Monday, 30 December 2013

London Calling!!

The 2011 London Bird Report
The latest LBR, as it is affectionately known, plopped onto my doormat last week. Being a London-based birder I am naturally very interested in learning about the avian occurrences in my home city. I have avidly studied the pages of the successive editions of the LBR for more years than I care to admit. Plus, during those years I managed to acquire even older LBR issues spanning back decades that documented breeding Red-backed Shrikes and floods of Black Redstarts.

One of the great things about the LBR is that it has finally caught up with the times. By that I mean that it is now only a couple of years behind - totally acceptable - compared to the hopelessly delayed production schedule of old. But even then, as it is now, the editorial content was superb. I'm pleased to say that in the 2011 edition, more than any other, were great images of common birds as well as a few of the rarities thrown in. In the past there was a over emphasis on the rare and exotic so it's really good to see that an effort has been made to attract ordinary birders to its pages.

The 2011 edition more or less follows the usual running order that this publication has historically followed: a list of the rarities committee and recorders, a breakdown of the recording area, a brief review of the year, a list of the contributors followed by the systematic list of the birds found in London during the year. This is the meat of the report. Usually, there is a sponsored colour plate section in the centre of the book. This year the images are sprinkled throughout the accounts. A much more pleasing arrangement if you ask me. My only gripe being that some the species images were often placed alongside the text of an unrelated species. I can't fault the editorial compilations and I have to compliment the editorial team for the obvious hard work that has gone into producing the species accounts.

Following the species listings are the appendices covering escapes, hybrids and non-proven records. They are in turn followed by a series of papers largely on the birds of individual sites as well as the results of ringing records and WeBS counts (the British Trust for Ornithology's Wetland Bird Survey). The LBR is one of the best annual bird reports in the land and is a great testament to the number of birds to be found in and around the capital. Proof that urban birding can be very rewarding, even in the heart of Britain's biggest city.

The London Bird Report is published by the London Natural History Society priced at £8.00

Sunday, 29 December 2013

So near, but......

 The Scrubs: A view looking east from Braybrook Street
The last embers of 2013 are flickering, drawing to conclusion a year of contrasts for my beloved local patch, Wormwood Scrubs.

We have thus far had the joint best year for the most amount of species seen on and over the site - 98. All year we have been aiming for the magical 100 but it seems that we have a glass ceiling. Our efforts have been blighted by a fairly poor autumn despite finding a mega in the shape of a juvenile Common Rosefinch, London's first twitchable example for some three years. Add to that the disappearance of two of our best Scrubbers; one claimed by New Zealand and the other had a baby and emigrated to Suffolk. We are about to loose another to Sweden in January. Our team of birders is about to be severely depleted. We have had birders leave before in previous years and like when Eric Cantona left Manchester United, we still went on to find great birds and good year totals.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the fragile tranquility at The Scrubs has been the announcement this year that the area has come to the notice of a host of entities keen to turn the land immediately to the north  into a cityscape that according to the blurb, will resemble Manhattan meeting Canary Wharf. There will be of course, serious implications for The Scrubs and once they start the building things will never be the same again.

I went out today in the vain hope of seeing two more species to add to the site list. I failed miserably. Found a corking and shy male Bullfinch that did its best to hide behind a branch the whole time it was in the open. They are now a bit of a rarity here with only a handful of sightings per year.  
 Peak-a-boo Bullfinch
 The only clean shot that I obtained
I also found record numbers of Reed Buntings near the embankment area. I counted at least 10 birds. Our previous best was around six birds.
 A 1st winter male Reed Bunting
 Female Reed Bunting
In desperation I examined the sparrow roost at dawn in the hope of discovering a Tree Sparrow - a national scarcity - that has yet to be recorded at The Scrubs although, I was pretty ceratin that I had one fly over one October several years ago. I counted 50 House Sparrows, which is around half of what I would have normally expected. However, amongst them was a weirdly plumaged female.
 Strange female House Sparrow with white eyerings
Side profile
It looks like the last couple days of the year are going to be rain filled which will kill off any further opportunities for me to hunt down any new species. Looks like I'm going to have to give up my quest for 100 this year, but given my impending schedule for next year and the general lack of Scrubbers, I have a feeling that we have reached the upper limit of the birds to be expected at The Scrubs.

