Friday, 12 July 2019

Autumn?

Yes, it’s that time of year again when birders unsettle their friends, families and unsuspecting Twitter followers by dropping the A word into conversation as often as possible.

Meteorologically and astronomically speaking of course it’s utter nonsense but there can be no denying that the breeding season is over for many birds and return passage is now well underway, as has been evidenced by the amount of waders at Pulborough these past couple of weeks.

All the usual familiar species are beginning to trickle back through, and in some good numbers already with high counts of 50 Black-tailed Godwits (3rd), at least eight Green Sandpiper and nine Little Ringed Plover (12th), and smaller numbers of Greenshank (two on the 8th), Redshank, etc. A nice male Ruff just coming out of breeding plumage was present on the 9th while a Curlew flew over on the 10th.
Juvenile LRP
Best of all have been a group of six Avocet present intermittently from the 5th to the time of writing - my highest count of the species here. On Saturday I noticed that one of the birds is colour ringed and I've now received the report back from the ringer, Graham Giddens. The bird (a male) was ringed as a chick at Needs Ore in Hampshire on 16th June 2014. Since then it has toured around the Hampshire coast and wintered every year at Poole Harbour. This year it successfully reared four young with an unringed female at Normandy Marsh near Lymington. Interestingly, these six all appear to be adults so perhaps the male has left the female with the young and tagged on with this new group for summer break in West Sussex.

The ringed male Avocet on the North Brooks
Other non-wader bits of note recently include a very early returning Whinchat on the 6th - my first on the patch this year - and the first signs of Mediterranean Gull dispersal with three present on the afternoon of the 10th. Could this be the year Pulborough gets a Yellow-legged?

Friday, 5 July 2019

Madeira, 29th May-7th June 2019

A little more laidback than some, it took Kate and I nine months after getting married to finally get away on honeymoon. After deliberating over a few locations we'd plumped for Madeira as it seemed to be a great mix of natural beauty, coastline and a bit of city buzz. Birds were obviously a key consideration for me and, with three endemics, several endemic subspecies and a potential ten or more new birds on offer, I was more than satisfied!

The first lifer of the trip came before we'd even left the airport - though not a bird - as a Monarch butterfly gracefully glided over the terminal building as we walked across the tarmac. A species I've long dreamed of seeing, it was by no means the last one of these majestic butterflies we saw, although it took until almost the last day of the trip before we actually saw one land for any length of time. It's no wonder they're one of the strongest migrant species given how much ground they cover with seemingly little effort!

The first birds came as we picked up our rental car, with Blackcap and Atlantic Canary singing in nearby trees. Both of these species would prove to be pretty ubiquitous throughout the trip, particularly the Blackcaps which seem far less fussy than our own ones back home, seemingly everywhere from gardens to coastal scrub, and often seen singing out on fence posts or the tops of suburban trees.
Blackcap
We hit the road and headed northwest to Porto Moniz where we'd be staying for the first few nights. Here at the wonderful Aqua Natura hotel we had a room looking straight out onto the Atlantic so I wasted no time in unpacking my scope and immediately picked up the first Cory's Shearwaters of the trip. This proved to be an excellent spot for them as many dozens could be seen passing by relatively close in the space of a 15-30 minute seawatch most evenings, with smaller numbers of Manx Shearwaters mixed in. Common Terns were seemingly nesting on the rock out to sea and we saw a few of those flying past among the many Yellow-legged Gulls. A light stroll around the town on the first evening produced the first Plain Swifts of the trip, close views of Atlantic Canary and distant views of a couple of Trocaz Pigeons up on the hillside above the town.Three lifers before dinner on day one; not a bad start!
Atlantic Canary

Trocaz Pigeon

On our second day we headed inland a little to Lamaceiros where we started our first levada walk of the holiday. Levadas are the miniature canals that were built all over the island to divert water to the various towns and villages, and they really are remarkable feats of engineering - cutting through rock faces, clinging to cliffs and winding their way down perilous slopes. This particular walk took us around 6km into the laurel forests and back which gave us our first encounters with the ubiquitous Madeiran Firecrest as well as the very handsome maderensis subspecies of Chaffinch and several glimpses of Trocaz Pigeons; walking back we had our best views of the trip with several perched high in trees above the path. Along the way we also had the first of many Grey Wagtails of the trip - the subspecies schmitzi is endemic to Madeira - a couple of Buzzards and the first Sparrowhawk of the trip. Other species of note were innumerable Maderian Wall Lizards and a Macaronesian Red Admiral.
Buzzard

