Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dippers on the Don

Plenty of Dippers on the River Don in Aberdeen yesterday, which was apt really since we managed to not see the nailed-on Harlequin Duck.

Some consolation (stress on ‘some’) was had in the form of an Otter, which gave amazingly good views as it fed on the opposite bank of the river.

Actually, apart from the whole not seeing the duck thing, and the fact I was horribly ill with man flu, it was a nice day out. Mind you, I would say that: I spent most of the day asleep in the back of the car! With thanks to Chris and John for doing the driving...

Monday, February 09, 2015

Sudan Golden Sparrows, Bir Anzarane (Western Sahara)

I've just returned from an excellent week of birding in Western Sahara with Oliver Metcalf, Tim Jones, and Jonnie Fisk. One of the undoubted highlights was a flock of Sudan Golden Sparrows at Bir Anzarane.

Following a report of a single male Sudan Golden Sparrow with Desert Sparrows at a drinking site near to Bir Anzarane on Friday 30 January, we travelled to the site on Monday 2 February with Mohamed Lamine Samlali from Association Nature Initiative (A.N.I.) and counted a minimum of 28 Sudan Golden Sparrows. At more-or-less the same time as I counted 28 on the fence by the drinking site, the other three members of our party counted at least 17 on the other side of the settlement buildings. However, there was clearly some crossover between the groups of sparrows and since no coordinated counting was carried out, we consider it safest to consider the final count as “minimum 28” – in reality, there may very well have been some 40 or more Sudan Golden Sparrows present on site at the time.

The site is located near to an area with land mines and birders wishing to look for the birds should contact A.N.I. to arrange travel and access.

At least 31 birds were again present on 6 February when Mohamed visited the site with a group of Belgian birders (Pieter-Jan D'Hondt, Joachim Bertrands, Simon Vyncke, Sander Bruylants, and Robrecht Debbaut). Additionally, the settlement resident reported that the birds had been present for "a couple of years" and that his cat regularly caught "one or two each day"(!); so it appears that the birds may be resident or largely-resident in the area.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Barolo Shearwaters on the Canary Islands

At the end of December, I spent two weeks on the Canary Islands. The main reason for my visit was to help Marcel and the rest of the Universidad de la Laguna/Canarias con la Mar Project team with an expedition to put PTT (GPS) devices to up to four Barolo Shearwaters. As much as it may sound like a fun holiday in the sun, it was actually bloody hard work. The original plan was to head out to a colony on one of the northern islets but prolonged rough sea conditions meant we couldn't get out there. Multiple nights at several "mainland" colonies gave us some good data in the form of singing birds, and, with a thermal-imaging camera, we were able to watch some night-time behaviour for the very first time. However, we did not managed to catch any shearwaters (thought we did catch one Grant’s Storm-petrel). 

On Thursday 18th we finally managed to get onto the Montaña Clara islet, where a colony of Barolo Shearwater is (relatively!) easily accessed in the volcano crater. We had two nights before we had to leave again and four PTTs still in need of a home. Working on the islet is extremely tough: all water etc needs to be carried on, and the study site is a tough 90 minute hike up a ridge and down into the crater. 

On the first night, we heard several birds but again didn't manage to catch any. It looked like it would be the same story on the second night until, just a few hours before dawn, we caught one! The bird was ringed, measured, a genetic sample taken, and a PTT fitted.

The PTT transmits real-time data and, by the time we were back on the mainland later in the morning, we could already see that the bird had left the islet and headed northwest. After ten days of hard slog and frustration getting to that point, it was extremely satisfying to see that our hard work had paid off. 

Pre-ringing. The feet and legs were an amazing bubblegum-blue and black.

PTT fitted and ready to go.

You can view more information about the project and the tagged bird – including some of the PTT data – here. For anyone interested in hearing more about the ten-day expedition I was involved with, I will be giving a short talk to the RSPB Liverpool local group following their AGM on Monday 20th April 2015.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Happy New Year/Happy old Woodpigeon

...although in actual fact it's not *that* old.