2014 will be an interesting year.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Urban Birding Masterclass in Hyde Pak

What a gorgeous day this morning was. Indeed, the afternoon was pretty good too. Blue skies, a touch nippy it had to be said. Today was the day that I led a Urban Birding Masterclass sponsored by Leica Mayfair Store. They gave the participants a lush pair of Ultravids to use for the duration of the session.
 Greylag Geese
The group and I scored the usual suspects like Mistle Thrush, Blue, Coal and Great Tits plus Long-tailed Tit. The best find was a lovely Nuthatch that stood out in the open preening.
 Shooting waterfowl
 Birding by the water's edge
Crowd shot

Friday, 6 December 2013

The birding wonders of Serbia

Another great Serbian Long-eared winter trip over. My group were well happy with over 800 Long-eared Owls plus an array of other birds that included Barn and Little Owls, Hen and Marsh Harriers, Common Buzzards, Merlin, Kestrels, Caspian Gulls, Spoonbills, 3 Red-breasted Geese and c12,000 White-fronted Geese.
 Male Bearded Tit
 The same male Beardie
 Female Bearded Tit
 One of the hundreds of Long-eared Owls
 Several of the 1,000's of Common Crane
2nd winter Kittiwake (1st on the left) - a self found national rarity!
But it was the owls that everyone came to see. I've seen it several times now and I'm still blown away everytime.

Come let me take you to Serbia next year......

Monday, 2 December 2013

Serbian Owl Porn!

 I'm back in Serbia again for another Long-eared Weekender. Whenever I tell people that you can see hundreds of Long-eared Owls very easily I am usually met with by wonderment. But there are people out there that simply just can't believe that that many owls can be seen. Well my message to you doubters is to get your backside on a plane and come to witness this amazing urban phenomenon at first hand.
 In just one day my group and I recorded around 500 birds the vast majority of which were in the town square at Kikinda near the Romanian border.
 These birds are so easy to see. Some are skittish with the birds in the actual square being the most complacent.
 For every one owl that you find there are another six that you just haven't picked up.
 I can never grow tired looking at these majestic birds
 Jackdaw City, Rusanda
 A pair of eastern race Jackdaw
 Common Crane
Kikinda town square

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Everything you didn't know about North American Warblers....and a whole lot more

This book is definitely one for the Christmas wish list. Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle's exhaustive study of this prettiest of the bird families in the Americas is eye watering. The detail that these lads go into is astounding!
 Being based in the UK means that I don't come into contact with too many of these gorgeous creatures in my normal birding life. Of course, they do turn up on our shores in tiny numbers of a small variety of species that are much loved by the rarity hunters amongst us. Perhaps the most famous Wood Warbler, to give them the name that I knew them best as, was the Kent Golden-winged Warbler of the late 90's that I failed to connect with on the then biggest twitch of all time. Of course, these birds are not true Warblers as we in the Old World would know, but indeed thin-billed buntings that have filled the niche that the Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs and all our other warblers would have taken. In fact, I think that the official term for the American family is New World Warblers.

