Tuesday, 8 April 2014

100,000 and counting!

It's not really a hard hitting blog post, but I thought it was quite a milestone so worth the share!

100,000 page views.

I've really enjoyed blogging over the years and really enjoy looking back over my trip reports.

I've blogged about my birding, twitching, ringing, herpetology, entemology and even a post about mountain boarding!
I've blogged from within the UK and further afield - France, Spain, Sweden, Arctic Norway and the Big Apple.

Thank you all for reading!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

GULLFEST 2014 - Part 5 - Putting the Gull in Gullfest

For anyone who isn't partial to a spot of Laridae, I'm afraid this blog post puts the 'Gull' in Gullfest! Hopefully by the end of this blogpost though, you will realise that gulls are amazing. For anyone reading this who IS partial to a bit of 'gullduggery', then sit back, relax, and have a butchers at some White-wingers, argys, hybrids and a currently unidentified Common Gull!

Glaucous Gulls
To ease you all in, I thought I'd start with some white-wingers. Even the larophobic birders out there can appreciate a white-winger! This year Gullfest was brought back a week or so to take into consideration the leaving dates of the wintering Glaucous Gulls. With a surprisingly mild February though, there weren't as many as you'd imagine in the Arctic Circle. I would suggest we had about 40-50 birds (mainly 1st winter birds) during the trip. They were great to see in good numbers and it was even nicer to see birds other than 1st winters (as that it all I personally have ever encountered). We were treated to about 5 adults (possibly more) and a 2nd winter.
Compared to the recent influx of presumed American Glaucous Gulls in the UK & Ireland, it was nice to see some proper gingery 1st winters. Those legs are incredible too! So pink, they almost look Pacific!
(above) This is quite an interesting bird. It was certainly on the darker end of the scale for Glaucous. With such an obvious tail band and what appears to be dark pigmentation to the tips and outerwebs of the outer primaries. Could this is a pale hybrid Glaucous x Herring or is it within range of dark Glaucous Gull? I guess it could be either, but I think it's 'just' a dark Glaucous Gull.

Iceland Gull

Next in line is this rather dark Iceland Gull. Originally identified as a Kumlien's Gull due to dark primaries, however after close scrutiny, the general consensus is that it is a dark Iceland Gull. Being such a dark bird, I think you'd expect the primaries, secondaries and tail bar to be much darker. On some photos too, the inner primaries show up to be darker than the outer primaries, which should be the other way around in Kumlien's. It also has a very 'Common Gull-like face' which should be more Herring-like in Kumlien's and Thayer's. The bill however was pretty dark for Iceland, but I guess that could fit the overall dark appearence anyway. An interesting bird and a nice bird to see with Glaucous Gulls too! At the same site, eagle-eyed Anders also managed to pick up a second 1st winter bird flight north, very high above the harbour. So high, that you actually couldn't see it with the naked eye against the clouds! Amazing!

'argentatus' Herring Gulls
Ok, so now we're into the nitty gritty and the shady corner of the birding world....Herring Gull races! However, I will forgive you for looking at the above bird and being surprised to hear it's a Herring Gull! Look how dark it is! It's remarkable how exaggerated the darker mantle of argentatus is on a snowy background. Fantastic birds!

I can imagine that you've so far been thinking that Gullfest doesn't exactly seem all that 'gully'. I seem to recall hearing that the colony on Hornøya is the largest Herring Gull colony in the world....is that gully enough for you?
Not only are they dark mantled, check out those pink legs! You wouldn't be too wrong to think that these could have been taken in Japan as these legs look almost like Vega Gull!
The wing tips appeared to be very variable, particularly with the white spotting. Some seemingly indifferent to argenteus Herrings showing quite small white primary tips. Others showed a lot of white and combined with fully white tips to primary ten and reasonably large mirror in primary 9, they looked very different to the birds I'm used to seeing in Bangor.
I am quite disappointed that the majority of my open wing shots of adult argentatus Herrings were out of focus, as it would have been nice to get an idea of just how variable they can be. Obvious differences were the reduced black on the primaries as this was a characteristic feature compared to the variability of the white. The inner webs of most primaries seemed to lack a lot of black, which was diagnostic compared to 'ours'
The increased size of the white mirrors is evident here. I would say though that, with the exception of the very dark mantles (check out how much the mantle bleeds through onto the underwing on the above bird!) some of the adults (and an awful lot of the juveniles) would probably slip under the radar for me...that probably says more about my lack of knowledge than the birds themselves!
Structurally, these northern birds are real brutes. The above bird is so chucky billed and pot-bellied, looking almost like a GBBG.
A feature that REALLY stood out was how pale the flight feathers are underneath being almost silvery. When they fly towards you, particularly if they have a bicoloured bill, they really look like dark Glaucous Gulls (see below)

