Monthly Archives: September 2010

Orange Juvenile Harrier

But Which One?

Here’s the story. It’s about a juvenile harrier that did a once fly-past at Spurn, East Yorkshire on 28th August 2010.

Mystery Photograph: Identify the species. Answer next month! (any one else remember regularly reading those enticing words?). Flying over shorebirds on the Humber and Spurn’s ‘Narrow Neck’ in the background.

OK . Here it is through binoculars! What species is it?

A juvenile Harrier sp. passes through Spurn’s triangle zone and out across the Humber. Watched for not more than handful of minutes by about 30 observers and never close. What would you have called it?

It was a Montagu’s Harrier, maybe a Pallid Harrier, a Hen Harrier and an (American) Marsh Hawk depending on how well you saw it!

Here’s the story:

The following photo was taken by my daughter Abigail, as we were walking back towards the Bluebell. Leaden skies appeared to the south. Before long large rain drops necessitated a quick dash to the cafe. Pete Wragg joined my family around the table and just as we settled in for welcome victuals, our radios crackled. The same rain that caused us to seek shelter had ‘forced down’ a large raptor. A sleek handed, orangy looking bird-of-prey had flashed past the caravan of one sharp-eyed birder- possibly Montagu’s!

Pete and I grabbed bins and ran out to suitable vantage point. Scanning the fields near the Warren the bird rose up having alighted briefly. “There it is!” Except to me it looked too broad-winged for a super slim Monty’s (eek… perhaps Pallid), which I hesitantly mentioned to Pete. Some 30 birders emerged from sheltered locations as the bird disappeared from our view. Pete and I headed towards the road seeking another vantage. I had no more views. Others watched as it flew alongside the canal zone and very soon, out towards Lincolnshire. Ian Smith managed a handful of distant shots.

So what was it?

Leaden skies, Spurn 28th August 2010, Abigail Garner. Rain forces birds that are otherwise over flying to make landfall and seek shelter.

Pete Wragg woz ‘ere. His untouched tea and bakewell. Even his coat was left behind in our adrenaline filled dash.

Post-sighting analysis: The bird’s identity was briefly discussed. Some were thinking it looked OK for a Montagu’s Harrier. A couple of us felt it too-broad winged, which is why I even contemplated the bulkier Pallid. The answer lay in Ian Smith’s photos.

5 fingers, 4 long ones  – it’s a Hen Harrier. Game over – or its it?

Hmm. What if there had been no photos? What species would have gone down in birders notebooks/ on the internet/ in the evening log at Spurn? The photos above and below show the wing formula of a Hen Harrier. This was not noted as it passed rapidly by. Indeed, flying into strong winds caused the wing tips to be sometimes sleeked back and appear narrow. It was rather plain and orangey looking according to some observers. In these photos it also looks dark-hooded. And the outer primaries appear to have lots of bars- don’t they? As I looked through Ian’s photos on his computer screen – this question came to mind. “Why is it not a Marsh Hawk?”. The North American Hen Harrier. Some features on these slightly blurry photos look good for a ‘hudsonius’.

Juvenile Hen Harrier, Spurn August 28th 2010. See ‘5 fingers, 4 long’ again (4 fingers, 3 long on Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers). Ian Smith (all Harrier photos above also by Ian Smith)

Fortunately Ian photographed a juvenile Hen Harrier exactly one week earlier at the same place- indeed flushed from the same field as the 28th August bird. This one can be more easily identified as a juvenile (Eurasian) Hen Harrier. Actually I would argue, the way some large birds move up and down Spurn – it could even be the same bird!

juvenile Hen Harrier, Clubley’s Field, Spurn 21st August 2010, Ian Smith.

Certainly pretty dark looking ‘plain chocolate’ above – sometimes a quoted feature of ‘Marsh Hawk’. Wing tip appearance of harriers can vary in the field, in photos and even on the same individual (see above).

juvenile Hen Harrier, Clubley’s Field, Spurn 21st August 2010, Ian Smith. Juveniles with a orangey underparts are not unusual. Some juvenile Marsh Hawks can come quite close in general appearance to this. On the finer details, this bird show 3 bars on the outermost long primary and 5 bars each on those 2 long primaries next to it. You would want one more bar each of those (4 and 6 respectively) to claim a Marsh Hawk.

juvenile Hen Harrier, Clubley’s Field, Spurn 21st August 2010, Ian Smith. Count the bars again if you like. Also note the 3 dark bars (including the dark trailing edge) in the middle part of the underwing. Ideally a Marsh Hawk would have a narrower central bar. The trailing edge of the inner primaries is obvious dark and the dark shaft streaks on the undertail coverts caught my eye. Do Marsh Hawks ever show these?

juvenile Marsh Hawk, Connecticut, December, Julian Hough.