Macaronesian Red Admiral

Madeiran Wall Lizard
Madeiran Firecrest
Chaffinch (maderensis sub-species)
Trocaz Pigeon
In the evening after dinner, walking back to our hotel we heard a curious call which I quickly realised was a Cory's Shearwater flying straight over the town! Having never heard one before I was struck by how similar the call is to Kittiwake and couldn't help but wonder why that species got all the glory of the onomatopoeic name.

On day three we decided to head to Ponta do Pargo, the westernmost point of Madeira. The habitat was the absolute opposite to the lush forest we'd seen the previous day. Here we found a dry mix of grass and scrub atop the cliffs which I suspected would be great for Berthelot's Pipit and Spectacled Warbler, and I was right! A short walk from the lighthouse to a café yielded two very showy Pipits with many others around and calling. The Warbler was a little more elusive but with some persistence on the walk back I managed to get good views of one in the Gorse. Dozens of Plain Swifts were racing around overhead the whole time, among which I managed to pick out the first two Pallid Swifts of the trip and also two House Martins - the only time we saw this species in Madeira. 
Berthelot's Pipit


Clouded Yellow

Spectacled Warbler
Plain Swifts
On Saturday we left Porto Moniz behind and headed towards Ponto do Sol where we'd planned to spend the next four nights, although that didn't actually happen in the end, but more on that in a bit! En route we stopped off in Seixal just east along the coast from Porto Moniz. A cute little town which didn't add anything to the trip list but we did get some great views of Plain Swift and the Madeiran subspecies of Kestrel; by far the most ubiquitous bird of prey on Madeira, found even in the most unlikely of locations. It's amazing how one species can fill so many niches on islands such as this where the species diversity is relatively low.

A brief stop at Ponto do Sol also didn't add much to the trip list aside from a group of Muscovy Ducks(!). We decided not to stay here as the hotel owner had neglected to tell us about the massive concert stage and outdoor bars being set up very close to the hotel. Although he said the music would finish before midnight, as we had our pelagic trip from Machico harbour on the far eastern side of the island the following morning we decided not to risk it and hastily cancelled our booking and found a hotel in Machico itself.

Although perhaps not the prettiest place we visited during our stay, Machico was surprisingly birdy, producing our first Black-headed Gull of the trip plus plenty of Common Terns flying around the harbour.

Black-headed Gull
The next morning we headed to the harbour where we met Hugo from WindBirds who took us and the rest of the group out to the boat where the other half of WindBirds, Catarina, was waiting and, after a quick safety talk, we set off out into the Atlantic. First stop was a slow pass of the harbour wall at Caniçal where Hugo said they sometimes find migrants and vagrants sheltering. Sure enough, here we found our first waders of the trip: singles of Dunlin and Sanderling and two Turnstones.
Dunlin

Sanderling (and friend!)

Turnstone
We moved further east along the coast and the going started to get a little more choppy as we passed Ponta de São Lourenço. Catarina turned the boat further out into open water and after a while the pelagic species began to appear, a single Bulwer's Petrel to start followed by odd ones and twos of Cory's Shearwaters and the first Fea's Petrels.
Fea's Petrel

Cory's Shearwater

Bulwer's Petrel

Cory's Shearwaters

Cory's Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater
Further out still and the numbers increased. Turning back towards land we ran into a large flock of Cory's sitting on the sea which all flew up as we passed. Just as the sea really started to swell Hugo shouted 'Sperm Whales!' and we enjoyed fantastic views of two adults and two calves moving close to the boat for several minutes before they dived. We headed back to Machico more than a little wet but very happy, but the Atlantic had one more surprise in store as a Loggerhead Turtle appeared as we approached the harbour.
Once we'd regained our land legs Kate and I went for a wander around Machico. The drainage ditch that runs down to the sea produced the only Grey Heron and Moorhen of the trip along with two LBJs in flight which, with hindsight, were more than likely Common Waxbills as I discovered this to be a regular area for them. Luckily I've seen the species in South Africa otherwise I'd be kicking myself! Two Goldfinches with Canaries in the trees near here were another trip tick.

