Category Archives: Migration

People? What are they?

I’m stretching my geographical boundaries a little farther than normal to the northwest with this post, but I think the subject deserves it. This is a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus), which turned up last week on Rhaslas Pond, just east of Merthyr Tydfil, and has spent the weekend entertaining birders and photographers at point-blank range. Rhaslas is a small artificial reservoir in the middle of bleak moorland, which goes to show that rare (i.e. lost) birds can turn up anywhere.

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Long-billed Dowitcher is generally thought of as a North American bird and those occurring at this time of year are most likely to have originated in the Canadian Arctic and been brought across the Atlantic by low pressure weather systems. However, there is also a significant population in Arctic Russia, and some Long-billed Dowitchers occurring here, particularly adult birds in late summer, probably come from that direction. The third possibility is that once here, they stay and migrate up and down the East Atlantic flyway, with godwits or other European shorebirds.

There are much better photographic efforts than mine on the Cardiff Bird Club blog. The photo below shows just how close everyone was able to get (the red arrow points to the bird); indeed, while I was there it kept walking towards the photographers rather than away from them.

People

Arctic-bred shorebirds have been known on previous occasions in Britain to be just as tame: there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis) in Somerset a few years back which allowed an equally close approach, for example. Most famous of all is an Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) which occurred on the Isles of Scilly in the 1980s which was so tame it took a worm out of a birdwatcher’s mouth. These birds are invariably juveniles on their first southbound migration and the theory is that because they’ve never seen people before, they don’t associate us with danger: bad news for the individual bird, but great news for birdwatchers.

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Little Gulls at Chew Valley Lake

These two Little Gulls (Hydrocoleus minutus) were at Chew Valley Lake this afternoon. Usually, when Little Gulls turn up at Chew, they feed over the centre of the lake, way beyond camera range, but for some reason, these two birds chose to frequent Herriott’s Pool, the small body of water separated from the main lake by the A368.

CVL Little Gull adult CVL Little Gull juvenile

These two are a non-breeding-plumaged adult (left) and a juvenile (right). Little Gull is the world’s smallest gull, much smaller than a Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). Adults have deep dark grey underwings, and the pale grey upperwings lack the finger of white along the front edge that Black-headed Gull shows. In breeding plumage they have black hoods and pink-washed underparts. Juveniles have a contrasting pattern of black, grey and white, lacking the gingery-brown tones of juvenile Black-headed Gulls. The black stretches from wing-tip to wing-tip across the back (the bird in the picture above has its wings fully outstretched; when the wings are in normal beating mode, the black forms a ‘W’ shape). Juveniles moult into first-winter plumage later in the autumn, replacing the black on the upperparts with pale grey, but the black on the wings remains, so the W is a good feature throughout the winter (note that juvenile and first-winter Kittiwakes have a similar pattern, but as long as you have a Black-headed Gull nearby for a size comparison you shouldn’t get the two confused).

Little Gulls do not regularly breed in Britain. Their main breeding colonies lie to the east of us, in marshes from eastern Europe and Scandinavia into Russia. They mainly occur in Britain on migration, in April and May, and then again from August to October. Flocks at Chew Valley Lake are usually of single-figures, or occasionally into double-figures. These numbers are typical for large wetland sites in Britain. There are two areas in Britain which regularly attract much large numbers, however: the Mersey coast, and the east Yorkshire coast. The former often attracts hundreds, and the latter has been known to host thousands. Small numbers of (usually first-summer) birds oversummer in Britain, mainly on the east coast, and occasionally make nesting attempts, although so far these have all been unsuccessful. Interestingly, breeding Little Gulls have successfully colonised the east coast of North America in the last hundred years, so the establishment of a British colony may be a possibility one day.

For more information on birds at Chew Valley Lake, Rich Andrews’ CVL Birding website is highly recommended.

Whinchats

I bumped into three Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra) this afternoon at Stockwood Open Space, in the thistly rough grassland between the sports pitch and the main path. One of them was co-operative enough to enable me to get a photo.

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At this time of year, all ages and both sexes of Whinchats look pretty much the same, with a buffy stripe above the eye (the supercilium), dark droplet-shaped markings on the upperparts, and pale orangey-buff underparts. Spring males, however, are boldly marked, with a distinctive head-pattern (a white supercilium and dark cheeks) and the orange on the throat and breast is more intense, like this bird.

Whinchats don’t breed around Bristol: these birds are on migration, south to their wintering areas. After they leave Britain, these birds are likely to move south through France to Spain or Portugal, where they will feed up, ready for a flight across the Sahara to their wintering zone in the savannah from Senegal eastwards; returning birds in the spring are usually seen from the second half of April.

Green Sandpiper

Autumn is here: the first of the post-breeding shorebirds are on their way south. At Slimbridge, while I was watching the Spoonbill, there were at least six Green Sandpipers (Tringa ochropus) feeding on the edges of the same pool. I was going to illustrate this post with my own photos, and then Vic Savery sent me this excellent shot:

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Green Sandpiper, 1 July 2013, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, Vic Savery (naturenutz.net)

Green Sandpiper is the earliest of our sandpipers to appear on southbound migration, always being seen somewhere locally from the end of June onwards, so no need to panic about winter being on the way just yet. Any freshwater wetland with reasonable areas of exposed mud will be graced by Green Sandpipers over the next few months. The birds turning up at the moment are adults, whereas juvenile birds will occur from August onwards (a pattern common to most migrant shorebirds). Green Sandpipers also overwinter in the region in moderate numbers, tending to inhabit shallow slow-flowing streams and ditches and marshy sites.

Green Sandpipers nest in bogs from Scandinavia eastwards through Russia. Unusually for a shorebird, they nest in trees, in disused birds nests. Occasionally, pairs nest in Scotland. A lookalike species, Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), replaces Green Sandpiper in North America. They have occured in southwest England after Atlantic storms in autumn several times, usually on the Isles of Scilly, but there was one in Devon a few years ago, so it’s possible that one could turn up near Bristol one day.

Here are a couple of my own Green Sandpiper photos as well, showing a Slimbridge bird in some different poses, and highlighting how birds can look different in different lighting conditions. You can also see, by looking closely at individual feathers, that this is a different bird from the one Vic photographed.

 Green Sandpiper Slimbridge 28 June 2013 b  Green Sandpiper Slimbridge 28 June 2013 a