Archive for September 2014

19th – 20th September 2014: stuck in France   Leave a comment

I’ve done many foreign trips and most have gone very smoothly, however the start of this trip to Madagascar and the Comoros has been far from smooth.

First I found I couldn’t take a flight from Heathrow to arrive in time for the Air France flight to Madagascar on the same day – but that was OK because I arranged to stay overnight with my friends John and Florence who live north of Paris, secondly the internal flights in Madagascar and Comoros were drastically changed meaning we will have less time in some very important sections of the tour and have to spend the first day around the capital doing nothing of great importance – but in the end that was for the best, thirdly a strike by Air France pilots meant that two days before I was to leave I learned that I would have to fly with BA to Orly, Paris instead of Charles de Gaulle – but that was ok because John agreed to pick me up from Orly in spite of the fact that it would involve two hours stuck in traffic jams and fourthly and most importantly I learned early on the day I was to depart that Air France had cancelled the flight from Paris to Madagascar.

Now this was serious, the next AF flight was on the 23rd, so I would miss the first and most important section of the tour. I took the bus up to Heathrow feeling very depressed, I was flying to Paris but when would I get to Madagascar and would I ever get to see those species that could only be seen on the first part of the tour? As it happened I heard before I got to Heathrow that Birdquest had managed to book their three affected clients on the last three seats on an Austral Air flight to Reunion, from there we were to take an Air Mauritius flight to Mauritius and another to Tana in Madagascar to arrive 16 hours later than planned. They say ‘all’s well that ends well’ as I had more time in Paris with John and Florence than originally planned and would only loose time in Madagascar that was lost anyway.

I say ‘all’s well that ends well’ in good faith because as I write this I’m still at John’s and there is plenty of opportunity for further cock ups.

IMG_0097 John and Florence

Florence has for many years been involved in a ‘Son et Lumiere’ event that has been performed for decades in the small town of Ailly sur Noye near Amiens. With Florence already there John drove me to the site and we enjoyed a very professional performance by the local amateurs. Florence is in period costume and John tries on one of the props.

IMG_0094 Florence's nephew

I was introduced to many members of Florence’s extended family, but not speaking French it all went over my head, although I do remember kissing a lot of people on the cheek. Here Florence’s nephew sits on one of the 35 horses used in the performance.

IMG_0092 Son et Lumiere

The Son et Lumiere event was spectacular to put it mildly. A cast of 500, each playing up to seven different characters, enact the history of Picardie from the Iron Age to WW2. The stage included the lake, a causeway across it, an island and the woods and fake windmill in the background.

IMG_0061 the set

Up to 3000 people attend each performance to see the spectacular lighting effects and the re-enactment of local history.

IMG_0090 smoke

Backlit smoke clouds billow over the trees.

IMG_0037 Romans

The historical pageant involved the Roman invasion …….

IMG_0072 French Revolution

…. the French Revolution …..

IMG_0035 Liberation

… and the liberation by the Allies at the end of WW2

IMG_0103 Isle l'Adam

On the 20th we went for a walk around Ilse l’Adam where John and Florence live although they doesn’t have one of these lakeside residences …….

IMG_0104 River Oise

… walked along the River Oise ….

IMG_0108 Isle l'Adam

….. before returning through the picturesque town. As far as killing time due to flight delays goes, this has to be one of the best.

Posted September 20, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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Early September 2014 – a ringing update   Leave a comment



Just a quick blog update before, once again, I go on my travels, this time to northern Madagascar, however the Air France pilot’s strike has already caused problems and threatens to wreck the whole trip.

The settled dry, easterly conditions have been good for ringing at Dulston, although it has been a bit on the windy side at times. Since the start of September we have ringed nearly a thousand birds with Blackcaps occurring in unprecedented numbers (550 in the first 18 days of September). Over the last few days there has been a large movement of Meadow Pipits and close on 100 have been ringed.

IMG_0019 Yellow Wagtail

We also have done some ringing at Lytchett Bay. Sedge Warblers were still present at the start of the month and we ringed a few Yellow Wagtails at dusk one evening.

IMG_0030 Mipit

Meadow Pipits have been ringed in large numbers over the last few days. The whitish fringes to the unmoulted median coverts with the centers forming a downward pointing tooth indicate it is a first year bird. Another first year feature is that the  unmoulted greater coverts are not very dark centred and have a diffuse brown fringe. Contrast them with the two longest tertials which are darker with a better defined fringe.

IMG_0031 Mipit

The heavily streaked flanks and long hind claw are good features to separate Meadow Pipits from Tree Pipits (which seem to have all left for Africa). The constant pheet-pheet-pheet call is a bit of give away too.

