Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 in 12 lifers

As the year draws to a close, it seems appropriate to give a round up of the new species I've seen and the personal highlights
2013 has been an amazing, unforgettable, unpredictable and wholly unexpected year for rare birds in Britain. Whilst there have been no first for Britain (Ruby-crowned Kinglet in Ireland was a first, but we won't call that Brtain...), there have been more Megas than in any other year (I think!). There have been several '2nd for Britains' including the Cape May Warbler which had only turned up once in 1977. In addition, there was an amazing record of 2 Ivory Gulls together, which was the first multiple occurrence since the early 1900's.
Annoyingly, while this year has been the best ever nationally, a large proportion of birds that have turned up have been on islands or about as far away as it's possible to go without getting a boat. Combine this with my lack of income, very busy fieldwork season and other priorities, this has by no means been the most successful twitching year with 12 lifers (out of a possible 150 or so (probably...)).
My first newby of the year almost didn't come at all. Whilst packing up the car to come back to Bangor from Preston, I did a quick sweep of Facebook and saw a post saying 'Killdeer Alston Res'! I did a very quick check of Birdguides and there right in front og me was a Killdeer only 4 miles from my house! The more remarkable thing was that it was found by Gavin Thomas whom had found another/the same Killdeer whilst on holiday in Ireland just a couple of weeks prior! What are the chances of finding a 2nd back on your patch in Lancs. I managed to see the bird after it disappeared for a short while, but was very lucky in that only a relatively small handful on people got to see it before it buggered off, never to be seen again. Great bird!
In terms of 'gripability', this could well be the highlight of the year as so few people saw it and so many were shocked when I announced I had!

Bonaparte's Gull
My second lifer of the year came from Heysham Outfalls. I took my time to get this bird, but managed relatively good scope views as this adult summer fed on the sand of the incoming tide. A bird that I've wanted for a while now.

It seemed like an age before I eventually got a few more new species, but this didn't come til the end of July

Caspian Tern
The 3rd lifer of the year required two visits. A Caspian Tern turned up on a resevoir in Cheshire on Acre Nook for roost. I arrived the followed morning for just after the crack of dawn to several glum, damp faces as there was no sign. That evening, news came out with 50 minutes of light left, so my parents and I made the hour's journey and somehow made it in time to get nice scope views of a dappled black headed Caspo! Awesome!

Stilt Sandpiper
Cheshire was also the scene of lifer number 4. I joined Mark Breaks (and later Alex Jones) at Neumann's Flash. Arriving onsite to a scrum in one of the screen hides, we were all looking through the smallest of gaps through vegetation onto a partially obscured island about 50m away. Hardly ideal with heads getting in the way and the bird proving to be elusive and quite skittish. With persistence however, pleasing scope views were had of this charismatic wader. I must confess though, this species always has a reputation of being 'one of the best waders you'll see', so I built this up a lot in my head. I don't know whether or not it was due to the bird feeding waist deep in water, so the legs weren't showing, but I can't say I was blown away by this bird. I think I preferred the juvenile Ruff onsite!
Cory's Shearwater
When Amy (my girlfriend) invited me to the Isles of Scilly for a summer holiday in mid-August, two thoughts went through my head. 1. 'Well, she's a keeper!' 2. 'Oo! Pelagics!!'. I managed to get on two pelagics with Amy whislt on holiday, run by Joe Pender, and the first one was amazing. It started off with a pair of Cory's coming into view from 11 o clock. They swept right across the port side giving amazing views and great potential for photographic opportunities. This pelagic ended with c20 Cory's seen! The 2nd pelagic didn't see any Cory's which was quite surprising, but a couple of seawatches for interisland cruises and off Hell Bay, Bryher, I managed to pick out a few more totalling c30 for the trip.
Great Shearwater
The next lifer took it's time whilst on pelagic 1, but eventually came in and gave great views as 3-5 individuals spent time around the boat and even followed the boat back in to almost Penninnis Head! This are much more impressive than the lazy Cory's, which makes sense being a big-Puffinius. The 2nd pelagic saw one more circling the boat, but finding one flying past Hell Bay on a quick seawatch was a real thrill.

