Monthly Archives: September 2010

Red Knot

Do or Die

Chalk Bank Hide, Spurn, late August 2010. Watching the shorebirds and chatting to Gristy- John Grist. Spurn’s ‘Mr. Shorebird’ (or is it Waders, John?). We were watching the Knot. A species whose large numbers and densely packed flocks can easily mean they get listed as also-ran’s. Not today. 2 aspects of the Red Knot in front of me were fascinating. One was the variety, particularly amoung the juveniles, ranging from the more typical grey and white with bit of warmth of the breast – to an unusually gold-spangled ‘looker’.

The other activity going on was looking for and recording colour-flagged birds. One had a special story. NCE was there. John explained that yellow-flagged NCE was one of a number of Knot that flew off from staging grounds in Northern Norway  (hey I didn’t know they staged up there!) in May 2008 straight into particularly  inclement weather conditions. So bad was it that 4 colour ringed birds were subsequently  seen in June in England and Holland. This strongly suggested they had turned back and settled for a non breeding summer in Europe. It seems likely that some would have persisted to Greenland and Northern Canada and many may have perished.  NCE – didn’t perish. We were watching it. Did it make it that year to breed in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic? Did it turn back?  We marvelled as we watched NCE and his colour ringed buddies like HHK!  With renewed enthusiasm I scoured the flock for more flags to read and pass on the sightings. The migration of Shorebirds is one of nature’s amazing feats – and I have so much still to learn about bird migration.

Variation in juvenile Knot, Spurn August 2010. The lower of the 3 birds seemed exceptional with deeply coloured breast and bright almost golden subterminal marks over the scapulars and wing coverts

HHK (you can just see a bit of its flag!) – One of NEC’s buddies. Shorebirds have amazing life stories. Virtually all of the Knots passing through and wintering in Britain are the Greenland and N Canadian form islandica. Even though the Taimyr (Siberia) breeding nominate form occurs in large numbers just across the North Sea, its occurrence in Britain seems exceptional rather than the norm.

This is the news John received on his first sighting/recording of yellow-flagged Knot  ‘NEC’, a couple of years ago:

“NCE is particularly interesting as it is one out of a catch on 27 May when we marked 350 birds. Four of these were seen at end June in England (2) and Holland (2) and on was seen breeding in East Greenland in June. There was a very bad spring in the Canadian Arctic and possibly a non-breeding year there. The birds left Norway under poor weather conditions and would have met very bad conditions on the Canadian breeding grounds – and the 4 in June probably came straight back or never got out of Norway to the north. All the sightings so far from the 27 May have been of comparatively light birds when marked – and at the moment we are wondering if the heavier birds which might have penetrated further into the bad arctic conditions and are now dead – time will tell!”

Here’s the summary of the work going on in N Norway. Did you know that islandica Knot made such a dog-leg on their spring migration? – I didn’t!

Click through twice to see pdf report:

Knot ringing

Redwing and Visible Migration

More than you might think

Meadow Pipit – along the Rod Moor ‘special lane’ this morning -where migrants sometimes pause. Visible Migration really began with this species in Sheffield. Keith Clarkson’s pioneering skills in the 1970’s lead him to notice the movements of Meadow Pipits along Sheffield’s Penine fringe. Suspicious that the behavior of autumn Meadow Pipits might not represent local breeders, as usually assumed, Keith with the late John Atter, began trapping Meadow Pipits. Several hundred birds later and no re-traps they realised something far more dynamic was going on! Keith’s inspiring story of discovery is a chapter in the Frontiers book:

2.5 Hours at Rod Moor on vis. mig. duty this morning. I guess Mr Deighton went to Norfolk instead! Cold northerly winds, I wasn’t expecting ideal conditions. However useful time much more variety than I expected, though frequent need to scan widely as birds heading in different directions. Clearly some flying high as occasionally ‘jammed’ high flying passerines while scanning and I reckon fair bit missed. Am in learning mode, and I need to polish up on some calls!

Highlight? Redwings! 2 parties, my first of the year, plus single Field fare and more Pinks.

