Sunday, 30 August 2015

More Migrants

Too much of a good thing? I don't think so, and neither did the hordes of visiting birders this morning, all hoping for a glimpse of one of our Redstarts or other goodies. They were all still present and correct, the lack of movement is astounding. There had however been another small fall overnight, so yesterday's five Whinchats became eight, and we had a Wood Warbler a few times around Long Wood. Seen badly admittedly, and although thoughts of Bonelli's crossed my mind I think that ultimately it was too yellowy for that, but a lovely clean white underneath nonetheless. Nick, Bob and I all saw it independently and without consultation, so we put the news out as the balance of probability was pretty high. Obviously if anyone finds a Western Bonelli's we're all having it....Other highlights included up to six Spotted Flycatchers, a Tree Pipit, a Reed Warbler, several Yellow Wagtails and a Wheatear. Here's a few photos from the morning - I'm pretty pleased with the Redstart, even if it was the less spanking one.

EDIT: afternoon update, trotted out to Alex on news of a Pied Flycatcher and was pleased to find Nick still watching it. Two Spotted Flycatchers with it and yet another male Redstart on the way home. One of the best migrant days I can remember.

I can't believe Common Redstarts are even real

The Tree Pipit is still hanging around

A lovely and spikey Reed Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher

this afternoon's Pied Flycatcher

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Another local haul

Its actually all the same birds, seemingly reluctant to move on, but then again the place is so good why would you? I was out again very early, but without the bind that is work calling me towards a train station I had a camera and was hoping for a friendly Redstart or two. However as the week has progressed the birds have become a little more difficult, perhaps because they knew I had a camera.....

The usual cast were all present, 3-4 Redstarts, 6 Whinchat, 2 Spotted Flycatchers, 2 Tree Pipits, and 5 Yellow Wagtail over. Could I get near them? Barely, and it was only the Whinchats that vaguely played ball but were so flighty only the 800mm + converter kept me in the game. I have no complaints, I am just pleased they are there. They also seem to be drawing ever more birders, with probably half a dozen unfamiliar faces on the patch, including a big ugly one from Barking stringing Yellowhammers every five minutes ;-). By 10am it was all over, with the sun well up and hazy conditions the birds seemed to melt away. I've said it before and I'l no doubt say it again, I love living near this place.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Getting better

Two (count 'em!) male Redstarts sat on a twig approx 25cm from each other this morning, utterly lovely to behold. And then a Tree Pipit came and sat on one of their heads, a special moment. Three Whinchat performed a dance in the brooms, and a Pied Fly (or so I am told) dashed over my head. It's pretty damn good out there, and I know exactly where I'll be tomorrow. No, not abroad, not Porthgwarra.....

Just finished updating the list, for what it is worth, as I have been a bit behind. To my consternation it added up on one page to 97, and another to 99. The joy of spreadsheets but I have it sorted now. Tree Pipit, Little Owl and Swift records were missing from key dates and had buggered the counting up. All locations now display a nice neat 100 - here's an extract for the proof, and some annual stats. It is a work of pure genius I have to say, and a huge pain in the backside. But it does enable the counting of Wheatears extremely quickly and thus is a top resource. And if you look very carefully, you will note that I have Spotted Flycatcher on my garden list.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

O Glorious Patch

Managed to get out this morning after an absence of a few days due to working abroad. Does Scotland count as abroad? Some people would like it to be it appears. Anyhow, naturally knowing I was away the lads had a fine time, racking up double figures of Wheatears, another Pied Flycatcher, heaps of Redstarts and other good stuff. I enjoyed these vicariously of course, but was somewhat itching to get out there as soon as possible. That was this morning, and happily it was still on fire. My short 45 minute amble produced up to six Whinchat, a couple of Spotted Flycatchers and Garden Warblers, as well as the real target of Redstart, with somewhere between one and four seen. Two were seen well, the other two I have no idea, they might have been Robins for all I know. But seeing as the patch is so ludicrously good at present I expect they were indeed Redstarts, However just one was enough to break into the magic three figures, the stuff of patch year-listing dreams, and is now the seventh year on the trot that I have managed it. Given how little I am sometimes able to bird the place, it makes the patch seem even better than it actually is. I really am very fortunate to have it on my doorstep. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

What was that all about?