Balearic Shearwater
Balearic Shearwaters are like buses... On the Scillonion III on the journey back to the mainland, I picked up a distant Balearic on the southern side of the boat, which is a very long awaited UK lifer after trying on countless occasions in the Irish Sea and seeing so many off Cap de Creus in Spain. It was to my great surprise then, when I was at the Spurn Migration Festival and a cracking Balearic flew south with a small flock of Manxies and a single (out of place) Knot. This was much more enjoyable and it was with birding friends who could see it too and I was also able to compare it in size to the nearby Manxies.
Photo taken in Spain in 2008
Sardinian Warbler
Now, readers of this blog may have seen my 'Top Ten UK Targets' list on the right of my blog. From day 1, Sardi has been on it. I have seen hundreds abroad and they are stupendously brilliant birds, but because they are so common abroad, I've never really had a chance to take in their amazingness. I therefore wanted one in Britain to really appreciate this amazing Sylvia. I joined Scott Reid, Liam Langley and Alex Jones on the trip up to the Borders of Scotland at St. Abbs Head. A truly spectacular place and one of my favourite twitches just for this reason alone! The bird hadn't been showing for about 30 minutes when we arrived, but it was singing in the open first thing, which left us hopeful. After what seen like an age, I started thinking about checking a slightly different area which looked good. As I started moving, Alex had the same idea and happened to see a bit of movement, so we both investigated. Before too long we heard a call that I associate with dry scrub on sandy soil and 30 plus degree heat (not windy, cold Scottish habitat!). This was the bird! We hurried everyone over and about 30 seconds later, the amazing male Sardinian Warbler flew out of the gorse and hovered over another allowing amazing prolonged views before it dived deep into vegetation. This was truly amazing and so weird at the same time. Weird in that I have seen literally hundreds of these birds, but when I first clapped eyes onto the black and white gem, it was like I'd never seen one in my life. Such a thrill!
Following on from birds I associate with heat appearing in cold weather, I twitched a bird found by one of our own NGBirders! Alex Jones found a Hoopoe on his patch in Rhyl and was a very long overdue lifer for me. I twitched this with Ros Green, so with this being new to her full stop, this was even more exciting for her. A great bird, even if it proved occasionally elusive for extended periods.
Photo Alex Jones
Pied Wheatear
Some things, you just can't predict. I met up with Alex Jones to twitch the reported Hightown Siberian Stonechat, but before we knew it, we were on our way to Nottinghamshire to go and see a Pied Wheatear! This is a species that for some reason, I had a premonition I'd never actually see, so have always said I wouldn't twitch one because I'd probably dip. Obviously this is a load of rubbish and as it turns out, if you happen to turn up to a twitch when the bird is showing remarkably well only 15m in front of you, you can go as far away as possible from a dip!
Photo Paul Rowe
Western Orphean Warbler
Now this one the joint candidate for bird of the year for me (along with the sardi). Julian Hughes, Chris Bridge and I made the long journey south through deepest darkest mid-Wales to Pembrokshire to see the WOW feeding on apples in a private garden. We joined an assembled crowd of 40 or so people and before too long got frustratingly obscured scope views of the bird as it flew in and ate apples. With persistence however, we were rewarded with fantastic views of a truly brilliant bird. Maybe the hardship endured during the first couple of hours onsite made the much improved views just that bit better?
Buff-bellied Pipit
December was a very frustrating month bird wise with possible lifers turing up left right and centre. Birds such as White-billed Diver, Ivory Gull, Baikal Teal, Brunnich's Gullemot and Buff-bellied Pipit were all placed around Britain laughing at my inability to twitch them. It wasn't until the 30th of the month that I was able to attempt to see one of these. I was staying with Amy in Chester and as she was at work, the Buff-bellied Pipit, 11 miles away, at Burton Marsh was just too good to refuse! I arrived onsite to see 7 or so birders scanning the Meadow Pipit flock and they'd just seen it moved further down the path, so were trying to relocate it. Whilst waiting for it to show again, I was very content in watching a stunning Siberian Chiffchaff feeding on the ground about 10 feet away (I'm not sure why I didn't take my camera...). Also present was a wintering 1stw/female Northern Wheatear which was a very very strange sight to see after Christmas! Once I got my fill on these two, I gave the pipits a good grilling and before too long picked up a darker mantled bird in flight. It landed and showed an obvious supercillium and strong streaking on the breast. I knew straight away that this was the American! Fantastic! The bird gave pleasing scope views in horrendous condition and was even heard calling on several occasions which was very obvious and sounded almost like a Grey Wagtail crossed with a pipit (a fluid surleep).

