Warblers-finally!

September 11, 2017

Adult female Black and White Warbler

A cold-front, with light N/NW winds sets up, raising the hopes that conditions over a weekend would allow me to collect some wood-warblers! But where would I go? Bluff was the obvious choice – but out of the question – I had Alex, so it had to be somewhere local. Despite a dearth of habitat, spots for consistently concentrating and holding passage warblers are few and far between in central coastal CT. Lighthouse Point it would have to be – it would be funneling birds and although birds are high, it would at least be a spot that would produce migrants. Although I didn’t have high-hopes for a lot of birds “on-the-deck”, I was about to be pleasantly surprised!

Sat 9th September
at 7am, I took up position at the NE boundary of the park. I was flanked by the harbor to the west and it overlooked the last line of trees before the park switches to a suburban development.

It was evident that birds were moving – small incessant “chips and chups” high overhead in the azure sky, could be heard as soon as I had exited the car. The birds were coming thick and fast, foraging and then moving along the line of trees before launching themselves out over the harbor. It was evident that the sky was layered and peppered with neotropical migrants, notably American Redstarts and Blue gray Gnatcatchers  – the biggest flight of that species I has ever seen. The distinctive “blink-blink” of Bobolinks formed a backdrop, moving high above the warblers and invisible to the eye.

I was the only birder present, so numbers are a conservative estimate and I am sure I missed more than a few things.

Eastern Wood-Pewee  6
Great Crested Flycatcher  5
Red-eyed Vireo  50
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  180    A huge passage of this species occurred on the back end of a cold-front.
Swainson’s Thrush  1
Ovenbird  1
Black-and-white Warbler  4
Tennessee Warbler  1
Common Yellowthroat  30
American Redstart  110
Northern Parula  4
Magnolia Warbler  5
Yellow Warbler  1
Chestnut-sided Warbler  1
Blackpoll Warbler  2
Black-throated Green Warbler  3
Wilson’s Warbler  1
warbler sp. (Parulidae sp.)  50+
Scarlet Tanager  1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  1
Dickcissel  1
Sunday 9th September
With similar conditions to yesterday but with lighter winds out of the north, I knew there would be birds today. I got there early and took up a position about 6:45 am, slightly more north of where I was yesterday, hoping to get a “warbler id in flight” refresher course. In the 80/90s, when I resided in Cape May, and free from the confines of a day-job, I was able to witness almost every fall cold front!  However, those days are long gone for me and you quickly get out of practice. It can be humbling in conditions, like today,when birds are high and small. That is the case at Lighthouse..birds are already in the stratosphere, so pinning a name to many is tough…but sometimes you get lucky with a few. Assuming you can track these and lock focus with a camera, it provides some “after the event” clues to the dashing dot’s identity!

Uncropped from the camera – this was one of the close birds!

Adult male Cape May Warbler – same bird as in the photo above

Bay-breasted Warbler

American Kestrel  2
Eastern Wood-Pewee  3
Least Flycatcher  1
Red-eyed Vireo  12
Common Raven  3
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  160    Again unusually high numbers after another night of N winds
Northern Waterthrush  3
Black-and-white Warbler  6
Tennessee Warbler  1
Common Yellowthroat  30
American Redstart  120
Cape May Warbler  2
Northern Parula  10
Magnolia Warbler  3
Bay-breasted Warbler  1
Blackburnian Warbler  1
Yellow Warbler  1
Blackpoll Warbler  4
Black-throated Blue Warbler  4
Black-throated Green Warbler  1
Canada Warbler  1
warbler sp. (Parulidae sp.)  80
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  1
Dickcissel  1
Bobolink  60
So, over two mornings, in one spot I managed 19 sp of warbler – and never saw another birder!! This was surprising since the flight was rather predictable in its occurrence, if not the magnitude. It ranks as one of the best (biggest) flights in many years – certainly the best since I’ve lived here. Bluff Point, our well-known migrant trap totalled 9000 warblers in three hours!!!
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Ardenna Overload

September 2, 2017

19th-20th August Cape Cod, Massachusetts

L to r: Nick Bonomo, Phil Rusch, Me, Luke Seitz, Peter Trimble and Dave Provencher

(Click on Images for Hi-Res versions)

With our annual overnight pelagic being weathered out, several of us decided to head up to the Cape to do some birding, especially as we had kindly been given floor space at Peter Trimble’s home.

So, Dave Provencher, Phil Rusch and myself met up at 4 am in Mystic, CT and drove up to Race Point, Provincetown, meeting Nick Bonomo and Luke Seitz en route. There had been a nice showing of shearwaters at Race Point, along with jaegers and, as we had found out, even a South Polar Skua had been seen flying up the beach!

Stopping for a quick coffee, we soon arrived at the parking lot that was lightly shrouded in fog – not good, since that would hamper visibility offshore. Nick had called to say that they were two miles down the beach. We were saved from a long walk by Blair Nikula who kindly came and picked us up and brought us back down to the beach. When we arrived, we had no idea what an amazing spectacle we were about to experience. Feeding right in the surf was a mass of feeding Great Shearwaters, thousands of them…there were birds everywhere. They were feeding on a huge amount of small fish, bunker or Menhaden, that had been pushed inshore.

Blair Nikula and Jeremiah Trimble ankle-deep in Great Shearwaters

Great Shearwater over oily water

As we all stood there, not quite being able to take it all in, we noticed there were not just Great, but Cory’s, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters! Then somebody shouted “SABINE’S!!”

Adult Sabine’s Gull – a dapper bird!

A dapper ad Sabine’s Gull flew out of the gloom and alighted in the water in front of us. My first east coast Sabine’s, it showed well during the morning. Several Roseate Terns and Black Terns paraded by, all against a swarming melee of shearwaters. Foggy conditions made for tough photography, but standing in the surf, surrounded by Great Shearwaters while Cory’s flew up the beach behind us was a surreal experience.

Who needs a boat?

“Hey..get out of the way!” Cory’s Shearwater in the surf..

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

The rest of the crew went to check out a shorebird, and Blair and I stayed by the car. At this point, I noticed a small, slim-winged Cory’s-type shearwater, which from photos looked good for Scopoli’s! It was distant, but the underwing seemed to fit! Almost at the same time, Blair shouted, “SABINE’S”. Surprisingly, this time it turned out to be a fresh juvenile!! It flew close and landed offshore.

Juvenile Sabine’s Gull..my first Sabine’s in the east…

I texted the others, who soon rejoined us, and over the next hour we photographed a few more apparent Scopoli’s, surely one, if not the only time, this species/subspecies has been identified from shore?

