Monthly Archives: November 2010

Intermediate Arctic Redpoll

Is it or isn’t it?

As we are into tricky Arctic Redpoll ID issues, here a great set of photos from Roger Riddington of a tricky redpoll at Sumburgh Head Shetland earlier this month (10th November 2010). At the end a tricky bird I found nearly 5 years ago.

Birders who want a tidy, easy approach to Redpoll identifiable; those who believe every bird can be identified to clear species (especially when it comes to Arctic and Mealy Redpolls –LOOK AWAY NOW!

Controversial (Coue’s Arctic) Redpoll, Sumburgh, Shetland, November 20010. Roger Riddington. This bird ticks many Coue’s Arctic Redpoll boxes but is at the intermediate or trickier end of identification. Some observers would be happier to call it a Mealy Redpoll, but this may be more through conservatism than accurate identification.

The context of our problem with Coue’s Arctic identification is that they have mainly occurred in ‘invasion years’. With many individuals, even in one flock it is tempting to focus on the most striking, readily identified individual, with the ‘intermediate birds’ being quietly logged as also-rans. In non-invasion years these same  ‘ intermediates’-which I suspect are very often genuine Coue’s cause major headaches because they don’t look like the ‘easy birds’ from the invasion years.

The controversy is also part fuelled by a desire to name every redpoll. Calling a bird a Mealy Redpoll, when it is really an ‘intermediate’/possible Coue’s should be a bookable offence! Calling it intermediate or ID uncertain or tricky is more realistic. The particular problem zone lies in the realm of streaky first winter Arctic Redpolls and rather pale looking Mealy Redpolls.

I think David Sibley sums up the issue very well. For ‘Hoary’ read Coue’s.

“Redpoll identification is challenging because Hoary and Common Redpoll seem to show an unbroken continuum of variation from pale to dark, and there are no fully reliable differences. So birders have to rely on a subjective assessment of overall colour and struggle to define the threshold for confident identification. Virtually all birders see redpolls only in the winter, where identification is reduced to an utterly one-sided question: “Where can we draw the line so that we are sure the accepted records of Hoary Redpolls are correct?”

Since the goal is high confidence, this leads to a narrow definition of Hoary Redpoll – only the palest (and smallest-billed) birds are named and reported as Hoaries. This leads to two problems (the second more serious). First, we only identify part of the population – some darker Hoary Redpolls are excluded. Second, many of those intermediate birds are simply lumped into our broad definition of Common, and receive no extra attention. There’s nothing wrong with excluding some intermediate birds from being called Hoaries, as long as birders understand that some Hoaries are being excluded. This is conservative. But most people give redpolls very uneven treatment by demanding that Hoaries meet high standards, and then calling everything else Common. This is not conservative. We should at least be fair and apply equally strict criteria to our Common Redpoll identifications.”

For much more see David’s blog:

WOW! Compare this photo with the 2 above it. Its well-known that Arctic Redpoll have very similar bill lengths to Mealy Redpolls. So it’s some artefact involving the structure of the foreface and feathering that produces the familiar ‘punched in face’ and small billed-look. But just look how that supposed important ID feature can appear so drastically different on the very same bird! (see how the flank streaking changes appearance too).

I found this Arctic Redpoll at Hoyland, South Yorkshire in early February 2006. Well I thought it showed characters of Arctic Redpoll. I think it probably was one but it was a bit streaky and bit spiky-billed. It was keenly twitched and happily ticked off by many. But I never submitted the record to BBRC. Still haven’t. It epitomizes the Great Winter Redpoll Debate. Hopefully it will be a bit more considred and less ‘strident’ than in some years!

Glip, Parakeet and British Crossbills

4 vocal types now recorded at Strines

Following on from a  couple days ago, Dougies Preston got in touch from Shetland interested to see the Crossbill sonagrams. So I sent him  sound files.

Thing was my confusion. The first Crossbills I heard on Friday  sounded ‘different’. ie not the classic ‘chip chip chip’ or ‘glip glip glip’ that epitomises ‘Glip Crossbill’. If you’re not yet into Crossbill vocal types, they REALLY do sound different from one another. Each of the different calls came from different flocks. The Glips were a larger flock of 10-15 birds, the other 2 vocal types from very small and quite separate flocks of 2-3 birds.

I certainly haven’t learnt all the Crossbill vocal types by ear yet. I just know ‘different’ (from ‘Glip’). Having collected a few recordings  of varying quality, when I tried to look at them, I could tell the Glip Crossbills straight away. I  knew that’s what they would be. The first ‘different’ one was confirmed by Dougie as Parakeet Crossbill (as suspected). However he also came up with another. British Crossbill. 3 types at least at Strines at present. I could see differences in the sonagrams but I thought claiming 3 would be too many!