I couldn't really work it out with this bird, but is this in wing moult? It appears to be symmetrical on both wings, but the feathers don't seem to differ in age at all. Perhaps this is tardy moult from Juvenile-first winter?
I am really out of my depth at the moment with 1st winter argentatus Herring Gulls. I'm not at all sure how to 'do them' if they're not enormous brutes of birds. On the upperwing, I can't see much in terms of different plumage (particularly now they've finished their moult to 1st winter plumage), but to me, the window in the inner primaries seems a tiny bit darker than the argenteus I'm currently seeing in North Wales? (I guess this could be due to lack of bleaching/wear?)
A feature that appeared on about 1/3rd of the 1st winters I properly looked at had a really cool feature that made them look as though their caudal projection had been dipped in white paint. It really stood out, especially on birds with silvery underwings. Whether or not this feature appears in argenteus, I can't comment (I really need to look at my local herrings more...)
On the other hand, many birds were strikingly dark underneath with dark underwings (except for the flight feathers), dark belly, dark vent and little sign of the pale window in the inner primaries.

A couple of Head Scratchers...
A weird Common Gull...
This gull really has left an obvious blank in my mind. On the first morning staying at the Birders Basecamp in Vadsø, I went out looking at the Eiders and a few 1st winter argentatus in the harbour. I picked up a distant gull that looked like a Common Gull, but particularly underneath, it looked like the dark argentatus that were hanging around...I couldn't place it. As it got closer, I was sure it was a Common Gull and in the end it was. It was just a strange bird. It was so dark underneath, but had an almost 'anti-hood' with a white head (looking like the inverse of a Med Gull etc), it had that similar white caudal projection as seen in Herrings as seen above, but also has about 20-30% streaking on the undertail and uppertail coverts. The underwing was very striking with thick bars running up and down and the tail band was obvious and broad. The auxilleries, weren't dark, but had broad dark fringes and the bill was strikingly long and coloured pink and black. My photos really do not do the bird any justice, so to be able to assign it a race, I'm not sure it is possible. Looking into the 3 possible races (it certainly wasn't bracyrhyncus), it becomes difficult. The pale auxilleries would probably rule out henei and kamtschatschensis earlier in the winter, but looking at photos, they can show pale auxilleries at this time of year, plus the underwings are very variable with some kamtschatschensis having dark lesser underwing coverts and others being pale. I think given the photos, it's probably left unassigned, unless you are reading this and thinking 'why can't this guy see that this is clearly kamtschatschensis?', then please speak up!!

Common Gulls at this time of year are not common in Varanger and usually only arrive back in mid-April. I wonder if this is from further afield and hopped a lift with the Pacific Eider? One can dream!

An insane hybrid!
Photo - Anders Mæland
Photo - Anders Mæland
Photo - Anders Mæland
I will end this blog post with one of the most incredible mutant birds I've ever seen! This bird was seen in Båtsfjord harbour. Anders picked it up first and before seeing it in flight, thought it may be very very exciting indeed and shouted 'GET ON THAT GULL!!!!!'. It was an amazing bird! It superficially looked quite like a GBBG, but check out the top photo and how similar in tone it is to the argentatus Herring Gulls in the background. It had a ridiculous bulbous head and stubby bill which made it look really mean. Hoever, the white tertial cresent wasn't very large (despite a broad white trailing edge to the wing) and the lefs were less pink than the argentatus Herrings. When it took flight, the 'string of pearls' was incredibly striking in the outer primaries, but when we properly looked, we noticed there was almost no black which would suggest a white-winger influence. The consenssus after the initial excitement of a possible Japanese gull wore off was that it was most likely a hybrid Glaucous Gull x Great Black-backed Gull. A fascinating bird!