So there we have it. 12 months. 12 Lifers and a life list of 320 in the UK. While I enormously with I'd Pacific Swift, Dusky Thrush and Semipalmated Plover this year, I am happy with the birds I saw and don't have any regrets (If you believe that you'll believe anything!)

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Boxing Day Ringing - 26th December 2013

 My first full grown Collared Dove
 Adult male Greenfinch
One of 9 Goldfinch

Excellent morning's bird ringing in my garden. With the horrendous weather in the lead up to Christmas, I really didn't expect to be doing any more ringing in 2013, but a lovely frosty Boxing Day morning changed my plans!

Highlight was probably a 1st winter Collared Dove aged on a retained secondary and presumably unmoulted alula (however can't seem to find this in the literature...). This was new to my permit and my first 'adult' that I've handled. Lovely birds, but not as big as I thought they'd be!

Also managed to catch a nice group of 9 Goldfinch and 2 Greenfinch. 4 Blue Tits (1 retrap), House Sparrow and a retrap Dunnock added to a list that contributed to a great morning post-Turkey!

Merry Christmas Blogger!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Brockholes patch tick - 22nd Decemeber 2013

Back in 2007, I took the above image of an apparent golden blur. It was however not a golden blur in reality, but a Jack Snipe flushed on the now Boilton Marsh at Brockholes. It worries me somewhat that this is to date the best photo of Jack Snipe I have taken in flight...

I therefore set out on Sunday with the intention to end my patch visit walking around Boilton Marsh trying to get a slightly improved photo of Jack Frost.

I managed to flush a few birds including 4 Common Snipe and 6 Wren, but no Jack Snipe. HOWEVER! I had more than a consolation flush in the form of a small warbler. At first I thought it was going to be another Wren, but as it flew it had a large fanned tail and made a tacking noise. It flew up from some juncus and into a Willow. It turned side on and I suddenly realise this grey and chestnut warbler was not a Wren, but a Cetti's Warbler! It started calling away and each time it did, I thought it was the first note of one of my favourite songs, but it failed to do so. Back in early 2012, I was at uni when the first record was present for a long time and I happened to get back the day after it was never seen again! This therefore makes up for a very depressing dip back then!

Other sightings from the afternoon:
1425 Black-headed Gull, 1 Blackbird, 8 Blue Tit, 1 Buzzard, 11 Canada Goose, 2 Carrion Crow,  7 Chaffinch, 2 Common Gull, 236 Coot, 12 Cormorant, 2 Dunnock, 59 Gadwall, 1 Goldcrest, 5 Goldeneye, 3 Great Black-backed Gull, 1 Great Crested Grebe, 3 Great Tit, 5 Grey Heron, 7 Herring Gull, 1 Kestrel, 19 Long-tailed Tit, 5 Magpie, 161 Mallard, 5 Meadow Pipit, 1 Moorhen, 18 Mute Swan, 1 Pied Wagtail, 1 Pochard, 2 Reed Bunting, 2 Robin, 1 Shoveler, 6 Snipe, 83 Teal, 27 Tree Sparrow, 43 Tufted Duck, 1 Woodpigeon, 12 Wren 

Monday, 23 December 2013

A year in the life of a C permit ringer - December 2012-December 2013

So this is it! I have now been a C permit ringer for a full year now, so thought I'd update you all on how it's gone.
With my final year of undergraduate university taking over the 1st 1/3 of the year, Masters fieldwork and a holiday to Scilly taking over the 2nd 1/3 and a combination of my Research Masters and Welsh weather taking over the final third of the year, I have by no means got out ringing as much as I'd have liked to.