7-9:30 am birds moving:

Pink-footed Geese  39 (28, 11)

Cormorant 2

LBB Gull 110 from roost

Lapwing 59 (25, 34)

Woodpigeon 22

Stock Dove 2

Jackdaw 12

Swallow 20

alba wagtail 16

Meadow Pipit  138

Mistle Thrush 1

Fieldfare 1

Redwing 11 (7,4)

Starling 12

Greenfinch 17

Chaffinch 11

Linnet 8

Siskin 4

[ Bunting sp. heard once Lap/Snow-like ‘prrt’ – not seen]

Pinkfeet a bit closer today – always hoping for the odd stray Whitefront or better!

Moorland Birding

Sheffield’s all-reet

Staying local in the last week, I was reminded how much there can be to see. Just need to keep getting out (even when it feels like there’s nothing to see)!

Sheffield, where I live, is on the edge of the Peak District National Park = moorland birding. I squeezed in some very enjoyable vis. mig. (visible migration), grouse watching (Black and Red are easy to see) and new non-avian experiences.

female Red Grouse. Moscar. nr Sheffield. September 2010. Female = lots of mealy spotting on head and neck, obvious white eye-ring and NO red comb above eye (or tiny one like here I guess).

male Red Grouse, Agden, nr. Sheffield. September 2010.

Small Copper butterfly on Yarrow, at the vis.mig. spot, Rod Moor. My favourite Butterfly. This one is fading fast…

Ashley Watson is an expert forager. I was out birding with him t’other day. So when we found some Larch boletes (wild mushrooms you can eat)  it was the obvious thing to do to pick a bunch and take ’em back for lunch on toast – new experience for me.

Larch boletes – these were ‘all-reet’ baked and placed on buttered toast!

male Black Grouse. Moscar, nr. Sheffield. September 2010. Locally males are easy to see but females usually much trickier. I was pleased to come across both sexes together in a field. Not easy to get close to.

female Black Grouse. Moscar, nr. Sheffield. September 2010. Sort of in-between the Red Grouse and typical female Pheasant in colour (both nearby) with loads of these black crescent all over the underparts and thin pale bands of white across closed wing.

Visible Migration

Up early this morning as wind had died. Vis. mig. at Rod Moor. The coldest morning this month. Clear big skies with the moon to the west and inspiring sunrise to the east:

Some highlights:

22nd Sept: Rod Moor. 1.5 hours in light SW. Plenty finches best was 30 Redpoll in 2 flocks (plus c 30 distant Siskin/Redpoll) and 6 Tree Sparrow – very good local vis. mig. record. Also 10 Snipe in 2 groups (7 and 3).

Orgreave in evening – tipped off by Mark (Leach’s killer) Reeder (see to 800-900 large gulls coming in to roost. Most LBB Gulls but 5-6 Yellow-legged Gulls of different ages. No hoped-for Caspian.

25th September, Rod Moor. 3 hours icy cold N. Few birds, best 28 Pink-feet (see below), Marsh Harrier (thanks to hawk-eye Andy Deighton), Great Spotted Woodpecker racing through SW (where’s that from and going to?).

Pinks and Moon this morning – easy to point out where they were, even at long-range!

Lots more of these to pass over Sheffield in next couple of months

Common Snipe over Rod Moor. Father figure to Sheffield’s migration watchers, Keith Clarkson motivated me with his own observations. These included Snipe which were tracked flying from NW vector through the Hebrides to  Sheffield – must be faeroeensis. So thanks to Keith I began to look. Found a faeroeensis Snipe , ‘on the deck’ in the Sheffield area, last winter. It all began with visible migration on Rod Moor.

This young Grey Heron came through this morning. Grey Herons are ‘proper migrants’ and usually the first of the migrant ‘land birds’ in late July/early August in Shetland, which is where I will be this time next week!!

Distant birds of prey from Rod Moor included Marsh Harrier, several Buzzard, lots of Kestrels and some displaying accipters. This young Sparrowhawk came close nearby – no colours visible with sun almost above it,  but useful illustration of shape.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail

Discovery, Confusion, Fascination and Mystery (all rolled into one)

(a Magnus Robb and Martin Garner production -because without Magnus , MG would be stumped!)

