Sunday, 21 February 2010


After a pretty grotty day today (very cold and with blustery snow showers), the last hour before dusk was clear with a much reduced breeze. I took my bike but I almost fell off as soon as I got on due to the steering being frozen solid! Thankfully, the steering began to free-up after a few seconds and I cycled north along the promenade up to Copenhagen harbour. The unfrozen channel hosted thousands of Tufted Duck with a few Scaup, Goosander, Smew, Coot and the odd grebe in amongst them. The evening light, although fading, was casting beautiful shadows from the colourful clouds onto the water and, although using low shutter speeds I was able to capture a few nice photos of the Smew and Goldeneye plus a couple of flight shots of small flocks of Scaup. The cold was penetrating and, although it's been good to have a proper Scandinavian winter this year, I am beginning to look forward to the thaw and some warm spring mornings...


It is now not uncommon to see the bodies of birds that have succumbed to the prolonged cold weather lying on the ice. In Copenhagen harbour I have seen several Coots, the odd duck and occasional thrush sp. The local gulls don't need a second invitation to tuck in and I guess, in a way, this is a bonus for those birds higher up the food chain. The photo below shows a young Greater Black Backed Gull getting to grips with a dead Coot.

Meanwhile, 'Harry' the Herring Gull is getting increasingly territorial near to the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. He was ringed as a chick in summer 2006 just a couple of kilometres from here and likes to let the other gulls know who is in charge. Here he is 'long-calling'... a handsome fellow!

Photos: Herring Gull 'long-calling' and a GBB Gull tugging at a dead Coot, a victim of the prolonged cold spell

Sika Deer

Today I spent the afternoon in Dyrehaven, the former royal hunting grounds just north of Copenhagen. There are apparently around 2000 deer of three species - red, fallow and sika - that roam the old forests of mostly beech and oak and I came across two large herds of Sika deer today, probably numbering around 60-70 animals in total. I also saw evidence of Wild Boar, although none were seen.

There are some incredible gnarled oaks in the park and these are home to relatively high densities of Nuthatches, Treecreepers and Woodpeckers (including Black, Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted).

The area is served well by trains and a good way to see the park is to catch a train to Skodsborg and walk south (around 2 hours) to Klampenborg Station. This walk take you across a stream between Rådvad and Strandmøllen that is a traditional wintering area for Black-bellied Dipper. Today I had no luck with the Dippers but I did see a cracking male Goshawk, several Treecreepers, Nuthatches, Common Buzzards and Great Spotted Woodpeckers and heard what turned out to be an elusive Black Woodpecker. I heard a couple of Great Spots drumming but they are clearly not yet in full drumming mode - with several inches of snow still on the ground, who can blame them. Another month and the early morning air will be filled with head-banging woodpeckers - this has to be one of the best places in the country to see Greater and Lesser Spotted plus the scarcer Black.

The deer posed pretty well today - although wild, they are relatively approachable given the numbers of people that use the park for recreation.

Photos: Sika Deer; and a Nuthatch of the Scandinavian subspecies

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Glaucous-winged Gull

What. A. Beast.

That was my reaction to seeing only the 5th ever recorded Glaucous-winged Gull in the Western Palearctic region. This large, stocky gull is an extremely rare vagrant from north-west North America, breeding across Alaska and Washington State and wintering along the west coast of the US as far south as California. The individual in the photographs below was first seen by a lucky few in Århus, Jylland (western Denmark), on 27 November for just a few minutes and then not again until 21 December - again by just a handful of observers and for a very brief period. Despite much searching by local birders, it was not relocated. Both of the original sightings were at Århus harbour, a major port with an estimated 20,000 gulls in the area in winter. Almost two months passed before the next sighting, on 14 February, at a freshwater lake called Braband Sø, just west of Århus city. Again, the bird did not stay long and disappeared after around an hour. Frustrating. But this new sighting offered hope to those wanting to see this now mythical bird. A few optimistic individuals turned up the following day, 15 Feb, to see if it would put in another appearance at the same site. After several hours waiting in the freezing cold, at 1129 it suddenly flew in and landed among the 100 or so other gulls, Coots, Moorhens and Mallards that have congregated in this area. Just reward for the seven birders, including a German twitcher from Bremen, who had made the effort. The bird stayed onsite until 1245 at which time it flew off east (towards the harbour), again causing much frustration for the tens of birders that were travelling to the site after the news of its reappearance.