Must admit I half thought it would be just one Crossbill vocal type and that I was mis-understanding something. However all recordings were of flight calls- not excitement calls, and the different callers were in different flocks. Suppose it could be bit like mixed winter Bunting/ Finch flocks all in same good feeding habitat. Especially with immigrants in autumn winter, chance of variety increases.

I am a kinesthetic  learner so I learn best by doing (rather than reading etc). ‘Doing’ here is making my own recordings (no the best – but they are mine!) and learning from birds I am personally seeing and hearing. I now have a better frame reference to go forward. I recorded  Phantom Crossbill here before in very lean Crossbill year (3 plus years ago). I should still have the recording but I am not sure where it is.

Why Strines for Crossbills?

It is a great Crossbill spot. Twice recorded Two-barred Crossbill, many Parrots in the past (flocks in invasion years in 1982-83 and 1990-91) and ‘Common’ Crossbill arriving most years and occasionally breeding. You can see the east coast from Strines (well OK the Humber Bridge); it’s on the moorland fringe and is the first high point the birds reach which is also full of food!

So here’s the sonagrams. Will try and add sound files later, (click on for slightly for larger image). They can be compared with sonagrams and recordings in ‘The Sound Approach to Birding’ (and if you haven’t got a copy yet- why on earth not?!)

All recorded using a Remembird– still for my money the best value, lighweight, effective, carry around recording device

Glip Crossbills. A small flock flying low overhead, so good clear sound ‘capture’. Red Grouse calling nearby also (lower pitched row of dark blobs). The Glip Crossbill is the first vocal type to learn, the commonest, and the call type which use to be written about in field guides. Sonagram shape as a ‘tick’

Parakeet Crossbill. This is the one that sounds a bit more like a Parrot Crossbill and tricked both Swedish and Dutch birders several years ago into thinking there was a Parrot Crossbill invasion – When in fact i was a Parakeet Crossbill invasion. Recorded from a flock of 3 birds of at Strines.

British Crossbill. The surprise find from a calling flock of just 2 birds. Thanks Dougie!

Lapland Bunting

Sheffield Tame Tick

First weekend in November (6th) I was on Blacka with Roy Twigg, Dave Hursthouse and others looking for Homer the Shrike. Got call from Mark Reeder ‘its like Shetland’. He had just found both Lapland and Snow Bunting at Orgreave Lagoon Sheffield (not Shetland).Remarkable. One species would have been enough!

The following Saturday  a little group (Dave, Marco, Roy, Andy, me)  had point-blank views of one of the Lapland Buntings.

With my camera battery  flat Andy D counselled- “School boy error Garner”, but nevertheless sent his wonderful photos.

Age and Sex of this Lapland Bunting?

Please have a go. I see first winter tail feathers. Plumage has quite obvious rufous ‘triangles’ on nape sides (though not from behind- looked just ‘greyish’), quite a lot of black in the crown and obvious black blotches (circles not streaks) in breast centre, suggests to me first winter male– but I am not sure it’s an exact science. Females do show these feature in summer.

Anyone have better stab at age and sex. Then its tame, so it would be a North American bird ssp. subcalcaratus! It could well be but I’m not claiming it. I don’t think you can ‘do’ them on plumage. More on subcalcaratus Lapland and occurance in Britain see:

All nice photos of the Lapland Bunting by Andy Deighton bar bottom shot (digiscoped) and scene shots by me.

(1st winter male?) Lapland Bunting, Orgreave Lagoon, Sheffield 13th November 2010

Glip and Parakeet Crossbills


Gorgeous morning, crisp icy air on west side of Strines/ Hollingdale plantation. It’s a remote spot apart from tree felling going on in the distance. I went looking for Mountain Hare. Have seen them here before, but NONE. Have they gone the same way way as the Goshawk? It’s a Red Grouse shooting moor. The Hollingdale Plantation used to be THE spot for Goshawk- all gone I think. I also found a spring trap in a random spot in the middle of heather moorland habitat on man-made little ‘animal bridge’ with cage. What was that there for? (See photos below).

Did see up c20 Crossbill in different flock. Recorded calls including definite Glip Crossbill and I think Parakeet Crossbill- but need to check as I have much to learn, and feel like I am starting over. It’s a complex subject!.

Also ring-tailed Harrier (presumed Hen but very brief views) and a handful of Bullfinch on the moors which I would like to see better. It also has a history of Great Grey Shrike records- no sign of Homer from Blacka Moor though today!

Crossbills, Glip or Parakeet? over Strines Moor, 26th November 2010. I did find a Two-Barred Crossbill here in 2002; the one below. Will keep looking- ya never know!

Two-barred Crossbill, Strines September 2002 Garry Taylor (no permission needed- Garry is always very generous!). In heavy wing moult which caused a bit of controversy at the time.