1st winter flava Wagtail. Canal Scrape, Spurn 24th August 2010. What are the origins of this rasping flava?

What follows is an example of the start of a processof discovery. It usually begins with some field experience which leaves me with more answers than questions, but especially intrigue. This has been a tricky post to write, because I think the stuff I don’t know is greater than that which I do know. It makes me nervous! No quick or easy answers (here at least) – more a journey of discovery. In case you’re interested, here’s a little diary of how the process began and what I am learning…

Encounter One

The Point Dunes, Spurn. 17th August 2010. 2 days earlier a 1st winter Citrine Wagtail was only the second record for Spurn and the first in autumn.  With good numbers of flava wagtails passing down the Spurn peninsula over several days I (MG)  made a regular effort to check grounded flocks. One such was a group of about 12 birds at the point, early on 17thAugust. They were tricky to see in the marram grass and flushed easily. My attention was quickly arrested by a clear rasping Citrine-like call coming from one bird. I managed brief, poor views. Nevertheless they were enough to satisfy me that it was not the first winter Citrine of 2 days earlier, nor (I surmised) a less advance juvenile Citrine. In fact it looked like a fairly typical moulting juvenile- first winter flava -type. Clean breasted but still with something of dark supraloral line. I radioed out that I had a rasping flava wagtail – not Citrine- though I confessed I had no working knowledge of Citrine Wagtail in ‘proper’ juvenile plumage.

Intrigued I tried to relocate the bird as the flock blogged about. I finally got within reasonable range, and slightly isolated from the rest of the group found the bird to be giving both the raspy-type call (which at the time sounding scarily Citrine-like) seemingly mixed with more normal sounding flava type calls. I managed some poor sound recordings before the bird flew on. I returned an hour later in an effort to get better views and attempt to photograph it, but no luck.

PS Discovered subsequently that Pete Wragg encountered almost certainly the same bird the previous day. On 16th August he described a flava wagtail – which flew over him several times give obvious raspy calls but seemingly also giving normal ‘flava– type calls. His impression of the bird on brief views was that it was not a Citrine but fell into ‘young flava’ camp.

Sat 21st August. Birdfair, Rutland. Chatted with Magnus, mentioned the rasping flavas. He encouraged me to send recordings.

P.S. I use a Remembird device for recording- more details on that and making sonagrams on the Equipment page

Canal Scrape, Spurn 24th August 2010. After a morning down the point called by en route back to caravan about 9:30 am to find 4 close feeding flava wagtails. One quite striking bird had strongly greyish tones to the upperparts. It too uttered an obvious rasping call on several occasions. Feeling somewhat indifferent with my confusing experience of rasping flavas I nevertheless took some photos and sound recordings (force 5+SW blowing straight into hide) before heading for breakfast. Was it the same as the bird 1 week earlier at the point. Maybe? I really don’t know.

1st winter flava Wagtail. Canal Scrape, Spurn 24th August 2010. Giving rasping citreolla-like calls combined with some ‘eastern’ plumage characters. What’s it doing at Spurn in August? Where’s it from?

Laptop, Caravan, Spurn. 29th August 2010 Magnus emails. Shocking news! Read on:

“I’ve had a listen to your wagtail sound [from Point Dunes on 17th August] and taken the liberty of cleaning it up a bit. I can’t remember how well you saw the bird, but I’ll just tell you what I think it sounds like. For me it falls squarely in the ‘Citrine camp’, and cannot be one of the rasping southern taxa: feldegg, iberiae or cinereocapilla. This is because it is too high-pitched, not coarse enough, and it lacks the details I mentioned, that I can see on sonagrams of those taxa. I don’t suppose you’d mind if it was a Citrine, but I think you mentioned it looked more like a Yellow Wag of some kind…

There are several other taxa that call like Citrine (and not like feldegg), but all are from quite far east. They are basically all members of the ‘eastern yellow wagtail’ group which also includes Citrine; e.g, tschutschensis, taivana etc as well as thunbergi-lookalikes from north-central Siberia that pass through Kazakhstan in spring. However, what are the chances of one of these turning up in mid-August? Most claims are from quite late in the autumn.”