Apparent Scopoli’s Shaearwater (top left) with a Cory’s Shearwater. Apparently no plumage or size differences are useful (except for some small females?) and the underwing pattern of many Scopoli’s-types is variable. Some have extensive white extending onto the primary bases, but hiow much is enough…

We walked down the beach back to the main parking area, noting a 2nd-cycle Parasitic Jaeger, more Roseate Terns and thousands and thousands more shearwaters!

Second-cycle Parasitic Jaeger

Click here for the ebird checklist

We stopped for lunch and continued to Chatham to try for a Little Stint that had been present for several days. We soon found the bird feeding in a shallow, wet area. We essentially had the bird to ourselves and with some crawling and scurrying through the mud, we were able to field craft the heck out of it and obtain some nice images.

Adult Little Stint, Chatham, Mass. A pretty straightforward identification. I always remain skeptical of claims of juveniles in the east in fall. I am not aware of any except for a bird at Cape May in September 1982. I wonder if that record would stand up to review today in lieu of any other sightings..

Nick getting up close and personal…

20th August – Monomoy

So, after some early morning fun with a brazen skunk, the plan was to take Nick’s boat out to Harwichport and zoom out to Monomoy. This used to be more accessible back in the 90s but unless you have a boat, you can’t get out there now. This has to be one of the best shorebird spots in the east. I had seen a Bar-tailed Godwit out here way back when, and it is known as a July staging ground for Hudsonian Godwits before they jump off into the Atlantic and head south.  We anchored the boat and headed off to the powder hole, a brackish, tidal  pool good for shorebirds. It was a great, birdy spot we had to ourselves, but diversity was low.

Birding the Powder Hole on Monomoy

We had good looks at some Roseate and Black Terns, and a sprinkling of commoner species, but nothing of note. It had gotten hot, so we headed back.

Lunch anyone?? Nice bit of baked Seal…yummy!!

Stopping off at Minimoy, there were tons of birds on the falling tide. Unfortunately, we had no time for landing, especially since we may have gotten the boat stuck. Luke jumped out to scope the distant flock, picking out Marbled and Hudsonian, but they were really distant. We had to be back that night, so we decided not to risk it.

So, although disappointing we never made it offshore, the weekend;s birding was more than a fitting consolation!

Those late summer “Dodgy Dows”

August 6, 2017

Dowitcher, Boulmer, Northumberland, July 2017 (Alan Curry) Present for several days this worn adult (or 2nd cal yr?) showed well on a tidal beach in the UK. Certain aspects of the bird caused locals to consider Short-billed.

My old buddy Alan Curry, from the UK, sent me a pic of this dowitcher that was present in north-east England in mid-July. Long-billeds are vagrants and the more likely suspect, but with a couple of records of Short-billed, any dowitcher must be examined carefully. Assumed to be Long-billed, he had some concerns about the habitat choice (rocky, tidal seashore, rather than inland freshwater), plumage and the obvious fact that this bird has a short bill.

Worn breeding plumage dowitchers are difficult and tricky here in the eastern US. I told him it is not a problem exclusive to the UK. He asked for my opinion on the UK bird to make him sleep a little easier!

Indeed this month a few birds have shown up that people have had trouble with so I figured I’d throw a few comments together to illustrate what I personally look for. The issue is compounded here in the US by the presence of the inland, ‘prairie’ race hendersonii, which migrates along the eastern seaboard in good numbers and is brighter than the Atlantic form griseus, and is slightly larger and more colorful and often hard to separate from Long-billed.

Back to the UK bird? I won’t go into a long treatise of these birds, there are plenty of papers and resources on the web, so this will just be a few things I hone in on. Despite the short bill, I think this is a male Long-billed for the following reasons:

  • First, the underpart color is extensive, reaching underneath the legs. It isn’t as “brick-red” in saturation as many Long-billed’s, but color is variable (especially when represented in photos).
  • The upperparts are quite dark, especially the mantle.
  • A slight neck collar formed by a coalescing of barring/streaks.
  • The internal bars to the scapulars are bright, rufousy colored.
  • The barring at the carpal area is distinctly chevron-shaped, not lozenge/spot-like.
  • The tips to some of the upperparts are white-tipped (similar to tertial  tips of a White-winged Crossbill).

Jizz is hard from this one shot, but it looks like it could well look very rotund/dumpy, but it is hard to judge. Judging bill length, shape and loral angles to me are less important than the features i can see noted above, so find them often misleading or a red-herring. Habitat choice is also misleading since Long-billed can be found in habitat similar to Short-billed (as in this case).

Long-billeds also moult inner primaries earlier than griseus Short-billeds since they are shorter distance migrants, but this bird was fully-winged and any molt clues are likely better off used later in the summer (late August?).

I remember looking hard at dowitchers in Cape May during my years there, trying to separate some hendersonii Short-billed from Long-billed was sometimes a bit of a headache for A UK birder that didn’t grow up seeing them regularly.

Comparison sketch of Long-billed vs Short-billed noting some subtle differences, Cape May, August 1991, Chevron-shaped markings with a paler terminal fringe (if unworn) at the carpal area is the first thing I gauge on difficult birds.

The chance to see Long-billed with both races of Short-billed was key, and even then, some birds can still be tough if not seen well, or heard to call. I still struggle with some individuals.

Ad Long-billed (left) and hendersonii Short-billed (right), Cape May Meadows, August 1991. Note the rotund shape and “greyer-faced” look of the Long-billed. The breast side barring is almost worn off on the Long-billed. The brighter, golden fringes to the upperparts, mantle and tertials are typical of hendersonii.

Flock of Short-billed Dowitchers, Connecticut (Nick Bonomo). This nice shot comprises what appears to be mostly hendersonii (H) and a griseus (G) and one bird that both of us are unsure about (?).

So, just a couple of comments to concentrate and dwell on if you happen to come across a silent, bright dowitcher in July/August.

31st July – Falkner Island, Guilford

August 4, 2017

Click on images for Hi-res versions

On July 28th  two tern researchers, Cedric Duhalde and Alex Heuschkel, discovered CT’s second Bridled Tern, on Falkner’s Island, 3.5 miles off Guilford, CT in Long Island Sound. They quickly posted info on their discovery and allowed birders to mobilize themselves.

The first record, also on Falkner’s Island, was 25 years previous and untwitchable. So this was essentially a second bite of the cherry for everyone. The problem is that the island is off-limits due to nesting terns, specifically endangered Roseate Terns, so it would be a boat-only jaunt, made more difficult because I don’t have a boat! Nick Bonomo has a boat, and together with his girlfriend, they decided to make a dash for it the same evening, pitting his luck against fading light, wind and the unpredictable nature of nature. His story can be found here.

