Sunday, 20 September 2015

60 Minutes of Migration Magic

Nothing quite beats the thrill of finding a rare bird - not that I've found many, but over the years I have had one or two success's. The adrenalin rush that runs through your body at the point of realisation that you're staring at something little bit special, whether this be a local or a national rarity is for me a truly great birding emotion, and the reason I drag myself out of bed early at the weekends - but Saturday morning on the patch I experienced another rare birding emotion - goosebumps!

6.30am and I'm already on the Flats, the sun is yet to rise but a few birds are already on the move, as I pick out the calls of Siskins, Meadow Pipits and Yellow Wagtails flying over, the early signs looked good for bit of autumn vismigging.

7.00am and although the sky is covered in a low heavy cloud, the light is improving and I pick out a couple of Sand Martins circling high above me, this is quickly followed by a few Swallows as they cross the same field of view through my bins...and then for the next hour I witnessed what can only be described as one of the best local birding experiences I've ever witnessed, easily on par with any rare bird I've seen or found.

As I continued to scan my bins skyward, following the Sand Martins, more and more hirundines came into view, these birds weren't low but high up in the cloud cover, just dots in the sky - like a swarm of midges, several hundred birds grouped together in a migrating mass of force. Lowering my bins I started to get a real sense that this was just the tip of the iceberg as streams and streams of Swallows started to appear at head height all around me, without the use of my bins and with a large field of view I could see the horizon was littered with what looked like thousands of hirundines!

Several minutes passed as I stood in awe of this unfolding spectacle around me, I was just trying to take it all in and soak up this wonderful and unexpected birding experience, when a dog walker passed me and asked the usual question "Seen anything good?" I laughed. I don't usually have much time for dog walkers but today I replied with "Seen anything good...just stop for a second and look above you, there are Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins in their thousands - all making their way slowly south for the winter, this is the magic of bird migration on a huge scale". The fast moving dots in the sky were lost on him a bit, but I got the sense that he knew it meant something special to me.

The phone started to ring and it was Jono, he too was soaking up this amazing spectacle from Wanstead's aptly named Vizmig point, and was equally enamoured with what he was witnessing. As I made my way over to meet up with him the Swallows continued to stream pass me, by the time I'd crossed the Flats from Alexandra Lake, Nick had also joined Jono at the Vismig point. The three of us just stood and watched the skies around us, dumbstruck at what we were witnessing, whilst struggling to put an accurate number on the amount of birds involved. 

8.00am and as the sun finally breaks through the clouds, the sky quickly emptied of all those hirundines. Swallows and House Martins continued to move through in small numbers but the big show was over - just one hour amongst the many hundreds I've dedicated to birding, but what an hour - birding is often all about timing and on Saturday 19th September I timed it just right.

I did try to take a few photographs, but to be honest they just don't do the spectacle any justice, and it is much better remembered as a memory stored at the back of my mind than a single picture on a screen.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Yellow-legged Gull - a long overdue patch tick

I was just crossing the football pitches and heading home after another Saturday morning session on the Flats when Nick and I stopped to sift through a small selection of Gulls - we had earlier remarked on the fact that there were a distinct lack of Gulls in general on the Flats for the time of year. A quick scan through them produced a couple of adult and a juvenile Lesser black-backed Gulls, a few Black-headed Gulls and an interesting young Herring Gull - interesting because of its leggy appearance, pale coloured head, dark eye mask and heavy black bill, suggesting this bird was a michahellis race of Herring Gull. This bird wasn't the big brute of a Herring Gull you would usually associate with this species but much smaller in stature - more similar in size to the Lesser black-backed Gulls - was it then a young female?

We were both keen to see the bird in flight to get a couple of record shots, and as we approached the bird a bit closer it duly took off, showing a broad dark tailed band and contrasting white upper tail feathers and rump, features we believed confirmed this bird as a Yellow-legged Gull - but ever the sceptic I was keen to go through the photographs at home before I could be 100% happy.

1st Winter, Gulls, Wanstead, michahellis

1st Winter, Gulls, Flight, Wanstead, michahellis

1st Winter, Gulls, Flight, Wanstead, michahellis

The flight photographs put paid to any suspicions I had, and through the power of Twitter (thanks to Paul Hawkins and Dave Darrell Lambert) who were also both happy to confirm this bird was indeed a 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull. Additional features of note were the pale edged dark tertials, reduced pale inner primaries and dark anchors on the scapulars.

I've never had a classic adult Yellow-legged Gull on the Flats only a couple of juvenile/1st-winter possibilities in flight, which I eventually binned as I wasn't ever totally convinced, so it was good to finally nail this one down - a long over due patch tick.