The Warbler Guide does not dwell on such trivial matters as to what the family name should be but just steams straight into how to identify the 56 species of New World Warblers to be encountered in Canada and the US. The text is straight to the point; straight down to the business of identification.
 During the breeding season many of the species are pretty distinctive with the males of most species looking like feathered jewels. The book takes you though a tour of the topography of the birds before fleshing out the statement: what to notice on a warbler. This covers everything from hoods to wingbars to crown patterns, facial patterns, general colorations, size, habits, habitats - the list goes on. Plus there are photographs of everything.
 There is a thorough section of the book devoted to listening to warbler songs. Elements of the songs are broken down through sonograms covering every concievable variation of call/song known. Reading this alone should make you an overnight expert in the vocalisations, that much I know. Before the species accounts, conveniently ordered alphabetically and not taxonomically, are a series of useful plates providing at a glance of practically all the species clocked at different angles as you would see them in the wild. Most useful, I thought, was the underview spread that dipicted images of individual species as if viewed from below.

The species accounts included many pictures of each species in a variety of poses, plumages and zoomed in detail. The text covers brief notes on the main identifying features alongside a distribution map. Additionally, there are also pictures of comparision species with text explaining why those species differed from the one being discussed.

Rarites are dealt with at the end of the species accounts and are each given a double page spread that follows the same format as the main species accounts. Helpfully, there is another section of the book that discusses similar non-warbler species like tits (or Chickadees, if you are North American!) a couple sparrow species and Kinglets. Interestingly, Yellow-breasted Chat and Olive Warbler, two species that I thought of as warblers, are included in this section. Clearly, I have some reading up to do.

As if this was not enough, the vexed subject of hybrids is tackled. Fortunately, according to the author, hybrid warblers are rare. Even so, a few are featured to help the unwary. And there's a quiz right at the end. I love quizzes!

This book is certainly worthy of a place on anyone's heaving book shelf. It is refreshing, stunningly illustrated and importantly, educational. If you want to get to grips with North America's Warblers, you will need to tightly grip The Warbler Guide!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Texas - the final reckoning

 TUB with the great Keith Hackland
As if I haven't already gone on about it enough, I have to say that my recent trip to Texas was an eye-opener. I expected a landscape similar to what I experienced in and around Tucson, Arizona - dusty desert. Instead, I was surprised as to how lush some of the areas I visited were despite there being an ongoing drought. The birds were awesome, the people incredibly friendly and the experience impeccable.

The Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival was the main reason for my visit and would not have been possible had it not been for Keith Hackland from Alamo Inn - a must stay location for any visiting birder. I met Keith around four years ago at the British Birdwatching Fair where he originally invited me to Texas. I thought that it would never come to be. But it happened. I tell you what, Keith is the nicest and most gentle man you are ever likely to meet. He was a superb host and now a very good friend of mine. I would like to publicly thank him and his family for making me feel so welcome and for making my Texan experience such an amazing one.
 TUB with Doug Gochfeld - fantastic leader and good geezer!
 Scott Whittle, TUB, Doug Gochfeld & Tom Stephenson - The ATeam (minus me!)
 TUB with South Texas Nature's Nydia O. Tapia-Gonzales
Special thanks to Nydia who along with her colleagues at South Texas Nature facilitated my trip to Texas.
Turkey Vulture
My Texan list

Least Grebe
Pied Grebe
Magnificent Frigatebird
Double-crested Cormorant
Neotropic Cormorant
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Snowy Egret
Great Egret
Tricoloured Heron
Little Blue Heron
Reddish Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
White-faced Ibis
American White Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill
Snow Goose
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Fulvous Whistling Duck
Wood Duck
Mottled Duck
Green-winged Teal
American Wigeon
Northern Pintail
Northern Shoveler
Blue-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Ruddy Duck
Turkey Vulture
Black Vulture
White-tailed Kite
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Harris Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Grey Hawk
White-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Northern Crested Caracara
Aplomado Falcon
American Kestrel
Plain Chachalaca
Clapper Rail
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Whooping Crane
Grey Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Snowy Plover
American Oystercatcher
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Western Willet
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
Wilson’s Snipe
Franklin’s Gull
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
American Herring Gull
Black Tern
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Cabot’s Tern
Caspian Tern
Royal Tern
Black Skimmer
Feral Pigeon
Eurasian Collared Dove
Mourning Dove
White-winged Dove
Common Ground Dove
Inca Dove
White-tipped Dove
Green Parakeet
Red-crowned Parrot
Barn Owl
Long-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
Common Pauraque
Buff-bellied Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Ringed Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
Amazon Kingfisher
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cave Swallow
Sprague’s Pipit
Cactus Wren
((Carolina Wren))
((House Wren))
Marsh Wren
Sedge Wren
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Black Phoebe
Vermillion Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Kingbird
Great Kiskadee
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
Clay-coloured Thrush
Grey Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Long-billed Thrasher
Curve-billed Thrasher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Black-crested Tit
Blue-headed Vireo
Black-crested Titmouse
Loggerhead Shrike
Green Jay
Chihuahuan Raven
European Starling
House Sparrow
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle Warbler)
Black-throated Green Warbler
Pine Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Wilson’s Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Olive Sparrow
Cassin’s Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Summer Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Eastern Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Altamira Oriole
Audubon’s Oriole
176 species
24 lifers

