Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Five days at Spurn - day 5 Sunday 27th September

With expectations high with the wind in the SE there was a thick mist extending inland from Easington as far as Doncaster but Spurn was again in sunshine. I walked Beacon Lane after another unsuccessful search for Jack Snipe at the Canal Scrape. There was no indications of any fresh migrants until a Firecrest popped out in front of me towards the end of the lane. I circulated the news and headed back to Westmere for breakfast. On the way I met Roger who had had Grasshopper Warbler by the Humber and a Hen Harrier which flew down the peninsula. 
Another Yellow-browed was reported from the canal then 2 at the Warren followed by Barred Warbler at Sammy's Point along with 2 more Yellow-browed. Then Red-breasted Flycatcher at Canal Scrape, by early afternoon around a dozen Yellow-browed had been reported with at least two together opposite Driftwood Caravan site. I had record views of the Red-breasted Flycatcher and headed for the Yellow-browed at Driftwood, I'd been watching these which had increased to three for about 20 minutes when Johnny ran round from the back of the caravan site shouting Arctic Warbler. I went to the back of the house to see it fly over my head looking to land in the bushes I had just been watching. I quickly moved back and it wasn't long before it reappeared giving excellent views.

Arctic Warbler ISO 800 1/1250 f9
A Hawfinch flew north and the three Yellow-browed remained in the area, there was a steady increase in the number of observers as birdwatchers who had been dispersed over the area congregated at Driftwood.

Yellow-browed Warbler ISO 800 1/1250 f9
 It was certainly an eventful few days. A total of 19 Yellow-browed Warblers went in to the Spurn log.
Thanks to Vaughan, Richard, Paul, Roger and Johnny for their company and birding skills.
Sue and Andrew Wells at Westmere Farm Guest House for the accommodation and delicious breakfast.
Paul Collins for the excellent Kew Caravan Site and for all the observatory work, and for quickly processing my Friends of Spurn application.

Five days at Spurn - day 4, Saturday 26th September

With the arrival of Roger Barnes and Richard Hart our reunion was complete, the sun continued to shine and the wind turned SE early in the afternoon.  After a quiet morning I managed to relocate the Yellow-browed Warbler that had proved so illusive for the last couple of days. It was in a Sycamore at Southfield Farm so the viewing was distant but we all managed to see it along with many other birders out for the day.
Yellow-browed Warbler ISO 1000 1/800 f5.6
A Pied Flycatcher found later in the day was the only indication of any new passerines arriving along with several Chiffchaff but two Jack Snipe were also reported along with a third Yellow-browed Warbler.
Having searched again for migrants I headed off to the high tide roost on the peninsula and the roosting Dunlin put on a good show over the North Sea.
Dunlin with Ringed Plover and a single Sanderling ISO 500 1/1250 f9
There were also some nice groups of Ringed Plover flying along the coast.
Ringed Plover with Dunlin ISO 500 1/1250 f9
There were still several parties of Pink-footed Geese passing south and a single Whimbrel circled over the Humber as the sun set. As usual we retired to the Crown & Anchor for refreshments and food.
Left to right Paul (Doherty), Vaughan (Lister) Richard (Hart), John (McLoughlan) and Roger (Barnes) standing

Five days at Spurn - day 3, Friday 25th September

I was joined by long time friends Vaughan Lister and Johnny McLoughlin late on Thursday and Paul Doherty on Friday morning so there were now four of us searching for birds.
The SW wind was still blowing in the early morning, shifting to NW later in the day. There was significantly more visible passage and I added my first Lapland Bunting of the year as it flew south. What could be my last Swift also went south. As the visible migration of passerines died off the first of many skeins of Pink-footed Geese became evident, flying down the coast to Norfolk. In all, almost 2000 birds were recorded by the observatory.
Pink-footed Geese ISO 500 1/1250 f6.3
Another change since my earlier days at Spurn is the impact of the North Sea on the peninsula. The road to the point is no longer passable by car and the peninsula is breached at high tide creating an island.
The sandy area around the breach is good for roosting waders at high tide but there is quite a bit of people disturbance and an early morning high tide would be better in that respect and from a light point of view.
Sanderling ISO 800 1/800 f9
Still a good place to watch Sanderling though. 
Lesser Whitethroat was the only new passerine I added to the list and still no sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler although two were reported today.