None of CT’s top listers, with a fervor for new state birds, knew of anyone with a boat, so I decided the only way to see it would be to find a boat in Guilford and organize it myself. After calling around and coming up empty on the charter front, the bird was not seen at all on Sunday, so I went about my business and resigned myself to tackling other issues in life. However, that changed on Monday 31st July at 7:15 am, when Capt Lou returned my message and said he was interested in taking people out and he could go that night. That’s great, but with no positive report, I was about to say, “Thanks, but no thanks”, when I get a text:  “Bridled’s back on the jetty!”.  Game on!!

I had several birders keen to go out if I found a boat, so on the way to work, I texted them all to say I knew a man with a boat and Roy Harvey, Frank Gallo, Dave Provencher and Greg Hanisek were to meet me at the Guilford town dock at 4:30pm.

On the way to the dock, it transpired that some webs of allegiances were being spun and, with the potential for conflicts bubbling just under the surface, it started to go all Game of Thrones.

Suddenly, people interested in being on the only organized charter  – and who had been allocated a spot – had already apparently found a boat, been out there that same morning and ticked it – all before we had even arrived at the dock. Of course, having “friends with boat benefits” was obviously at play here, and now filling that slot last minute on our charter with overflow people was easy, but more delicate because I had more friends than seats. People with boats – who weren’t going, or had gone already – were now going again, and people who had boats -who had offered to split costs with passengers, but couldn’t sail on a particular day – were now gripped off when those same passengers found passage on another “friend’s” boat. Some birders even “forgot” they were part of a work party that actually had permission to land ON THE ISLAND that you weren’t actually allowed to land on!

Capt Lou was enthusiastic and interested and soon we were off. A text from one observer alerted us to the fact that the bird was there, but had been flushed by a Peregrine and was not present! Flushed is better than eaten, but it dialed-up the anxiety meter a tad! It didn’t take long to get there, and the evening was calm with blue skies – a wonderful evening on the water.

Watching the bird! It is visible in the picture just below and to the right of the lighthouse.

We anchored in position and started scanning. I moved up to the bow, and was scanning when the bird suddenly appeared in front of me, winging- in from the right. “Here it is!!” The bird made a beeline for the rocks and settled in place, allowing for brilliant views over the next 40 mins! Reeeesssuult!!

Adult Bridled Tern, Falkner Is., CT July

Luckily, on the one pass, it allowed a few shots in flight. The white bleeding onto the primary bases is different from Sooty Tern and useful in flight when head pattern may be hard to discern.

With several of us having chartered a boat to a spot that had previously been “off-limits”, suddenly the bird was twitchable for the masses, remaining faithful to the rocks and jetty on the west end of the island and was subsequently seen by many people over the next few days.

Roseate Tern. A worn individual and not immediately an easy id. Note worn, blackish outer primaries contrasting with greyer inners and long outer tail feathers lacking any dusky grey on the inner/outer webs.

Roseate Tern, Falkner Island, CT. Note white impression, especially of the underparts, long pointed and all white tail. The bill is half black, typical of many breeding birds, but will wear characteristically darker as the season progresses. The pink flush that gives them their name is quickly worn off due to the rigors of breeding.

Back to Blighty – July 2017

July 30, 2017

South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey, North Wales

As always, click images For Higher-Res versions

It had been a while since I had revisited the homeland. So, a summer trip to England to see my family was overdue.  Mid-July is not an ideal time to bird the best of Britain, but going in summer meant I had a chance to catch up on some birds I hadn’t seen in a while. My good friend Nick Bonomo planned to fly-out to join me. So, some meticulous planning with old friends Paul Derbyshire, Si Smethurst, Chris Mills, and Andy Culshaw ensured Nick would bag as many UK ticks as was possible.

The week leading up to departure had been rather chaotic and stressful, so I was looking forward to getting away and seeing my mum and sister. I arrived jet-lagged in Manchester on 1st July and enjoyed some r&r for a few days. Nick arrived a couple of days later and we left Bolton in the early hours of 4th July, heading for the Welsh valley at World’s End, hoping to bag some lingering “chickens”.

4th July – World’s End, North Wales
Heading through the sleepy and mist-enshrouded town of Minera at dawn, we climbed up onto the moor and within minutes found 11 Black Grouse loafing at a lek site by the road. We had great looks at these molting males before they suddenly dispersed into the surrounding area.

Black Grouse, World’s End, May 2014

Skylark and Meadow Pipits and a brief Mistle Thrush surely enlivened Nick’s morning, but the second target “chicken” aka  Red Grouse, was seen distantly as we exited the valley. We drove through the scenic Conwy valley, adding several common or garden birds to the list – Grey Wagtail, Bullfinch, Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, etc.

We arrived in Penmaeanmawr to meet up with longtime friend Paul Derbyshire. After some coffee, we all headed off to Anglesey. We stopped off en route at Aber Ogwen’s estuary and pools. A good spot that produced a number of Little Egrets – a strange sight considering this was a real rarity during my childhood birding days. Redshanks, Oystercatchers and two unexpected Greenshanks were good shorebirds for my Yankee companion. After a productive stop here, we continued on to Anglesey. With the Cemlyn Bay terns deserting the breeding grounds due to predation, we skipped that spot and headed for South Stack, Holyhead. The weather was overcast and damp, but it didn’t hamper birding. The seabird cliffs at South Stack are picturesque and buzzed with the to-ings and fro-ings of Guillemots and Razorbills and a few Fulmars. The specialty of the spot, Chough, obliged with great views. A few Puffins or “sea clowns”,  as they are known locally,  were loafing in the cove below the cliffs, while careful scanning offshore produced several Manx Shearwaters.

Heading back, a lunch stop in Holyhead for some Fish and Chips was welcomed. A stop at the Inland Sea produced several dapper Mediterranean Gulls, a top target bird for Nick and were surely breeding birds dispersing from nearby Cemlyn?

Aber Valley Falls, N Wales

Back on the “mainland”, the sun had come out and we headed for the delightful Aber Valley Falls to try for some woodland birds. Being mid-July, nothing was really singing, and birding was tough and we failed on Redstart and Wood Warbler. A nice Sparrowhawk and several Common Buzzards appeared overhead as well as a fly over Siskin. Continuing up to the falls, careful scanning of the hilltops revealed a distant raptor that both Nick and I noticed independently. It was an Osprey, carrying a fish, a good bird for this part of Wales and the first Paul had seen here.
Back to Conwy to meet up with another longtime friend Fred Fearn for dinner. We all enjoyed a nice evening at a pub by the harbor, catching up and drinking some beer!

5th July Conwy, North Wales

A flock of juvenile Little Egrets, Burton Mere, Cheshire

A nice day dawned, and we headed off to Conwy RSPB reserve which appeared dead, so we bid adieu to Paul and Fred and continued on to Burton Mere RSPB….a  nice reserve, built on the opposite side of the mere to the famous, and rarity-delivering spot of Inner Marsh Farm. Little Egrets were breeding here and recently it transpired that Cattle Egrets had also nested here…the first breeding occurrence of that species in the UK.