All things considered however, I've had an enjoyable first year with my trusty 30ft (and 40ft) mist-net. I've managed to handle a few species that I'd previously not handled in the UK or at all including:
 Twite (Kelvin's rings)
 Ringed Plover (SCAN rings)
 Meadow Pipit (Steve and my rings (I ringed pullus))
 Jay (my rings)
 Wheatear (Rachel, Kelvin and my rings)
 Bar-tailed Godwit (SCAN rings)
 Grey Heron (Tony Cross's rings)
Dipper (My rings)
Carrion Crow (my rings)

Totals for my rings since receiving my C permit (including birds ringed by Matthew Bruce and Ros Green:
                                   New            Pullus       Retrap      Total
Meadow Pipit                 0                 7               0             7
Dipper                           1                 0               0             1
Wren                             6                 0               0             6
Dunnock                       21                0               2            23
Robin                             5                 0               2             7
Wheatear                        1                 0               0             1
Blackbird                        28               0               3             31
Redwing                         1                0               0              1
Blackcap                         1                0               0              1
Chiffchaff                       2                0               0              2
Goldcrest                        29              0               0              29
Long-tailed Tit                30               0               2              32
Coal Tit                          29               0               3              32
Blue Tit                          50               0               0              50
Great Tit                        29               0               0              29
Treecreeper                     1               0                0               1
Jay                                 1                0               0               1
Carrion Crow                  0                2               0               2
House Sparrow                7               0                0               7
Chaffinch                        8               0                0               8
Greenfinch                      1                0               0               1
Goldfinch                       2                0                0               2
Siskin                             7                0               2               9
Lesser Redpoll                 2                0               0               2

Totals                            262              9               14            285

In addition, I've ringed with Steve Dodd, Rachel Taylor, Kelvin Jones, Kane Brides, Adrienne Stratford and Tony Cross this past year, so I also managed to handle another 383 birds

Coot                             1                 0               1                 2
Grey Heron                   0                 4               0                 4
Little Egret                    0                 16             0                 16
Oystercatcher               c200            0             c100              302
Ringed Plover                1                 0               0                  1
Redshank                      25               0               6                  31
Bar-tailed Godwit           1                 0               0                  1
Curlew                          1                0                0                  1
Meadow Pipit                 1                0                0                  1
Dunnock                       1                0                0                  1
Wheatear                       4                0                0                  4
Chough                         0                3                0                  3
Chaffinch                      5                0                0                  5
Goldfinch                      1                0                0                  1
Lesser Redpoll               8                0                0                  8
Twite                           1                 0               0                   1
Linnet                           1                 0               0                  0

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Those pesky white-wingers!

No! I haven't just got back from dipping the Ivory Gulls...I don't have that kind of money or time right now!
In fact, I have been continuing my research on the Iceland/Kumlien's Gull complex. I have been giving a lot of Iceland Gulls the 'Hampton Scale' treatment and almost all the 1st winters I've come across pass as Kumlien's, particularly on the scale that correlates with Newfoundland gullers, I have to question the validity of the scale.
While I think the bird in my last post was certainly very dark, the primaries were very monotonal with no paler window in the inner primaries (kind of like what is seen in Herring Gull). From what I can tell, the birds that get accepted show an obvious darker wash to the outer 5 primaries compared to the inner 5. The same can't be said for 'my' bird. In addition, the bill was very bi-coloured, which again isn't a great feature for Kumlien's, particularly on the darker birds.

What you do have to then consider is what actually a Kumlien's Gull is. Is it a subspecies of Iceland or indeed Thayer's? Is it a hybrid between Thayer's and Kumlien's (which would certainly explain the variability)? Or, like a ring species, Iceland/Kumlien's/Thayer's are the same species that vary in plumage clinally over their geographic range and Thayer's are just at the darker end of the scale.

Anyway, whilst doing my research, I thought I'd bring back my 'confirmed' 2nd winter Kumlien's Gull from Nimmo's Pier.