The post about Wanstead I mean. Highly unusual, apologies, I know you don't come here for that. Watch out, as assuming work doesn't completely hammer me into the ground I might be going out on the patch a bit more. June is over, so is July, and the first migrants are about to appear. I left out a stat yesterday, that of Whinchat. It's good, very good. In the ten years I've lived here I've seen 109 of the things! 109! There are two more out there today, I could get to the Nelson. But then I'd have to hop back and they're at the furthest reaches of the patch so I'm going to give it a miss.

In far more interesting news I was recently in Norway. Only briefly, as I forgot to pack a large suitcase of money and was thus utterly destitute one cup of coffee after arrival and had to come home again. I was in Bergen, which is a lovely little town on the coast, with a small number of charming Hanseatic League buildings on the dockside and some very steep hills. I did a lot of walking, and a lot of looking longingly at seafood that I could not afford. I also saw the pelts and mounted heads of pretty much any arctic animal or bird you could care to mention. If, say, you were a dentist with a penchant for shooting beautiful animals with a bow and arrow, Norway is a place you should definitely visit. After your life-changing experience in a Zimbabwean jail of course.

So, I took a funicular up a very steep hill, walked down a very steep hill, visited some wooden buildings, wept when I saw the price of a shrimp, and went to the aquarium. The birds were somewhat secondary, but there were lots and lots of gulls, many with Norwegian rings on, and some freeze-dried in packets if you were short on time. Basically I walked and walked as an alternative to spending money on anything, and a very nice time I had too before my ankles gave in. Here are a few pictures.

Special Moose Effects - Olaf Prot

Freshly-ground Common Gull

Instant Common Gull

Strong version, highly caffeinated, faint aromas of landfill

Yes that is a stuffed Gannet

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Pied Hangover

Today started off extremely badly with a stinking hangover. Most other Wanstead birders were feeling similarly terrible after a night down the pub saying farewell to Dan, and saying hello to a lot of beer. Apart from Tony. Amazingly TB managed to be on the patch by about 7am, whilst the rest of us who actually live here were all lying at home groaning. By half seven, and with the fug clearing (slightly!) he picked out a Pied Flycatcher in the limes on the SSSI. Cue a text message that had us equally cursing, equally excited. Was it a wind up perhaps, and Tony was in fact enjoying an early morning cup of tea in South Woodford? 

I cracked, but it took me at least half an hour to get out of the house, and staggering towards the lime trees I wondered if I hadn't made a big mistake. With gaseous explosions propelling me ever more quickly there, I soon found Tony staking out a tree. I went a stood under it for a few moments to relieve the pressure but no small black and white birds fell out. Bob and James pitched up too, Bob keen for a second bite of the cherry, but we couldn't find it again and so wandered off to Long Wood. Remarkably quiet, and my hangover began to return.

With the day warming up we felt that perhaps the Flycatcher might have started feeding, so returned over the other side for a second crack. This time James picks it up pretty quickly, low in the birches with various Phylloscs, and we get some brief views. Smart bird, amazingly my sixth in Wanstead. Admittedly this is in over ten years so they're hardly what you might call common, but I still think that's a pretty good strike rate for London. But then again this is Wanstead, one of the greatest urban patches on earth. You don't believe me? How does three Wrynecks, two Stone-Curlew, 57 Spotted Flycatchers, 27 Ring Ouzels and 24 Redstarts sound? Not to mention 203 Wheatears

Didn't get a photo, left that to the nouveau paparazzi, however here's a Wanstead bird from 2012

Sunday, 2 August 2015


  • A two day trip with mid July to the beautiful and verdant island of Madeira to get a few more Western Pal birds under my belt.
  • Saturday morning from Gatwick, returning on Monday early evening. Quite a long flight with a tense landing!
  • Car hire free via Avis using a free weekend voucher, with only £29 spent in fuel.
  • Cheap hotel with a rooftop swimming pool but in dire need of air-con .
  • Excellent and cheap food throughout
  • Lovely weather but a rather windy at the east of the island, calm elsewhere.
  • Read a few trip reports but relied mainly on the excellent Madeira Seawatching website
View of Zino's breeding area on Pico do Areeiro from Balcoe


Saturday: Flight arrived early afternoon, leaving enough time to get up into the hills and tick off the endemics on the first afternoon.
Sunday: Early start back at Ribeiro Frio, early afternoon at Canical, afternoon sea-watching at Ponta da Cruz, late evening at Zino's Petrel breeding site on Pico do Areeiro.
Monday: Early start sea-watching from Porto Moniz, Laurel forest birding at Ribeira da Janela, some time on the high plains and then a mid-afternoon flight home.