Juv Little Egret…long overdue back home in CT!

We did not see the Cattle Egrets, but highlights included a distant flying Spoonbill and the worst ever view of a Great White Egret, in flight heading away – only my 2nd in the UK. Little Ringed Plover and a Ruff were nice for Nick, but nothing else of note.

We headed back to Bolton, dropped off the rental vehicle and grabbed a brew before Si came by and we headed off straight for the Norfolk coast. We stopped off in East Leake, Notts in the early evening, to twitch a small group of Bee-eaters that had taken up residence at a working quarry and were showing signs of breeding – a rare occurrence in the UK.

A splash of color…this is what Bee-Eaters look like when you get close views, not like when you see them in Nottingamshire. This was one of several at Po Marshes in Italy in 2006.

Nick and Si wondering when we might get good views..

Strangely enough, they showed only briefly, so views were in flight and far from exceptional, and they showed only briefly and distantly by the time we had to leave. They are currently raising two broods! Confiding Yellow Wagtails and a juvenile Green Woodpecker were our only good views of the trip.

Pressing onwards, we had a rendezvous in north Norfolk with some heathland species, European Nightjar being a much-wanted bird for Nick. We made a quick pit-stop to pick up a sandwich, and made it onsite at dusk. Unfortunately, since it was late in the breeding season, there wasn’t much activity. As the light waned, we finally were serenaded by a churring male. It was too dark for decent views and, although it came close and wing-clapped, views in the spotlight were poor. We had other sites, but this first try was a tad disappointing.

We arrived late at our digs, driving by a Barn owl on a sign that only Si saw. Our digs for the next few nights were Deepdale Backpacker’s – a great little set-up. As Nick and I unpacked the car, Si had heard a Tawny Owl calling in the churchyard across the street. Grabbing the flashlight we headed off into an archetypal English graveyard, only to be shouted at by a local busybody from a window “’ere, what are you lot doing over there?” A quick retort of “Just go back to bed” was offered, and the night again fell silent, except for the squeaking of a juvenile Tawny Owl that we saw quickly but briefly. BOOM!

6th July, The Brecks

My longtime friend and top guy Chris Mills had arranged to meet us and give us the benefit of his local knowledge. Chris runs Norfolk Birding and I recommend anyone that wants to bird Norfolk, to seek out his birding skills and guiding expertise  (www.norfolkbirding.com).

The famous four do the Brecks. Nick Bonomo, Simon Smethurst, myself and Chris Mills scouting for Goshawks… (Ssshhhh…we can’t tell you where…)

The weather was great and we hunted down some Breck’s specialties that included: Tree Pipit, Goshawk, Red Kite, Marsh Tit, but struggled with Woodlark at a couple of spots. We had a great laugh and headed off for an afternoon at Lakenheath, our only good spot for some fenland specialties and our best shot at Bittern, Hobby, Crane and Bearded Tit. The weather at this point, suddenly took a turn for the worse and we took shelter in a blind. Si managed a brief flight view of a Bittern and we had great views of Marsh Harrier, Reed Warbler and Kingfisher. Several untickable views for Nick of Bearded Tit and  a heard-only Cetti’s Warbler were frustrating. To be honest, having lived in the US now for many years, I can’t defend how atrociously shite Old World warblers are, and it was no surprise to see Nick less than enthralled by worn Chiffchaffs and Reed Warblers!

My best-ever view of Bittern in the UK, Lakenheath, Suffolk

The rain abated and we headed back, and as the sun came out again, we were treated to a first-summer Hobby that gave good views and also superb flight views of a Bittern that crossed over the path in front of us. No cranes were around, having failed at breeding.

We left enough time in the evening to hit a spot in north Norfolk that held a pair of Montagu’s Harriers. A rare breeding bird, this site was actively monitored and we found ourselves taking position overlooking some beautiful rolling hills and fields. It wasn’t long before I spotted the female in flight. She flew around and landed in a field. Shortly afterwards, the male, tiny by comparison to the female, flew in and made a food pass. We enjoyed distant, but prolonged views of the male sat perched and in flight.

Female Montagu’s Harrier, soaring over the Norfolk countryside at dusk…a rare sight in the UK.

Male Montagu’s Harrier, Extramedura, Spain….this is what the Norfolk bird looked like through a scope instead of a camera!

We headed back to Deepdale and treated Si and Chris to some ale and dinner at the White Horse for their hard work and organization.

7th July – North Norfolk Coast

Up early doors and out to Kelling Heath, picking up Andy en route. On the heath, a calling Turtle Dove refused to give itself up. Continuing on, looking for Woodlarks, we were surprised to bump into a Dartford Warbler without much effort.

Then, as I turned around, two small, stubby looking birds were flying past, “WOODLARKS!!”. The birds flew by, exhibiting their short tail, but against the overcast sky, looks were just silhouettes. They appeared to go down in a patchy area of heathland, so we headed over. As I skirted around a bush, I kicked up a roosting Nightjar from under my feet and shouted out in surprise. The bird, a male, flew past in broad daylight and gave good, if brief, views before disappearing into cover..awesome! Good views of Garden Warbler and Lesser ‘throat eluded Nick, still not bothered, since old world warblers really lack kerb appeal compared to our bright American wood-warblers.

Off to Cley for some tea and bacon sandwiches and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for the boys, regaling Nick of twitches here to see Greater Sandplover, Little Whimbrel and Pacific Swift. There were a couple of roosting Spoonbills out on Arnold’s marsh, but we decided to press on to Titchwell, stopping to look on the sea at the coastguards.

We had high hopes for Titchwell, one of the premier reserves on the east  coast.

Waders abound! “Twitchwell” delivers.

Even in July, it was packed with Avocets and a host of ‘common’ waders that Nick was happy to grill. Several amazing-looking Ruffs, some molting Spotted Redshanks, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Curlew, Lapwing and Little Ringed Plover.

Avocet doing it’s thang!

Donald Trump Ruff..one of many killer-looking birds!

On the beach, two Ringed Plovers were good to see, especially since Nick and I had been looking for this long overdue vagrant back home in CT! That they looked like Ringed Plovers to us was refreshing and encouraging!

Scoping godwits and gulls, Titchwell

Simon “vis-migging”…it is hard getting old…

Mr Andrew Culshaw pondering if there is any upside to texting the wife from the field…

A Eurasian Whimbrel hung about on the beach, but was distant. A breeding plumage Common Gull on the beach was the best view of one that we had on the whole trip. Back on the reserve, a few non-breeding Little Gulls were mixed in with the breeding Black and Med Gulls, but little else was seen, though Bearded Tits finally gave themselves up.