Needless to say, after sightings on two consecutive days at the same site and around the same time, many more birders turned up on Tuesday 16th, including me! I arrived on site at around 0915 and already there were 30 or so birders present. This number swelled to at least 80 by 1130 (around the time the bird was seen on the previous two days) but, of course, the bird didn't realise it had a script to follow and, by 1400, it still hadn't shown up. People began to drift away and, despite sightings of Bittern (2), Smew (2), a White-tailed Eagle and Short-toed Treecreeper, spirits visibly sank, especially as it was below freezing. I amused myself by searching through the Common and Black-headed Gulls for colour rings and there were 4 with various combinations of rings, including two Common Gulls from Estonia. After exhausting the colour rings, I thought I'd check some other local sites, mostly to get my blood moving again. I checked a small unfrozen patch of water at the other end of the lake (4kms away) and, despite there being a much larger congregation of gulls here (at least 300), there was no sign of the "monster". Then, after spending a few more minutes back at the original site, I decided to try the harbour - at least I stood a chance of finding the resident Mediterranean Gull (a potential new Danish bird for me) among the thousands of gulls assembled on the ice in the harbour. I swapped mobile numbers with a Danish guy - Henrik - in case either of us heard any news.

No sooner as I had arrived at Århus harbour and began checking the first group of gulls, I received a text message from Henrik - the bird had been found - not at the original site but a couple of kilometres away along the river that flows out of the lake. I grabbed my bike and began the 20-minute return journey. About half way there my phone beeped and, again, it was Henrik. The bird had flown off! My heart sank. But I continued back to the original site to find out the latest. According to a group of Danish birders it was seen by just two birders, one of whom was unsure of the identification and wanted to see the wing pattern. He flushed the bird and it flew up, confirming the identification but also causing it to fly off! Needless to say, this guy was not popular with the masses waiting at the original site! Nevertheless, most of the people had decamped to the site of this fresh sighting in the hope that it might return. Henrik and I decided to go back to the original site given that the observer thought it "might" have flown in that direction.

We arrived there at around 1500 and, immediately a shout went up of "Der er det!" (there it is!). Unbelieveably, the Glaucous-winged Gull was circling low overhead and, after a couple of passes, landed on the ice some 100 metres away. Wow! It was a beast. A very stocky gull with relatively short legs and a short primary projection, giving it a "stubby" appearance. It sported a very marked 'hood' of dark streaks and blotches which reached some way down the breast and, on the upperside, merged onto the mantle. The wing-tips were a light grey with white 'mirrors' on the outer edges of the primaries and the bill a dull yellow with black markings and a weak reddish 'gonys spot'. One Dane remarked that it reminded him of a Great Skua and I can see the resemblance - it was 'front-heavy' with a deep bulging breast.

Birders immediately began to throw bread, trying to tempt it to stay and even come closer. It proceeded to perform very well over the next hour, walking around the ice, throwing its weight around a bit and occasionally flying around. Despite its large size it was not particularly aggressive and, in fact, most of the time it seemed to be looking around in all directions wondering what was happening not realising that it could scare the living daylights out of the other gulls and eat as much food as it liked if it wanted to...

Over the next half an hour or so, more birders arrived, running from the site where it was seen earlier and, with joy on their faces, they set up their telescopes to take a closer look while their lungs recovered. I would estimate that, in that hour, around 60-70 birders were present at one time or another.

True to form, after an hour or so, the bird suddenly flew up, circled, and headed east... And that was that.

I left at 1600 to catch my train home having had a thoroughly enjoyable day - it's not often I go on a 'twitch' but I have to say that this was a fantastic experience with the late drama making it all the more rewarding.

For anyone interested in going to see the Glaucous-winged Gull, check out this map which highlights the most productive sites and parking places.

UPDATE: The Glaucous-winged Gull was seen today (Wednesday) at the same place; and already I have received information about two of the colour-ringed Common Gulls. Both were ringed in Estonia with one ringed as a breeding adult male in 1991, making it at least 21 years old... but it still has some way to go to beat any records - the oldest Common Gull in Europe was ringed as a chick in Denmark and reached the ripe old age of 33 years and 6 months!

Photos: Glaucous-winged Gull (4th winter); and a couple of photos of the "twitch"

Saturday, 13 February 2010

More water birds

Some more photos of some of the waterbirds on show today. The cold weather is making them much more approachable than usual. Little Grebes are particularly confiding at the moment and I enjoyed watching up to 6 of these tiny birds feeding successfully today. The last photo below shows the density of birds in the relatively small patch of open water - how many species can you see (I make it 9)?

Photos: Little Grebe; Little Grebe with fish; a presumed Pochard x Tufted Duck hybrid; and an example of the range of species sharing the small open area of water today.


With temperatures still below freezing and nearly all freshwater lakes frozen over, any areas of sheltered unfrozen water are seeing large congregations of waterbirds. I stumbled on one such patch of water this morning just outside Copenhagen. It was rammed with birds. Little and Great Crested Grebes, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Mallard, Smew, Goosander, Mute Swan, Cormorant and Coot, alongside Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls, were all trying to take advantage of the feeding opportunity with a dead immature Mute Swan on the ice testament to the very difficult conditions these birds find themselves in this winter.

