Sunday, 18 February 2018

Morocco - 10th to 16th February

Sarah, Tobias and I had planned a family holiday to Morocco which was to be mainly a relaxing week. Sarah was planning some spa time and I had a little time set aside for birding but I also wanted to relax and spend time with Sarah and Tobias. Having visited Morocco on a birding trip from 26th April to 9th May 2006 (see Jon Hornbuckle's account of the trip here) there were few ticks for me. However, during this earlier trip I had missed African Crimson-winged Finch and African Desert Warbler. We didn't have time to visit the areas for both species but as we were staying in the Atlas Mountains the finch was gettable.

We flew with British Airways from London Gatwick at 07:00 on 10th February and stayed for four nights at Richard Branson's fantastic hotel Kasbah Tamadot a couple of kilometres south of Asni in the Atlas Mountains. From here I spent three hours birding the wooded valley to the south of the hotel and arranged a mornings birding at Oukaimeden for the Crimson-winged Finch. From Kasbah Tamadot we also spent a morning in Marrakech, a drive of around one hour to the north. On 14th we transferred from Kasbah Tamadot to the coast staying at the hotel La Sultana at Oualidia. The drive took around 4.5 hours. Here I birded from the hotel grounds but also took a boat trip across to the spit opposite the hotel and spent two hours birding here. We stayed at La Sultana for two nights before transferring back to Marrakech Airport (3 hours) and flying at 18:05 back to London Gatwick.

The week prior to our trip had been very wet/snowy with the highest snow fall since the 1970's in the Atlas Mountains. As a result of this I had to postpone my trip to Oukaimeden for two days as the village had become cut-off. At the Kasbah Tamadot the weather was a little bizarre with a good 30cm of snow on the ground but with beautiful blue skies and warm temperatures at around 16c. It was warm enough to sit outside at lunchtime but cold at night - I even swam in the outside pool amongst the snowy scenes. At Oualidia it was around lovely and warm at around 21c and sunny but again a little chilly at night.

I took with me my Canon 1DX Mark II, Canon 400mm DO Mark II and a Canon 1.4 Mark III Extender.

Summary Itinerary
  • 10th February (Day 1) - International flight from London Gatwick to Marrakech (07:00-10:35) then drive (1 hour) to Kasbah Tamadot. PM relax in hotel with casual birding in grounds.
  • 11th February (Day 2) - Early AM birding along road from Kasbah Tamadot then relax in hotel PM.
  • 12th February (Day 3) - Drive to Marrakech AM (1 hour), relax at Kasbah Tamadot hotel PM. 
  • 13th February (Day 4) - AM drive to Oukaimeden from Kasbah Tamadot (1.5 hours), birding until 12:30. Relax in hotel PM.
  • 14th February (Day 5) - Drive Kasbah Tamadot to La Sultana at Oualidia (11:00-16:00), casual birding around hotel PM.
  • 15th February (Day 6) - Early PM (07:15-09:30) birding on sand-bar opposite La Sultana,  casual birding around hotel PM.
  • 16th February (Day 7) - AM around La Sultana, then drive to Marrakech Airport (3 hours). Fly Marrakech to London Gatwick (18:05-21:40).

11th February
I was up at 06:45 and spent around three hours birding the road for approximately one mile south of the Kasbah Tamadot (south of Asni) and also dropping into the agricultural valley to the east of the road. On this short walk  I recorded a fairly low diversity of widespread bird species including African Blue Tit, Serin, Sardinian Warbler, Yellow-billed ChoughRock Bunting, Robin, Blackbird and Chaffinch of the distinctive subspecies africana. However, my main target here was Maghreb (Levaillant's) Green Woodpecker, a species which I had seen previously in Morocco but not particularly well. I heard several birds calling but all were inaccessible on the opposite side of the valley but when a bird called nearby I scrambled down into the valley and was soon enjoying great views (albeit in dingy morning light) of this species which is endemic to North-west Africa (Morocco and Tunisia).