Bewilderment now replaced indifference. Over next few days all recordings from the Point Dunes and Canal Scrape encounters were reviewed and Magnus confirmed ‘citreola-type’ calls from both. (N.B. we use  “citreola –type” to refer to the very similar calls of Citrine Wagtails and Eastern Yellow Wagtail group.) We have not yet arrived at a full explanation. Nevertheless we have discovered some fascinating stuff. Here is what we have:

To help put the interesting calls in context here is a quick overview of the normal variation of the calls of Yellow Wagtails heard in Britain, most of which are assumed to be ssp. flavissima.

Breeding season song and calls

During summer months, adult breeding Yellow Wagtails of the (north) western group (flavissima, flava, thunbergi etc) utter a raspy sounding song. This is also often accompanied by raspy calls, which can be uttered in flight and presumably include the ‘alarm call’ – also a phenomena of the breeding season. These can give us a fright, but are not really similar to either citreola-type or feldegg-type rasping flight calls.

Migration calls

Yellow Wagtails (flavissima, flava, thunbergi) utter a variety of calls, quieter or louder and include an occasional slight rrrr component. Its even possible that all Yellow Wagtail taxa have some element of modulation (varying up and down in frequency) in their flight calls, but it is so tightly spaced in the calls of  flavissima, flava and thunbergi as to be imperceptible.  Thus, degrees of coarse versus fine. While this call can be described as rasping, it is weak and rather short and not nearly as impressive sounding as a typically ‘electric’ citreola – type call.

Yellow Wagtail, Point Dunes, Spurn 17th August 2010. This is the familiar ‘sweet’ sounding call of Yellow Wagtail in Britain (presumed flavissima/ flava/ thunbergi). Note how the 2nd part of the sonagram is of a thicker downward angled straight line with no visible modulation.

Click on the sonagrams to see them better

Sonagram of adult male flavissima. Point Dunes, Spurn 17th August 2010. Showing short weak rasping call type amongst normal ‘sweet’ calls. See how there is slight modulation, but the call is not very long. Click on the sonagram

Sonagram from Encounter 1 of rasping flava, Point Dunes, Spurn, 17th August 2010. M Garner.  Deep, well spaced ‘slower’  modulation over longer time period is what produces a proper rasping call . The recording has not picked up the finer details and harmonics of other sonagrams presented here due to less expensive equipment, greater distance from the bird and some wind noise. The basic ingredients are nevertheless visible.

Following sonograms to compare with other individuals and taxa:

These 2 sonagrams are from a recording of a typical October, grey and white, presumed ‘Eastern Yellow Wagtail’, Netherlands, 13th October 2008. Herman van Oosten

The call both audibly and on the sonagram is very similar/ almost identical to the Point Dunes bird of 17th August. Interestingly in the lower sonagram, the 3rd call is audibly more like the normal ‘sweet’ call flava/flavissima/thunbergi and the sonagram is similarly ‘straight- edged’ lacking visible modulation.


Citrine Wagtail, Khawr Rawri, Oman 17 Feb 2001. Killian Mullarney

Black-headed Wagtail (ssp. feldegg) SW Turkey, 19th August 2009. Martin Garner

‘feldegg’ has the most widely spaced, slowest modulation producing the most rasping call of all the flava/citreola groups. Seeing a rasping flava doesn’t really mean very much (its a bit like seeing a ‘Commic’ Tern). Get a recording – get an identification!

ssp plexa, Kazakhstan May. Magnus Robb. We wonder if this taxon is represented in the Spurn record(s)

Presumed 1st winter North-eastern flava wagtail, Canal Scrape, Spurn, 24th August 2010

1st winter North (or South)- eastern Yellow Wagtail, Pulau Burung, Malaysia 23rd September 2007. David Bakewell. About 90% of identifiable birds here are tschutschensis, then plexa/macronyx (c10%) and taivana (rare). ‘Dig Deep’ is David’s blog and it’s a cracker!

