Monday, 17 November 2014

Azores: Rare & Scarce Bird Report 2013

For those of you that know me well it will ring true that I am not much of a twitcher these days. I would rather scout my local patch than eke out a skulking rarity lurking on a remote headland on Fair Isle. I would rather wander the expanses of my patch than to even twitch a local rarity.

Rare birds in the country has the opposite effect on me. Instead of rushing to try and see them, rather, it inspires me to find my own rarity somewhere no one is searching or would have thought to have looked. Rarity hunting within the UK is one thing but for some there is a far more important pinnacle to reach in the search for rarities. It is perhaps the ultimate high for those ultra-serious rarity hunters. The Azores is the capital of rares for the international Western Palearctic twitcher. Every autumn sees a delegation of Western Europe's finest decend upon these nine scattered volcanic islands at the extremety of the Western Palearctic, far from anywhere in the middle of the North Atlantic.

Their quarry? The multitude of American stragglers that turn up without fail. Hence the attraction to the European twitchers who would otherwise struggle to get birds like Upland Sandpiper on their lists. The above-mentioned bird report does what it says on the tin. It's a compilation of rare North American migrants with a few Old World species thrown in for good measure. Even visitations from Canada Geese are included, after all they could well be genuine migrants.

Most of the twitchers visiting the islands make a beeline for Corvo, the smallest and northernmost island of the group. It also has very few accommodation options, so things can get a little cozy at times. I visited the islands some four years ago and absolutely hated the vibe on Corvo. However, a short boat ride away is the island of Flores; a much larger island and much less frequented by birders. Much more my cup of tea. There is a move now to try to attract more international twitchers and birders to cover this island. I think that this is a great idea that sits well with my sensibilities. When I visited Flores I ended up being there for a week and it wasn't long before I was swept up with the rarity hunting. But the great thing was that as a result of there being so few sets of eyes looking for stuff meant that you automatically stood more chance of finding your own birds. Between myself and my three companions we clocked up some marvelous sights like five White-rumped Sandpipers flying around until one was suddenly picked off by a hungry (and gorgeous looking) tundra race Peregrine, replete with buffy tones.

However, I digress. The Azores: Rare & Scarce Bird Report 2013 will serve to whet the appetite of any would be intrepid rarity hunter who can afford the airfare to these beautiful island. If I were you though, don't spend all your time on Corvo. Get off to the other islands and become a FINDER.

For a copy of the report please contact Peter Alfrey:

Monday, 10 November 2014


It's not often that I actually go away for an unashamed holiday, a bit of r&r. But that is what I have done for the past five days - spend time chilling and even enjoying cultural highlights!
 Skywatching from the hotel roof
I spent a couple of mornings avidly scanning the skies before breakfast. I was rewarded by passages of low flying finches (mostly Chaffinch), unidentified larks, a few Meadow Pipits, Wood Pigeons with Stock Doves amongst them, a Red Kite, Kestrel, a couple Griffon Vultures, Cormorants and a flock of distant geese. Strolling around the streets also resulted in a fine Peregrine soaring between the office blocks.
 Flamenco star, Sara Baras
I also saw my first ever flamenco theatre production by a dancing genius called Sara Baras. The show was called La Pepa and it was amazing. How she (and the rest of the cast) were able to tap their feet so much for so long was beyond me!
 Real Madrid taking the stage at the Bernabeu Stadium
I also watched Real Madrid (Gareth Bale, Ronaldo et al) put five past neighbours, Rayo Vallecano. The end result was 5-1. Superb atmosphere!

Of course, there was plenty of urban birding to be had in the city's parks.
 Bathing Great Tit
 Iberian Green Woodpecker
 Monk Parakeet
 Great Spotted Woodpecker
Meanwhile outside of town in Pastrana, over an hour's drive west of the capital I stayed in a country house enjoying the rural idyll plus clocking Firecrest, Hawfinch, Serin, Cranes, Griffon Vultures, Cetti's Warblers, Blackcaps, Rock Sparrow, Rock Bunting plus....
 Black Redstart
A great break was had. Now back to the grindstone...