IMG_0033 Blackcap 3&4

Telling a first year male Blackcap (L) from an adult (R) involves checking for contrast in the wing coverts, fault bars on the tail and pointed outer tail feathers, all first year features. Additional pointers shown in this photo are, the presence of brown fringes to the crown feathers, a brown wash to the ear coverts and slightly less richly coloured eye.

IMG_0022 Wilwa abberant wing

This is the wing of Willow Warbler but an unusual one at that. Normally the longest feather is the 3rd primary (counted from the outside in – and remember that the 1st is vestigial and largely hidden by my thumb) but in this case it seems to be the 5th. However it can be seen that the 6th – 10th primary are unmoulted whilst 2- 5 are new, so is the 3rd still growing? I must admit I forgot to check this at the time. Adult birds should complete their moult before migration but this bird has either suspended its moult mid way though or is migrating with moult in progress. Not all birds fit the rules.

IMG_0020 ringing demo

We are asked to perform two public ringing demonstrations annually. One on the 14th was attended by about 20 people. Here Sean Walls is explaining  the use of radio tags on birds.


IMG_0034 Sparrowhawk juv male

It’s a shame that we caught this Sparrowhawk the day after the public demo, rather than during it. The pale eye and chestnut fringes to the feathers show it is a juvenile, the small size shows it is a male. Male Sparrowhawks are so much smaller than females that they take a different ring size.


IMG_0041 Redstart

We trapped a Common Redstart the day of the demo, but soon after dawn well before the public arrived.



DSCF4423 WEO and Christine

Last Friday our young friend Christine Arnold came round for a meal. She was about to return to teacher training college and was keen to catch up with our news. She has been staying on Brownsea Island and was most impressed that Bill Oddie was staying there as well. I don’t know if this is in his guise as Autumn Watch presenter or as a private holiday. Either way Christine was most impressed to be in the company of a wildlife celebrity and asked that I post this photo on my blog.

Posted September 18, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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23rd – 30th August 2014 – The Azores part 2   Leave a comment

This post deals solely with the seabirds we saw on the pelagic trips. If anyone is interested in these seabirds then I would highly recommend reading Magnus Robb and Killian Mullarney’s ‘Petrels night and day (Sound Approach)


IMG_5672 Cory's Shearwater

The commonest pelagic seabird was the Cory’s Shearwater which breeds in large numbers in the islands.

IMG_5670 Cory's

The species has recently been split into three; the smaller Cape Verde Shearwater Calonectris edwardsii, Scopoli’s Shearwater C diomeda whose breeding is almost confined to the Mediterranean (but winters off South Africa so must traverse the Atlantic) and Cory’s Shearwater C borealis which breeds only in the Azores, Madeira, Canary and related islands.

IMG_5269 Cory's Shearwater

One of the largest of shearwaters, Cory’s is easy to separate from Great, but telling it from a Scopoli’s on the pattern of white in the outer underwing would require a photo.

IMG_5352 Great Shears

The further out to sea we got the scarcer Cory’s and the commoner Great Shearwaters became.

IMG_5649 Great Shear

Great Shearwaters breed in the Tristan da Cunha group in the south Atlantic. After breeding they undergo a tremendous loop migration that takes them north to the Grand Banks off America and then south through the eastern Atlantic in our autumn.

IMG_4733 Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwaters also breed in the Southern Atlantic and around Australia and New Zealand. Atlantic populations undergo a loop migration like Great Shearwaters although they peak in the eastern Atlantic a bit later in the autumn. The other tw shearwaters, Manx and Barolo’s were too distant or briefly seen to be photographed.


IMG_5581 LT Skua

We saw all four species of North Atlantic skua/jaeger; three Long-taileds (all adults) 3 Arctic/Parasitic, one Pom ……

IMG_5503 Bonxie

… and this bird which we assumed was a 2nd cy Great Skua (or Bonxie) from its moult pattern. South Polar Skua is another possibility, as like the large shearwaters it undergoes an Atlantic loop migration. If you can identify this bird conclusively either way then please leave a message. Postscript:  Dani Lopez-Velasco, who wrote a paper on the identification of South Polar Skua has conclusively identified it as a South Polar.

IMG_5484 Bulwer's Petrel

Far smaller than the shearwaters but larger than storm petrels, the little Bulwer’s Petrel was a wonderful sight. I saw seven during the trip.