Here’s a real Marsh Hawk. Maybe a juv. male (the iris looks like it might be pale). Count the bars. Just about visible – 4 on the outermost long primary and 6 on the next 2 (look carefully). It also has a slightly more solid dark ‘boa’ – the area behind that speckled pale thin collar, slightly weaker streaking on the breast and no dark shaft streaks on the undertail coverts. The central dark bar on the secondaries is obviously thinner and trailing edge of the inner primaries looks rather pale. The undertail coverts have no dark shaft streak. All subtle stuff. Which is why…

I learnt lots from this experience like:

– always beware of once-seen fly-by rare bird claims. Mistakes are common!

– blurry, distant photos won’t do when subtle features need to be seen

– while some juvenile Marsh Hawks are very distinctive, others will be very hard to identify unless seen/ photographed very well!

juvenile Marsh Hawk, Ian Lewington. What are the key features again?!

I chatted about this stuff with John Martin, Julian Hough and Alex Lees. Some comments:

from John Martin:
“As you say, the 28th August Spurn bird is clearly a Hen type on wing formula and could easily be the bird from 21st, which is presumably a juvenile Hen as it’s in Yorkshire in August. Both quite orange bodied but well within normal variation of juv Hen. The photos of the bird on 28th are way too poor to even think about a hudsonius claim on a bird like this – you just can’t see it well enough and with poor views streaky hoods can look solid, streaked underparts can look unstreaked etc – beware, this is crucial but perhaps not emphasised enough in the paper. The bird on 21st shows too much streaking and too streaky a dusky hood but you could get some poorly marked Northerns (Marsh Hawk) like this. Julian’s does show finer streaking more confined to flanks and close to the more solid hood. They can be tricky and you need decent photos. For some birds you probably can’t do them. Others however are really striking and don’t require quite such detailed images to nail them.”
from Julian Hough:
“I think it’s downright tough to nail one based on the plumage variation and overlap in many characters – without considering hybrids. The characters of juvenile Marsh Hawk from my experience:
– variable in underpart streaking – some basically unstreaked, some with breast band of streaks across breast and down flanks.
– boa variable in darkness, but typically giving hooded effect
– leading edge of underwing coverts usually unmarked and buffish and undertail coverts and lateral tail coverts unstreaked (typically streaked in Hen – not sure how reliable this is
– bands on P8 variable but as mentioned by you, typically 5-7 in hudsonius
– upperwing coverts and tail sides with warm rufousy edgings
– white at rear of eye often broken by post-ocular eyestripe, but this is matched by other harrier sp
– paler trailing edge to inner primaries
Basically all the features above are variable and seem to be matched by some cyaneus (see Spurn bird) which would likely be unidentifiable in the field. Birds in areas that have proven capacity for American vagrants (Scilly/Shetland/Cornwall) and where harriers are uncommon might indicate a better probability, but without close photos, identification will not be easily proven. Birds in late September -November also increase the probability as opposed to birds in August which stand a good chance or originating from more local populations.
I have definitely changed my thinking in the light of researching images and looking at individuals such as the Spurn bird to think that in most cases proving the occurrence of a hudsonius (even with photos) beyond reasonable doubt is probably an uphill battle. The Spurn bird wouldn’t get a second glance here in the US as a possible cyaneus since the characters are so close to hudsonius.”


Close up Action

I like Sanderling. Perhaps the ultimate roof-of the world shorebird? Maybe Knot deserves that status too. I am thinking of the fact that Sanderling only breed in the High Arctic zone. Other species also breed there, but their breeding ranges usually extend further south as well. I certainly didn’t know, ’till very recently, that (sometimes)  2 subspecies are recognized. Nominate alba (Greenland east to NE Siberia) and rubidus (N Canada). Don’t think you can tell them apart though – really. Anyway, this is why I learnt a little more about Sanderling:

Misfortune happens. Just a bit sad when a juvenile male  Sanderling, having just made its maiden flight from breeding grounds in the Arctic Tundra, hit the overhead wires in the Sheep Field at Spurn in late August and broke both leg and wing. I am not pleased when it happens. A mark of human presence hindering, not helping, wildlife. Why male? – wing length!