An uneventful flight from Gatwick saw me land in Funchal at around 1pm local time – which is no different to Madeira time. As a minor plane geek I have to say that landing was quite something. The island rises vertically out of the sea, and the airport is perched right on the edge. As you come in you see it all laid out, and then you bank over houses with incredible winds buffeting the aircraft as it comes in to land on the runway which is partially built on stilts. The captain came on and said the wind was right on the limit of what he was prepared to undertake, any higher and we would likely have diverted to Gran Canaria or indeed Lisbon, neither of which would have increased my chances of seeing Trocaz Pigeon. As it was we made it in on the first attempt, and with hand luggage only I was in my hire car and heading up to the Laurel forests in under half an hour.

Madeira ssp of Chaffinch
It soon became apparent that my Peugeot 208 was not up to the task – the winding roads that lead up and into the centre of the island are incredibly steep and I rarely got out of second gear. It took about an hour to arrive at the Levada do Balcoes, which is a mountain path leading to a wonderful lookout over a dramatic landscape, including the Zino’s Petrel breeding colony – more on that later. Madeira Firecrests were literally everywhere, and there were some extremely tame Chaffinches at the lookout. I spent most of the afternoon here simply admiring the view, including getting some great flypast views of Trocaz Pigeon. Plain Swifts repeatedly flew past my head, and in lovely warm sunshine it was a memorable visit. Later on in the day I carried on further north, and found the track up the valley that I had been overlooking, known as the Faja da Nogueira. The road was very rough, but passable with care, and here I had much better views of the Pigeons, and was also able to get some photos of the Firecrests.

Phonescope of Trocaz Pigeon. No, I'm not good at it!

Madeira Firecrest

I returned to Funchal at dusk, finding my hotel without difficulty, and thankfully it had off-street parking, although fitting into a space did require a 328 point turn. I had dinner at a steak place about two miles from my hotel, but the walk was very nice along the sea front, and the cold beer once I arrived was spectacularly good.

Unfortunately my Pelagic the following morning had been postponed until the afternoon due to high winds having created a backlog of customers, but I got up early anyway and went back up to the forests given that the birds there are mostly all races that are either unique to Madeira or the wider Macaronesian archipelago. I got great views of Robin, Blackbird, Goldfinch, Atlantic Canary and a whole host of other common birds, as well as even better views of the Pigeons. It was also a lot quieter in terms of human traffic, and I largely had the place to myself. Mid morning, and with the Pelagic looming, I headed off to the far East of the island and walked the barren pensinsula out to Sao Lourenco, seeing the Madeiran form of Berthelot’s Pipit, as well as many Kestrels and Rock Sparrow. Looking out to sea, I saw the boat I would be on that afternoon making heavy weather, but amongst a scrum of Cory’s Shearwaters. It was looking good, if slightly terrifying, however on my way to the port my phone went off and it was Windbirds cancelling the afternoon trip due to high winds. I would have been happy just with the Corys, however it was billed as a cetacean and birds trip, and apparently there had been no Whales or Dolphins whatsoever. I was really rather disappointed, especially as my original slot had gone out, but there was not a lot I could do about it.

I drove west again to the Lugar de Baixo near Ponta do Sol, where frankly the birds were disappointing. A ton of Muscovy Ducks, some Coots and a Moorhen. I had a long and leisurely lunch on the beach and decided that as I couldn’t get out on the sea I would seawatch from Funchal, so I perched myself on the most southerly point at Ponta da Cruz, and started staring out to sea. The birds from this point are pretty distant to be honest, but amongst the mass of Cory’s Shearwaters were quite a few obviously Bulwers Petrels. Sadly the in the time I was watching the loopy flight of a Pteredroma wasn’t seen, but with more time spent I’m sure you would pick one up.