IMG_5609 Monteiro's SP

The highlight the trip was the great views we got of four species of storm petrel. Our friend, Magnus Robb, wrote a wonderful book on the seabirds of the north Atlantic (Petrels Night and Day – The Sound Approach) and based mainly on vocalisations split ‘band-rumped storm petrel’ into four species. The form breeding on two islets off Graciosa, was already being described as Monteiro’s SP (photo above), it breeds in the summer whilst the other population, called Grant’s Storm Petrel (after the late and much missed birding guru Peter Grant) breeds in the winter. Grant’s is not confined to the Azores but also breeds (in winter) in the Canaries and Madeira and associated islands where it occurs with a third form, Madeiran Storm Petrel (that breeds in the summer). The fourth form breeds only in the Cape Verde Islands. Monteiro’s is treated as a full species by the world’s checklists but Grant’s is not recognised at all. All forms are vocally distinct and to some extent, genetically distinct. Thus we have a summer and winter breeding population in the Azores that are treated as two species and a summer and winter breeding population in the Canaries and Madeira that are treated as the same species. Something needs to change!

IMG_5389 Monteiro's SP

At this time of year Monteiro’s is ending its breeding cycle and is starting to moult and this can be clearly seen as a notch in the wing where the new, still growing inner primaries abut the old faded outer primaries. On some it was striking and could even be seen with naked eye. Another advantage of visiting in August is that this year’s juveniles will still be in the nest, so there is no confusion with recently fledged individuals with fresh flight feathers. Also Monteiro’s shows a clear notch in the tail, whereas Grant’s does not.

IMG_5633 Grant's SP

I am confident this is a Grant’s Storm Petrel with fresh flight feathers with no evidence of moult and a square ended tail.

IMG_5433 Grant's or Monteiro's SP

But some birds seem intermediate – the secondaries on this bird look fresh and contrast with the primaries, but there is no evidence of moult. Do Grant’s look like this post moult? There is a small tail fork but not as obvious as on the Monteiro’s. Is this another Grant’s?

IMG_5432 Monteiro's SP

The same can be said about this bird, is the apparent tail fork caused by the feet showing below the tail and is that a notch in the wing caused by moult or just the way the wing is bent? I think it’s a Grant’s but I’d appreciate informed comments.

IMG_5518 Swinhoe's SP

The best bird of the trip, was another species of storm petrel, the legendary Swinhoe’s. Breeding off Japan and Korea and wintering in the Indian Ocean, hardly surprisingly the only historic WP record was from Eilat, but in the 80s there was as series of captures by ringers at storm petrel colonies in Madeira, the Canaries, France and even the UK. They must be breeding somewhere in the north Atlantic! Since then there have been several more captures in the UK (including the last two years on Fair Isle) but the bird remains extremely hard to catch up with. As one of my goals is to see every bird on the British list somewhere in the world (now just four to go, Ascension Frigatebird, Aleutian Tern, Tufted Puffin and Red-throated Thrush) then seeing a Swinhoe’s had become a high priority.

IMG_5416 Wilson's SP

A third white-rumped species was Wilson’s Storm Petrel which breeds in Antarctica and also undergoes a loop migration, appearing in the eastern Atlantic in late summer. As well as being smaller with longer legs, a more curved wing shape and a more fluttery flight they can be distinguished by their moult pattern, at this time of year they have moulted all the primaries except the outer one or two.

IMG_5420 Wilson's SP

This bird seems to have replaced all its primaries in the left wing but is still growing the outermost primaries in the right wing.

IMG_5624 Common Tern

Common Terns lived up to their name but in spite of the Azores holding the WP’s largest population of Roseate Terns, they were surprisingly scarce, with the only sizable flock being seen briefly on the Teceira breakwater as we departed on the ferry.

IMG_5148 Sooty Tern best

Ilheu da Praia, a tiny islet off the NE of Graciosa not only holds almost the entire world’s population of Monteiro’s Storm Petrel but also the WP’s only breeding Sooty Terns. On the day we visited the sea was rough and we couldn’t come any closer to the island.

IMG_5201 Sooty Tern

However the single juvenile did briefly buzz the boat on a couple of occasions.

IMG_5748 AZ YL Gull head

The atlantis race of Yellow-legged Gull is a very impressive bird indeed. The heavily streaked hood and pale eye are distinctive. I have heard that a paper is in preparation which advocates its elevation to species status. Intermediate populations in the Canaries and Madeira are the problem with this approach however.

IMG_5496 BN Dolphin

I said this post was only about seabirds but I couldn’t resist including a couple of photos of Bottle-nosed Dolphins. We also saw Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, a Sperm Whale and the beaked whales that I uploaded on the last post.

IMG_5235 BN Dolphin

That concludes our Azores pelagic trip. In the words of the late great Douglas Adams ‘so long and thanks for all the fish’

23rd – 30th August 2014 – The Azores part one   Leave a comment

I visited the Azores in 1991 and although we saw the endemic Bullfinch and some cetaceans we didn’t see much of the islands pelagic seabirds. When I saw a one week trip advertised that comprised mainly of pelagic trips from the island of Graciosa, my friend Roger and I jumped at the chance.