Annoyingly, it appears that 2nd winter's are probably the most difficult age to have accepted as dark Iceland Gulls can look pretty dark.
Now, you can't argue that my bird has dark tips to the outer primaries, that's a given. However, the tail bar isn't very strong, despite being present. One thing that makes me think it could well be a Kumlien's Gull is that the gonydeal angle on the bill is rather pronounced and from underneath, it has a very Herring-like appearance. This could be a feature in its favour as it would appear that Thayer's and Kumlien's do look more substantial in appearance and have a more Herring-like head, so look less cute than an Iceland.
A feature I would like to bring up is the underwing of my bird. The wash to the primaries is very dirty, rather than the brilliant white seen on even the darkest 2nd winter Iceland Gulls. This seems to also be rather white in Kumlien's Gull, except a slightly darker wash on the darker birds. Therefore, as mine is on the paler end of the spectrum, I'm not quite sure what is causing the dirty wash.

Dark Iceland Gull

Dark Iceland Gull (all of the above) - M. Martens
(same bird in all pics) Quite a brutish looking Iceland and certainly on the much darker end of the spectrum. This bird has more extensive dark in the wings and a much darker tail than my bird. It does have a very white wash to the underwing primaries though. I am shocked at how dark this is though. If I found it, I regret to say that I would find it very hard to not call it a Kumlien's!

Pale Kumlien's Gull
overall pale Kumlien's Gull - Bruce Mactavish
This is quite a pale Kumlien's Gull. Much paler than the above Iceland. It has a nice greyish wash to the tail band, but although the overall pale tone is evident, it is certainly very desnely dark, rather than spotted. The out primaries have a dark wash, but unlike my bird, the dark extends right to the primary coverts, so the paler inner primaries really stand out.
pale-winged Kumlien's Gull - Silas Olofson
This bird has quite a similar primary patern to my bird, being at the paler end of the spectrum. The secondaries and darker basal colour to the tail stand out from Iceland though, so even this is paler winged than the Iceland Gull and my bird, this is 'just' a pale Kumlien's.
Dark Kumlien's - Dave Brown
Now this is at the darker end of the scale and the powerful angular head makes this look more Herring than Kumlien's. This shows a reasonably similar dark wash to the primaries on the underwing to my bird.

While I admit I am no expert on the Iceland/Kumlien's Gull complex, I am puzzled by this bird. At the time, I was pretty confident it was a Kumlien's and it certainly shows some features that are very good for one (e.g. head/bill, dark tips to the outer primaries, dark secondaries and dark underwings). On the other hand, the pale tail, limited darkness to the primaries point to Iceland. I am starting to think this is 'just' a dark Iceland.

Comments welcome

P.s. Sorry to the photographers on Gull Research for 'borrowing' their photos without permission!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A retrospective Kumlien's Gull or 'just' a dark Iceland Gull? - Nimmo's Pier - January 2012

Ok, so this is perhaps a little later almost two years on, but I thought I'd look further into a particularly dark 1st winter 'Iceland' Gull that was present with 10 other Icelands (including a 2nd winter Kumlien's) at the start of January 2012 at the infamous Nimmo's Pier, Galway, Republic of Ireland.

At the time, the really really stood out as dark individual, but with no shadowing on the tail or primaries, I had quite a lot of trouble turning it into anything other than a glaucoides Iceland Gull.

Recently, I came across 'The Hampton Scale'. A plumage scoring system to effectively categorise any Iceland, Kumlien's or Thayer's Gull to a proper name.
The scale looks at the Outer Primaries, Secondaries, Tertials, Tail, Scapulars/Coverts, Bill Colour, Head and Bill structure and shape.
Outer Primaries - Under the scoring system, this bird scores 2 for the outer primaries with obvious dark 'arrows' that are quite dark, but there is pretty much no hint of dusky tipping to the outer primaries like scores 3-5 show.
Secondaries - This is an interesting one as the secondaries do show somewhat of a bar and the score, for me, is somewhere in the middle of 2 and 3. This is because the score for 2 is the same colour as the coverts and 3 is quite obviously dusky in comparison. This bird has a bar just a touch darker than the coverts in flight. I feel I will round down and give this a 2 for the benefit of the not jumping to conclusions!
Tertials - There's no denying that these tertials certainly aren't white. For a 'white-winger' these are pretty heavily marked and are awarded a 2. They certainly do not fall into the third category as there is no smoky basal tone to the centre of the feather as with other large white-headed gulls. 
Tail - Now this is a bit more of a tricky one as it varies slightly in different light and the scale isn't that clear cut. As far as I'm aware, this is quite a dusky tail with an almost dark tail band. This easily scores 2, again (there's a theme forming here!) with heavy barring, but certainly no real sign of a smoky basal tone. As far as I'm aware, a bar on the tail is certainly a pro-Kumlien's Gull feature regardless of the scale's validity. 