Adult Med Gull..always dapper!

Bagging Turtle Dove at last in the parking lot we headed west to Hunstanton where we spent some time photographing swifts and the cliff-nesting Fulmars!

Fulmars cliff-nest at Hunstanton, Norfolk

Common Swift, Hunstanton

We then headed off to look for owls.  At a spot Andy knew of, we managed…finally..decent looks at a Barn Owl quartering the countryside, but no photo opps. As light was waning, a quick stop at a local Abbey, turned up Little Owl..squeaking it onto the list in the last rays of the day!

As usual, off to the pub for some much needed nosebag and some, as Nick put it,  “nice, but weak as piss” ale!

8th July- North Norfolk Coast

Our last morning. We opted for another bash at Titchwell, since that’s were the birds were!

Burnham Norton Abbey…there was a Barn Owl here before Andy scared it off 🙂

A brief, pre-dawn look for Barn Owl came up negative, but good views of a Red Kite overhead and some juv Marsh Harriers were nice.

Red Kite

During the previous afternoon, we had been looking amongst the ducks trying to pick out a Garganey that had been present. It was with a bit of a surprise when Si said, “How close do you want to see a Garganey?”. Confused and intrigued, we looked in his direction and that direction was down. Right outside the hide..literally in the grass was the eclipse male Garganey. Now, I’ve seen birds in Spring, and I know it was a lifer for Nick, but what a pile of shite this bird was!

Eclipse make Garganey

As noon approached it was time to bid adieu to Andy and we made our way back to Bolton, thankfully encountering no traffic.

A brief trip, it was great to spend time with family and great friends and see some birds. Thanks to Andy, Si and Chris for not just scoping out the birds, but to Si and Chris for driving us around and helping with logistics, and also for being great company!

View from Choseley..a spot were Corn Buntings often can be found…but not this morning!

 

 

A Tale of Two Grippers!

May 29, 2017

27th May – Act 1 –  Slam Dunk in Shawangunk!

A singing Henslow’s Sparrow, discovered by longtime birding acquaintances Tom Burke and Gail Benson, at Shawangunk grasslands, near Walkill in upstate NY was tantalizingly close to CT’s western border. Henslow’s Sparrow is a scarce breeder in the north east and basically absent in New England. It was also a nemesis, a ‘bogey’ bird for me. Eons ago, I had missed a November bird in CT that Andy Brand had found in nearby Hamden.  A one afternoon wonder, it was nowhere to be found the following morning when we scoured the area. I had always assumed I would find one “kicking the bushes” in late October, but after 20 years of kicking bushes, I was still empty handed. I would simply  have to twitch one!

Saturday dawned at zerodark4thirty .  An hour and half later, in Walkill, I was having SEVERE PTGSD. That stands for Post-traumatic Gyrfalcon Stress Disorder. I had spent two days dipping a Gyrfalcon that spent the winter here in 2015, so driving the same roads did not evoke warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. “!!@@ you Gyrfalcon”, I muttered under my breath as I passed Blue Chip Farm.

I arrived at the preserve and decided to head out to the less dilapidated blind where the bird had been reported singing. I was surprised that I appeared to be the only person here!

The sound and sight of Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks  and Grasshopper Sparrows pervaded the beautiful dawn morning. I made a right, approaching the blind when I met another birder who was equally clueless about where it was.

“ It’s not down there!”, he said, gesticulating in the opposite direction. Almost immediately, after about 20 ft, a bird sang to our left “tsi-lik”, and then again.

“That’s it! It’s really close!”, I uttered. Could we see the little bugger? Could we hell. Then, finally, up it popped, basically 14 ft off the path, in full view. It found the tallest thistle and sang its tiny heart out. After 20 years, it had been that easy!! Several pixels were burnt.

A singing male Dickcissel a few further yards down the path showed well, but light was not great for pix.

I headed back to the car, intent on birding the Doodletown forest area on the way back to CT, for Cerulean Warbler and other woodland goodies, but news of yesterday’s Lesser Nighthawk in northern New Jersey, had been refound sitting on the same path, prompted me to reconsider my options.

27th May – Act 2 –  Turd in the Grass!

Last night, there had been no info on what was only NJ’s second Lesser Nighthawk. Again, frustrating information given that pictures were posted, but no info on exactly where it was, or what the circumstances had been around the sighting. This time I had directions. It was still early and I could be onsite by 10:30am.

And so I was. Walking past the environmental center building, one birder acknowledged the bird was still there and a few minutes later I arrived at the spot. Again, I was one of only two people there, surprising since this was so close to NYC and other large NJ cities – and this is a mega!

The guy present pointed out to me what amounted to a turd – a turd  mostly obscured by grass!

Rather “shitty” views of what amounts to a turd in the grass!!

The path was blocked by cones to prevent disturbance to the bird, but it was also preventing me from actually being able to see it! It was not the views I was hoping for. I could barely see it, let alone photograph it!!

Better views of the front after the bird shimmied over to the other side of the path.

 

Lesser Nighthawk. Note rather compact shape, with large head, short, rounded primaries and buff barring on primary bases.

Then suddenly, without warning, the little turd started moving..it shuffled on its tiny, swift-like feet and shimmied across the path giving awesome views and allowed a couple of decent photos. It buried itself in the grass on the other side of the path and was then basically out of view! Talk about jammy. What a great little bird!

Lesser Nighthawk. Appeared small and compact in the filed, with rather rounded primaries that fell equal with the tail tip (longer in Common). The cinnamon-buff tones to the face and breast also favored Lesser, as did the obvious buff barring on the bases of the primaries. The lack of a discernible paler, whitish wing patch hints at this being a female, and thus a Lesser.

So, based on these views –  a compact, rich buff-toned caprimulgid- it did appear to be a Lesser Nighthawk as advertised, but I went through the features, just to make sure for myself. Antillean and some Common’s can be warm-toned and I needed to rule them out. Antillean in particular is small, like Lesser, and warmer-toned, but they are unrecorded in the east. Thankfully, ‘cos I don’t really have any experience of Antillean in the day outside of Marathon, Florida!! So…quickly moving on from that one…

The issue is that the south-western form of Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor henryi,  unlike most of the subspecies of Common, shows buff-spotting on the base of the primaries – like Lesser! https://cobirds.org/CFO/ColoradoBirds/InTheScope/67.pdf

The other main difference is that Lessers show a short first primary (P10), with P9 being the longest primary, but that does vary in both Common and Lesser with some Commons showing equally long P10 and P9.. and some juvenile Commons showing a shorter P10. Clearly on these images, it is impossible to judge primary placement since it would be folded underneath what is the visible longest primary (which is actually P9 in Lesser).