Back home and dreaming of Ouzels

The Ring Ouzel plate from Richard Crossley's ID Guide to Birds of Britain & Ireland
I'm back home after a superb 10 days exploring the Rio Grande Valley in southeastern Texas. I have come back to a grey, cold London with the prospect of snow high on the cards. Down at Wormwood Scrubs we are still struggling to see our target of 100 species and are currently stuck on 98 having been so since late September.

One bird that we eagerly await every year to add to the year list is the occurance of Ring Ouzels - my favourite bird. Every year for the past 10 we have received visits from this most mysterious of our British thrushes. Quite why they chose to visit my urban patch with such regularity has always been a puzzle for me. They are normally birds of wild mountainous regions yet I associate them amongst urbanity standing in trees with the cityscape spread out behind them as a backdrop. A totally incongruous sight, I'll tell you.

When my migrants come they often don't announce their presence. We just know to keep a sharp lookout from mid to late April, our spring window and from late September into early November for autumn birds. This year we didn't manage to catch sight of any birds in the spring. This has occasionally happened before as birds may literally pass through at a blink of an eye; pausing to catch breath for a couple minutes before heading on north. If you are not in the right place at the right time then you your chance to see them has gone. This autumn we were fretting. Time was running out and although a few were being seen in the London area crucially, we were not seeing any on the patch.

One Saturday morning in late October whilst I was playing football, I got the phonecall that a male had been finally sighted on the patch. It hung around for five minutes before disappearing. I was elated. Our yearly record of sightings had continued. But I was also deeply disappointed because I had not seen my favourite bird this year. I consoled myself later by staring at the Ring Ouzel plate in Richard Crossley's ID Guide to Birds of Britain & Ireland. It was like looking at a beautiful compilation of the Ring Ouzels I have seen in the past.

For more on the Crossley Guide check out

There will be a live video call with Richard Crossley and writer Dominic Couzens on November 21 at (

Monday, 18 November 2013

Port Aransas, Texas Pt 2

Some of my favourite shots from Aransas.
 Lesser Yellowlegs
 Magnificent Frigatebird
 Ultra rare Whooping Cranes
 Western Willet
 Whooping Cranes with Sandhill Cranes
 Great Blue Heron
 Western Willet
 Common Tern
Roseate Spoonbill

Port Aransas, Texas Pt1

Three hours drive from the Rio Grande Valley on the northern tip of Mustang Island lies the town of Port Aransas. It had a quaint seaside feel to it with lots of local Texan businesses, hardly any of the big chains and a load of great birding sites. 

I was the guest of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce who treated me beautifully.
 Charlie's Pasture
They introduced me to this wonderful place - rammed with birdlife!
 Roseate Spoonbill
 A very confiding Clapper Rail
 An immature White Ibis
 A male Northern Harrier
 Same bird as above
 Greater Yellowlegs
 Swarms of duck - mostly Redheads
Reddish Egret