Knee tremblers and wing runners!

Having dwelt on seawatching numbers in a previous post, thought I say something about those few ‘rare’ encounters; well one species group in particular. So what’s my best off Devon? For me the real ‘knee trembler’ is seeing a Pterodroma! Though I’ve seen seven (and one that got away, more on that later) off Britain and Ireland (3 Devon, 4 Ireland); that’s more than Barolo Shearwaters (3; 1 Devon, 2 Ireland) or Yelkouans (2 Devon), yet they're more exciting! There’s just something about the way they fly and look puts them right at the top of the pile. Pterodroma, the name says it all, from ancient greek pteron, "wing" and dromos, "runner", reflecting their remarkable effortless flight action.

We saw the first accepted Pterodroma for Devon pass Prawle Point on 17/08/1999, but in awful weather and far too briefly (c10 seconds) to really appreciate it. We actually submitted as a Pterodroma of the Fea's / Zino's / Soft-plumaged Petrel group, in those days Soft-plumaged Petrel was still being used to describe UK and Irish birds. It was accepted as a Zino’s / Fea’s Petrel - yes back to that in a minute. Despite that bird being too brief for a real ‘knee tremble’; it was still a momentous occasion for the five of us who saw it, which Matt Knott nicely wrote up in DBR1999 p167–168.

My second at Berry Head on 17/07/2001 was a different experience altogether, much better views, better weather and seen for a longer period (5 minutes, to appreciate it) with Mike Langman and Bill MacDonald. Mike and I picked it up simultaneously well to our north in Lyme Bay, with two Manx heading in towards us. I can still remember suddenly seeing that graceful yet dynamic flight and yes the ‘old’ knees immediately going into the ‘Pterodroma tremble’. So much so I struggled to get the words out, mumbling “**** you better get on this”. This bird was clearly bigger (longer-winged) than the accompanying Manx. One of the reasons we actually submitted as Fea’s Petrel (based on size etc), but it got accepted as Zino’s / Fea’s Petrel. Four more followed from visits to Ireland in 2006 and 2007, again each time I saw one, still that rush of adrenalin. The three Irish birds in 2007 were made even sweater with the realisation Del and I managed to clock the first, second and third sightings for County Mayo! Yet each time that real buzz of pure excitement that just doesn’t go away with the next one. My final UK bird (so far, here’s hoping) was again at Prawle Point on 31/08/2009, this time on my own and seen for 10 minutes as fairly well out, but picked up coming from well to the east and continued to watch until is disappeared into the west. It still invoked the ‘Pterodroma tremble’, after which I rushed up to Prawle village to get a mobile signal to phone it in, hoping to give others a shot at it further west along the coast. It went past Porthgwarra right on cue, some  5 hours 21 minutes later, giving those present a chance to appreciate the ‘Pterodroma tremble’, or as Russ Wynn there at the time described as ‘dribbling and swearing’. I suppose they have different effects on different people! What also makes these birds so magic on a seawatch is, they just don’t hang about and after that brief view (a few minutes if you’re really lucky), they’re gone and you’re left wanting more, or thinking did I really see that!

Well a few years have passed and I’ve not been lucky with another off Devon or even trips to Cornwall. I felt myself going into some sort of Pterodroma withdrawal (well save the one we’ll visit in a minute). There was only one remedy, I just had to go to Madeira and indulge myself in the Wind Birds pelagic trips, following in the footsteps of seawatching friend, the late Dave Norman and so many others. I’d heard so much good talk about these trips, with the added possibility of seeing both Zino’s and Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels. Definitely on a seabirders must do list!