Five days at Spurn - day 2, Thursday 24th September

Early start and I was in the Canal Scrape hide before first light. There were 2 Common Snipe right in front of the hide but no sign of Jack. The snipe moved off before the sun was fully up but got some reasonable photos anyway thanks to the technology in modern cameras.
Common Snipe ISO 5000 1/400 f4

Walking back around the Triangle a pale blob at the back of a field on Easington Road turned out to be a Barn Owl, it flew up several times before landing again and eventually flew in my direction. It was 10 am with a clear blue sky and with the sun behind me the owl looked amazing.

Barn Owl ISO 320 1/2000 f8
It moved through the back of the neighbouring field and went out of site.
One of the big changes, bird wise, since I was a more regular visitor to Spurn is the increase in Mediterranean Gulls. I found a juvenile on the shore at Easington Lagoons in the early seventies which was a real rarity at the time. Now the maximum day count is over 100 birds and I had already seen several birds but decided to head back to the lagoons in the hope of getting some photos.
There were at least a dozen birds milling around out at sea and occasional coming on to the shoreline and flying up in to the sky. It wasn't until I had some photos that I could see that they were catching craneflies which were being blown out to see on the strong westerly winds.

Mediterranean Gull adult ISO 400 1/1000 f9
I had only seen a couple of Chiffchaff and single Wheatear and Redwing so migrants still in very short supply. There was still one Yellow-browed Warbler in the area but so far I had had no luck in finding it.

Five days at Spurn - day 1, Wednesday 23rd September

I think I could describe myself as a regular visitor to Spurn during the 70's and 80's but have been irregular since then. However, once a year I have done a weekend catch-up with friends from those earlier days, usually towards the end of October but this year we decided on the weekend of 25th September for a change. 
Reed Bunting - female ISO 400 1/1250 f7.1
Recently released from the restrictions of working for a living I went across early on the 16th September. A Bewick's Swan, the earliest recorded at Spurn had spent the last few days on the lagoons so that's where I started. 
There was a group of at least a dozen Reed Bunting in some dead buckthorn between two lagoons, a common bird both at Spurn and at home in the Peak District but it was a nice setting in the early morning light. This is a female, lacking the pale collar of the autumn male but they are not easy to age at this time. Familiarity with Reed Bunting is a pre-requisite for finding the rarer buntings for UK birders.
No sign of the Bewick's Swan but walking around the lagoons at juvenile Peregrine circled putting the Mallards and a lone Shoveler in to the air.
Peregrine juvenile ISO 400 1/1600 f8

Although not super close it was near enough to see all the markings, it looked small and was presumably a male.
I moved on to Sammy's Point, no sign of any migrants in a strong westerly wind but the rising tide was pushing the Golden Plover on to the neighbouring fields giving some good flight views of the flocks.
Golden Plover - ISO 800 1/1000 f10

Finally a walk around the Triangle brought me to the Canal Scrape where one of the sleeping swans looked small and long legged. After a short wait it raised its head revealing the yellow bill of the Bewick's Swan. The local Mutes weren't happy to have it share their pool and chased it around until it finally departed at 16:20 and left the area. 
Bewick's Swan chased by Mute ISO 500 1/640 f11
Bewick's Swan ISO 500 1/1000 f5.6
I parked up the camper at Kew bringing an end to day 1, no migrants of note but some interesting birds. A single Yellow-browed Warbler was seen during the day and a Jack Snipe came in off the sea so some birds to look for tomorrow.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Observations on Eleonora's Falcons in autumn

The world population of Eleonora's Falcon breeds almost exclusively around the Mediterranean and is estimated at around 20,000 individuals. It's a long distance migrant, wintering in Madagascar and neighbouring East Africa.
First recorded in Britain in 1977 there have been a handful of records since.
In common with many birdwatchers I have seen Eleonora's Falcons many times in spring and early autumn in the Balearics and Greek islands but have only seen birds in juvenile plumage twice; once in Israel in November and Rhodes in late October.