It is only a four hour flight from Gatwick to Porto Delgarda, the capitol on the main island of Sao Miguel.


Our first day taken up with a tour of Sao Miguel led by local operator Gerbrand (Gerby) Michielsen in his customised van.


Much of the natural woodland of the sierras in the east of Sao Miguel have been replaced with Japanese Cedars.

IMG_5000 Azores Bullfinch

Here the endemic Azores Bullfinch can be found with a little persistance. Unlike its continental cousin there is little sexual dimorphism, a reduced white rump and the wings are shorter. Once critically endangered, the population has risen with protection to around 1000 individuals.


IMG_4990 Azores Bullfinch juv

The presence of several juveniles indicates that the population is recovering

IMG_5021 Azores Buzzard

Although the Bullfinch is the only endemic landbird species, the Azores has several endemic races such as the rothchildi form of Common Buzzard

IMG_5040 Canary

The Atlantic Canary, the ancestor of the domestic Canary is widespread. It is found in the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands. Contrary to popular belief the Canary Islands were named after the abundance of dogs and not after the birds.

IMG_5023 Sao Miguel

Pretty little towns nestle in green valleys all over Sao Miguel.


There are several volcanic calderas on Sao Miguel giving spectacular views from the rim.

IMG_5025 Azorean Eiders

Several lakes hold American wildfowl throughout the winter but none had arrived yet. All we could find were these mutants. Gerby said ‘they’re not domestic ducks they are ‘Azorean Eiders’!

IMG_5030 Azores YL Gull

The Azorean race of Yellow-legged Gull atlantis is very distinct with a hooded appearance when not in breeding plumage. It has been suggested that it deserves specific status but intermediate populations exist on Madeira and the Canaries.


At the town of Ribeira Grande we searched the foreshore for American waders but only found Sanderling which could have reached the Azores from the New or the Old World.

IMG_5033 Ringed Plover

Pulses increased when we found a ‘ringed plover’ on some short vegetation nearby but critical examination showed it was just a Old World Ringed Plover and not its Nearctic counterpart.

IMG_5047 Whimbrel

The following day we flew to the island of Terceira and met up with the rest of the group who had skipped the Sao Miguel option and gone straight there. We headed for the tidal pools at Carbo da Praia, here an old quarry is connected to the sea by cracks in the rock and pools form at high tide. This acts as a magnet for waders and with the proximity of the islands to America this is the best site for vagrants in the entire Western Palearctic. We found 14 species of wader there, four from the Nearctic, six from the Palearctic and four that could have come from either. There were ten Whimbrels (eight Eurasian and two Hudsonian). They are separated mainly by the rump colour, which isn’t much help here, but the lack of buff tones on the supercillium indicate this photo is of the Old World form.

IMG_5064 Ruff

Ruff winter in large numbers in the Niger inundation zone in West Africa so this juvenile was was a long way off its intended route.

IMG_5073 Semi-P Plover

As well as, the Hudsonian Whimbrel we also saw three other American waders, Short-billed Dowitcher, Semi-palmated Sandpiper and this Semi-palmated Plover. The fine supercillium, narrow black breast band and most importantly the small palmations on the toes.


In the late afternoon we took the ferry from Terceira to Graciosa. The crossing takes three and half hours, about the same as from Penzance to Scilly. We got our first taste of Azorean seabirds with Cory’s, Great and Sooty Shearwaters seen plus our first storm petrels

IMG_5110 Beaked Whales

We had great views of a couple of pods of beaked whales. A cetacean expert on board identified them as Sowerby’s Beaked Whales but photographs were circulated on line and other experts thought they might have been the much rarer Gervais’ Beaked Whale. Postscript: further circulation of my photos with cetacean experts confirms they are Sowerby’s.

IMG_5117 Santa Cruz, Graciosa

In the evening we arrived at Praia in Graciosa and transferred to the the little town of Santa Cruz (above).


Over the next four days we made a number of pelagic trips offshore, aiming where possible to reach the ‘bank of fortune’ some 23 nautical miles offshore.


In order to attract seabirds to the boat a prodigious amount of ‘chum’, a mixture of fish bits and cod liver oil was prepared on a daily basis.


This is the boat, we used, the little ‘Gobi’.


This wasn’t a very comfortable boat, kitted out as it was for scuba diving and not pelagic birding, and when all 13 birders plus the crew were on board it was rather crowded, but the low deck, just inches above water surface, allowed great opportunities for seeing and photographing  seabirds. Photographs of the species we saw will appear in the next post.


For some of the time during our pelagic outings we had lovely sunny weather with a calm conditions but at other times the black clouds rolled in …


…. and we endured some pretty rough seas.