Monthly Archives: October 2010

Eagle Owl

Wild Thing!

Good day at Spurn which included a full set of scarce winter beach passerines. More on those to come. For now THIS:

Eagle Owl. This mighty beast was found as fresh road kill near Hull exactly 2 weeks ago. (on the A63 near the Humber bridge). I don’t know if its wild or not – or even if it’s a European bird or not. It has no rings.

Speculate is somewhat inevitable though, while we wait for more information on the bird! Have a look at what else was occurring on the east coast-  especially birds from a Scandinavian origin in mid October 2010 – notably 4 Rough-legged Buzzards at Spurn over the same weekend.

Perhaps this one will be found to have been an escaped falconer’s bird – or maybe not.

The status of the Eagle Owl in Britain is already a highly contentious issue, . Be interesting to see what this unexpected  individual contributes to the debate (with thanks to Andy Gibson).

Chris Batty sent me an apposite email last night (friday) – will check some bios on the bird hopefully today and report results here later

Rough-legged Buzzard

2 Caravan ticks!

At Spurn. Internet limited and slow (and why would you want to- real birds to see!). One of my favourite birds 3 Northern Bullfinch at the weekend. Today added this juvenile Rough -legged Buzzard to my caravan list  plus a  Snow Bunting over- very nice. More soon.

juvenile Rough-legged Buzzard. Very near Martin and Sharon’s caravan, Spurn, 27th October 2010. Ian (pin sharp) Smith



Collared Flycatcher Part 3

Spurn Surprise

Bit of a shocker! I am talking about the ficedula flycatcher at Spurn from 30th August to 1st September 2010. It went and got its DNA done. Thanks to Ben Sheldon’s direction and the sterling work of  Holger Schielzeth (and Reija Dufva) at the Department of Evolutionary Biology at Uppsala University. A couple of small feathers were used to analyse DNA.

This is the bird:

preliminary results and comments from Holger as follows:


“… we’ve got genotypes for four markers. The genotypes are from two chromosomes each.  4/8 are clearly Collared and none is clearly Pied. The other two fall in the range of overlap. I think, it is safe to conclude that this is not a Pied. It could still be a hybrid, but it fits so well with a pure Collared Flycatcher, that I think its most likely a pure Collared. At least there is no indication that this is a hybrid. I wanted to get more information on the allele frequency distribution for the two species to give you probabilities for hybrid versus Collared.  Nevertheless, I wanted to inform you about the our first results…”

This is not the last word on this bird! I still have questions and Holger has yet to finish his analysis. Intriguing nevertheless…we are still learning. Surprising even to me that it’s genes at least are so strongly in the ‘Collared zone’, even if the ‘hybrid’ possibility is still in the air.

The Tory Warbler

Suppress – until you are ready!

Aidan Kelly got in touch about a warbler seen on Tory Island, off the north coast of Donegal last month. Aiden is a  former member of the IRBC and respected as cautious and skilled field observer. It’s yet another tale of how small elusive birds can provide great identification headaches. Multi-observed for many hours it nevertheless defied straight forward identification- and suggested something rare. I am always keen (too keen) to share interesting bird sightings. I am also a strong advocate of ignoring the pressure to put news out until you are sure. There is a big difference between finding and identifying rare birds – and just twitching them. I suspect some of those who demand instant news- are not amoung those who regularly find rare birds!

Read on…

“Early in September this year I was birding on Tory Island with Jim Dowdall, where we were joined by Derek Charles, Wilton Farrelly and Ian Graham. Jim flushed a very pale warbler from a small weedy field at East Town. The bird remained extremely flighty and elusive.  Despite Tory not having a huge amount of cover, there is plenty for a bird to hide itself in if it wants! After several hours we still hadn’t come to a definite decision on the id., such were the brief glimpses we were getting. Basically it was a small warbler with a very pale brownish colour above and off-white underparts, appearing overall the colour you might expect a Booted to look in the field. It seemed to show pale outer tail feathers during the brief views we were getting. The bill looked fine and thin, but long and dagger-like at times, during some of the views we were getting of it as it skulked in a dense bush.