This bird, in the garden this afternoon, was ringed as a second-year in 2011, which makes it four-and-a-half-ish. Still a long way from the 17 year 8 month record but nonetheless interesting that is had stayed in the garden for so long (it pops in from time to time throughout the year).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Species nova

Dear Sirs,

It is with great excitement that I write of the events of the night of Saturday thirteenth of December 2014. On an expedition to the Canary Islands – a Spanish colony located in the Atlantic Ocean some miles off the Western Saharan coast – I joined a group of locals as they visited the breeding colony of a bird they call "paiño". These locals were rather civilised, knowing as they did how to cook using a stove heated using natural gas. They procured a meal of tinned beans and a local sausage known as "chorizo". Accommodation was a cave located near to the sea. We consumed our meal of beans and "chorizo" near to the cave mouth.

At approximately 22:30, I caught sight of a "paiño" making a series of swift turns in flight around the entrance of the cave. It reminded of the Common Stormy-Petrel, a species I am familiar with from the northern United Kingdom. Using my battery-operated torch, I illuminated the bird, at which point it alighted on volcanic rocks some seven yards from where we were located. I sent my man forth, a young Spaniard with an impressive knowledge of the Kingdom's avifauna. With nothing but his bare hands, he secured the bird. 

The bird was examined in some detail. It was an adult female, sexed by the cloaca distended following egg laying. I find it peculiar that this species should be breeding during the winter months, though the climate in this location is much more favourable than that encountered by the more northern Common Stormy-Petrel

In appearance the bird was sufficiently similar to the Common Stormy-Petrel, except for: it was larger (the wing measured five-and-one-quarter inches), possessed a narrower white area below the saddle, and held a bill of thicker dimensions and stronger bite. It appears to be the case that, whilst this form is obviously known to the natives of these islands, it has not yet been formally described by the scientific community. I propose this bird be known as the Grant's Stormy-Petrel.

Also of note is our continued observation of the Barolo Little Shear-Water, a scarce breeder on the cliffs of the Canary Islands.

I am indebted to Juan Bécares for the photograph of my Spanish boy assistant in action.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Cows at Burton Mere

Distant cows, some pink-feet, a young male Hen Harrier, an oversized adult male Hen Harrier, and a very nice Christmas dinner in the Boat House in Parkgate. That pretty much sums up a pleasant afternoon on the Wirral.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Swan Lake

It's been a weekend of swans, with ENB's Swan Lake on stage at the Liverpool Empire last night...

...and Whooper Swans at Martin Mere WWT today.

There weren't that many swans around, actually, nor too many Pink-footed Geese. Most of my time was spend having a look at some of the birds that were in front of the Swan Link hide: Pintail, Wigeon, Ruff etc. This first-year Ruff, aged by the mix of moulted adult-type (square and grey) and juvenile feathers (dark centred with buff/orangey fringes), gave very close views. I was quite surprised at how limited the post-juvenile moult was.

It's always entertaining to have a wander around the captive collection. This friendly White-headed Duck was pick of today's favourites.

I took a wander around the Birdwatching Fair that was taking place in the visitor centre. I arrived at the ringing demo just in time to see a Long-tailed Tit. Being away from the UK for so long, it's always striking how different some British birds are compared to birds in Scandinavia. This rosaceus bird was a nice contrast to the caudatus birds I've been handling over the past month – not just for the obvious reasons but also the fact it was tiny in comparison to nominate birds!

With many thanks to the ringers who's demo I gatecrashed...

And, since Christmas is coming, here's a collection of Snow or almost-Snow Ducks. The last one is my favourite.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


We had the perfect weekend away planned: a trip north to Varberg, Halland, with a pelagic trip on the Sunday. We were kindly given a lift to and from Varberg by Simon Fors, which meant that on the way up there we could stop off and take a look at a Hoopoe that was near Halmstad. The bird was extremely confiding and, as it fed up and down along a strip of grass behind a building, it wandered within about 15 cm of people's feet. Perhaps not surprisingly, on its right side it has lost a large all of its tertials, most of its coverts and a good chunk of its scapulars to something; cause or consequence of it spending November in Sweden, I'm not sure. The bird was a first-year and looked to have moulted very little with e.g. all crown feathers and apparently all scapulars and all or most mantle feathers still juvenile.

While we were at the Hoopoe, we received a text message from the pelagic organisers to say the trip had been cancelled due to high waves. We had a room booked in Varberg – in the old prison – so we decided to carry on up there and make the most of things. Perhaps there would be some auks or divers in the harbour, or some seabirds passing by.

