Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Eight Warblers!

Expecting migrant warblers as well as a few other long distance migrants to be arriving in some numbers, I took myself off for a walk around Netherfield Lagoons in south Notts this morning. I was not disappointed! There were three Little Ringed Plovers and three Common Terns present as well as over twenty Sand Martin and a handful of Swallows. But the warblers were the thing! There were eight species present although I only managed to see seven, failing to see or even hear a Grasshopper Warbler. I had been reliably informed that two birds had been reeling earlier in the day but they were silent when I was there. Obviously I'll have to get up a bit earlier.
The most common warbler this morning was Blackcap with at least eleven singing males recorded. Scientific name Sylvia atricapilla roughly meaning Black-haired Wood Sprite is pretty damned apt I'd say.
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
 Loads and loads of Chiffchaff singing. A few weeks back this site held a Siberian Chiffchaff but not today. Collybita is from the Latin for a money-changer! The chiff - chaff song sounding like coins clinking together. With Phylloscopus being Greek for leaf-seeker then we have a Leaf seeking money changer!! A bit of a stretch that one.
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
 Common Whitethroats had only just arrived and I heard and saw only three singing males. Sylvia being wood or sprite and communis meaning common then it makes sense if this is a common wood sprite. Only they aren't as common as they were.
Whitethroat Sylvia communis
 In fact there were more Lesser Whitethroats singing than Common Whitethroat and they had been present for a few days, arriving in Notts slightly earlier than Common Whitethroats. Curruca, would you credit, means unidentified small bird! So for me, from now on, there will be Little Brown Currucas!
Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca
 Sedge Warblers were present in small numbers, presumably they had been there a few days but there were no Reed Warblers there, leastways I didn't hear or see one and there had been no reports when I spoke to other birders. Schoenobaenus means reed-treader - how good's that! What with Acrocephalus translating as topmost or highest we have the Highest Reed-treader.
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
 There were at least five Cetti's warblers blasting out their explosive song but I didn't get much of a glimpse of any of them never mind a photo opportunity but the Willow Warblers were far more obliging. Trochilus is Greek for wren and so pertains to the old name of Willow Wren I presume, back in the days of confusion between Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Wood Warbler...not that anyone would confuse any of these birds today!!!
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Two-barred Crossbills at Lynford Arboretum

At the beginning of the year I had a chance to see the 'controversial' Two-barred Crossbill at Lynford Arboretum in Norfolk but I was unable to get any photographs. I was back the other day and this time there were at least three birds present. There had been reports of five birds and I managed to get some reasonable shots of a couple of them. The first report of these crossbills, I think, was back in July 2013 when a female and three juveniles were seen and reports continued until 30th July. Later in the year at least one genuine adult male was present and this was presumed to be a new arrival. There were reports of Two-barred Crossbill running into October but then they ceased for a while. Towards the end of 2013 and into 2014 however, a new bird was being reported but instead of being generally accepted as a TBC it was widely regarded as being a Common Crossbill with heavy wing-bars or a hybrid Common/Two-barred. Reasons for it not being a genuine Two-barred include: weakish wing-bars that do not broaden; lack of white tips to the tertials; an apparently strong bill; orange rather than pinkish plumage; 'it just doesn't look right' and the fact that no one had heard it call - Two-barred Crossbill has a distinctive toy trumpet-like call that is weaker and higher pitched than that of the Common Crossbill. The fact that nobody had heard this bird call does not rule out Two-barred of course but it didn't help clinch it!
Male Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera - Lynford Arboretum April 2014
 These pictures, taken last week (April 2nd) at Lynford clearly show two different male Two-barred Crossbills, one of which is better marked than the other. All of the guide books state that one of the distinctive plumage features of a Two-barred is 'clear cut, broad white tips to the tertials' (Collin's Bird Guide). Neither of these birds show this characteristic yet I doubt if anyone would dispute their identification. So what do we learn here?
Male Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera - Lynford Arboretum April 2014. Clinging to tree trunk.