A game of ‘cat and mouse’ ensued, and after 5-6 hours we still had not had good enough views to allow us to id. the bird! Most of these hours were spent trying to relocate it, after it would fly out of sight over some sheds from the biggest dense bush in East Town. It looked very pale and superficially phylloscopus-like in flight. After a few hours, I mentioned to Derek that I thought it probably was an extremely pale phyllosc. from the views and impressions I’d got so far, and he agreed. Soon afterwards, Derek and Ian had had enough frustration with this bird, and headed back to West Town to cover more of the island.

In the early afternoon,  and having lost it for about an hour, the rest of us  were about to concede that it probably was just a pale and faded phyllosc. and try to cover some more of the island, when we got a shout from Wilton who had picked it up about 80m away along the edge of a nearby field.

We rushed over and had our first view of the bird in the open, in bright sunshine.

It looked very pale and again superficially Booted-like with what appeared to be  paler outer tail feathers. The head pattern looked a bit odd though, with the bill still looking quite long and dagger-like.  I concentrated on getting a digi-scoped video record, and after a brief period when the bird sat fairly still, it flew out of sight and was never seen again. We searched for the next hour or so, and then had to head to catch the earlier ferry due to a forecast of deteriorating weather.  Looking so pale with dagger-like bill, our conclusion was that it might be a Booted/Sykes’s type and we put the news out as such, but did say that closer analysis of the video recording may lead to its identity being resolved. And thankfully it did. Later on, on the larger screen of a computer, and with some assistance from Killian Mullarney, we were able to confirm that the bird is, as we first suspected, a very pale and faded Phyllosc, probably a Willow Warbler.

It has sustained some feather damage to its face, and it may have been missing some feathers, this causing the bill to look longer and more dagger-like that a normal phyllosc.

The impression of lighter outer tail feathers may have just been due to back-lighting and normal translucency. With the benefit of being able to look more critically at the video-grabs than was possible in the field, it clearly has more the appearance of a phyllosc after all. While it was a disappointment to us to realise that we had ended up concluding the wrong identification on this difficult and non co-operative bird in the field, it was good to be able to resolve it in the end with the help of a short bit of shakey digi-scoped video footage.

Anyway, the main lesson learnt about this event is that it is always necessary to take as much time as is needed to be completely certain of your id. especially when a bird is not co-operating, and not to feel under any pressure to get the news out quickly, until you are totally happy with the identification. In these days of instant news and texting, birders can all to easily succumb to pressure to get the news out before the identification has been fully resolved.”

Aidan G Kelly

Yelkouan Shearwater – Cornish Claims

An Honest Account – August 2010

Intrigued and, I admit, a tad sceptical about the sudden rush in autumn claims of Yelkouan Shearwaters from land-based seawatches in SW England. I definitely think they have occurred in Britain and will occur. I definitely there are  false claims which relate to pale Balearic Shearwaters. Even some well-marked Manx Shearwaters will masquerade and be claimed as Yelkouan’s.

Into this sea of doubt enter Tom McKinney’s account. Liked that it was honest, not shoe-horning and, to me this kinda sounds like he (and they) might have seen the real thing. No photos this time, just a good read! See what you think.

“With 4,600 Balearic Shearwaters in a raft off the Atlantic French coast, during my week seawatching for the Seawatch-SW project there was always the thought that should the weather prove conducive, this raft may possibly enter British waters and bring good numbers past Gwennap Head, Porthgwarra. Whether it was the French raft or not, on the 6th August we experienced a Herculean passage of Balearic Shearwaters – 160 in total over 12 hours, a new record for the project, though Nick Adams has since gone on to smash my pathetic effort with his Balearic hurricane of 268.

