Monthly Archives: February 2011

Northern Bullfinch in Northants

So keep looking…!

Mike Alibone sent me these photos of a female Bullfinch. Found on 16th February 2011 well inland! Always aware of the problem of ‘interpreting’ photos- colour rendition/ lighting and all that; I think its does look like a 1st winter female Northern Bullfinch. Recording the call could helpfully add to data on the bird. What do you think? Have a look (cracking local find!):

Mike wrote:

“Hi Martin,

“I hope you won’t mind my contacting you with regard to seeking your opinion on the ID of a bird I consider to be a female Northern Bullfinch, found by me yesterday in Northamptonshire.

This individual was associating with ‘British’ Bullfinches feeding on buds of hawthorn in a quiet lane at one of my local birding sites – Earls Barton GP/Summer Leys LNR. Although none was alongside it for direct comparison, this bird stood out as a) being slightly larger and bulkier, with the impression of its being longer lent by its almost continual horizontal stance while feeding and b) being an obviously different colour to the two female Bullfinches which were also seen nearby. Both those birds were more ‘compact’ and showed the classic ‘muddy’ brown upperparts contrasting with the underparts, which were also richer in colour tone than the bird I was looking at. In this respect I was able to find the bird again instantly, immediately dismissing other female Bullfinches, after a short break in observation to fetch a camera from the car.

It was quite approachable and I did not hear the bird call. The mantle was only a little darker than the underparts and there was a pale grey shawl on the nape – not strongly demarcated from the mantle but obvious none the less.”

Ring-necked Duck

Rapid moult and tricksy aging issues

Saw the drake  Ring-necked Duck on Lough Cowey last weekend. It had been aged as 1st winter. Photo of it here in early January (scroll down).

However male ducks can moult rapidly and it looked really pretty adult male- like. Apart from slightly narrow-looking white band at sides of  bill base (which may mean nothing)- it just said ‘adult male’. With a head shape you would never draw and be believed!

Do we get all our late winter wildfowl aging right? Are they really adult males just because the plumage generally looks like that? Unless the moult progress has been followed….

1st winter male Ring-necked Duck, Lough Cowey, Co. Down. Feb 2011

Northern Irish Coal Tits

Bit of both

Like N. Ireland’s politics, the Coal Tits are a bit of both- British and Irish. Most birds I see look white-cheeked, olive-backed and well just like British birds. Occasionally you come across an individual with more or less (usually less) yellow in the cheeks. Saw one such in Co. Down last weekend. But then I have seen one with some light yellow wash on cheeks in Derwentdale near my home in Sheffield. I think I  have only seen proper bright yellow cheeked hibernicus ‘Irish Coal Tit‘- way out west.

through a rain splattered lounge window in Co. Down. Feb 2011

Shocking Goshawk Killings

in well watched Derwentdale

It’s the Elephant in the room isn’t it? The deliberate, methodical killing of rare Birds of Prey in the vicinity of  highly lucrative grouse moors. The finger only points in one direction. Well -off land owners who posture ‘above the law’. Such a shame which casts a dark shadow over the wonderful wildlife of our British uplands.

Read the depressing Peak Nestwatch report for 2010:


This is how we would like to see our Goshawks please!:…-into-one.html.

and a siloutted Sparrowhawk hunting the same area as the report:

Pine Bunting…

…genes in some Yellowhammers

I have not had a good look at Yellowhammer flocks recently though have made a bit of a habit of it in the past. As a result I have managed to find one female Pine Bunting and I have seen at least 2 birds which I thought showed some (albeit weak) Pine Bunting traits. The female type Pine Bunting was at Flamborough  Head in November 2003. It inspired me to explore the subject further. Maybe will dig out the details sometime- but basically it seemed obvious that Yellowhammers with some Pine Bunting genes might be even commoner than the real deal.

February and March are great Pine Bunting hunting months. Even if I don’t find a real pure (or almost) Pine Bunt I might well encounter a Yellowhammer with a  bit of Pine Bunting in. If I get chance I will try get photos taken by Nigel Blake of a bird which I saw at Rimac, Lincs a few years ago.

Meanwhile I think this is also one, photographed by Chris Batty at Bradshaw Lane Head, Pilling Moss, Lancashire on 30th December 2003.

Latest on White-cheeked Geese

a.k.a. Canada Geese.

Got a new book for Christmas. It’s on Canada Geese or perhaps more helpfully known as the ‘White-cheeked Geese’ complex by Bertin W Anderson. It’s a follow-up to Hanson’s scary; compelling and controversial work published posthumously a couple of years ago. A chapter in ‘Frontiers in Birding’ is based on Hanson’s work. Andrew Harrop sent me his very useful summary of both Hanson’s work and the new work by Anderson. Thanks Andrew- I was too scared to start reading it! Headlines include the demise of the name ