that I still sometimes have problems with the following maritime identification mysteries 30 years down the line; small skuas - especially distant immatures - regularly give me grief, distant divers often trouble me, I can't always separate Razorbills and Guillemots at range, commic terns can be a bloody nightmare, pale Balearics are a pain sometimes and those little flocks of waders buzzing past at Mach speed are a complete bugger. Right, I feel better now after my confession and would appreciate any help with my afflictions!

Admittedly, things are improving these days with regard to ID resources. There are some great resources on the web. The pioneering Scilly Pelagics team are in the process of producing a series of multimedia guides that sound great (although I've not picked any of them up yet).

There is one particular writer who I have long admired. Like a poet/singer describing elements of the human condition that resonate on a deep level with your own experiences Anthony McGeehan can magically describe elements of a bird's appearance that you have never been able to put into words. He is fantastic at both transmitting the feel for seawatching with the subtle ID tips required to separate some of the key species. And his other birding work is brilliant - inspiring, thoughtful and humorous! Anyone remember his brilliant articles in Birdwatch magazine? Fortunately the amazing Sound Approach team have published a great anthology of his work in 'Birding from the Hip'.

Publications like 'Flight Identification of European Seabirds' are also worth picking up (despite the odd blueish tinge to some photos in the first edition). The cutting edge work of Peter Harrison has developed beyond our 80's dreams.

I vividly remember when visiting the coast as a youthful land-locked birdspotter from Sheffield being completely and utterly baffled by the distant shapes darting over the horizon. I used to hate the sometimes boring discomfort of staring out to sea and simply saw it as a means to year tick a few specialist species but, having wrapped up better and experienced the Zen of Seawatching now have fond memories of many sessions over the years. Four hours into a freezing September session at Ysgaden, with the wind rattling your tripod and thoughts turning to big steaming mugs of Earl Grey and Chocolate cake... a tiny Leach's Petrel from distant shores flips over the swell and dances along the wave crest. This magic is what it's all about!

Sincere thanks to my personal seawatching guru, Rhys Jones. The only man this side of the Irish Sea who can pick up a Sooty clearing customs in Dublin. I would probably still be watching woodland birds without your advice and encouragement over the years. Cheers mate - we will get a local Fea's one day!


Thursday, 9 May 2013

Spoony Poms

We've had a couple of days of cold, gale force south/westerly winds and heavy rain showers. This weather in May always gets me thinking of one species - Pomarine Skua.

Regular readers/friends will know that I'm often grumbling about the lack of decent facilities for seawatching down on the peninsula. Fortunately, the problem is solved if one heads east to Cricieth where two touristy beach shelters are found on the west side of the castle. Late afternoon, after the latest pulse of heavy rain had pushed through, I found myself wrapped up and wedged in the corner of one and began scanning the turbulent sea. Immediately I picked up a flock of six superb pale-phase adult Poms riding the waves just a couple of hundred metres offshore then occasionally flying up before settling back down, as they often do in such conditions. Eventually, as the winds eased a little, they were off - heading strongly west and almost clipping the shoreline at times. I followed the birds as far as I could before they presumably cut inland and out towards Caernarfon Bay. They are such weird and wonderful looking birds with their almost Peregrine like jizz and crazy long tail spoons!

My systematic count between 1607-1815 hrs was interrupted somewhat when a rather random but lovely young woman decided she was going to chat up the strange bloke with the telescope - although I did manage to keep one eye open while engaged in polite conversation and saw another flock of 18 Poms powering past before dropping on the sea in front of the shelter! These were mostly magnificent pale-phase adults, plus a couple of swarthy dark-phase birds.

Later I picked up a group of three Arctic Skuas (again riding the waves) by the castle, plus a few auks, Northern Gannets, Manx Shearwaters and Great Cormorants with a trickle of Arctic' and Sandwich Terns.