Crossbill habitat. A couple of small plantations of  Larch and Scots Pine beyond the larger Hollingdale Plantation. Some Bullfinches in here too that warranted another look.

Vermin Spring Trap. Seemed a bit bizarre in the middle of wild heather Moorland. No rat infestation up here. Something sinister going on? Amazingly while I was there a piece of wood fell from above onto the pad and sprung the trap leaving no injured animals!

Fires lit just as I was leaving. Smoking out the Crossbills?

Bean Goose Salton Sea Part 2

Best left as unidentified?

Hard to imagine a better photos of a Bean Goose! It’s an education for sure. Thanks to Paul Lehman,  Ken Kurland and Tom Blackman,  another set of photos of the Californian Bean Goose, and to Chris Batty for instructive rossicus shot. Have to say my pendulum has swung back a bit towards the Thick-billed Goose-ssp. serrirostris. In flight the neck still looks doesn’t look long enough for Middendorff’s and bill profile has me thinking Tundra- type again.

I am confused and stuck! Much more helpful though a detailed comment from Nial Moores in Republic of Korea (South Korea) where LOADS of both types winter! For his fascinating assessment, read on :

I have also pulled out an  excellent comment by Mike Kilburn on the 4 Hong Kong Bean Geese. Placed at the bottom here.

Bean Goose, Salton Sea, California. 21st November 2010. Tom Blackman

Bean Goose, Salton Sea, California, November 2010. Ken Kurland

and by way of comparison:

Presumed pair of Tundra Bean Geese (ssp rossicus), Lancashire, December 2010. videograb – Chris Batty.  Presumable the larger gander on the right. Quite a difference in bill size and even subtle difference in structure in presumably the same taxon ssp. rossicus.

Bean Goose, Salton Sea, California, November 2010. Ken Kurland

Nial Moores assessment of the Salton Sea Bean Goose.

Thanks very much Nial!

“First, as context and by way of apology over such an exciting record, I tend NOT to spend hours looking at geese these days, as main focus is on other species groups. All the same, I have fair experience of Eastern Beans, having lived in Korea for 12 years and in Japan for 8 before that. We have both taxa present here in the ROK, with probably between 6,000 – 10,000 middendorffi. overwintering and probably as many as 70,000+ serrirostros on migration, with perhaps 10,000- 20,000 overwintering (few people make the effort or are confident enough to separate them when surveying waterbirds).

Most winters, I get to encounter flocks of eastern Beans perhaps dozens of times, often in direct comparison with Greater White-fronts (vast majority are clearly “Asian frontalis“, though with very much smaller numbers of perhaps much more western albifrons?).

While I certainly am not a goose specialist (and would recommend you to make contact with the Japanese geese specialists like Kurechi Masayuki), I personally would not identify the California Bean Gooseas either Midd. or Serri.

I would be rather more tempted to wonder if this was e.g. a more western type Taiga (e.g. disputed johanseni?).

First, the majority of our Midd. are very much more ecologically dependent on shallow freshwater lakes or vegetated intertidal wetland (ranging from brackish to salt) for feeding and roosting. They dig the roots and tubers of aquatic emergent vegetation up out of the mud somewhat similarly to Swan Goose A. cygnoides or by up-ending. When such a food option is available for them they only rarely move into rice-fields, and very rarely graze when there (preferring damper areas than used by serri).

Even more importantly perhaps, “typical midd.” (best seen on a couple of lakes and reservoirs in the southeast, as the image at look massive in direct comparision with frontalis Greater White-front, very much longer-necked and longer-billed.

The immediate and lasting impression of the California bird (to me at least) is that it is too small, too short-necked and not quite long-billed and snouty enough (for at least typical midd.) – esp. in direct comparison with frontalis.

As I wrote to Richard Millington when they were preparing the Bean Goose paper for Birding World, we however do seem to have at least two main “types” of midd. here. The latter type, rather more wary, appears to be somewhat smaller – but still obviously bigger than frontalis in direct comparison.

These latter midd. can look rather closer in size and bulk to big-end serri., and the easiest ways to separate them remain the calls (Midd. often give much deeper and more “ang”-filled vocalisations than serri.), details of bill and head shape – not always easy on individual birds – and habitat preference.

Typically serri. are more or less confined here to grazing in cut rice-fields, and roosting on large freshwater bodies. In this respect, ecologically they are much closer to the frontalis that we have here, and they very often form mixed flocks (the reason we have so few photos of this taxon in our gallery – as hard to find species-pure flocks).