So, is it possible to conclude this is a Lesser and not a henryi Common – equally as likely perhaps?? I am not sure to be honest, but if I go by what I see on the images, they favor Lesser, but something that should be considered here and ruled out on any putative Lesser Nighthawk.

Anytime you get to see a nighthawk in the day is a good day, especially if it is a Lesser (even if it is in NJ!).

Brooklyn Smash ‘n Grab

March 20, 2017

View of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Army Terminal Pier.

19th March
While Ingrid took care of some chores, I took the opportunity to explore some of the suburban areas of Park Slope and environs, notably the piers south of the apartment. With some guidance from local experts Sean Sime and Shane Blodgett, I scoped out a few spots. (CLICK IMAGES FOR HI-RES FILES)

It was overcast and threatening snow/rain shower, but despite the leaden sky, the moisture held off. Arriving at the Veterans Memorial Pier, I noticed a few distant gulls wheeling around on the water off the Owls Head Treatment Plant. With no access viewing was tough, but a pallid first-cycle Iceland Gull stood out in the haze. After a while, I walked back to the car and was surprised to see a full-hooded, adult Black-headed Gull sat on the railing next to the security booth! Nice.

Adult Black-headed Gull, Veterans Memorial Pier, Brooklyn

The bird soon flew down on to the pier to loaf with some Ring-billed Gulls, and the Iceland Gull did a close fly-by attracted to a person flinging bread on to the pier. A quick check of the Brooklyn Army Terminal failed to find the Mew Gull (brachyrhyncus) seen there by Shane Blodgett over a month ago.

First-cycle Iceland Gull

20th March
With Ingrid and Indra off to the store, I sneaked off for another quick excursion. A quick check of the Brooklyn Army Pier produced nothing different from yesterday. Stopping off in Prospect Park on the way back to the apartment, was lucky in that the juv male Goshawk was sat in one of the tall trees by the feeders. great looks, but backlighting made for some tough images. The bird soon did a fly-by, and I was able to grab some half-decent flight shots, albeit heavily cropped.

Juv Goshawk, Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Relatively small, I assume it’s a male based on size.

The relatively small size and lack of a really bold supercilium could lend itself to being mistaken for a Cooper’s Hawk. Nice broad wings and long-hand and heavily streaked underparts that extend all the way down the underparts, specifically being marked on the undertail coverts are good pro-Gos features.

Canada 2017- Part Deux

March 10, 2017

Positioning myself well, I grabbed one of the few flight opportunities of the morning as this docile bird made a short flight.

Montreal
The plan was to try and work the Great Grays again this morning. I was beginning to feel better as the days progressed, but still had little appetite due to the lingering malaise. The adrenalin of seeing Chouette Lapone’s at eyeball level was helping though! We had great views of two birds at close range this morning. One bird was roosting and quite docile. None afforded the opportunities that we had yesterday. Just as we were leaving, the one bird began to get active and I managed to grab a quick series of shots as it sailed silently past.

We headed north on the two hour drive to Quebec, hoping to try for the Hawk Owl before dark. There were few birds to see on the trip, but we managed to car-tick several Northern Shrikes, a distant Snowy Owl atop a silo and a lone Rough-legged Hawk (surprisingly scarce) as we sped through open flatlands of farmland.

Quebec
We quickly found the area the bird had been seen in. We bumped into a couple of NJ birders who had been there for a couple of hours and had failed to see the bird. We knew it had been seen the day before, but as the light waned and the clouds closed in we had to reluctantly give in to defeat. On the way to our hotel, we found a distant Snowy Owl (seen earlier by the NJ guys) in a tree far from the road.

The following morning we returned to beautiful blue, cloudless skies. Standing on the railroad tracks, it was only a matter of minutes before Mr. Mantlik noticed the bird perched on a tall spruce, right next to the car. BOOM! Northern Hawk Owl in the bag.

Frank is happy! After a dismal non-event yesterday, all was well this morning – Hawk Owl -crippling views! (Frank Mantlik)

Thankfully the bird flew towards us and perched in the hedgerow and allowed us to grab some shots for 20 minutes before flying back across the road –  a veritable bullet with wings.

Northern Hawk Owl, doing what Northern Hawk Owls do best this morning – be conspicuous and confiding!

Frank Gallo getting to grips. ( Frank Mantlik)

Truly charismatic birds, seeing a Hawk Owl is always a top shelf experience. We watched the bird hunting in a suburban yard, hunting in a ravine, drinking snow from the crook of a tree, and generally being inconspicuous. If this is where it was the previous afternoon, it was no wonder we didn’t find it.

Since further photo opps were not forthcoming, we bucked out of there and headed south of the river and north towards La Pocatiere, to try and spend time looking for two Gyrfalcons that had been seen in that area recently – a white bird, and a stunning, dark chocolate bird.

Nick takes up the narrative and writes, Very pleased with our morning hawk owl experience, we crossed to the east side of the St. Lawrence River and drove north another 90 minutes for our third and final leg of the trip. Two Gyrfalcons, one white and one dark, had been frequenting the agricultural fields between La Pocatiere and Kamouraska. We drove a loop through prime Gyr habitat, focusing on those areas where the birds had been seen, but came up empty. Night in La Pocatiere.

Nick scoping a birdless horizon silhouetted by a stunning sunset over the St. Lawrence

We had one last shot for the Gyrs on Tuesday morning, again greeted by beautiful light with which to work. It was very cold, down to 1 degree Fahrenheit, but the temps warmed quickly thanks to the abundant sunshine. A thick frost had coated the vegetation overnight, making for some stunning scenery.

We drove the Gyr loop again without sign of a raptor of any kind. The only bird of prey we saw on two tours through fine habitat was a single SNOWY OWL on our way out-of-town.

Distant Snowy Owl surveying its wintry home.

We were actually quite struck by the absence of bird life in general. This was not surprising given the barren Arctic-like landscape of the agricultural fields. What did surprise us was the dearth of life on the St. Lawrence River itself. Though we did not set aside much time for river viewing, we were treated to sprawling views of the mostly frozen waterway from several locations. Literally the only birds noted were a few Common Mergansers. Not even a single gull fly by!

We also thought we would stumble across flocks of finches or waxwings at some point, but we would have been completely skunked on those if Julian hadn’t spotted a group of PINE GROSBEAKS while driving through Kamouraska along the river.”

Male Pine Grosbeak!

We checked a lot of silos, but came up blank – my recent shite luck with Gyrfalcons seems to continue, this is the 8th try for 6 different birds in the last three years..what the flock!!!

Despite this, it was a truly wonderful four days, with some great birds, amazing photo opps and the experience of having one land on your tripod was out of this world! The French birders we met were so friendly and eager to share news of the local birds.

