Saturday, 1 October 2016

Back in the Bay of Biscay - September 2016

There is not a year that goes by without me taking a trip out on the open water in search of seabirds and cetaceans. This year I chose Biscay, and a late season visit at that. As with recent years I travelled on the Pont-Aven, departing Portsmouth on the evening of 27th September, arriving in Santander late afternoon on the 28th and then into Plymouth on the late afternoon of 29th September. 

I had arranged to go on the trip with my good friend Dylan Walker, hoping for a relaxing time catching up on seabirds and cetaceans. But unbeknown to us there was an Orca trip on the same ship, and as we arrived at the ferry terminal I immediately saw two people, Glenn Overington and Elfyn Pugh, who I knew and had guided with back in the days of the Company of Whales and trips on P&O's Pride of Bilbao. It was great to catch up with these guys again, and good to know that there would be some experienced eyes looking out.

Day 1 - Portsmouth to Santander
On the morning of the 28th the sea was like a mill pond and the 'oily calm' made for perfect cetacean watching conditions.  Unfortunately as we headed south the weather slowly deteriorated and by mid afternoon the choppy sea and strong swell made viewing difficult.

This trip turned out to be excellent for seabirds and by the end of day one we had seen over a thousand shearwaters. Great Shearwater was probably the most numerous species, Sooty was the next and then Cory's. Balearic was present in smaller numbers and at least two Macaronesian (Barolo's) were reported but we did not see any. 

Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater
Mixed Shearwater flock  
Mixed Shearwater flock

Shearwaters were most numerous in the southern bay where towards the end of the day we encountered several large feeding flocks. European Storm-petrel numbers were as high as I have ever seen and I estimate that we must have seen over 300 birds. Other species recorded included Northern Gannet, Sabine's Gull, Great Skua, Sandwich Tern and Arctic Skua.

Recent trips into the Bay of Biscay have proved pretty fruitless for me for the large rorqual whales, but I had heard that Fin Whales were now being seen in good numbers. It is great to report that this trip was indeed much more like the trips of old, and we did in fact have eight encounters with Fin Whales and numerous unidentified rorqual blows. It is always frustrating not to clinch an ID but the nature of the whale watching experience on a ferry is very different to a bespoke whale watching trip where it is possible to approach species more closely. It was even more frustrating when we were shown some images that Glenn had taken in the Bay the week before, which clearly showed a Blue Whale. A couple of Minke Whales and a small group of Pilot Whales were also recorded, but unfortunately on the opposite side of the ship to us.

Fin Whale - blowing
Fin Whale
Fin Whale - preparing to dive
Fin Whale

The rough sea state made looking for Cuvier's Beaked Whales difficult, but we still managed to see several although getting prolonged views was not easy. We saw two large beaked whales swimming in parallel, which were suggestive of Bottle-nosed Whale but unfortunately after three tantalisingly brief views we passed them by and they were lost to view. Dolphin numbers were good, but not spectacular; we recorded Common, Striped and Bottle-nosed

Common Dolphins
Common Dolphin
Leaping Bottle-nosed Dolphins
Striped Dolphins

Other species recorded over the course of the day included several Ocean Sunfish, a shark species, Tuna and Moon Jellyfish.

Day 2 - Santander to Plymouth
The second day starts well clear of the deep water canyons of the Bay and as such the species encountered are more limited.

Northern Gannet was the most numerous species, with the most numerous shearwater being Balearic. We did also add Manx to the shearwater list but other than a few Sooty's there was little of note. In fact bird wise the most noteworthy species was a flock of nine Grey Phalaropes which were put up as the ship passed and circled close several times before heading off.

Common Dolphin was the only species we encountered, and we did so on several occasions. Others on the ship recorded Harbour Porpoise and Risso's Dolphin, but on the opposite side to us.

All in all it was a cracking trip with a great mix of seabirds and cetaceans, and I will certainly be booking a trip for next year.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Titchfield Haven Ringing Group Update - September 2016

Since my last post things have not really improved in terms of our ringing totals for this year, and a spell of bad weather during September has meant that our ringing effort has also suffered. The graphs below illustrate our totals for the usual species for the period 7th July to 24th September for the years 2011 to 2016. We have at least had a few sessions where we have ringed over 100 birds, but generally the numbers of birds have remained low, and the overall total has now dropped below that of 2012, our previous worst year.

There have still been some highlights and the latest one was the capture of our first Brown long-eared bat. We have previously caught Pipistrelles and Daubenton's so it was nice to add a new species. Being a licenced bat worker and very experienced at extracting bats from mist nets it was left to me to extract it.

Brown Long-eared  Bat - Titchfield Haven

To make the graphs easier to interpret I have grouped similar species onto a graph rather than put them all on one. Sedge and Reed Warbler totals remain low and well below average; for the period 1998 to 2015 for the whole season for these two species the total is 841 and 459, respectively, so it is looking like Sedge will be down but Reed may end up around the average.

Sedge and Reed Warbler totals between 7th & 24th September 2011 - 2016

Chiffchaff migration is in full swing at present and the numbers are not looking too bad but Willow Warblers are all but over. We did catch one new Willow Warbler this weekend, but the total of 74 is unlikely to grow much more, which will make this year's total our 4th worst since 1998.

Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler totals between 7th & 24th September 2011 - 2016

The totals of the three species of Sylvia warbler are significantly lower than the average. For the period 7th - 24th the average is 116 for Whitethroat, 55 for Garden Warbler and 471 for Blackcap. For each of these three species the totals are 50% below average.