I was with Paul Stancliffe and in discussion we agreed that the white tertial tips had probably worn away - meaning that this feature is not a reliable clincher for a Two-barred (Though it would be if present!)  I posted Paul these pictures and he has added the following interesting and thorough thoughts on the plumage of these two birds:
'Having done a bit of reading, I have both of these birds as 1st winter Two-barred Crossbills. Clearly one is more adult like than the other.
Both of these birds have done a partial moult since fledgling and the more adult like bird has, it seems, replaced all, or certainly most, of its greater coverts, median coverts and lesser coverts. It has retained its juvenile tertials which are now worn and show very little trace of the white edges and tips. This bird also has a yellow rump which I think is also indicative of its age, but I can't find any reference to this and it might just be a feature that some adults show -I don't know.
The younger looking bird has only replaced the innermost greater coverts and retained the rest which are juvenile type. It has also not replaced all of the median coverts but it is difficult to see how many are new and how many are retained. From the photograph it looks like it has also retained most of the juvenile lesser coverts which look to have brownish centres and buff tips.
This Bird has also retained its juvenile tertials which are worn like the other bird.
Both birds, or at least the more adult type have white tips to the uppertail coverts which according to Svensson is diagnostic of Two-barred Crossbill. This feature is harder to see on the younger looking bird but does seem to be present.
The adult type bird seems to have moulted its tail but I can't be absolutely sure of this as there is no reference to what an adult tail should look like. However the tips look broad and rounded.
Hope this helps'

Male Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera - Lynford Arboretum April 2014 Bird 2.
 The bills on these birds did not look any weaker than the bills on the Common Crossbills. To me they look as strong and as large. There were Common Crossbills present and I couldn't detect any noticeable differences. Maybe with better views this feature would be noticeable but I would argue that it is a tough one to call in the field without good views and the chance to compare species.
If you carry out a search on the internet you can find lots of photographs of the controversial bird and one of the striking things is how different the hue of the bird is depending upon the light and the angle of view. In some it is a dark orange-red and in others it is a brighter pinkish colour.
Male Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera - Lynford Arboretum April 2014. Bird 1
 The only feature of that over-wintering bird that is now left is the weakness or not of the wing-bars. The decision to make is: Is this a Common Crossbill with very heavily marked wing-bars or a Two-barred with very weak wing-bars? (Or a hybrid!). Personally I go with the weakly marked Two-barred school of thought. It looked good for a first-winter male to me.
Male Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera - Lynford Arboretum April 2014. Bird 1
 On a different note these birds exhibited some interesting behaviour. They both preferred to cling onto the main trunk of the trees in which they were feeding in the manner of a Nuthatch Sitta europaea although they did not work the trunks in a Nuthatch like manner. Because of their colour and posture they reminded me just a little of Wallcreepers Tichodroma muraria (I wish!). Although we couldn't see what they feeding on we presumed feeding they were 'cus they were not gathering any material for any other purpose. One thing is for sure: they weren't extracting seeds.
Male Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera - Lynford Arboretum April 2014 Showing yellowish rump. Bird 1 clinging to the tree trunk and not really looking like a Wallcreeper at all!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Firecrest nest building.

BWP states that the nest of Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus is an 'almost spherical, elastic cup of moss, lichens and cobwebs, of three main layers; outer layer of cobwebs, moss and lichens, with cobwebs used to fasten twigs together, middle layer of moss, and lining mainly of feathers (up to 3 000) and hair.' Yesterday I managed to take a few photographs of a pair of Firecrests as they gathered material for their nest. The nest was about the size of a tennis-ball and was suspended in the twiggy end of a conifer branch. Both sexes were working hard at collecting material from the ground before flying straight back to the nest. The male can be told from the female by his brighter and bolder bronze shoulder patch (pretty much lacking on the female).

Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus collecting nest material
 These were fantastic birds to watch and we hung about for quite a while watching them do a circuit from nest to adjacent tree to another tree, then to bushes above the nesting material, onto the ground, collect a load and then back to the nest.
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus collecting nest material
 I'm not certain what the birds were collecting but they were completely involved in the task and they did not seem much bothered by the photographers who were lined up taking pictures. Some of the material appeared to be the veins and fibrous material of rotted down leaves although looking at these pictures it looks to me like hair or fur. Perhaps there's somebody looking at these pictures who can identify this material. If so let me know by way of a comment.
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus collecting nest material

Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus collecting nest material
 These two photographs are of the male and his bronze shoulder patch can be seen quite clearly. This was not something that I was aware of before but once this feature is known it looks quite easy to sex these birds if you get decent views.
When the birds had a beak full of this stuff they looked like they had massive, unkempt moustaches and beards... like most bloke birders in fact!
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus collecting nest material
 Mad, hairy, male Firecrest.
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus collecting nest material