The assembled team consisted of my wife Sarah, John Swann and Phil Collins, and by 16:28 we had already surpassed 130 Balearic Shearwaters and were confident that we could cruise through the 150 mark by dusk, when we picked up a bird coming from far left that I instantly demanded that the others should get onto ASAP. Head on, though at a slight angle, it was immediately obvious that this was structurally wrong for Balearic, and the first feature noted was how long necked it appeared, followed by a long pointed rear end that lacked the plump rear end so characteristic of Balearic. It then did exactly what it was supposed to do, and raised its head well above the line of its body – a feature which Martin Garner had espoused as essential for picking up a suspected vagrant in his Yelkouan chapter in Frontiers in Birding. It continually repeated this, and was a much higher lift than that shown in the occasional upward glances of Manx.

As it came closer (we estimated its range to be c400m) we were able to ascertain the upperparts were a very dark mahogany (a definite brown hue), the bulk of the underwing clean and crisp but with extensive dark on the axillaries (still within the range of a Balearic with pale underparts), the undertail coverts/vent dark and dirty, dirty breast sides, and – most importantly – that the feet extended well beyond the tail, so much so that – using exaggerated language – l mentioned that the bird looked to be struggling to hold its rear end up, almost as if the whole of its rear was dragging. Good views also eliminated any hint of a white crescent behind the ear.

The bird dropped onto the water twice, allowing me the chance to scribble down a few field notes as John Swann kept his scope on it, before vanishing around the corner to the west, with a new viewing angle allowing us to confirm the lack of a plump rear end, the considerable amount of feet extending past the tail and what appeared to be a relatively long bill. Overall viewing time was about 3 minutes.

Whilst the plumage was certainly within the range of paler Balearics, the length of the neck and unusual appearance of the rear was not consistent with any of the Balearics I have seen (I saw 325 in that week alone). Although also having feet beyond the tail, I believe that Balearic’s characteristic appearance of a plump rear end (as I politely call it, though a big fat arse is what I really mean!) comes from a fat belly and broad hips, which at certain angles gives Balearic the look of a blunt tail end. Our bird never showed that from any angle.

After the bird had gone, one of the things I immediately wanted to test was the upperpart colour of Manx at that distance and in the late afternoon light, because at certain times of day under intense sunlight, Manx had been looking very brown above. I began checking the Manxies passing by, and that distance they were all coloured in a simple monochrome black and white, lacking any brown hue to the upperparts.

We later discovered that another group had also picked up the same bird from in Porthgwarra cove, and had also suspected it could be a Yelkouan.

These are the actual field notes I wrote as the bird took a rest on the water:

Structure lacked Balearic’s plump rear end. Seemed very long necked and slightly longer bill. Feet projected well beyond tail giving impression of pointed rear and almost dragging its tail. Constant head lifting, not just an upward glance but actually raised head. Extensive dark on undertail coverts and vent. No notch behind ear. Underwing as on Balearic, extensive dark axillaries. Dropped on water twice.”

Tom McKinney.

Bramble-finch or Chaffling

New kind of Hybrid?

Tony Disley sent me the following fascinating account and photos – sure appears to show a mix of characters indicating presumed hybrid origin

Ever heard of one of those before? Any other explanation?

“I had 3 fantastic days over at Spurn the last few days [late September 2010] with a magic fall on the 27th and wondered what you made of an interesting bird I saw.”

“This bird was an apparent ‘Chaffling’ which seems to be a hybrid Chaffinch x Brambling, first noticed back on feeding with a group of c12 Chaffinch down at the point I was thinking it was an extremely well marked Chaffinch on the rear crown/nape when it turned side on and looked even more interesting. clearly showing faded Brambling features but being a remarkably drab bird for a Brambling. We didn’t have long with the bird before it was flushed, but I managed a few quick photo’s and then saw it’s rump in flight which was midway between a Chaffinch and Brambling, being off whitish and no where near as obvious or clear cut as a Brambling.”

Tony Disley, October 2010