I focused on the Smew - a stunning bird that is usually pretty scarce in winter in the UK but is here in good numbers (the count at one site just outside Copenhagen reached 200 earlier this year). On this patch of water there were two splendid drakes with two female "red-heads" in close attendance. I sat down close to the edge of the lake and waited. After a while the birds seemed to get used to me with the Coots first to come close, soon followed by the Goosander, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Little Grebes. After about 15 minutes they all seemed very comfortable with my presence. The grebes were feeding well, managing to catch small fish at regular intervals, with gulls quick to pounce as soon as they surfaced with something edible. In my 60 minutes on site I did not see a gull manage to steal a catch at all.. the grebes simply dived if attacked.

The Smew gradually came closer - first the stunning males, soon followed by the females. I watched them diving, preening and sleeping over the course of the hour and I was lucky enough to get some decent photos. They really are stunning birds.

Photos: drake Smew (first four); and a 'red-head' female

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Hundested Havn

Today I visited the harbour town of Hundested, on the northern coast of Sjaelland. This meant taking the 40-minute train ride via the "S-tog" from Copenhagen to Hillerød and then 45 minutes on the regional train from Hillerød to Hundested. I arrived just as the cloud broke to reveal a gorgeous sunny, if a tad parky, day. The main reason for visiting this small harbour town was that there had been two birds reported here over the past weeks that I had not yet seen in Denmark - Purple Sandpiper and Iceland Gull. Checking the flocks of gulls for the 'Iceland' would also humour my new found interest in gulls, something that is worryingly becoming a passion of mine. Who'd have thought it - me, a larophile... ha ha..

Anyway, a thorough check of the harbour revealed a disappointing number of gulls - probably only around 100 - mostly Great Black Backed and Herring (including two yellow-legged Herring Gulls) with a few Common and Black-headed in amongst them. Unfortunately no sign of the Iceland Gull. Some compensation was the good number of Goosander in the harbour and I enjoyed watching these splendid 'sawtooths' (just check out the 'teeth' in the middle photo below) diving and feeding on the edge of the ice. A few sinensis Cormorants (the continental race of Cormorant - see here for how to compare the two races - not easy!) were loafing around and two Rock Pipits fed amongst the fishing boats. A look on the rocks eventually revealed a Purple Sandpiper, one of my target birds, probing around just out of reach of the waves. After watching it for around 10 minutes I did one final sweep of the harbour to look for the Iceland Gull. No sign. But I was rewarded with a flyover White-tailed Eagle that headed west over Roskilde Fjord and, in the last half an hour before my return train, a fishing boat came into harbour and the gulls feasted on the by-catch that was thrown overboard as the haul of what looked like plaice and other flatfish was taken ashore. There were a few squabbles between Goosander, which were adept at retrieving the small fish thrown overboard as they sank, and the Great Black Backed Gulls that proceeded to attempt to steal the fish as soon as the Goosander surfaced (I guess they can't swallow under water?).

A few Twite feeding on some weeds on a small area of waste ground constituted my last birds of the day.

Photos: Goosander; and a rather handsome sinensis Cormorant

Friday, 5 February 2010


A Walrus was sighted today on the west coast of Denmark. Apparently in poor condition, it may have to be put down. More here.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Gull Heads

Some close-up shots of Herring Gulls' heads... the first is a "2nd winter", the second a "1st winter" and the third a near-adult (4th winter). They are prettier than people give them credit for!

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper

I have just finished reading a very bleak, yet inspiring, series of posts about the plight of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. You can read the first post (with links to the others) here. It is a bird I have long wanted to see and I hope that its serious decline is reversed soon before it's too late. The loss of this charismatic and unique species would be symbolic of the accelerating extinction of species which is now estimated to have reached 10,000 times the background rate. A must read for anyone interested in birding or conservation.

Death in Christianshavn

No, not the title of the latest Agatha Christie novel, but the fate of a Jackdaw in Copenhagen this lunchtime. I was studying the local gulls at Christianshavn when all of a sudden the gulls went crazy and the local duck flew up in a large mass. I knew there must be a predator about and, on looking up, clapped eyes on a Common Buzzard swooping low over the lake. It came towards me and acrobatically twisted and turned before swooping to the ground. At first I thought it had missed its target but it soon became apparent that it had a Jackdaw in its talons and, after a few seconds of untangling its wings from the mesh of twigs, it took to the air again with its prey. Luckily I had the camera ready (I was going to take some photos of the colour-ringed gulls) and I managed to snap a few action shots. The Buzzard took the Jackdaw into the copse in the middle of the lake and attracted the wrath of the local corvids - a combination of Magpies, Hooded Crows and Jackdaws - as it set about feeding.. Wow. This prolonged winter weather has no doubt weakened many of the resident local birds which may mean a bountiful time for predators.

Can't beat a bit of drama on a Thursday lunchtime...!