Sunday, 17 February 2008

'Late' juvenile Common Gull

A curiously plumaged Common Gull continues to raise eyebrows on its intermittent appearances in Alexandra Park. First seen more than a week ago, it was present on the reservoir again yesterday afternoon (Saturday 16 February), and this morning was on ice on the boating pond late morning.

This immature bird is in the 'wrong' plumage for February, having not yet moulted out of the juvenile plumage it has had since last summer. Almost all other local first-winter Common Gulls are now showing the classic even, mid-grey 'saddle' on the upperparts, contrasting brownish wing coverts and whiter underparts, but this distinctive individual retains its greyish-brown, pale-fringed scapulars and brown-streaked head and breast indicative of juvenile plumage.

It is perhaps a late-hatched bird from last year from the north of the breeding range which is not yet ready to moult, though by mid-February this plumage is surely unusual. Interestingly, it also appears fairly large and long-billed, perhaps raising the possibility that it may have originated from further east, towards the range of the subspecies heinei. This larger Russian race is said to be essentially inseparable in the field from nominate canus, although first-years sometimes have heavier head and underpart markings "forming complete dark-spotted necklace", rather like the Alexandra Park bird (see Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America by Klaus Malling Olsen, Helm, 2003).

Common Gull is a regular visitor in good numbers to the reservoir and boating pond in winter, and the second most numerous gull after Black-headed Gull (for example, 429 of the latter and 78 of the former were counted on the reservoir on Saturday afternoon, 16 February).

Photos: Dominic Mitchell

Sightings update

Left: Goldcrest by Dominic Mitchell

Although a relatively quiet week in the park, proceedings have been enlivened recently by the presence of up to three Bramblings around the deer enclosures and on the slopes between there and the Rose Garden. Found by John Murray on 12 February, the birds have been reported most days since - although they are often inconspicuous, sometimes feeding singly high in overhead branches or retreating into the flowering blackthorn in the old deer enclosure. John originally discovered them loosely associating with Chaffinches, so it may be worth checking any flock of the latter in the area for this attractive northern finch.

Similarly, the mixed group of redpolls has also shown well at times this week in the vicinity of the Grove entrance to the park, along Dukes Avenue, though they were not reported today (Sunday 17 February). However, a Siskin was heard in the Grove today, while Bob Watts and others had a male Blackcap in the same area this morning - presumably the bird seen on several recent occasions in the area.

Goldcrest (pictured), Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Redwing and Great Spotted Woodpecker all continue to be seen frequently in this corner of the park, while several recent reports of the very elusive Lesser Spotted Woodpecker here and elsewhere in the area are keeping hopes alive that there may still be a breeding pair.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Mealies are again the main attraction

Male Mealy Redpoll: note the pale ground colour (photo: Dominic Mitchell)

Female Mealy Redpoll (photo: Dominic Mitchell)

The park was bathed in a crispy white frost this morning, and largely deserted - ideal conditions for some good late winter birding. The low temperatures had not resulted in any out-of-place avian visitors on the reservoir, but there were a few highlights elsewhere.

A tour of the perimeter hedge around the playing fields resulted in Dominic Mitchell, Bob Watts and James Arquette getting Fieldfare on their park year lists. Perhaps this was the bird seen yesterday nearby on the reservoir embankment by Gareth Richards; Alan Gibson had one in the same area in early January, so it may - unusually - be an overwintering bird.

No sooner had it been remarked that conditions might suit an overflying Jackdaw than a characteristic call revealed the presence of two such corvids passing over high to the north. Shortly afterwards, a couple of finches dropped into the cricket scrub, one clearly a calling Greenfinch; the other, however, was a dapper male Siskin, watched at close range for a short time before it moved off into the hawthorn hedge at the back of the scrub.

Pride of place for the day, however, must again go to the Mealy Redpolls. At least one male and a female were seen again on Dukes Avenue, feeding in the large, seed-heavy birch on the corner with Grove Avenue, or sometimes in the birch outside number 128. Bob obtained good video footage and Dominic some better still images than yesterday, some of which are reproduced here. These cracking finches are subtly but consistently different from the Lessers which often accompany them; note the paler, rather 'frosty' ground colour, reduced buffy tones and larger bulk of the Mealies. Males of the latter look especially smart with their well-marked pink breasts on a cool white background. The calls of these birds seem very similar, if not identical (though some redpolls, presumably Mealies, occasionally sound rather 'hoarser').

First Common Buzzard of the year

A Common Buzzard was reported flying SW over the south edge of the pavilion at 1320hrs today by Pete Mantle. It was the first sighting of this very occasional visitor this year.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Redpolls and more

Mealy Redpoll: one of the two local males (Dominic Mitchell).

Six days ago Gareth Richards did well to locate a small party of redpolls in a birch tree opposite the Dukes Avenue entrance to the Grove. Lesser Redpoll is a scarce enough bird to find in the park these days, but to have one consorting with three even scarcer Mealy Redpolls - the larger Scandinavian species - was a real coup.

The birds had been looked for since, but with no success. However, at about 12.30 today Dominic Mitchell was walking along Dukes Avenue with his family and some friends when he spotted two Mealies, including a fine pink male, feeding in a birch on the pavement outside number 128. He texted the news out, after which the redpolls were seen intermittently by others during the afternoon. Not long before the birds went to roost, Gareth and Dominic ascertained that at least six individuals were involved - three smaller, darker and more buffy-brown Lessers, and three larger, essentially paler Mealies (two males with obvious pinkish breasts, and a female).

The fact that all six have not (yet) been seen together on Dukes Avenue suggests that there is another as yet undiscovered feeding site, probably somewhere in the north-west section of the park, in the direction of which the birds have been seen to commute. The light was fading as the birds came within photographic range, but a record shot of a male Mealy appears above.

It capped a good day locally for Dominic - beginning with a male Blackcap in his garden nearby at 8am, and his first-ever Great Black-backed Gull for Alexandra Park (a species barely recorded annually), seen at 11am over the ice rink car park with a flock of other large gulls.

Below: Stock Doves in the Grove today, 'phonebinned' with a Sony K810i cameraphone and Swarovski EL 10x42 binoculars (Dominic Mitchell)