Sunday, 26 October 2014


Had a busy couple weeks recently behind the mic chatting about the virtues of urban birding. It started with a very enjoyable talk at the North Bucks Local RSPB group. It was my second time in front of this group as I also spoke there two years ago. Both occasions were thankfully enjoyed by all.

The next day saw me journeying to Portugal to speak at the ObservaturaNatural in Setubal, a 50 minute drive south from Lisbon. Again, this was my second appearance in as many years. My talk on urban birding in Europe's cities was a hit.

 Images by Vanesa Palacios
Finally, I was honoured to be invited to speak at the RSPB's AGM in Birmingham. It was held in the city's prestigious ICC. The venue itself was a class act. It was fabulous to speak in front of around 500 members. 
Laurence Rose

Sunday, 5 October 2014


This morning was an amazingly sunny affair, despite the weathermen's warning that summer had come to a close with winter not too far from us. Okay, it was a bit bit chilly at first but by lunchtime I could almost taken my jacket off as the sun's strong rays hit me.

One of the first birds I noticed when I arrived at The Scrubs this morning were two Hawfinches that flew overhead 'ticking' as the went. I caught them in my bins as they headed northeast over the grassland. Their chunky, pot-bellied forms caught my eye as did the distinctive white wingbar that showed from under their wings. They were my first for my patch, first for London and perhaps my third or forth ever in the UK. I was well happy!
 Female Reed Bunting 
I've started teaching a course on Urban Birding at the City Lit College in Covent Garden. My class consists of five women and a guy and today I took them to The Scrubs to teach them about sussing common birds.

Of course, they arrived after my Hawfinches but were present to see at least four Stonechats, at least 12 Jackdaws and best of all 1 Red Kite and at least five Common Buzzards migrating over. They were absolutely delighted!

I love patch birding. I love my patch!
A fat Wood Pigeon with a far slimmer Starling

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A quiet day at The Scrubs

Meadow Pipit
A quiet day was had at The Scrubs today. The recent fine weather has caused most of our potential migrants to keep on going south across our airspace.

Saw three Stonechats, heard a Blackcap and bumped into around six Chiffchaffs.

Let's see what tomorrow brings.
Grey Heron flyby

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Good Chats down at The Scrubs

This morning's autumnal check resulted in a lingering Whinchat and four lovely Stonechats.
 Male Stonechat
Couple of females/1st winter birds
Stonechats, although biannual, are rarely seen in groups of more than three at The Scrubs these days. Prior to the severe winter of 2009/10 we used to get up to 10 birds in the grassland that would stick around for a few days before disappearing. Thereafter, three to four would winter until March when a fresh influx would swell their numbers.

I would love to know where these birds emanated from and where they where heading. Regardless, I hope that these birds are the advance guard for a new wintering population.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Autumn heats up a little at The Scrubs

Last Sunday morning I led a London Natural History Society walk around the patch.

We did well. 

A Red Kite decided to float low overhead - our 4th or 5th (can't remember right now). Just before then and before I met the group a flock of six Rook headed in from the west to land on the mown grass in front of the prison. 

They were the first of this normally rural corvid to be seen at The Scrubs this year and certainly our biggest ever flock. The previous largest count was a pair that flew over during the spring a few years ago.
 Red Kite
 Kestrel being mobbed by a Carrion Crow
 Meadow Pipit
 Another of the many Meadow Pipits
 A Reed Warbler - another 1st for the year
Two days later on another stupendous morning (weather-wise) I locked onto a female Stonechat originally found by Paul Thomas, a fellow Scrubber. It was great to capture it sitting next to a Whinchat, its close relative.
 A Stonechat and Whinchat pair
Sunrise at The Scrubs