Coverts and Scapulars - I think one of the main causes of this bird appearing so dark is due to the density of barring on coverts and scapulars. This bird scores...you've guessed it! TWO! I think it's even more densely barred than the example photo on the scale website, but I certainly don't think it's dark enough for a 3.
Bill colour - It's supposed that the darker the bill, the closer it is to Thayer's and the more two-toned it is, the more Iceland it is. This bird has a relatively dark bill and the three photos I have presented here show it is very strong light and therefore the pale stands out a lot. I think this bird scores 1 on the colour scale and 2 just seems a little too dark

Head and Bill shape - whereas the previous features have been relatively easy to score based on them being pretty much the same no matter what light or angle the bird is, in structure, very subjective indeed and especially with the head, is incredibly variable. I certainly don't think this is as round and delicate headed the describe '0' Iceland Gull. I think the snoutyness and crowned appearance is quite pronounced in this bird, but the bill does appear quite delicate with only a slight gonydeal angle. As a result, I think this bird scores a 2, (an average based on that I could be tempted to score 1 for the bill and 3 for the head). 

So what are the scores on the doors? 13. Well that's all good an well, but what does this mean? You can't just go around and say 'oo I've got a 13 Iceland Gull!' as people will think you're a crazy person.

Investigations into other peoples ideas of where to draw the line from the author said that:

  • A birder in Iceland draws the line between glaucoides and kumlieni at a score of around 13 or 14. 
  • Howell and Dunn's (2007) kumlieni range seems to be between 11 and 20 (using photos from Newfoundland). 
  • Olsen and Larsson's (2003) kumlieni range seems to be between 10 and 21 (using photos from Newfoundland). 
  • Comments from birders in Newfoundland and the US East Coast suggest their kumlieni range is between 6 and 22. 
  • The Avian Bird Records Committee of Connecticut, when considering reports of Thayer's Gull, accepted a bird that I scored 27, but rejected one that I scored 24. 
  • The California Bird Records Committee has accepted birds 17 and lower as "Iceland Gull". Birds 19 and higher have been rejected as Thayer's or Thayer's x Iceland.

  • So based on the score of 13, the Icelandics, Howell and Dunn (2007) and Olsen and Larsson (2003) suggest that my bird is at the lower end of the kumlieni scale. Looking at the Newfoundland birders interpretation, this bird is almost half way (43.75%) into the scale of kumlieni.

    So it's a Kumlien's right? Well I'm not sure it's quite that simple really. This scale is designed to be able to categorise the birds we are all seeing in the North Atlantic to enable us to speak the 'same language' when describing the birds we are seeing.
    It is ofcourse not as simple as this, otherwise we'd all be able to decide what on earth a Thayer's Gull is. The above image is a comparison photo of a dark Iceland (left) and pale (worn?) Kumlien's (right). One of the ways that the above images differ to 'species' level is the direction of dark markings in the primaries. Iceland Gulls appear to get paler inner primaries to the outers whereas Kumlien's are the opposite.
    While the above Iceland is very dark, the outer 2-3 primaries certainly are very white indeed, especially compared to the primary coverts.

    Now I'm not claiming my bird as anything. To be honest I'm not sure what it is and with the chance of Kumlien's being either a hybrid of Thayer's x Iceland, or a race of Iceland, or even a darker form of Iceland showing clinal change over their geographic range.

    I will end this with another bird that was present at Preston Docks in the winter of 2010/2011. I believe this bird scores 7, so even this wonderfully white winged Iceland Gull could fit into the lower end of kumlieni in Newfoundland, but every other authority would class this as pretty conclusively Iceland.  
    Even if I've not proved anything conclusive, I've hopefully made your day a little brighter through these gorgeous birds!
    Thank you for reading.