Some observations, comments and hypothesis about what’s going on:

  • one or more young flava-type wagtails giving a rasping call which best fits with citreola/ eastern flava (closest to Eastern flava group) on Britain’s east coast in August.
  • Calls are very similar to an October grey and white flava seen in the Netherlands (which is considered to be vagrant ‘Eastern’)
  • Citrine/ flava hybrid option explored but at the moment, unconvincing. Very few real Citrine plumage characters on Spurn bird(s).
  • Plumage characters of (some) young Eastern flava are crystallized a little more. Features such as:

1)      Cold grey tone to upperparts, with quiet bright mossy-green fringes when fresh

2)      Tendency to extensively or wholly dark ear coverts

3)      White (ish) supercilium and throat

4)      Most of underparts white with little yellow (restricted to lower belly/ventral region) or complete absence of yellow (classic  ‘grey and white flava’)

5)      Can show quite white (sometimes broad) fringes to retained juvenile wing bars and tertials

6)      Adult females with more male-like plumage than western taxa


Eastern Yellow Wagtails: What about plexa of Central and East Siberia? This form is provisionally synonymised as ‘eastern thunbergi’ – “following Meinertzhagen (1954) and Vaurie (1957)” in Alstrom and Mild’s ‘Pipits and Wagtails’ book. The  calls of plexa do seem to link it better with the Eastern Yellow Wagtail group.

Why do migrant watchers in East Yorkshire and Norfolk report a rasping quality to the call of some thunbergi? These reports do NOT concur with sound recordings of western thunbergi. Are they instead birds coming from plexa population(s)?

Most compelling and revealing information is found in this phyllogenetic study:

Phylogeographic patterns in Motacilla

Key points: “If recognized as species, the name Motacilla flava applies to western forms, the northeastern group becomes Motacilla tschutschensis (Gmelin 1789) [with subspecies plexa and tschutschensis], and the southeastern group is Motacilla taivana (Swinhoe 1863).”

Examples of plexa were sampled as NEAR to Britain as Yamal on the edge of European Russia. Thus vagrant plexa reaching Britain may be no further away than the northern Urals/ edge of the West Siberian Plain. It could be argued that the Citrine Wagtail that turned at Spurn, around the same time was from the same geographic region.

Furthermore BWP notes that in the USSR, the northernmost birds leave breeding grounds from early August, making vagrancy on Britain’s east coast during August an eminent possibility. Presumably individuals from further east across the considerable plexa/ tschutschensis range could occur in Britain, later in the autumn as is more normally expected.

More to be discovered here me thinks! Let me know if you see a potential ‘North-eastern’ flava – and whatever you do? Record the call!

Short-tailed Shearwater

Short-taileds and Sooties Compared

Short-tailed Shearwater has been in the UK and Irish birding news recently. I have only seen Short-tailed Shearwater once. About 10 minutes after watching a Sooty. Slightly shorter, more rounded wings, slightly more flappy flight and lacking the obvious ‘silver wing-lining’ of Sooty, helped identify it. But the main feature that made for an easy identification. – it was in the Pacific Ocean!

Claiming one in the North Atlantic is obviously a whole other ball-game. Not impossible – but not yet proven to occur. Thanks to his brother Grahame, I received these stunning close-ups of the 2 species taken by Paul Walbridge off Eastern Australia.

Paul is the guy to contact if you want to see Tahiti Petrel – never mind an excellent collection of other ‘southern seabirds’. He runs pelagics out of Southport, (nr. Brisbane) Queensland. e.g. .

Further details also at

Sooty Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, July 2010 Paul Walbridge

This one has slightly longer primary projection than the Short-tailed Shearwater below and more uniformly dark plumage – though I have seen  Sooty Shearwater with darker velvety brown head and neck giving  a slight ‘hooded effect’.

Short-tailed Shearwater, Ulladulla, NSW, Australia, October 2007. Paul Walbridge.

It has the same Latin ‘name’ as the Slender-billed Curlew – ‘tenuirostris’ – which is why it’s also called Slender-billed Shearwater! Plumage features: This one clearly shows the characteristic darker half-hood over crown and nape and greyish-white throat and breast. Also the primary projection is a little shorter.

Sooty Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, July 2010. Paul Walbridge

No point making a fuss about a Sooty with projecting feet- these feet are sticking out further than on the Short-tailed Shearwater below.