It was lovely to be back at Porto Moniz in the evening, as the Aqua Natura had kindly let us come back for a few nights after the Ponta do Sol debacle; and a nice welcoming treat was our first Barn Swallow of the trip which flew along the seafront as we were having a pre-dinner drink.

The next day we headed a bit further inland to Rabaçal where we walked some of the popular 25 Fontes levada walk. The 10km walk didn't produce any new birds for the trip although we did get our best views yet of some of the many Firecrests, plus our only other Sparrowhawk while having lunch at the Nature Spot Cafe. Non-bird lifers along the way included Madeiran Small Copper and Madeiran Orchid.
Madeiran Firecrest

Perez's Frog

Madeiran Small Copper

Madeiran Orchid
Back in Porto Moniz in the evening a brief seawatch before dinner produced a nice bonus in the form of a Great Skua flying east, terrorising the Cory's Shearwaters as it went.

On day seven we stayed mostly local, with just a little trip to Achadas do Cruz in the morning to take the cable car down to the tiny village by the sea where we had good views of Blackcap, Kestrel and various other familiar species. Most exciting though was a few seconds' view of a grey-backed short-tailed Falcon flying along the cliff which was almost certainly a Peregrine/Barbary Falcon - scarce on Madeira. Sadly it disappeared behind a crag before I could clinch the ID.

The afternoon was spent exploring a bit more of Porto Moniz where we found plenty of Collared Doves (nowhere near as scarce on Madeira as I expected), lots of Plain Swifts and at least ten Trocaz Pigeons again up on the hillside above the town. In the evening a Black-headed Gull flew west over our hotel; only our second of the trip.
Madeiran Wall Lizard on Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)
Day eight saw us head into Funchal where we would be staying for the last couple of nights. The main city on Madeira, I'd already pre-emptively written this section of the trip off as being pretty birdless, but I was proved wrong! Our first day exploring Funchal proved productive with plenty of Plain Swifts and a single Pallid Swift over our hotel and only our second record of Goldfinch in one of the green spaces in the city. The Jardim Botanico produced plenty of Blackbirds, Firecrests and a flyover Trocaz Pigeon (sadly I suspect it was too busy with tourists for them on the ground), and also our best views yet of Monarch, one of which actually sat still for long enough to get some photos!
Monarch!

In the evening we made our way to a pre-arranged spot where the Wind Birds crew picked us up. We made a couple more pick-ups before we headed on our way to Pico do Ariero; the third highest peak on Madeira and the only known breeding site for Zino's Petrel. As Hugo drove us higher and higher up the mountain road we went first into thick cloud and then eventually cleared through the top of it. As we parked up he cheerfully announced that the outside temperature was 16 Celsius colder than it had been when we left Funchal (5 as opposed to 21!) and we sure felt it as we got out. I'd rather incredulously packed a fleece and gloves in my luggage as I had a feeling it would be cold up here but I still felt distinctly under-dressed and poor Kate was even more so. Luckily, Catarina and Hugo had plenty of spare hats and scarves which were all eagerly snapped up!