The prison was surprisingly warm and comfortable, and the whole walled village it was in was worth exploring in the morning.

We checked Varberg harbour but, other than a Weasel along the breakwater, there was very little else of note.

We wandered along to Getterön nature reserve, were we enjoyed a sit down in the Naturum from where we could see White-tailed Eagles, Whooper Swans, and a couple of Smew.

News broke of a Black Duck near Torekov in northern Skåne, so we headed south with a few hours of light left. When we arrived, we found a reasonably large crowd on the beach.

Unable to locate the duck (or any duck) based on where they were looking and where people were pointing, we asked what was happening. They were watching a Water Pipit. The "crowd" watching the Black Duck was 50 m further on...

All four of them. Mind you, it wasn't surprisingly that no one cared too much about the duck. It was distant, viewed into the sun, and thoroughly unsatisfying. Here's a heavily cropped photo taken through the scope at 60x zoom.

Spot the Black Duck.

It wasn't what we'd been expecting when we left Falsterbo on Saturday afternoon: a Hoopoe, a Black Duck, and not a single Little Auk, skua or diver. At least it was nice to have a break from the peninsula for 24 hours and to see a little bit more of Sweden.

Friday, November 07, 2014


It's remarkable to think that I've now been at Falsterbo for the two biggest autumn seasons ever. This autumn was far from the dizzying heights of 2012 (32,600 birds) but with 24,995 birds ringed in the standardised ringing so far this autumn – the second highest total ever – we've done pretty well.

It's been a record autumn for most of small, “eat-insets-from-in-crevices”, short-distance migrant species. We've recorded the highest autumn totals (in 34 years of standardised ringing), for the following species:

Goldcrest 11,230 (previous record: 10,403 in 2000, followed by 6,214 in 2008)
Robin 4,138 (previous record: 4,052 in 2000)
Chiffchaff 972 (previous highest: 556 in 2010)
Long-tailed Tit 345 (previous record: 330 in 2012)
Eurasian Treecreeper 201 (previous record: 151 in 2005)
Firecrest 18 (previous record: 8 in 2000)

And we managed the second highest autumn total for Wren (1,621), second only to 1,739 in 2000.

There are only a few days left of the seasons so, although the totals are all likely to increase slightly, we're probably not going to add anything significantly more to any of the totals now. Besides which, I'm going to be off the peninsula for most of the weekend. Hope I don't get a nose bleed.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Bird counts are fun

It's Thursday. Time to count some Wigeon and some Mute Swans. Weekly bird counts...

Sometimes, though, they come up trumps. The past two bird counts have given us Gyr Falcon, Red-breasted Goose, White-tailed Eagles, Bewick's Swans, Rough-legged Buzzard, Great Grey Shrike, a flock of Scaup, a Black Redstart, and some Mute Swans and Wigeon.

Most exciting find, from our point of view at least, was when we stopped the car at a random field to [half] jokingly “find a Daurian Jackdaw”. We didn't, but we did find this striking soemmerringii-type Jackdaw. I haven't got much more to say about that bird that Marcel hasn't already said over on his blog.

It's been windy for the last two days, so no ringing; and it looks like it will rain tomorrow. However, ringing at the lighthouse garden has been varied and productive over the past week or two. We've only ringed one Great Grey Shrike so far this year, a first-winter bird.

As the footnote in Svensson's Identification Guide to European Passerines points out, “it is tempting to believe that those birds of ssp. excubitor, homeyeri and others, with completely unbarred pale grey-white underparts and with jet-black lores and WF are ad. males...” Indeed, this bird, being a first-winter but still having jet-black lores, clean white underparts, and an extensively black bill, gives the impression of being what we might consider a male; but as the footnote in Svensson goes on to say, “...if we assume that males have on average longer wings than females, and if the sexing by taxidermists of skinned birds in collections of this species is not erroneous at an exceptionally high level, then barred or unbarred underparts, black or grey lores, etc. vary individually (or to extent by age?), not according to sex.” The same footnotes also points to a reference, Dohmann (1980), which found that males on average have slightly more white in the tail than females but the difference is very slight with extensive overlap. As it happened, this bird had rather limited white in the tail (and in the secondaries). It was, in the end, left unsexed.