Maghreb Woodpecker near to Kasbah Tamadot

Maghreb Woodpecker near to Kasbah Tamadot

Sardinian Warbler near to Kasbah Tamadot

Sardinian Warbler near to Kasbah Tamadot

Chaffinch of subspecies africana, sometimes split as African Chaffinch, 
near to Kasbah Tamadot

Greenfinch of subspecies vanmarli near to Kasbah Tamadot

View of the Atlas Mountains from the Kasbah Tamadot

View of the Atlas Mountains from the Kasbah Tamadot

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Thayer's Gull, Toyd Down, Tidpit, Hampshire - 6th February

After dipping the Thayer's Gull yesterday at Blashford Lakes and learning that the bird had been seen during the day feeding in pig fields at Toyd Down south of Tidpit, Hampshire. I decided that I would drop Tobias at school and spent a couple of hours at the site looking for the bird. When I arrived there were seemingly no gulls to be seen so finding a high point I began scanning, there were many larger gulls heading north up the Avon Valley and then I realised that birds were dropping into the pig fields fields to the east of where I was standing. I parked by the public bridleway and made my way eastwards. Eventually I encountered a large number of gulls feeding and loafing in the pig fields and an adjacent grass field. I set up my scope and began scanning from approximately SU07891694.

Scanning through the flock there were large numbers of gulls, many of which were out of view and I was not hopeful of finding the Thayers. Another birder joined me and after a quick chat we began scanning again, almost immediately I found a pale gull which was hidden in a rut in the ground and of which I could only seen the head and back but I was suspicious. I put the other birder onto this bird and as we watched the bird climbed out of its rut and there it was the Thayer's Gull. We watched the bird for just over an hour as it loafed in the field before it flew a short distance north and out of sight. It was then time to go. Unfortunately, the bird was always fairly distant at around 200m and so my pictures are pretty appalling but I think the main characters can be seen.

There are nine accepted Irish records and none from Great Britain, all from Ireland, although a widely twitched adult from Minsmere on 27th and 28th March 2016 is still under consideration. The following records have been accepted to date:

  • Killybegs, County Donegal - Adult, 16th December 2013
  • Rossaveal, County Galway - 1st winter, 18th February to 5th April  2011.
  • Cleggan, County Galway - 1st winter, 19th January to 10th February 2010.
  • Barnatra, Belmullet, County Mayo - 1st winter, 5th to 19th March 2005.
  • Killybegs, County Donegal - Juvenile, 2nd February to 11th March 2003.
  • Newport Dump, County Mayo - Juvenile, 19th December 1998 to 3rd April 1999.
  • Killybegs, County Donegal - Adult, 22nd February to 10th March 1998.
  • Dargan Road, landfill, County Antrim - Juvenile, 1st to 7th March 1997.
  • The Lough, Cork City Dump - Juvenile, 21st February to 5th March.

The taxonomic history of Thayer's Gull is chequered. The International Ornithological Congress (IOC) checklist (which now forms the basis for the official British list) now consider Thayer's Gull a subspecies of Iceland Gull (see here (page 29) for a detailed discussion). However, HBW Alive recommend maintaining it as a full species pending further studies. The features that identify Thayer's Gull are variable but there is a nice summary article here for 1st winter birds. In summary the key features are:

  • Pale and frosty looking overall appearance to plumage;
  • Concolourous dark brown to black tail;
  • Heavily barred rump;
  • Tertials concolorous with upperparts and being paler than wingtip;
  • Whiteish edges to primaries creating line of white arrowheads on the wingtip; and
  • On open wing dark outer webs to primaries and with dark centres to the secondaries.

An excellent paper on the identification of 2nd year birds can be viewed here.

However, the identification characters can be very complex with intergrades and darker individuals occurring and some are probably not safely identifiable. As always, refer to Olsen and Larsson for a detailed text on gulls, where Thayer's Gull not only features on the cover but is treated as a separate species.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Blashford Lake - 5th February

After finishing a bird survey just outside of Totton I decided to head for Blashford Lakes to try for a Thayer's Gull that has been coming to roost on Ibsley Water after being found on 28th January. I was in the Tern Hide by 14:00 and managed to secure a seat before the masses arrived. Over the 2.5 hours I was there the trickle of gulls coming into the roost increased to a constant flow which continued even as I departed. In my time there I saw an adult Ring-billed Gull, at least four adult Yellow-legged Gull, at least five Mediterranean Gull, 1st winter Iceland Gull,  25 Goosander, Black-necked Grebe and a single Bewick's Swan. The highlight was a 1st year Caspian Gull, a British tick for me. But there was no sign of the Thayer's and I had to leave at 16:30, of course, come 17:00 the bird appeared in the roost by which time I was home.