So I completed the Wind Birds amazing three days of pelagics during 26/05/15–28/05/2015. I had great views of many tubenoses, including seeing three new species. But you know what, for me the best were those Pterodroma sightings (and White-faced Storm-petrel of course). Even out on a boat you get that absolute buzz when one turns up, usually just all too briefly as it investigates the chum slick before just disappearing again back out into the ocean. It was great to actually see Zino’s Petrel in the field and although I should have taken a lot more photos, I preferred to watch and savour when one turned up, rather than having my eye buried in the back of a DSLR all the time and missing the action. Although we saw Pterodroma petrels that could not be specifically assigned to either Zino’s or Fea’s (Desertas) Petrels, I found both the ‘good’ Zino’s we saw to be more delicate birds than the ‘good’ Fea’s, with a lighter feel about them and how they flew, being more Manx sized - even before critical stuff like bill size (and underwing) was analysed from photos. Now thinking back to my few UK and Ireland sightings, though they’ve all been accepted as  Zino's / Fea’s, not one of them (based on my Madeira experiences) could I say best fitted Zino’s. Those seen well and in company of other seabirds for size comparison have all better fitted Fea’s. When you think the few positively identified birds so far off the UK (all photographed) have been Fea’s, Zino’s does seem to be the less likely (especially considering relative population sizes), although as with all seabirds anything is possible, as a Bermuda Petrel off Ireland and Soft-plumaged Petrel off Norway show. But heck in bird reports with this particular species amalgam the Zino's bit comes first (taxonomic order!), Zino's / Fea's. It’s a bit like seeing Cory’s Shearwaters off Devon, there’s a remote possibility we may overlook a Scopoli’s Shearwater (and we’d need a good photograph to get one accepted), but we’re still calling them Cory’s Shearwater (and in the bird reports) as the most likely and not Cory’s / Scopoli’s Shearwater. Of course many of the Cory’s I’ve seen off Devon were sufficiently good views of the underwing to be fairly confident they were Cory’s, but many weren't (but separable from Great of course). Anyway going back to main subject, a Pterodroma sighting is still a magic event whether you can go down to species or not.
A very rare Pterodroma! A 'good' Zino's Petrel, on jizz in the field, structure, bill etc, but with a dark underwing coverts scoring 0–1 (in the overlap underwing score with Fea's, its still a Zino's) and below the other extreme.
A 'good' Zino's Petrel, with a pale underwing coverts scoring 4 (zone with little overlap with Fea's, so more clear cut as a fly past). This would be quite distinctive passing one of our headlands - if only!

That brings me onto one that got away. On the 02/10/2012 I was at my favourite Devon seawatch headland. Conditions were ideal with a SSW 5, increasing SW force 6–7 and murky horizon. There was an exceptional Sooty Shearwater passage underway; I ended the day with 326 birds - Devon's second highest count (also 82 Balearic Shearwaters). An excellent watch in itself, however, at 10:15 I saw a bird that completely stumped me at the time. It was a fair way out, moving through with Sooty Shearwaters, so in direct comparison very similar in size. When I initially picked it up I thought I was looking at a slim dark phase skua (like a dark juv Long-tailed in shearing flight). I've seen Long-tailed shearing before many times (including many trips watching the passage off North Uist), but then the flight of this bird was far more dynamic and not a skua! That initial thought of skua was because the bird was a cold dark brown and lacked the silvery underwing (though the coverts) of Sooty Shearwaters (many for comparison), any pale on the underwing was restricted to just the base to the primaries (underwing), it also lacked the longer necked, smaller headed look of Sooty, being shorter necked and slightly larger headed. The similarity of the attenuated rear end of Long-tailed skua, almost a wedge-tailed appearance was also notable! The more I looked at it the more I was convinced it was a dark Pterodroma sp. That effortless flight, several times it towered up (yes Sooties do that), but with little effort and hardly a flap looking more buoyant, to be easily lost on the down glide against the sea to reappear again towering up. At one point it looped completely back on its flight path in typical Pterodroma fashion. At this point I went into the ‘Pterodroma tremble’ and after it had gone I gathered my thoughts made some notes and phoned fellow seawatching friend Mike Langman. I was certain it was not a Sooty (I’d seen a quite a few) and not a skua. I knew it was something very good, but I also knew realistically I wasn’t likely to ever do anything with it (too far out for a photo which you will need for an extreme rarity) - but what was it likely to be? In early 2013 I purchased Steve Howell's (then new) ‘Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide’. In this excellent book I found something that matched my bird. Pictures and description of dark morph Trindade Petrel! I also hadn't realised they were regularly occurring in the west North Atlantic!! Later in 2013 I also purchased Bob Flood and Ashely Fisher’s superb ‘Pterodroma Petrels’ multimedia guide. Again Trindade Petrel was the best fit. So I bucked up the courage to email Bob about the sighting, saying not enough to go any further but what were his thoughts? I received a very positive reply, which concluded this was the most likely candidate, as fairly regularly occurring off North Carolina (and a few Azores) and to date c. 70% in the North Atlantic have been dark morph! He went on to say “When I read your description of 'that bird' off Start Point, it resonated strongly with my experiences of Trindade Petrel”!