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baikal Teal at Fen Drayton

What a week for fabulous wildfowl! After seeing the Hooded Merganser at Radipole Lake in Dorset earlier in the week a stunning male Baikal Teal Anas formosa turned up at Fen Drayton in Cambridgshire. Having never seen one of these birds 'in the wild' it was an easy decision to go and have a look - a twitch if you will! An hour or so after setting off I was scoping this belting drake Asian Teal. Madge and Burn state in 'Wildfowl' that this is 'An exquisitely-patterned large teal... the male has a striking facial pattern that defies brief description' and you can't argue with that so I wont even try other than to say it's like an abstract of green, buff, black and white. The bird was close enough for good views through the scope but too far away to get any decent photographs. Had I visited the hide overlooking Moore lake and waited long enough no doubt I could have managed to get some decent record shots but I was happy enough just seeing this bird.

So here is an image of the 'exquisite head pattern that defies description!'

Head pattern of drake Baikal Teal Anas formosa

There have been five previous records of Baikal Teal in Britain, one in Ireland and four in England:

2010 Oct 2 Essex 1 1 day Chigborough Lakes, juvenile male, 2nd October, photo.
2010 Feb 19 to Feb 23 Co.Wexford 1 5 days Tacumshin, male, 19th to 23rd February, photo.
2002 Dec 22 to Dec 24 Oxon 1 3 days Dix Pit, Stanton Harcourt, male, 22nd to 24th December, photo.
2001 Nov 18 to Dec 29 Suffolk 1 42 days Minsmere, first-winter male, 18th November to 29th December, photo.
1906 Jan 1 to Jan 1Essex 1 1 day Tillingham, first-winter male, 1st January, collected.
A drake was also recorded at Flamborough on 15th April 2013 and I suspect that this record is still awaiting acceptance/rejection by the BBRC. There will, no doubt, be some debate over the provenance of the Fen Drayton bird. It is currently being posted as a 'Mega' on Birdline but  it is a duck and we know what that means!
 The timing of this bird's arrival is pretty consistent with northward movement of this species from its wintering areas, mainly in the Republic of  Korea. Most birds move north during mid-March and arrive at breeding grounds by early April so a bird arriving in Britain in late March would be considered a worthy candidate for true vagrancy.
Early 19th Century Chinese print of Baikal Teal Anas formosa
So this could be another of those 'Can I, can't I count it?' jobbies. Mmmm...does it go on my list or not?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Radipole Merganser

As I was on the south coast of Dorset for a few days earlier in the week it gave me the opportunity to visit Radipole Lake and have a look at the, now resident, drake Hooded Merganser. If you carry out a search for this bird on the internet you will come across masses of comment and dozens of photographs. The big question of course is, 'Is it a wild bird or a presumed escape?' This has a direct bearing on the next question, 'Can I tick it?'
Hooded Mergansers are native to Canada and north America where there are two populations: the western and the eastern, the latter breeds in southern Canada and northern USA south to the Great Plains. In winter these birds move south to Florida and northern Mexico and if the Radipole bird is a genuine vagrant it would be from this eastern population during its southward migration. Nothing unusual there as we know that Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks make it across most years. But not in June! It's just too early for autumn migration for most of these birds. And this bird was found in June 2008 in a storm drain on Portland. However, that does not mean it necessarily arrived then. It could have been present for a while. Like most other Hooded Mergansers in Britain this bird was/is considered to be an escape. The BOU did not admit Hooded Merganser onto category A of the British list until June of 2009 based on a record from North Uist in 2000:
Immature or female, Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist, Outer Hebrides
23 October – 1 November 2000
The British Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee (BOURC) has admitted Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus to Category A of the British List following a review of the occurrence of a female or immature at Oban Trumisgarry, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, from 23 October until 1 November 2000 (sight record, photographed).

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014
Since that record there have been four more birds:
2002 - Northumberland - 1st winter at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea - 7th to 25th March
2005 - Kent - adult female at Chilham - 4th to 10th December
2006 - Shetland - adult male at Haroldswick and Burrafirth, Unst - 15th April to 2nd May
2008 - Fife - female at Tayport - 26th October to 15th November 
Bob McGowan, Chairman of BOURC, commented:  “Hooded Merganser has had a particularly troubled route through various categories of the British List, but this only emphasises the complexities in assessing genuine vagrancy in waterfowl, particularly with species which exhibit moderate to high escape potential. For example, the National Waterfowl Census revealed that 206 Hooded Mergansers were hatched in Britain in 2001 so caution was justifiable. Since 2000, documented occurrences in the Azores, the Canaries and Iceland, as well as from Newbiggin in 2002 (British Birds 96: 606) and Shetland in 2006 (British Birds 100: 752), have demonstrated a tendency of increasing natural vagrancy, probably a consequence of the species’ better fortune in North America. Largely as a result of this evidence, BOURC voted unanimously to admit Hooded Merganser to Category A of the British List.”