Photo 1 Eleonora's Falcon juvenile Rhodes October
Photo 2 Eleonora's Falcon juvenile Rhodes October
Juvenile Eleonora's falcon is noticeably shorter in the tail and wings than adult birds, at least in early autumn, when birds have recently fledged. The profile is closer therefore to male Peregrine but should not cause confusion for anyone reasonably familiar with that species.
Photo 3 Peregrine recently fledged juvenile June (© K Smith)
Photo 4 Peregrine 1 cy April

Eleonora's is still a significantly slimmer longer winged and tailed falcon. If any doubt remains the dark underwing coverts contrast with the pale base to the remiges whereas juvenile Peregrine (Photo 3 and 4) has a very uniform underwing at this age. 
This pale wing flash may also be visible on the upper wing on some birds. Peregrine also has barred undertail coverts which are plan in Eleonora's.
Size is intermediate between Hobby and Peregrine and Eleonora's is noticeably larger than both Hobby and Red-footed Falcon. The pattern of the underwing described above with broad dark trailing edge to the wing should help to separate from the two smaller falcons when size is difficult to judge. 
In addition Eleonora's has a single moustachial streak, lacking the second streak below the ear coverts shown by both juvenile Hobby and Red-footed Falcons.
The eye ring is blue or bluish grey in Eleonora's whereas Hobby and Red-footed Falcon have yellow eye rings. The eye ring of juvenile Peregrine is greenish blue but turns yellow within a few weeks of fledging.

Adult - pale morph
Photo 5 Eleonora's Falcon adult female Rhodes October
Photo 6 Eleonora's Falcon adult male Rhodes October
Eleonora's Falcons can be aged in their second calendar year and sometimes in the third by examination of the extent of moult and feather wear. 
The birds in Photos 4 and 5 are both pale morph adults. The female in Photo 4 was noticeably larger than the male and looked a generally heavier bird. Adults can be sexed by the colour of the orbital ring and cere, this is blue in females and yellow in males.
The combination of blackish underwing coverts and plain slightly paler remiges with heavily dark streaked buff underparts turning orangey on the belayed inertial coverts should rule out any other European falcon.
Although the literature reports that migrant passerines are a key food in the autumn, of the dozen or so birds I observed any hunting was for aerial insects Some birds were observed hawking for insects for the whole time they were in view. Eleonora's is a very agile and graceful hunter and looked to have a high success rate using the feet to grab the insects.
Photo 6 Eleonora's Falcon male catching insects

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Northern Goshawk flight identification and ageing in the UK

Despite an increase in the Goshawk population during the 20th Century it is still a scarce bird and this, along with its generally reclusive behaviour, make it one of the hardest of our birds of prey to see. It is perhaps the difficulty of observing the Goshawk combined with its size and striking plumage which makes it one of the most enigmatic of British birds and one that all bird watchers get a thrill from seeing.
For almost two decades I have had the opportunity to study the Goshawk through the year, and witness the various stages in the breeding, and non-breeding seasons. For such a large bird it is surprisingly elusive and whilst sightings are regular from December through March as birds start the display cycle they are very difficult to observe outside this period.

General considerations

In a reasonable view, where plumage features are discernible, the only likely confusion is with the Sparrowhawk, particularly if the observer is not familiar with Goshawk. The female Goshawk has the size and build of a Buzzard and should not normally cause a problem but males are considerably smaller and slighter and approach the size of a female Sparrowhawk. Note that even for experienced observers size can be very difficult to judge in distant birds and it may not always be possible to confirm identification unless a specific characteristic can be seen such as the flight or behavioural characteristics noted below or some plumage features.
The Sparrowhawk is a compact bird with short broad wings and a generally long square cut tail. The Goshawk tends to have a more rounded tail (Photo 4) but it can look square (Photo 1 and 10), this isn't a feature I would recommend for separating the two species.
Photo 1 Goshawk adult (© Andy Butler)
Photo 2 Sparrowhawk adult female (© Ken Smith)

The flight of the Sparrowhawk is normally very distinct with circling gliding flight interspersed with rapid flickering wing beats which are never seen in Goshawk. The Goshawk glides on flat wings, unlike the Buzzard which holds its wings in a shallow V, and flaps with deep wing beats which gives the impression of its size. 