The bird had moulted one greater covert, GC9, but on the right wing had also lost and regrown GC4 & 5. They're glossier black than the retained juvenile greater coverts, which are browner with a pale fringe at the tip. The moulted median coverts (all of them) are the same glossy black colour as the moult GCs.

While we're vaguely on the subject of variation in Great Grey Shrike, it's worth pointing out this paper. It's a shame it smells like complete bull, because I quite like the idea of them all just being colour variants. It would make like a whole lot easier. Or a lot more boring.

A Whitethroat on 31st October is always worth taking a close look at... though this one seemed to be disappointingly communis-like.

We've caught a few Redwings. Nice to take a look at variation in wing length and plumage of what are, presumably, all nominate birds.

Finally, as much for aesthetics as for education, the primary coverts of a first-year Jay. It's the only Jay I've handled this year but it didn't hesitate in adding its calling mark to my hand, along with various scabs and wounds from a Magpie, the shrike, a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and a particularly nasty Flommen reed stem.

The dark bars in the feathers develop much as growth bars do. I don't actually know what that means, I'm just repeating what I've read; although I presume the melanin deposits are turned "on" and "off" as the feather grows. So, when a set of feathers are grown at the same time – as they are in the juvenile bird in the nest – the on/off results in the same pattern forming at the same point along the feathers. I've heard this misquoted numerous times as “the bars line up across the closed wing”. They don't; but you can trace the same pattern up the length of each feather. In this case, starting at the tip, there's a medium black bar, a narrow black bar, a (very) thick one, thin, medium-thick, medium thick, etc, hideously demonstrated using coloured arrows below. The same pattern occurs on all the feathers. In adults, at least some of the PCs generally show irregularities in the barring not shown in the other feathers.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


I'll admit, I'm a spoilt little brat. For anyone living in the real world this autumn at Falsterbo would be been pretty amazing by all accounts; but I'm a bit bored...

It's been a funny season: plenty (plenty) of Robins and Goldcrests but with interesting things few and far between. We finished our time in the reedbed with a Bluethroat and good numbers of Penduline Tits (nice to take a look at the variation in moult of the first-year birds).

Two Yellow-browed Warblers were an unexpected bonus in the reeds but for me the relative highlight was a first-year male Reed Bunting with eccentrically moulted primaries.

There's been a spattering of Sibes at the lighthouse, with a Radde's Warbler and two Pallas's Warblers ringed. Other than that, a couple of Ring Ouzels, some Firecrests, and a few Red-breasted Flycatchers have been the only notables. Perhaps part of my apathy stems from the fact that most days I've been sitting in the corner putting rings on Robins, so these interesting birds have largely passed me by or been whisked off to be shown at the front of the lighthouse before we've really had any time to take a proper look at them.

The last few stragglers of each species often end up being the unhealthy individuals. Fault bars form across feathers when there's a period of poor feeding during feather growth. This is often apparent in young birds, since they're dependant on feeding from the parent birds while they're in the nest; and feathers grown simultaneously – as feathers in the nest are – will show a fault bar in the same place. If a fault bar is sufficiently strong, it causes a weak point in the feathers and the feathers can break. That's what had happened to this first-year female Blackcap, where a fault bar across the primaries and secondaries has caused the flight feathers to break half way along their length. The bird was probably fairly healthy before the feathers broke: it had undergone a relatively extensive post-juvenile moult, with all the greater coverts, A1, and two (left wing) or three (right wing) tertials moulted. You can see that the post-juvenile feathers are unaffected by the fault bar, being grown at a different time (post-fledging) to the flight feathers. Amazingly, the bird could still fly, and we haven't recaught it since it's release, suggesting it may already have left the lighthouse garden.

Compared with previous years, we don't seem to have had too many recoveries from elsewhere, although we did trap one Norwegian and one Russian-ringed Goldcrest. The most interesting recovery report we've received the other way around was of a Shoveler (the one and only Shoveler) that we ringed this time last year. It was shot 13 days later near Bordeaux (France). An interesting recovery, if not the nicest way to have the bird "resighted" – and slightly worrying the only Shoveler ringed in the last 30 years at FBO didn't last more than two weeks after leaving Sweden!