Madeira has plenty of Monarch Butterflies
Fabulous flowers were everywhere on Madeira. Next time I go I might take a macro and make more of an effort. This is an Agapanthus. Obviously.

I spent some time in the early evening wandering around the Santa Catarina Park in central Funchal with an icecream, and then went back to the hotel to rest up (and swim) before my evening trip. I make a point of not paying for birding abroad where possible as I much prefer to do it myself, however in this particular instance you are not allowed to visit the location without a guide at night. This is probably as much to do with health and safety as conservation. I’m of course talking about the famous Zino’s Petrel night safari at the top of Pico do Areeiro. I was picked up at around 9pm, and after a short tour of Funchal hotels to pick up other guests, drove for about 40 minutes to the peak, leaving the vehicle near the radar station and proceeding on foot with headlamps down a path along a ridge. The torches were not really needed as the light from the stars was illumination enough. Living in London you see the occasional star. At the top of a mountain on Madeira it’s a totally different experience – there are thousands of stats. Put bins up to your eyes and this whatever number you thought it was increases tenfold! The guides, Hugo and Catarina led us to a narrow walkway and we all sat down to wait for the activity to start, and I meanwhile lay down on the ground and looked up at the cosmos as well as fiddling about with the bulb setting on my camera, which without a remote release was a real pain!

About an hour after sunset, with the sky horizon now totally dark, the first haunting calls started, a kind of deep whine – a female Petrel. As time went on the males started chipping in, a higher pitched call. The calls became more frequent, and some were very close indeed. This was interspersed with the sound of air rushing over wings, indicating that the birds were close, and sure enough we ended up getting good silhouetted views of birds above our heads. We were at 1800m altitude at this point, interesting to think these incredibly well-adapted birds that are masters of skimming the waves live in burrows at the top of a jagged mountain range. We probably stayed at the top of the mountain for about two hours before heading back, which was largely a climb back to the van – it had been a great experience and I was all tucked up dreaming about ridge-skimming Pteredromas and the endless universe by 1am.

With my appetite for sea-watching and rare Petrels rekindled, I was at Porto Moniz the next morning staring out past Mole Island. The sea-watching here was excellent, with birds a lot closer in that Ponta da Cruz. At one point the Cory's Shearwaters were piling past at the rate of 80 per minute, and with views good enough to see their beaks and a lot of fine detail this was where I stayed almost all morning before heading up to the Ribeira da Janela just to the east. Here I had even better views of Trocaz Pigeon including for the first time perched birds which I was able to study really well, and I'd easily recommend this as the best place to see this species, although it is further away from the airport than the central locations. Plenty of other good subs here too, including lots of Grey Wagtails of the form schmitzi.

Plain Swift
Atlantic Canary

With the flight departing at about 5pm, I had plenty of time to take the scenic route back to Funchal, and so took the ER209 back across the island. This led to some spectacular scenery, including some high-altitude plains with fantastic butterflies, and for some bizarre reason, stacks of Yellow-legged Gulls. My final stop of the trip was at Machico, just east of the airport, where an introduced population of Waxbills are flourishing in the reeds of the river/canal that flows through the town and onto the beach. You can't get into the riverbed, but the views from the pavement just above give perfectly adequate views. A quick fuel stop and a final icecream and that was that. The take-off was in complete contrast to the landing, and I reached a rainy Gatwick at about 10pm, and was home before midnight, another successful European tick-fest safely under the belt.

Common Waxbill

Trip List

Mute Swan
(Muscovy Duck)
Cory's Shearwater
Bulwer's Petrel
Zino's Petrel
Little Egret
Grey Heron
Kestrel canariensis
Yellow-legged Gull
Roseate Tern
Common Tern
Rock Pigeon
Trocaz Pigeon
Plain Swift
Berthelot's Pipit madereinsis
Grey Wagtail schmitzi
Blackbird cabrerae
Blackcap heineken
Madeira Firecrest
Chaffinch maderensis
Goldfinch parva
Atlantic Canary
Rock Sparrow
Common Waxbill