Almost all serri. look comparatively short-necked and usually thick-necked, very deep-billed (obviously bulbous, not so long), snub-faced with a somewhat indignant expression (not at all regal unlike most midd), a little darker and oilier looking overall than Midd, with dark head and neck (whereas darkest parts on Midd tend to be the head and flank bars / axillaries).  They tend to show a little more variation in bill patterning than midd., though this is still very slight and of no use in id (have e.g. seen just two all-orange-looking billed serri in 20 years)

Finally on this goose, from other emails, I am a tad surprised to hear that people assume that Midd. is the most likely Taiga to turn up in California?  My sense of them here is that they are comparatively short-range migrants – with most eastern Midd. migrating to Kamchatka to moult and then down to Japan, while more western birds likely move to Korea.

Hope the above helps?

With best wishes,


Bean Goose, Salton Sea, California, November 2010. Ken Kurland

Bean Goose, Salton Sea, with juvenile Pacific White-fronted Goose. California, November 2010. Ken Kurland

Bean Goose, Salton Sea, with juvenile Pacific White-fronted Goose. California, November 2010. Ken Kurland

Bean Goose, Salton Sea, California, November 2010. Ken Kurland

Comment from Mike Kilburn on Hong Kong Beans…tpost#lastpost

“I should like to clarify the situation with the birds in Hong Kong.

We are confident that two of the birds are middendorffi and that the smaller of the other two is serrirostris, but have no conclusion on the large, thick-necked, deep-billed fourth bird.

My personal hunch (NB mostly based on ignorance and a desire for tidiness) was that this fourth bird was also a serrirostris, albeit a very large one. We are interested that the middendorffi are still present while the other two departed together, and its tempting to suggest that feeding ecology was the driver – our middendorffi feed quite happily on submerged tubers etc (see this video: while serrirostris is noted to be a grain feeder, with no suitable food available in Hong Kong, or at least at Mai Po. As a birder who will never look at anything’s mitochondrial DNA I love the idea of the feeding requirements being a specific determinant which can be determined by field observation, but I’m aware that this is probably wishful thinking!

The Salton Sea bird is another atypical individual, which appears to me to have a head shape tending towards middendorffi, but a thicker, shorter neck, suggesting serrirostris. we’re not sure there is a sound final answer for the for the HK bird, and the minefield of hybridisation aside, it looks like that may be the case here – albeit with a different set of conflicting features.

I wonder if the feeding habits of this goose may provide an indication of its species?

Mike Kilburn (Hong Kong)”

Comments from Bob Millar at Salton Sea

Hi Martin,

By the fact that the Salton Sea Bean Goose happens to be in my “backyard” I have had the opportunity to see it quite frequently! It is only ten minutes drive from home so I was able to be there most every morning. Have been following your posts in awe. Your post of the comment from Mike Kilburn has prompted me to offer a few observations.

Mike’s comment that “our middendorffi feed quite happily on submerged tubers etc” seems to be very much NOT this birds preferred habitat or at least where it has spent most of its time that I have observed.  In fact the only habitat of that type at this location would be the shallow ponds with cattails being about the sole vegetation in them. The bird only seems to go to the ponds about mid morning and late afternoon to drink and bathe. Hmmm, and to charge after its companion Greater White-fronted Geese on several occasions as it does appear to be the dominant one of the group!  The field they were feeding in the first few days was very newly emerged grass. Possibly Rye grass, not sure, but a thin, tall leafed winter type grass.  Since those first few days they now spend most of their time in a more well established field that most would probably describe as a pasture. Larry Sansone and Ken Kurland’s photographs show it well.  They seem to graze continuously except that the Bean Goose has its head up much more often than the others which helps very much in locating them when they move off to the far sides of the field.

Another interesting note is that it has not been the same three individual Greater White-fronted Geese with this bird since its discovery but it has always been three birds with it!?  The mix of ages, of the accompanying birds has changed several times but for the last few days it now seems to be two imm. and one adult.  Yet I have seen no other GWFG away from this group except for the second or third day. Am wondering if the others have continued south and if the remaining three head off is our surprise visitor going to be off with them!

See ya at the sea……….



Iceland Gull find – Rainham

Dominic Mitchell emailed yesterday to say he had found a 2nd winter Iceland Gull on the Tip at Rainham over the weekend plus up to 16 Yellow-Legged Gulls in the areas. He was scouting for the Gull Day on 4th December. Looking Good!

Check out Dominic’s blog

Fore more on the 4th Dec. also see:

The 2nd winter Iceland Gull seems to be one of the first in the the ‘south’ so far this winter. Photograph below by Dominic with superb adult argentatus Herring Gull too.

Norfolk Tooter Bullfinch

Male Northern Bullfinch photos

I was wondering what the ‘tooting’/’trumpeting Northern Bullfinch presently in Norfolk looked like. Thanks to John Furse who sent a photo.

Male Northern Bullfinch (giving ‘trumpeting call’). Wells, Norfolk. John Furse.

Richard Willison sent more photos of the 1st winter male Northern Bullfinch we both saw at Spurn which didn’t give any Trumpeting call. See below. All taken 18th October 2010.