Had somehow a Trindade Petrel go caught up in the same Atlantic conditions that had brought in this massive movement of Sooties to the Western Channel? Of course I'll never know!

But alas for me a Pterodroma that got away. Seems the UK has had a few close calls with this particular “knee trembler”, I hope one will be seen well (and photographed) sooner or later and added to the British list!
Notes on that bird. I'm no bird artist, looks like I've drawn a skua, but it weren't no skua!

Evolution and devolution!

I’ve been a keen amateur photographer for many years. It all started when I was given a second-hand Nikon EM body (that’s a budget 35mm film DSLR), by my dear late mum around 1980. And so with Nikon I’ve stuck for around 36 years! I then moved up to a second-hand Nikon FG body (again DSLR film); everything was manual in those days, even winding on the film for the next shot! I also got a Sigma 400/5.6 (manual focus) telephoto lens and so bird photography started. I later progressed to a Nikon F-301 camera body in 1991, which actually had a motor to wind the film on, state of the art then mate!!

Armed with said tools the Ms and I would go off some where exotic, like watching raptor migration at Tariffa (in the good old days of pesetas I may add). Before setting off on one of these jaunts, I’d purchase 15 or so slide films, usually Fujichrome 200/400 or Kodachrome 200 (expensive at the time with processing included) and snap away while on holiday. Then on arrival back home I'd post off the films in their pre-paid processing envelopes bound for the Fujifilm or Kodak labs, then usually they’d come back one by one after a week or so - never all on the same day mind, just to heighten that anticipation of that plop and rattle of another package landing on the doormat!  Then would come the fun bit - armed with a slide viewer and most importantly a bin, I’d go through them chucking away all the rubbish.... and rubbish there was a fair bit of. In fact it was a very wasteful process and how you just love digital these days, where there’s no need to worry about waste. Around this time I also stupidly exchanged my fine Sigma telephoto for a Tokina 80-400 telephoto zoom (because it was smaller!), which may explain why even more slides were going in the bin.

An example of the good old days of film - probably the best bird I’ve ever seen, a record shot of a Harpy Eagle (in Venezuela's rain forest). Just look at those feet! Also a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (so flight shots were possible with manual focus). Both taken with the Tokina not such a good lens - but two slides that escaped the bin!
Harpy Eagle, Venezuela. Nikon F301 & Tokina 80-400
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Venezuela. Nikon F301 & Tokina 80-400
In 2006 I finally made the jump and went digital, buying a Nikon D50 (6 mega pixels (MP)). The first thing It showed me was how c***p my Tokina lens was when viewing an image at pixel level. So off I went to a camera dealer and bought a second-hand Nikon 300/f4 AF for £200 and p/ex of the Tokina. What a brilliant lens the Nikon was, built like a tank in Japan and optically very sharp. Out in the field recently I noticed a birding colleague still had one of these greats in his procession – hang on to it Tim, even if you buy another as an upgrade. Sadly my 300/f4 AF had a much worn mount (it was over 10 years old after all even when I bought it), so it wouldn’t always focus due to the contacts sometimes being out of line, so I took it back and p/ex for a second-hand Nikon 300/f4 AF-S. Again a well built lens made in Japan, while not optically superior, much faster focusing, but lacking the image stabilisation of modern lenses. A history of these 300 Nikon lenses is shown here That D50 300/f4 AF-S combination worked well for me, as these Poms off North Uist and a Buller's (perhaps the best) Shearwater off New Zealand show.