I've just read this back and I apologise for the length! Hope you enjoyed it though.

Monday, 31 March 2014

GULLFEST 2014 - Part 4 - Eiders, Eiders and a few Long-tailed Ducks!!

What can I say...this trip would simply not have been the same if it wasn't for the enchanting Eiders! In particular, the arctic gem that is the Steller's Eider.
The first eiders of the trip left quite an impression. On the coastal express ferry from Kirkenes to Vardo, we were gobsmacked by the raft of up to 25,000 eiders sitting and feeding close together in the fjord. As we passed, they became backlit and you could clearly see a spray from within the flock which was actually a combined splash created from diving eiders. To be able to see this from at least a mile away was amazing!

As there was not a single moment on the trip where I was bored, it seems strange to pick a highlight, but given that Grahame's wife Jacqui was almost more entertained by my 'kid on Christmas morning' excitement from within the King Eider photography hide than the actual birds, I will have to say that this was the highlight of the trip for me.

Ørjan Hansens runs a floating Eider hide in Båtsfjord harbour, Northern Varanger. This allows you to sit/lie comfortably within a floating bird hide whilst 3 species of Eider and Long-tailed Ducks feed on scraps outside the fish factory just feet in front of you. Whilst I am used to seeing Common Eider at close quarters at Martin Mere WWT etc (not the same, I know) it was fantastic to see these completely wild birds going about their business, oblivious to your presence! 

A memory that will always stay with me is looking up from the camera after photographing a drake King Eider 4-5 metres away and seeing a drake Steller's Eider literally close enough to touch right outside the window of the hide!  

Needless to say, I got an awful lot of photos, so I will post a selection of each species on show, starting with my personal highlight of the trip. 

Steller's Eider

These birds are just the best birds going! I have rarely ever been enchanted by wildfowl (except Coot for obvious reasons!), so I was completely captivated by this gorgeous jewel of the arctic! The males are just stunning birds with a new fantastic feature every time you look at them, including their hilarious green 'bed hair' on their nape.
Female Steller's are really different to the males and remarkably dark when sat next to the white and orange beacons! I set myself a personal goal whilst in the hide to get a decent photo of the females and capture their subtlety. I was really pleased with the above photo as I think I've captured the bird in a nice pose and nicely exposed showing the warmer flecking to the plumage. Beautiful birds in their own right!

King Eider
Whilst this hide mainly advertises Kings, we were mainly treated to Steller's with at least 30 feeding out in front. Kings were much quieter with the occasional bird making a brief appearance. Towards the end of the 3 hour stint in the hide, we were treated to a 'flock' of 8 including two lovely adult males. They really are gorgeous birds, especially at this distance.

I have to admit, I was more interested in the 1st winter birds. The above two are both of the same age, but look very different indeed! I was more interested in these from an ID point of view as, let's be honest, the males don't pose much of a head scratching identification! The dark 1st winters were really interesting though. I wonder how similar these would look to drake Common Scoters if they were out 'on the horizon' in loose association with a distant scoter flock (size not taken into consideration of course!)

As a wow factor, the drake Steller's really did steal the show, but I have to say, 'Queen Eiders' really did leave a big impact on me. First of all you have that 'cute' face with the upturned smile, but then you look into the fine detail of the plumage and you see the incredible black chevrons on the warm rufous flanks and the little sails on the back. Very beautiful birds indeed!

Common Eider
I'm afraid the twitcher inside got the better of me and I didn't take advantage of the Common Eiders achieving less than 10 photos. I guess I thought I could always go to a WWT centre and take decent photos, whereas the same can't be said for King and Steller's! Great birds though when you really look at them.

Long-tailed Duck

It was a real treat to get great views of Long-tailed Ducks at this close range too, as well as hearing that amazing call! There were a couple of adult males in front of the hide, but for these, I just put the camera down and watched! These were very shy birds though and rarely stayed in front of the hide for long. I feel I achieved a couple of nice photos of these 1st winter males though.
Away from the eider hide, there was a really confiding flock of 21 Steller's in Vardo harbour which travelled around in a very tight flock which looked mainly white when the males were ready to dive with their white wing coverts exposed.
Arctic water is spectacularly clean, so it was fantastic to see the Steller's feeding underwater on the harbour floor about 30 feet down. A great experience that I certainly won't ever get to see in a UK harbour!