I have however benefited from such events. I have been collecting birds wings for many years – and learnt much from it. Here’s then, a little study based on the wing of this juvenile Sanderling together with a couple of live birds photographed nearby.

juvenile Sanderling, September 8th 2010, Spurn (just moulted a couple of upperpart feathers).  The extra-frantic activity of this one and its 2 companions – sand flying everywhere as they fed (look closely at  the photo) indicated to me that they were perhaps ‘just in’. There can be a slight hyper-manickness about birds, empty-bellied which have just completed a journey of up to several thousand miles.

upperwing of juvenile Sanderling, Spurn August 2010

outerwing of juvenile Sanderling, Spurn August 2010. The pattern of white on the inner primaries interests me. It fully covers the outer web of the basal half of the feather. The amount of white in the same area on Dunlin can be useful in separating different races – but you need amazing photos or specimens unfortunately!

innerwing of juvenile Sanderling, Spurn August 2010

tertials of juvenile Sanderling, Spurn August 2010

underwing of juvenile Sanderling, Spurn August 2010. More blazing white on the underwing than its congeners.

juvenile Sanderling. September 8, 2010. Spurn

Ever see one of those illustrations showing how the waders bill length correlated with their prefered food items? Guess this one decided he didn’t get a long enough bill.

Head needs to go in too!

Lesser Yellowlegs

Shorebird finders bonanza

Got an email from Derek Charles this morning. Wilton and Derek  enterprisingly headed west over the weekend. To Mayo’s west coast – a favourite old destination of mine. They scored! Finding a fresh (mostly) juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper, as well as picking up Spotted Sandpiper on the Mullet. And Derek takes cool photos. Thanks for the Monday morning grip-off boys!

also see

“Give you the usual laugh.When Wilton and I arrived on Achill we took off along the river by the golf course because it looked perfect for yank waders. I ended up on beach on one side of river and I spotted the ‘legs about 300m away and knew it was either a Greenshank or Yellowlegs but I only had bins. So I rang Wilton and he went and got the car but in the meantime I waded straight into the river, in flood with no wellies. A couple on far side thought i was demented which is what it looked like! Anyway a minute later I had the ‘legs in the bag.”

(mostly) juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs. Achill Island, Co. Mayo. September 2010. Derek Charles. The old trick was – if the bill looks about the same length as the tibia (upper half of the ‘leg’) its a Lesser. If the bill is obviously much longer than the tibia. It’s a Greater. Easy no?!

With a couple or more new greyish ‘first winter ‘ feathers on the upperparts – is it technically a juvenile or a first winter? – it’s a bit of discussion that comes round every so often. Writing ” juvenile moulting to first winter plumage” could do with slightly better short hand!

juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. The Mullet, Co Mayo September 2010. Derek Charles.

The greater coverts, scapulars and tertials are particularly plain looking on this one. I can just make out dark subterminal line in the scapulars and pale tips (but plain edges) to greater coverts and tertials – the classic age criteria and best separation from juvenile Common Sandpiper. A quick ageing thing on autumn Spotted Sandpipers though is that adults often still have spots – little ones, especially in the undertail regions.

and another shot from Derek – he didn’t find this one. Didn’t need to- already bagged his autumn find ‘Pec’ in Londonderry earlier in the autumn. Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper, Tory Island, Co. Donegal. September 2001. Derek Charles.

Updates: Ortolan and Lapland Buntings

Ortolan Bunting:

Have added helpful comments on age and sex from Grahame Walbridge:

Pied Flycatcher:  

Graham Catley  (picture right heading off from Ortolan ‘mini-twitch’) also photographed the same adult Pied Flycatcher featured here:

– same bird only moved 2-3 miles NW to Sammy’s Point on same day. Is it a male or female? Not sure now. His first winter Pied Flycatcher with very limited white in the wings is an intriguing individual.

Lapland Bunting:

see notes on their arrival and behaviour from our forebears:

and see Marc Hughes story below (click on comments) . Here’s the map that goes with it (click on for fuller view):


The blog is a month old tomorrow.

Just wanted to say a personal “thank you” – for your comments, contributions and especially those  who have just taken an interest and checked this out. We managed over 22,500 ‘hits’ and by the looks of it from all over the world as well as nice and local. Most of you will know (and if not -where have you been!) Ian Lewington. One of our premier bird artists. Ian’s illustrations include the juvenile Marsh Hawk on the header and hugely improves all the pages beyond this home page – “A welcome”  “Talks”  “Writing”  etc. 

Please check them out. I will do a bit more on Ian soon – his website is here:

As autumn migration head’s into to full swing – here’s hoping we see a few of these before too long:

Pallas’s Warbler by Ian Lewington

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Just to say have added a sonogram of the recent Flamborough bird calling and comparison sonogram with similar sounding Lesser Whitethroat.


Apparently I need to buy ‘space’ before I can add sound recordings. Also I will try an get better at the look/crop on the sonograms- still learning!