Adult Ring-billed Gull with Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull and Common Gull - Blashford Lakes

1st winter Caspian Gull - Blashford Lake

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

'North American' Horned Lark - Staines Reservoir

A 'North American' Horned Lark was present on the causeway between the North and South Basins of Staines Reservoirs from 19th to 28th November 2017 and while obviously an interesting bird I had no opportunity to go and see the bird. After an absence of a few weeks when the bird was, presumably, feeding elsewhere within the local area the bird was relocated on 22nd January and this time I had a chance to visit the bird. I parked on Town Lane adjacent to the eastern entrance to the causeway and walked onto the causeway, there were around 10 birders and it was immediately apparent that the bird was on show. I bowled up and there it was feeding on the south side of the causeway only 20m or so away. Over the couple of hours that I was there the bird showed well but in terrible light conditions on this still and sunny day. It spent much of its time picking through the weeds on the reservoir revetment. My photos of the bird are fairly poor due to the light but do show the characters that indicate that this is an 'North American' Horned Lark.

HBW Alive currently recognises 28 subspecies over its vast range (other authorities recognise a varying number of subspecies). These are separated based mainly on differences in size, ground colour (partly determined by local soil colour) and pattern. A recent molecular study suggests that taxa in the Old World break into five species and surely more species could be recognised, both in the Old and the New World, with further work. HBW Alive and IOC currently treat all subspecies under one species known as Horned Lark.

In North America there are currently 11 subspecies recognised by HBW Alive. Alpestris is the nominate subspecies within the North American group and so if split would be the 'parent' species with the others being the subspecies of this. Most of the North American subspecies are unlikely to occur as vagrants as they are either short-distance migrants or are resident. Those most likely to occur as vagrants are alpestris and hoyti. Alpestris breeds in eastern Canada and the eastern USA with northern populations wintering in the eastern USA. Hoyti breeds in northern Canada and winters in the northern USA.

The field characteristics of these taxa seem to be poorly described but in essence alpestris has a greater extent of yellow in the face, and particularly in the supercilium, while hoyti has the yellow restricted to the throat with a white supercilium. The bird at Staines thus seems to fit hoyti best but without DNA analysis this seems unlikely to be proved. From the subspecies 'flava', our Shore Lark, differences are based on the limited extent of yellow in the face, the pinkish tones to the plumage and perhaps the more speckled breast but all differences are modest and perhaps variable/clinal.

There seem to be two possible records of 'American' Horned Lark in the UK (with other claims elsewhere which don't seemed to have gained much traction), these are:
  • St Agnes and Tresco, Isles of Scilly - 2nd to 31st October 2001
  • Askernish, South Uist - 9th to 11th October 2014
The Isles of Scilly record was never submitted and current thinking is that it may not have been 'North American' Horned Lark while the South Uist record remains in circulation with the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC). A summary of BBRC's current stance on Horned Lark can be found here

Here are a few links to articles discussing the identification of 'North American' Horned Lark:

The identification and taxonomy of this species remains complex and it would appear that a great deal of further work is required before the North American subspecies are split.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Hawfinch at Mercer Way, Romsey - 25th January

I had a spare few minutes so decided to pop to Mercer Way in Romsey to have a look for the Hawfinch that winter in the park at the end of the road. I spent around one hour with these birds which were showing well on and off and eventually counted at least 27 birds when the flock took flight, but there were probably more than this. It seems strange that these birds winter in such an urban area but the reason these birds are here is that when the park was landscaped a high density of cherry trees were planted. These cherry trees bare a heavy crop of fruit which the hawfinch feed on. These  birds usually show in the trees that surround SU 3589 2175. They can often be seen feeding on the ground amongst the trees or coming to drink at puddles. The images below show two males and a female from the flock.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Stanpit Marsh and Keyhaven - 25th and 31st October

Here are a few odds and ends from the last couple of weeks of popping to sites between commitments. 