The above pic was taken from the restaurant of the hotel we were staying in in Vardo town! Not a bad view whilst you're eating!
The Eider vortex is now a thing of legend! We went out on a 'safari' in the Varangerfjord and it took what felt like an age and one seasick casualty before we found the raft. As you approach, the entire flock lifts to the sky and starts circling around the boat and you witness the Eider Vortex! There was a great showing of all three species with the main focus being Common Eider and very closely followed by Kings. 
It was to my horror that, on the day we came back, Tormod was looking through his vortex photos and refound the Pacific Eider first discovered a month before Gullfest, meaning I was less than 50m from a first for the Western Palearctic and I didn't even know about it! A real shame as it's a stunning bird, but it doesn't detract too much from the amazing birds I actually did see. 
Pacific Eider aside, an amazing spectacle!

Enough of all this frame filling nonsense! I was very interested in this interesting Steller's Eider that was within the flock of 21 in Vardo harbour. I suspected it was probably a 1st winter male as I don't suppose there are any birds left in eclipse plumage any more? It was interesting because it didn't seem to fit any plumage in any of the books, so I was a little perturbed by it. A thought that went through my mind was possibly a very very mature female as I know older females can show hints of male-like plumage and in the flesh, it was hard to see anything other than the orange breast, male-like tertials and a very female-like body. Needless to say, subsequent research has shown that this is most likely a 1st winter male given the white flecking coming through on the wings and head. The start of the nape 'crest' is also evident.
Of the birds I scrutinised, I only actually saw 2 other 1st winter males (both of which had some white flecking on the median and lesser coverts. 
A fantastic trio of ducks and the three species that really do make Gullfest one of the best birdwatching festivals in the world. Incredible.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

GULLFEST 2014 - Part 3 - Fjord and Tundra Birding

One thing that I will always remember from Varanger is how you don't just get a handful of a single species...you get a very impressive number! Living in Lancashire and North Wales, away from most Purple Sandpiper populations, it was a real joy to be around such fantastic numbers of Purps. I would estimate over 600 Purple Sandpipers seen. Not only was there a great number, but they were also remarkably tame. We had a fantastic stop at Ekkerøy being less than 5 metres away from a feeding flock of 180 Purps.

Also along the coast were up to two White-tailed Eagle. Having been in Sweden and Scotland several times, I am certainly no stranger to White-tailed Eagles, but every time you see one 'eclipse the sun', they make an amazing impression!

Also, whilst birding as many bays as we could, Tormod picked up a very distant Diver sp but lost it almost instantly which was frustrating. I scanned and scanned as hard as my eyes would stretch and within 5 minutes I picked it up again. It was strikingly pale headed with a strange 'custard' hue. It soon became apparent that it was a White-billed Diver (a lifer!) and it proved hard to do, but we eventually got everyone onto it. Even though it was over a mile away, it still left an impressive impression on me!

Moving around across Varanger, we went through some incredible habitat or should I saw lack of habitat! The high tundra at this time of year was just a white sheet as far as the eye could see with 1m deep snow all around. Every so often, the snow would come in and it would be almost impossible to see the horizon which was quite unsettling! Anyway, it didn't take too long before we came across several grouse flocks. Closer to the coast, these proved to be Willow Grouse with their white lores and chunkier structure, however closer to the top, we stopped a single bird in a bush...this seemed pretty chunky but being a female, it was hard to ID due to both Ptarmigan and Willow Grouse have white lores in females. Suddenly some birds took flight and after a few opportunistic record shots, I was very pleased to see the black lores of male Ptarmigans! A really nice flock of 15 birds. What the bird in the bush was, we're not entirely sure given the chunkiness and the sitting in a bush. I wonder if there are ever mixed flocks?

It was also really nice to observe up to 400 Reindeer throughout the trip. Beautiful animals and surprisingly small!

The resounding memory of arctic tundra has to be 'white!'. They was incredible amount of snow which made travelling, walking and birding all the more novel.