Without the labels in the silhouette above, even though I've reproduced the birds at a similar size it's fairly obvious that the Goshawk is on the left. The silhouettes are taken from photos of birds in similar positions but clearly not exactly the same, despite this I think there are a number of differences that are useful in the field;

  • The head of the Goshawk sticks further out, similar to Honey Buzzard when compared to Common Buzzard, and the neck base is broader,
  • The Goshawk has relatively broader wings where they join the body, producing a bulkier appearance,
  • The bulkier appearance is further enhanced by the thicker tail base on Goshawk which looks more pinched on Sparrowhawk (per Paul Doherty/Mick Cunningham)
Juveniles do not start their first moult until the spring of the second calendar year although they may loose some feathers in the intervening period. 
Goshawks complete an annual moult and, in common with many other birds of prey, the females start the moult earlier then in males usually commencing during the egg laying or incubation period and losing 3 or 4 inner primaries over a short period. Males commence the moult a few weeks later and the moult is completed by the autumn.

First calendar year to second calendar year spring (Juvenile)

Photo 3 Goshawk Juvenile January (©Andy Butler)
Photo 4 Goshawk Juvenile December (©Andy Butler)

As noted above the Goshawk retains its juvenile plumage from fledging in July through to July of the second calendar year. The young Sparrowhawk shows barring on the breast when it leaves the nest and therefore looks similar to the adult. Thus an accipiter showing  a streaked, rather than barred breast must be a Goshawk.
The juvenile on Photo 6 has "flared" undertail coverts which has previously been noted as a diagnostic characteristic of Goshawk which is clearly not the case.
Photo 5 Sparrowhawk Juvenile September (©Andy Butler)
Photo 6 Sparrowhawk Juvenile (©Ken Smith)

Photo 7 Recently fledged Juvenile female July (© Andy Butler)
From fledging through to spring of the second calendar year the young Goshawk has an orangey-buff ground colour to the breast and underwing coverts with heavy black streaking on the belly and chest. This colouration can show a distinct contrast with the pale ground colour to the primaries and secondaries which are heavily barred blackish.
The iris of the recently fledged juvenile Goshawk is a blue-grey colour which turns to yellow, like the adult birds by the end of the first calendar year.
I'm not aware of any plumage characteristics that separate males from females in the first calendar year and therefore size is the only field characteristic and this should be used with caution for the reasons stated in the introduction.
Second calendar year autumn to third calendar year spring (First-adult)
Photos 8 Female Goshawk in third calendar year June (© Andy Butler)
Photo 9 same bird as Photo 8 (© Andy Butler)

Following the moult in the summer of the second year Goshawk's look very much like adults but viewed from the underside the flight feathers are rather dark, generally looking darker than the barred underwing coverts. From above the upper parts are a warm, slightly rufous brown. Barring on the tail is obvious when viewed from both above and below. 
The head pattern is inconspicuous with no obvious pale supercilium or dark ear coverts and the iris is yellow.
The bird in photos 8 and 9 photographed in early June has already started the moult to adult plumage having lost four inner primaries. 
Third calendar year autumn and older (Adult)
Photo 10 Adult February (Andy Butler)
Photo 11 Same adult as Photo 10 note flared undertail coverts (©Andy Butler)
Photo 12 Goshawk adult female (© K Smith)
Photo 13 Goshawk adult female (© K Smith)

Following the moult in the autumn of the third calendar year birds are in adult plumage. The remiges are pale and a similar colour to the underwing coverts giving a plain appearance to the underwing, this can be particularly obvious in distant views. The secondaries still show barring when seen close but the barring gets paler with successive moults.
The upper parts are a uniform grey in males and grey brown in females with blackish crown and ear coverts. The head pattern is more distinct in males with a more pronounced white supercilium.
The iris is yellow but gets more orangey with age.