This was my third attempt at the Stilt Sandpiper that has been knocking around Dorset for the last few months - since early September I believe. My first was to Lodmoor, Weymouth on 16th September  the day after it had departed the site but I did see a Least Sandpiper so all was not bad. The second attempt was to Lychett Bay, Poole Harbour on 21st September where I got a really brief view before the bird flew. Then with the bird appearing to be semi-settled during January at Coward's Marsh and Stanpit Marsh, Christchurch on 25th January I popped to both sites to try my luck. Sod's law the bird was very distant and I managed only this poor record shot of the bird at Stanpit.

Stilt Sandpiper, 1st Winter - Stanpit Marsh, Christchurch

After a bird survey on 31st January and before picking Tobias up from school I popped to Keyhaven for two patch-ticks. Firstly, three White-fronted Goose (two adults and a juvenile) which looked a little plastic on the balancing pond near to the old dump at the west end of the Ancient Highway. Then a 1st winter Iceland Gull foraging for worms in the horse field to the east of Aubrey Farm, Lymore Lane at SZ304917.

White-fronted Goose (two adult and juvenile)- Keyhaven

Iceland Gull (1st winter) - Aubrey Farm, Lymore Lane, Keyhaven

Little Egret - Aubrey Farm, Lymore Lane, Keyhaven

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Pennington Marsh - 12th January

After dropping Tobias at school I spent my first morning of 2018 at Pennington Marsh. I only had a couple of hours and my main aim was to try to see a patch tick. So after enjoying the spectacle of high numbers of Teal, Wigeon, Pintail, Lapwing, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover on Pennington Marsh I headed for the seawall. Here, I soon located the Red-necked Grebe off the jetty that had been present for a couple of weeks and while scope views were okay it was far too distant for any photographs, still, can't complain it was great to get a patch tick on my first visit this year. Also here, a single Great-northern Diver flew west and a Spotted Redshank showed well on Pennington Lagoon. The morning had started misty but it soon became quite a pleasant still day and I enjoyed my time at the marsh even though there birds were the typical winter fare.

I was limited for time as I needed to get to a bird survey up the road at Marchwood for 11:20 but after this I headed to Beaulieu Road Station, my plan was to find a flock of Parrot Crossbill but despite playing recordings in suitable habitat I saw none (not very surprising). It was deadly quite and other than a few common woodland birds plus Dartford Warbler I saw/heard very little and then it was time to pick Tobias up from school and head for home.

Pintail - Pennington Marsh

Wigeon - Pennington Marsh

Teal - Pennington Marsh

Cormorant eating a ridiculously large Eel - Pennington Marsh

Cormorant eating a ridiculously large Eel, down it goes - Pennington Marsh

Spotted Redshank - Pennington Marsh

Black-tailed Godwit - Pennington Marsh

Here is a recording of a flock of Black-tailed Godwit feeding on the grassland just off the Lower Pennington Lane car park. In the background can be heard Teal, Wigeon and Lapwing. The godwits are the 'chuck' calls in the foreground of the recording.

Ruff - Pennington Marsh

Ruff - Pennington Marsh

This is a recording of the general soundscape at Pennington Marsh, here can be heard Wigeon, Pintail, Teal, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Curlew, Blue Tit and Canada Goose plus me fumbling the microphone - its a busy place.

And here are some general recordings from the day, the Spotted Redshank was from Pennington Marsh with the 'pliip' of Teal in the background. The Reed Bunting (with a churring Wren in the background) and Mistle Thrush are from Beaulieu Road Station while the Song Thrush is from Marchwood.

Reed Bunting

Mistle Thrush

Song Thrush - Quite a remarkable difference from the Mistle Thrush with notes over a wider bandwidth (at least 2.5-8.5 kHz compared to 1.5-3.5 kHz in Mistle Thrush) and in far less standardised sequences.