I need to give a big shout out to local Montreal birder (and ace photographer) Simon Bolyn, who was so gracious to my request for help, that it helped make the trip logistics a bit more reassuring. Brian Kulvete from CT and Justin Lawson from VT were both equally helpful in providing “boots-on-the-ground” info that helped make the trip great. Thanks guys!

Canada 2017 – Part 1

March 5, 2017
After (presumably) mistaking one of the photographer's neck warmer for some juicy, furry rodent, when she ducked, it had to re-orient and chose to do it from Nick's tripod, landing at point blank range between both of us. Bold and fearless this bird had been actively hunting, and had not been baited at all. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all present, this moment subsequently went viral.

After (presumably) mistaking a photographer’s neck warmer for some juicy, furry rodent, this Great Gray had to reorient itself when her ‘victim’ ducked. It chose to do it from Nick’s tripod, landing at point blank range between both of us. Bold and fearless this bird had been actively hunting, and had not been baited at all. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all present, this moment subsequently went viral. (Photos by Julian Hough. CLICK ON IMAGES FOR HI-RES VERSIONS)

Arranged with military precision, birds had been researched, their locations marked on maps with gps co-ordinates and bags were packed. However, finding myself holed up in the bathroom, less than 24 hours prior to a 4-day birding assault on Quebec, wasn’t in my plans. My son Alex had been sick with a virulent stomach bug and he had kindly shared it with me. Confined to bed and subsisting just on Pedialyte I crashed out all day. When I awoke just after midnight, I felt a tad bit better. I downed some imodium, grabbed a pillow and blanket and collapsed into the back of Frank’s car for the long drive to Montreal.

The main intent was a simple one; find and photograph Great Gray Owls near Montreal  and drive north to Quebec for Northern Hawk Owl and Gyrfalcon. In the last month, there had been a small and localized incursion of Great Gray Owls into the Montreal area

From l to r: Nick Bonomo, Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo and myself, La Pocatiere, Quebec.

From l to r: Nick Bonomo, Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo and myself, La Pocatiere, Quebec.

The group de force were Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo, Nick Bonomo and myself. Nick takes up the story on his blog (www.shorbirder.com):
“We B-lined to Montreal, specifically to Refuge Faunique Marguerite-D’Youville south of the city itself. We were met by another birder in the parking lot as we arrived who was there the day before and informed us how slow it was on Friday – only one bird seen, and not terribly active. It had been windy and cold then. Saturday was a different story; we were greeted by sunny skies, warming temps, and zero wind. As we would soon find out, the birds would cooperate today.

We encountered three GREAT GRAY OWLS on this day at the refuge. What was supposed to be a few-hour visit turned into most of the day. We could not pull ourselves away, and who would want to? The birds (one in particular) performed above and beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations.

Crippling views! A superb Great Gray Owl. The prominent, buffy fringes to the primaries and browner secondaries, age this as a first-year.

Crippling views! A superb Great Gray Owl. The prominent, buffy fringes to the primaries and browner secondaries, age this as a first-year.

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ggow

Great Gray Owl – incoming! An active bird, it allowed us to position ourselves for some potential flight shots as it hunted along a treeline- and we were not disappointed.

One particularly actively hunting individual put on quite a show for the crowd. It spent several hours searching for prey rather close to the trail and made several short flights, from perch to perch, in its pursuit of a meal. After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. Rather than passing over the group to the other side, it nearly landed on a woman’s head before touching down on my tripod directly in front of me. I stood there stunned for a few moments, unsure of what exactly to do.”

Nick and I were stunned to be literally face to face with this amazing beast!

GGOW up close and personal (Frank Mantlik)

GGOW up close and personal (Frank Mantlik)

“Before you go on assuming that this bird was lured in with pet store mice, you would be mistaken. That sort of behavior is highly frowned upon at this refuge, and we chose to come here largely based on this. Through a day and a half there with three owls we didn’t see any sign of anyone doing anything like that. A local birding couple that walks here once or twice per week has never seen anything of the kind here either. The refuge staff patrols the trails here, and everyone’s behavior was top notch. Nobody even ventured more than a couple feet off the trail, as per park rules. It was impressive. We had been following this bird for 2+ hours at close range before this happened, and it only approached us this once…the bird was in heavy hunting mode and seemed to use the tripod as just another survey post for a few minutes before moving onto the next treetop. Even after it landed on my tripod it spent most of its time looking away from the humans onto the ground for prey as it was doing from the trees, with only the occasional head turn towards me or the crowd. Certainly didn’t feel like it was looking to us for food at all. These are notoriously tame birds to begin with, so I don’t entirely understand why some photographers feel the need to bait them. You obviously don’t need to feed GGOWs to get killer photos!

Before we knew it, it was 2pm and we were dehydrated and sunburned. We left the refuge on a major high from our experience there. After some regrouping and refocusing, the last couple hours of daylight were spent unsuccessfully searching fields to the west of the city for Snowy Owls and other open country birds like Gray Partridge, etc. We did stumble across this Barred Owl in a farmhouse backyard. Night near Montreal after celebratory beer & food!”

A nice backlit Barred owl at dusk posed for some photos by the road.

A nice backlit Barred owl at dusk posed for some photos by the road.

 

An Arctic Blast (from the past)

January 29, 2017
Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross'S Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Burns).

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross’s Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Burns).

Inspired by the Ross’s Gull currently causing panic in upstate New York, here’s a bit about why this particular species embodies all there is about seeing something magical.

When I was young, long before my teens, the only bird magazine anyone could get over the counter in the UK was the Encyclopedia of Birds; essentially a month-by-month collectable fieldguide, rather than an attractive coffee-table magazine. Each month, the column written by well-known British ornithologist John Gooders was always a treat to read, and a refreshing intro to the trite fieldguide text which followed. To a young impressionable mind, his column always conjured up evocative images of birds and birdwatching both in the UK and abroad.

One particular story always sticks in my mind.

In one particular column, Gooders wrote of the day he had declined a trip to accompany some friends to see an Ivory Gull at Tyneside in the north-east of England. He explained how he had regretted not joining them on that trip after they made an unexpected discovery. They had failed to see the Ivory Gull, but while searching through the endless flocks of gulls, they had found an even rarer and much more mythical species – a Ross’s Gull. Back in the 70s, this gull from the desolate Arctic was much sought after by the British twitching fraternity. Ross’s Gull, as well as other charismatic Arctic species, have always held a special appeal for birders because their occurrences in the UK are less predictable than vagrants from European or Siberian latitudes.

Ross’s Gull was discovered and named after the Arctic and Antarctic explorer, Admiral Sir James Ross. For many years, the breeding grounds of this mysterious gull remained unknown. They were finally discovered nesting in the Kolyma River area in north-eastern Siberia.