Whitethroat, Garden Warbler & Blackcap totals between 7th & 24th September 2011 - 2016

Both Cetti's Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler numbers are below average; the Grasshopper Warbler total is at least already higher than last year's total of 135 but is still 62% down on the average.

Cetti's Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler totals between 7th & 24th September 2011 - 2016

Overall, this year is the lowest total in the period 2011 to 2016 but as mentioned earlier our ringing effort is down. This year we have only managed to ring on 29 days compared with 39, 35, 34, 32 and 31 for the period 2011 to 2015.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Looking for the palmations

When news broke last night (10th September) of a Semi-palmated Sandpiper on the south scrape at Titchfield Haven I was surprised that I hadn’t received a text from one of usual crew who circulate news, however it soon became apparent why not. There had been several reports throughout the course of the day of two Little Stints on the south scrape and one of those birds had evidently been re-identified from photos posted on the Hampshire Ornithological Society website as a Semi-p. I was planning to go ringing at the Haven in the morning so if it was still there I thought I would go and have a look. I don’t actually know how many Semi-p’s have now been recorded in Hampshire, but with the exception of one that I caught at Farlington Marshes in 1995 (then the second for the County) most have been in the west of the County at Pennington/Keyhaven. 

Adult Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Farlington Marshes 1995

There were clearly a few local birders who were a bit miffed at having overlooked this bird, but let’s face it they are tricky birds to ID and it is very easy to just take someones word that a bird is what it is and just enjoy it without really questioning its ID, I am sure most birders have done it, and will do so again. It is also quite easy to get hooked up on looking for obvious (or not so) features, such as black or pale legs on a Chiffchaff or Willow Warbler, or palmations between toes on a semi-p to separate it from Little Stint, rather than look at actual features, such as feather patterns or primary projections. But with some species there are only subtle differences and as such with limited experience they can be easily overlooked.

I was fortunate in that the bird was still present today and so after what turned out to be one on the busier ringing sessions of the season so far, the ringing team trudged over to the south scrape for a look. Initially the bird was preening on island I, but eventually it settled on the mud in the north-west corner of the scrape just in front of the hide and began to feed. I spent the first twenty minutes or so just grilling the bird, noting the short primary projection, the strongly streaked dark crown, which was sharply demarcated from the distinct supercilium, the dark ear coverts, the well defined and finely streaked side of the breast and short bill. 

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016

There was evidence of a slight ‘V’ on the mantel from some angles, but it was much reduced from that present on the accompanying Little Stint, and no evidence of the split supercilium, which again is usually evident on Little Stint. At times the bird was very close and yet despite my best efforts I could not make out the palmations.

For comparison a Little Stint - Farlington Marshes 2016 

As I eluded to above in many circumstances the palmations can be very difficult to see, so it is not really a feature worth looking for, unless circumstances allow. In the hand, like the bird at Farlington Marshes in 1995, they were very obvious (see below). 

Palmations of Adult Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Farlington Marshes 1995 
They were also obvious on a Western Sandpiper roosting on a rock in California that I saw in 2012. 

Western Sandpiper - California
Note the palmations and also the length and shape of the bill compared with the Semi-p

I have got one shot where it looks like a palmation is present, but with the bird feeding in soft mud they were generally difficult to make out.

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Titchfield Haven 2016. 
It appears just about possible to see one of the palmations on the birds left leg.

All in all it was a cracking morning with just shy of 150 birds ringed, including our first Firecrest of the autumn followed by a superb Semi-p with a Little Stint as a supporting cast.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Titchfield Haven Ringing Update - August 2016

I have recently had a few enquiries from birders asking how things have been going with the ringing at Titchfield Haven this year so I thought it was time for a blog update. Subscribers to Birdguides or Rare Bird Alert will no doubt have seen the images of the Aquatic Warbler that we ringed back on 13th August, and that has unquestionably been the highlight of our season to date. This individual was the 17th to be ringed at the Haven and the first since 2009, so it was long overdue. It is great to see a few others turning up on the south coast so you never know, we may even get another, let's hope so.

Juvenile Aquatic Warbler - Titchfield Haven August 2016
Juvenile Aquatic Warbler  - Titchfield Haven 2016

Our ringing totals this year for most species have been disappointing and as I write this post there have only been three mornings where we have caught more that 100 birds. This morning (2nd September) we did catch nearly 150 but the totals in the graph and table below only cover to the end of August, so I will post about that on another day. Typically we would be expecting to catch between 150 - 250 birds at this time of year, but the distinct lack of migrants passing through or over our ringing area has been alarming. The figures for the usual selection of species (below) covering 2010 - 2016 show the total for this year as being the second lowest. When you consider that for 2010 - 2015 the totals are to the 23rd August, whereas the 2016 total is to the 31st August, it is likely to be the second lowest by some way.

Selected species ringing totals 2010 - 2016
Selected species ringing totals 2010 - 2016

You can see from the figures that all of the species totals we have selected are below average as is the grand total, which includes all birds ringed. Interestingly though I have been catching excellent numbers of Goldfinch and Greenfinch in my garden, and the totals to date have already surpassed my best ever annual totals for those two species. We have been discussing the possible reasons for totals being so low and can only really conclude that poor weather during May and June may have reduced breeding success for migrant species, but that is just our opinion.

As yet we have been catching very few adult birds, therefore it is possible that many species are still breeding so there is still the chance that some species totals will pick up, but for Willow Warbler we are pretty much done and dusted, so it is looking like a dismal year for this species.
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