We had to hike the remaining part of the journey to the best spot to wait for the Petrels to appear. Catarina explained that it's generally the young and non-breeding birds that are most vocal around the colony, flying about and playing, basically, while the breeding adults get on with the task at hand. It took half an hour or so of waiting but eventually the birds did begin to call. Certain wildlife experiences are hard to put into words, rather like the 'Singing With Nightingales' event back home in Sussex a few weeks ago - and, as the mournful wails of Zino's Petrels began to get louder and more frequent around us, I shivered a little, partly from the cold which was beginning to gnaw a little, but more from just the overwhelming wonder at the situation we found ourselves in: up here, above the clouds, above humanity, in the Petrels' world. We tried to all stay as quiet as possible but, when one scythed through the air just a couple of metres above us, the whoosh of its wings clearly audible and its shape visible as a silhouette against the night sky, the whole group let out an involuntary collective 'wow!' The calls got more and more persistent, presumably as more birds joined in the fun. Catarina also pointed out occasional calls from Manx Shearwaters.
I completely lost track of time but, after what must have been about an hour, Hugo quietly distributed tea and biscuits to us all, which was very welcome indeed - in all the excitement I almost hadn't noticed quite how cold it was, especially now the wind had got up. Once we were all refreshed and aglow from the shared encounter with these incredible birds we made our way back to the van and headed back to Funchal. The drive up to the mountain had been an excitable, talkative affair as we shared birding anecdotes; the journey back was far more sedate as we all privately took in the astounding experience we had just shared.

A leisurely start to our ninth and last full day in Madeira saw us head out on foot to properly explore Funchal. Joe from Coventry who we'd met on the Zino's trip the night before had mentioned seeing a probable Roseate Tern from his hotel. I knew there was a small breeding population on Madeira but wasn't sure if we'd jam into any without making a special trip. As we wandered down to the harbour I noticed a few Terns feeding and immediately realised a couple of them were Roseates! They came really close at times, as we enjoyed a drink at a restaurant overlooking the water. Certainly the best views of this species I've had anywhere.
Roseate Tern
The second new species of the day (and new for the trip list) came as we crossed over one of the many bridges over the drainage ditch than runs down the centre of the Rua 31 de Janeiro. After seeing the usual Grey Wagtails, Muscovy Ducks and Feral Pigeons, Kate pointed out a small brown bird flitting about at the edge of the ditch near the bridge: a Spanish Sparrow!
Spanish Sparrow

In the evening after a tapas dinner in the hotel bar I persuaded Kate to take a trip out of the city to Ponta do Garajau which I'd been told is a reliable site for Barn Owl (the Madeiran sub-race) and Madeiran Storm Petrel. We quickly heard the former (although sadly didn't see one) and a very noisy chorus from the local Cory's Shearwaters. Even louder though, unfortunately, were the locals in a nearby bar who had their music cranked up so loud we didn't stand a chance of hearing the thin calls of any Storm Petrels. Still, it was a good excuse to see the massive Jesus statue here (which commemorates the rather unpleasant historical significance of this spot being where non-Catholics were thrown off the cliff into the sea when they died!) and enjoy the spectacle of bats (not sure which species?) chasing moths around it at breakneck speed!

Our final day was spent doing some further exploration of Funchal which didn't produce any last minute extra trip ticks, but a stroll round Santa Lucia Gardens did yield our best views yet of the schmitzi Grey Wagtails - there were loads of them about! - some very low flying Plain Swifts tearing around the chimney (remnant of an old factory which used to occupy the site) and trees and a nice bonus butterfly lifer, a Lang's Short-tailed Blue.
Grey Wagtail
Lang's Short-tailed Blue
It's always sad to head home from any holiday but nine new bird species and five butterfly lifers from what was essentially a non-birding trip was a very satisfying result indeed. I have to say what I'm missing most of all though is the Madeiran wine!


Full list of bird species seen/heard (lifers underlined)

Mute Swan (presumably wing clipped birds on pond at Santa Catarina Park)
Muscovy Duck
Cory's Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Bulwer's Petrel
Zino's Petrel
Fea's Petrel
Grey Heron
Buzzard
Sparrowhawk
Kestrel
Moorhen
Sanderling
Turnstone
Dunlin
Great Skua
Black-headed Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Common Tern
Roseate Tern
Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon
Trocaz Pigeon
Collared Dove
Barn Owl
Pallid Swift
Plain Swift
Barn Swallow
House Martin
Berthelot's Pipit
Grey Wagtail
Robin
Blackbird
Blackcap
Spectacled Warbler
Madeiran Firecrest
Spanish Sparrow
Chaffinch
Linnet
Goldfinch
Atlantic Canary

Full list of butterflies seen

Small White
Clouded Yellow
Madeiran Small Copper
Long-tailed Blue
Lang's Short-tailed Blue
Red Admiral
Macaronesian Red Admiral
Painted Lady
Speckled Wood
Monarch

Saturday, 15 June 2019

13th June 2019

What a strange year it's been. Several new additions to my Pulborough list (which now stands at 165) and yet I'm languishing a clear ten species behind on the year list compared to this time in 2018.