Ross’s Gulls however, were a Will-O-the-Wisp, an almost surreal phantom that remained the ultimate prize among the high Arctic denizens that reached our shores.

From the moment I read his story, I longed for the day when I would see a Ross’s Gull; However, being eleven years old, that day seemed all too far away.

Fast forward three years. One February day in 1983, while out birding at my local reservoir, I met another young ‘local-patcher’ named Barry Worsick. We talked, and, after exchanging phone numbers, he invited me out on a car trip the next time “something good” turned up. By sheer coincidence, the phone rang that very same night. Barry’s voice on the other end hinted that “something good” had turned up. He asked, “Do you wanna go see a Ross’s Gull at Filey Brigg tomorrow?” Did I want to go and see a Ross’s Gull at Filey Brigg?! Does the Pope go to mass?!!

My mum agreed to cough up my part of the petrol money which at nearly $4 a gallon puts excessive birding out of reach of the average, destitute fourteen-year-old British lister.

She didn’t seem too worried that I was going to be picked up by a carload of adult men she had never met – at two in the morning – and taken to a place she never knew existed to see a bird she had never heard of. I guess things were different back then!

The night was restless; the excitement of chasing a bird I had only dreamed of was not conducive to sleep. At 4am, a beep of the horn announced my ride was here and I was bundled into the backseat of driver Chris Fogg’s, Datsun Cherry. With Barry in front, I was sandwiched in between Dave “Jacko” Jackson and John Gilligan. I was regaled by tales of recent birds they had seen I had never heard of; Little Bunting at Heswall, Green Heron at Thorngumblad, Little Whimbrel at Sker Point and the infamous “Felixstowe” Stint. As we journeyed through the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales in the early hours of 17th February 1983, the collective enthusiasm was heady and pervasive. I didn’t know it then,  but I would spend many enjoyable years travelling with these guys! We arrived at the site just before sunrise. In the pre-dawn gloom, suspicious looking figures were milling about and searching around in their cars for tripods and telescopes. It seemed to me to be an almost clandestine operation. Anywhere else, at an hour that Wee Willie Winkie would eschew, these suspicious looking figures would undoubtedly have had their collars felt by the long arm of the law.

Filey Brigg is a steep, rocky promontory jutting out a half-mile into the North Sea. This area has long been popular with birders for migrants and the rocks below are a favorite high-tide roost for gulls, terns and shorebirds.

Looking down from the top of the Brigg out over Filey Bay, I saw that a veritable football crowd had assembled down on the rocks. I had never seen so many tripods and telescopes! Having executed the steep descent to the base of the Brigg, we skirted over the slippery rocks to take up our position strung out in a line along the water’s edge. Considering the amount of people present it was deathly quiet – the tension of anticipation was thick.

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross'S Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Bickerton).

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross’s Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Bickerton).

Suddenly, to my left came a muffled, but excited shout, “There it is!!”

A tremor of panic swept through the crowd; the dead came to life, people slipped, tripods clattered to the ground and people gravitated towards the source of the outburst.

“Where? Where? Where is it? For God’s sake, someone give directions, !*&!!@*56!! DIRECTIONS!!”, screamed one birder.

“O.K! See those gulls out there…”

“ Gulls, there are bloody hundreds of gulls out there, which ones?!”

“ Alright, forget that then.. Umm! See the yacht club in the distance, its flying left, just…going.. past..it ..now!”

“Got it!, Got it!! Got it!!! What a crippler!”

Obscured by the line of birders enjoying the bird to my left, I just caught a glimpse of a wedge-shaped tail vanishing into the early morning mist and was overcome by panic and frustration. Then someone proclaimed, “Here it comes again!”

This time I was ready and quickly got on the bird as it approached. It was so close that I could hardly keep my bins steady as a mixture of relief and elation washed over me. At last, here it was – my first Ross’s Gull. It was a small, dainty gull, with pointy, tern-like wings and that characteristic, cuneate shaped tail. For the next glorious hour, the Ross’s Gull paraded up and down the long line of admirers. An adult in winter plumage, it was a text-book individual. The black, stubby bill and subtle, pink flush on the underparts stood out well against the cold, grey February sky. As it flew in our direction, the birder who was standing next to me, pulled out a stale piece of bread and deftly flicked it out over the water. Simultaneously, the Ross’s Gull (which was no more than arms reach away) dropped and alighted on the water right in front of me! As it picked at the morsel of food, I couldn’t help feeling ashamed; surely this bird-among-birds deserved to be feeding on the equivalent of caviar rather than a day-old piece of Warburton’s Toastie!

Fully satisfied, we left the bird in peace and explored the rest of the Brigg.

Although their appearances in the UK have increased since the late 80s, Ross’s Gulls remain highly prized. I have seen three other Ross’s Gulls since; in 1988, a bald-looking first-winter lingered on a river estuary on the south-coast of England; in 1991, a pink-flushed adult lingered on the wind-lashed coast at Fleetwood, Lancashire; and in 2008 while visiting my folks, I connected with a spring bird at Lytham, again in Lancashire.

First-winter Ross's Gull, Devon, March 1988 (Julian Hough). First-winter's are hard to come by, so along with Paul Derbyshire and a few other stalwarts we trekked the 5 hours down to Devon to see this beast and despite horrible weather managed good looks.

First-winter Ross’s Gull, Devon, March 1988. First winters are hard to come by, so along with Paul Derbyshire and a few other stalwarts we trekked the 5 hours down to Devon to see this beast and despite horrible weather, managed good looks. It remains the only first-year I have seen.

My then wife Dawn at Fliey Brigg - host to my first ever twitch. On a trip back to the UK in the late 90s we payed homage to "the Brigg". I still have fond memories of the gull.

My then wife Dawn at Filey Brigg – host to my first ever twitch. On a trip back to the UK in the late 90s we paid homage to “the Brigg”.

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross'S Gull, Lytham-St-Anne's, Lancashire, England May 2008 (Julian Hough). It became evident that this bird was not well and unfortunately was found dead two days after I saw it.

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross’s Gull, Lytham-St-Anne’s, Lancashire, England May 2008 (Julian Hough). It became evident that this bird was not well and unfortunately was found dead two days after I saw it.

Strange to think that, as a teenager I could never have predicted such an occurrence so close to my childhood home. That the unthinkable can happen is a testament to the excitement of birding. Even today, when a Ross’s Gull is sighted, it brings back all of the fond memories of that exciting day, and of the acquaintances that were forged. Every time I am fortunate enough to connect with a Ross’s Gull, John Gooders’ story always comes to mind.

I hope that by now he has seen many Ross’s Gulls. If not, perhaps he could gain some solace in knowing that I am seeing them, in part, through his eyes.