Pomarine Skuas, North Uist with the D50 & 300f4/AFS combo
Buller's Shearwater with the D50 & 300f4/AFS combo
In the meantime a Nikon D80 digital camera was purchased as an upgrade to the D50. The D80 was used for just one day, I didn’t like it, but what a day! It took those Yelkouan Shearwater photos off Berry Head - the D50 would have done a better job and if only a D7000 or D7200 was around then. 
Yelkouan Shearwater with the D80 300f4/AFS combo
So back went the D80 and I stuck with my D50 until purchasing a Nikon D300 camera (as a 50th birthday present to myself) in 2009. The D300 & 300f4/AFS combination has taken so many good photos; many used in bird reports, articles, bird atlases, even identification books. The D300 became my trusty companion when I started working on a fishing boat - but going to sea all that time took its toll, as despite keeping it well wrapped up, sadly the salty atmosphere was not agreeable to its circuit boards and finally continuous autofocus mode (the one you need for flying seabirds) packed up. Its replacement was Nikon's D7000, actually superior in picture quality to the D300 and a bump up in pixels from 12 to 16MP, though not of a semi-pro type build quality so not as robust. Still a great camera (much lighter) and I still have it and it still functions despite a lot of at sea work!
Sooty Shearwater with the D300 300f4/AFS combo

Great Shearwater with the D7000 300f4/AFS combo
So once good quality consumer gear came from Nikon - notice I say consumer gear I can't afford or justify the pro-stuff and have taken good shots without it. All these Nikon camera and lenses were well made by Nikon mostly in Japan though some in Thailand, lasting even if second-hand and 10+ years old. They lasted well beyond their warranty period, even under extreme conditions (e.g. D300 and 300/f4 AF-S combination). My ability to be able take good photos has been greatly enhanced by huge steps in technology, autofocus and digital images (so you keep firing) negating the need for waste compared to those film days.

So move on to this year. Though I loved my 300/f4 AF-S lens, it was quite heavy, so one was always presented with dilemma, do I lug around the camera, lens, teleconverter, binoculars, telescope, tripod, packed lunch, flask, brolly (essentials for seawatching), or do I leave some bits behind? Well the bit often left behind was the camera lens combination. At times much to my cost! Having an adult Bridled Tern fly past at Pendeen at a range a photo would have greatly helped the rarity submission process (as in aberrant plumage) has long bugged me -  why did I leave the camera at home? But what if Nikon made a 300/f4 lens, which was half the size of the 300/f4 AF-S lens and half the weight and had image stabilisation? In 2015 Nikon starting producing such a beast or should I say mini-beast. I watched the reviews - mostly good, and waited for the price to come down as it always does. Bill, a friend who was just getting back into photography after a couple of false starts (gear wise), asked what I would recommend. So I thought this new lens combined with a Nikon D7200 camera body, could be good. If we go back to my first digital camera, the D50, it was a mere 6MP, well the D7200 has a staggering 24MP. Although that’s a 4x hike in pixels, in reality in terms of resolution it’s actually 2x. This is because it’s twice as much across the frame (or bottom to top) 6000x4000 pixels versus 3000x2000. Never-the-less that’s like having a 2x teleconverter on my old D50! So Bill came around one day with his new toys, we played with them and the results looked very good - glad to say he was not disappointed and I had to get one!
Just to show the jump in resolution from even 16MP to 24Mp, here's a shot of the moon using both my modern cameras. The D7200 is like having a 1.25x teleconverter on compared to the D7000, quite noticeable!
D7000 with 300/f4/PF VR
D7200 with 300/f4/PF VR
But its not all good news. So I bought the new Nikon 300/f4 PF VR lens - there's a few things of worry. It has a lot of plastic, to keep the weight down (so I'm very careful with it), oh and it’s made in China! Initial results looked good though and it certainly was much easier to carry round. Then with a falling pound after the 'Brexit' decision, I decided to get a D7200 before the prices hiked, as they did! So after years of very few problems with Nikon I encountered one straight away. The D7200 I purchased instantly had problems with the focus screen's embedded circuitry, showing blobs that shouldn’t be there! Luckily I’d bought it from London Camera Exchange who changed it straight away (a great shop and much better service than a certain shop in Brixham). All the same that camera should have never got through Nikon’s quality control if there is one? But the replacement was fine and just cost me a return journey to Plymouth. Now a few months on and 300/f4 PF VR lens has started squealing and sounding very rough, affecting focus. As its under warranty its gone back to Nikon. In fact it went back to Nikon three times which in all took 50 days. In the end London Camera Exhange Plymouth gave me a replacement. 10/10 to them 0/10 to Nikon. Even the replacement has front focusing issues, more bad QC.
Are Nikon evolving or devolving?
When the D7200 with 300/f4/PF VR work, they work well! Blimey that's a big Spar :)