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014
The BBRC rejected this bird as being a true vagrant in the 51st annual report on rare birds in Britain and then on Thursday 23rd June 2009 the following message appeared on the UK400 club website:  'After much deliberation, the drake HOODED MERGANSER at Radipole Lake (Dorset) has now been formally accepted on to Category D1 of the UK400 Club British & Irish List. Rather than departing this spring, the bird has chosen to stay at the reserve and has now moulted into eclipse plumage. Although the circumstances in which it first appeared in a storm drain near Ferrybridge were quite favourable for natural vagrancy, the fact that it has remained for so long and has chosen to accompany the local Mallard population in search of food perhaps indicate that it was of suspect origin.' The bird therefore becomes UNCOUNTABLE on any UK400 Club day, life, county or year lists.' That's pretty clear then!

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014

However Nigel Hudson and the Rarities Committee had this to say:
'The simple fact is that the majority of Hooded Mergansers seen in an apparently wild state in Britain and Europe will have escaped from captivity. However, some may be completely innocent of this charge, but deciding which individuals deserve recognition as being the genuine article and which should be damned will never please everyone. Being a relatively short-stayer on a loch in Scotland, the Fife female escaped severe condemnation, but a long-staying drake at Weymouth, Dorset, did itself no favours by outstaying its welcome and appears only in Appendix 3 of this report. That said, birders are free to make up their own minds as to whether the Dorset bird deserved the benefit of the doubt. It certainly would not have been the first wild bird, finding itself lost and alone, to adapt to an opportunistic lifestyle, and it could certainly be argued that arriving as an immature, finding itself a suitable haven, and then simply staying put is far from a hanging offence...'
Apart from the discovery date two other factors condemn this bird to the escapee basement. Firstly it has not been displaying truly wild behaviour. But it has! In spring it has been showing natural migratory tendencies and has moved away from Radipole. It has been seen as far away as Chichester and Poole Harbour - missing for four months - I was told by the warden at the reserve. Secondly it is considered to be too tame. If that's the case then there are an awful lot of escaped Tufted Ducks at Radipole.

Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus. Radipole Lake March 2014
 The bottom line is that this is a cracking bird to see and if you are in the area it's well worth a visit before it disappears. You decide for yourself if you want to count it as a tick on a list. I know what I'll do...!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Lack of Migrants

On Monday I spent nearly all morning searching for a reported Surf Scoter in Brands Bay, Poole Harbour, Dorset but to no avail. Having no specific information as to where exactly this bird was and there being no other birders around during the morning I still don't know if I was searching in the correct location. Still there were plenty of Red-breasted Mergansers, Black-necked Grebes and Great Crested Grebes. There were three or four Dartford Warblers down towards Studland and we had our first summer migrant tern with a non-breeding adult Sandwich Tern. But no Scoter so we headed off to Portland Bill to search for migrants. It was blowing a hooley and it made for really difficult bird-watching. The only migrants we found were three Northern Wheatears and as we were getting blown and buffeted all over the shop I resorted to taking photos of Jackdaws and Pied Wagtails taking shelter near the cars in the car park.

Pied Wagtail M alba yarrellii - Holding the line

Pied Wagtail M alba yarrellii - Still holding the line

The Jackdaws were hanging about in the car park in hope of bits of food and whenever a car arrived and people got out these birds would strut nearer.

These photos are all in colour!


A couple of Sand Martins at Radipole Lake towards the end of the day were the only other summer migrants that we managed to see.

Reed Bunting Art

Whilst watching the Garganey that I mentioned in the last blog my attention was taken by a pair of Reed Buntings collecting seed material from the Bullrushes, presumably for nesting material as they were not eating the stuff. The female in particular was trying to cram as much stuff as possible into her beak before flying off. Most of the time it all blew away as she opened her beak to  pull more stuff from the Bullrushes. The birds were beautifuly backlit and the whole experience inspired me to take a few 'arty' shots of Reed Bunts on Bullrushes.

 Spot the Blue Tit.