Short-tailed Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, October 2007.  Paul Walbridge

It does look a little shorter -billed and especially more compact bodied than typical Sooty – doesn’t it. The white-looking line of secondaries on the far wing  is an artefact of light reflecting off the inner webs – commonly seen in  photos showing the far wing of certain seabirds- in the right light conditions  !

Sooty Shearwater, Woolongong, NSW, Australia, July 2010. Paul Walbridge

Check out those sticky-out feet! The underwing has almost all white greater under primary coverts (outer part of the wing) and alternating dark/light ‘chocolate ripple’ rows on the secondary coverts – both not found on Short-tailed Shearwaters – only usable at very close range.

Short-tailed Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, May 2006. Paul Walbridge.

Shows bit of a darker half hood contrasting with pale throat. Shorter, more rounded wings and more compact-looking body. On this one the greater under primary coverts pale brownish. Some Short-taileds can have an underwing pattern that is much closer in appearance to that of Sooty. I also wonder about lone, close range dark-end Balearic Shearwaters being a  pitfall for this species in the North Atlantic.

Even the guys who see these regularly say they remain an identification challenge. There is a thorough summary of the characters  – in Derek Onley and Paul Scofield’s Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World.

Zino’s Petrel off Ireland


The utterly irrepressible Derek Charles -texted me a couple of day ago – fresh from a seawatch at Kilcummin Head, co. Mayo. It’s an all time favourite spot of mine – as it is of many others birders. Besides an impressive array of seabirds anyway – 4  birders had clear unequivocal views of a pterodroma Petrel whose characters favoured Zino’s Petrel much more than Fea’s. There is considerable experience amoungst the group of Fea’s from Ireland and abroad  – and well, I am absolutely delighted for them. I really wish I had been there! – and knowing some of the observers well enough very confident it’s entirely legitimate for them to claim they seem to have been watching a Zino’s Petrel  especially based on recent greater appreciation of their field appearance.

They deserve to celebrate!

Here’s their joint comment on it – written after pausing for thought and double checking of the literature.

“On Wednesday 15th September Derek Charles, Dave Suddaby, Dennis Weir and Brad Robson found a Feas “type” Petrel at Kilcummin Head in Mayo. The bird had a largely white underwing with a dark underwing covert bar and was a very striking individual. We watched the bird for around 5 minutes, at ‘mid-range’ and in good viewing conditions, confirming that the underwing feature noted was real and not an artefect of light. If you check the videos on Maderia Wind Birds “the first ever video of Zinos Petrel” this was a good match! Also check photos 54,59, 60 July 2010 Birding World Article page 266.
Based on current knowledge, this bird actually being a Zino’s ‘type’ rather than a Feas ‘type’ is, at least, a possibility. We want to alert other observers and interested parties to this exciting sighting.”

Derek, Dennis, Dave, Brad.

Soft-plumaged Petrel. South Atlantic. 17th March 2007. Ian Smith. This is not a Zino’s Petrel – obviously! It just seemed a good moment to put up this photos taken by Ian Smith. It caught my eye recently when reviewing his Hen Harrier photos at Spurn. (see here:

With obvious grey breast band and that head pattern is clearly a ‘mollis’. It also has quite a lot of white in the auxiliary region (armpit if you like) and inner under wing coverts and actually has pretty obvious dark stipple barring along the flanks.

I am one of those who can’t see Graham Catleys pterodroma – photographed of Norway on July 13th 2009 as being anything other than a (southern ocean) Soft-plumaged Petrel – though I know not all agree! It’s here:

Anyway here’s another photo (thanks to Ian) to add to the data.

Yelkouan Shearwater

Heads up!

With an increasing number of claims of Yelkouan Shearwaters in the UK, thought I would post this superb plate.

Its from the ‘Frontiers book’ , but here in colour and enlarged.  If I get time I will put down criteria worked out from tons seen off Istanbul and Menorca (which is also an update from the text in the book). For now a very nice plate. Think if I was to claim one – I would want a head-lifter!

Short-tailed Shearwater has also been in the British/ Irish headlines. I’ve been sent some  wonderful photos of Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters which  I hope to put add here tomorrow.

Go on – click on image below for ever better view

Yelkouan, Manx and Balearic Shearwaters by Ian Lewington