Just a few hours!

This post was inspired by a recent email conversation with a fellow seawatcher, who thought looking at effort (hours put in) and the results was fascinating. To many it might be a yawn but I’ll continue!

As my seawatching became more and more regular, I made myself a relational database in ACCESS to capture the results (big yawn!). By relational this means a whole watch is a record, which captures date, the start and finish time, weather etc; while the bird sightings (or marine sightings) are sub-records attached to that day. This means I know how many hours I’ve watched and can calculate passage rates (birds/ hour), by Devon, by Devon site etc. Importantly it effectively records nil results by default, days where I’ve not seen a species (e.g. days with nil Balearic Shearwaters). These nil records are important for calculating effort, but cannot be calculated in many Bird societies’ databases because of the data structure (because the blank days aren't recorded). So to date (since 1991 when I started keeping records), I calculate I’ve done 3814 hours seawatching in Devon. That’s the boring bit over.

So out of interest I’ll pump out some figures from my database of numbers seen in those 3814 hours (Devon only), firstly for the tubenoses. So let’s go rarest first:

1 Macaronesian (Barolo) Shearwater (BBRC accepted)
2 Yelkouan Shearwaters (one BBRC accepted, one in circulation).
3 Fea’s Petrels (BBRC accepted, notice I’ve not put in the / Zino’s bit, more on this for another day).
50 ‘Blue’ Northern Fulmars
166 Leach’s Storm-petrels
544 Cory’s Shearwaters
689 Great Shearwaters
2049 Sooty Shearwaters
6110 European Storm-petrels
7842 Northern Fulmars
9981 Balearic Shearwaters
373413 Manx Shearwaters

One thing that surprised me was, I didn’t expect Leach’s to be rarer than the two big shearwaters, but when you think about where I watch it is - that’s likely to be different say in East Devon. Nothing else really surprising though. The ratio of Balearic to Manx Shearwaters is 1:37. Sooty to Manx is 1:182 and Sooty to Balearic roughly 1:5. Interesting how rare ‘Blue’ Fulmars are down here, roughly 1:157 to our usual phase birds.

'Big' seabird events very much skew the results, i.e. I’ve seen more than half my Devon Cory’s Shearwaters on just one day and even more notable, I saw 93% of the Leach’s total in a day. But my philosophy is, if you don’t put in the hours you're unlikely to be there when that ‘big day’ happens. Another thing coming out of this, considering the hours put in, I've got a very low hit rate with seeing rare tubenoses! While on rare seabirds notice that's roughly a 1:5000 chance of seeing a Yelkouan vs Balearic Shearwater (I don't count probables)!!

What about the skuas? Again rarest first:

97 Long-tailed Skuas
1079 Pomarine Skuas
3924 Great Skuas
5389 Arctic Skuas.

No surprises there either. That’s a 1:56 ratio Long-tailed to Arctic; and a 1:5 ratio Pomarine to Arctic. Sadly with the continued demise of the Arctic Skua population, these ratios will shorten further. Way back in 1998 I remember an incredible few days for Arctic Skua passage at Berry Head, when I personally saw 875 during 6–7/09/1998. I’m unlikely to ever see anything like that again and perhaps the days of a 100+ Arctics on a seawatch down here are gone. I predict the Great Skua to Arctic Skua ratio moving more towards 1:1 (currently 1:1.4) and may already be there!