With a relatively quiet spring seemingly coming to an unexpectedly grand finale with the two Black-winged Stilts the other week I'd naturally assumed we were now well into the doldrum days of summer and that there wouldn't be much in the way of surprises for a few weeks yet. I was a little taken aback, therefore, to see various notifications pop up on my phone on Thursday morning alerting me to a Phalarope 'spinning around' on the North Brooks. Alan Kitson got there impressively quickly and confirmed the ID - a Red-necked, a first for Pulborough!

Photo: Dave Carlsson

Photo: Dave Carlsson

There then commenced a rather nerve-wracking few hours as I had to leave work in Guildford early anyway for an appointment in Bognor before I could get back to Pulborough late afternoon. Thankfully the bird stuck around long enough and, indeed, stayed overnight and for the duration of Friday, enabling many birders to connect with it - a great bird for the Brooks and Sussex in general.

In a pretty extraordinary twist of fate, Alan K had posted a tweet just the day before reminiscing about a RN Phalarope at Amberley Wildbrooks on 12th June 1965 (plus 33 pairs of Yellow Wagtail and 15 pairs of Tree Sparrow at Pulborough!!). His notebook sketches (below) are a wonderful slice of birding nostalgia.

Friday, 17 May 2019

In the pink

Another good find by Paul Davy on Thursday night was a Pink-footed Goose on the Mid Brooks, which was thankfully still around and showing well from West Mead hide this morning - the first site record since 2017.

Quite where this bird has come from will probably forever remain a mystery but it's unringed and wary and seems likely it's the same bird that's been at Titchfield Haven in Hampshire* recently and perhaps even the same one that was at Stoke Water Meadows in Surrey back in February.
Otherwise it was another fairly quiet day with just 5 Black-tailed Godwits and 4 Whimbrel reported by Paul at Hail's View.

* Since I wrote this I've seen that a Pink-foot was also at Lower Test Marshes late morning today, so perhaps a different bird after all.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Pulborough, 7th-14th May. Waders get moving

It's been a bit more lively on the patch in the past week thanks to some more favourable conditions, and new species for the year have started coming at a rather more seasonal rate once again.

Aside from up to three Little Ringed Plovers on the North Brooks and a lingering trio of Whimbrel near West Mead, the bulk of the wader action has been on just about the most distant area of wet mud imaginable, on the area of the Mid Brooks nearest the Arun (see map below). It's here that highlights of the past week have been up to a dozen Dunlin (on the 10th and 12th) and six Ringed Plover (on the 10th). At least one Greenshank has been doing the rounds too and there was one in this area on the 12th, while the same or another was at West Mead on the 13th. The first Wood Sandpiper of the year was a good find by Paul Davy on the 7th, first in the Hog Brook area, then later refound by Gary Trew on the North Brooks.
A single Avocet was at West Mead on the 9th and was joined by a second on the 10th. The pair have been touring the reserve since then and today were largely on the North Brooks. A Snipe flew up from the South Brooks on the morning of the 11th which is encouraging as drumming has been heard on at least a couple of occasions recently. Rather unexpected on the 12th were two Barnacle Geese on the South Brooks.

My first Yellow Wagtail of the year was a welcome sight and sound flying over West Mead on the morning of the 11th, especially as it took me until the autumn to get one here last year. Equally welcome was a very vocal Spotted Flycatcher in Black Wood this morning - my first of the year - following on from two together near Little Hanger on the 10th, found by John Russell. Anna Allum found a further two singing males/pairs on her breeding bird survey in the wooded heath area this morning. Is it me or does this species seem to have had a littlee 'comeback' in the past couple of years?

Last year the last couple of weeks of May really produced the fireworks on the wader front; here's hoping for a repeat performance this year!