And scarcer gulls, terns and auks - I’ll just do my favorites:
1 Laughing Gull
10 Roseate Terns
10 Black Guillemots
16 Little Terns
48 Sabine’s Gulls
65 Little Auks
261 Arctic Terns
274 Black Terns
602 Mediterranean Gulls
1273 Puffins
3891 Sandwich Terns
8306 Common Terns

Interesting? For me Roseate Tern is as rare as Black Guille on a seawatch, otherwise no surprises there.

Where have all the Balearics gone!

Earlier this year I wrote quite a 'large note' in British Birds, showing 10-years' analysis from counting passing Balearic Shearwaters through West Lyme Bay (WLB is basically the bit between Berry Head and Start Point). I'm a bit of sad-do - when others are out doing other things I'm starring at the sea hoping I might see this critically endangered tubenose fly by and strangely I get a kick out of seeing this bird. The crux of the note was WLB had been very good in three out of the last five years, with Devon passage records tumbling in 2015.

Well this year its back to normal! Yes, its not been an exceptional year for the best conditions, but even when we had them, the birds just weren't there in numbers. Portland had a 'spike' that looked promising but it just didn't materialise further down our way. Last year during a watch on 26/08/15 I had the amazing spectacle of 528 passing in just 4.5hrs. This year I didn't hit triple figures once, with a best of 63 in 8hrs on 24/08/16. As we're now through the WLB passage peak I did a quick tot up and saw just 298 in 109hrs!

So how does that compare? If we look at birds per hour, which takes into account effort we're back to the norm, before those exceptional years of  2011, 2013 and 2015! Lets see what 2017 brings?

 And another sad-do stat, I thought I'd crack seeing 10,000 Balearics in Devon this year and I'm at 9981!! Sometimes November is OK but I don't think so this year.

A 'big' Merlin at last!

Last week I was on Lundy, never been there in October before. Now October to me means Merlin month and Lundy is fabled for its Merlin passage. Having written the rap bit of the DBR many times, Lundy always comes out as tops! And Lundy certainly didn't disappoint, we saw Merlins on four out of five days. On the 21st October in one area we saw four different birds within 10 minutes - so difficult tell how many were going through with the Redwings etc.

I watched one Merlin go after a Snow Bunting. If you've ever watched the classic Merlin hunt, the prey often tries to out-climb the Merlin which rings up in circles flat-out (used to be the falconers 'classic' chase after Skylark). Anyway this Snow Bunting just climbed and climbed, with Merlin ringing up frantically trying to out-climb it. If the Merlin is fit enough it gets above its intended victim and then they both dive for the ground, where the Merlin usually wins! In this case the Snow Bunting won, out climbed the Merlin which gave up and drifted down. Later I watched a Merlin chasing a Goldcrest around Lundy's Old Light, it missed! I then realised, this bird was using the structure to launch its hunts. I sneaked up and it took no notice of me as the pictures show! It even used the top guard rails, bracing itself in the wind!

  Now its always been suspected that some of Devon's passage Merlins include the 'Islandic' form Falco columbarius subaesaon - they're meant to be darker, bigger and look longer-winged. In fact two ringing recoveries have proved they do move through Devon. Given that female Merlins (like many falcons) are larger than males, probably your only likely in-field candidate, is going to be if you see a big dark looking female or a big 'blue' male. I didn't on Lundy! We saw brown males and females together, but nothing that looked like, well anything other than just a Merlin (see photos).

Now today I was walking around Start (very pleasant) and just scanning a field with a few alba Wagtails and Mipits, when through dashes a falcon after them. At first I was thinking juv tiercel Peregrine, but this was clearly a large, long-winged dark looking Merlin. She came around for another go and clearly was 'big' for a Merlin. One of the best 'Islandic' candidates I've ever seen!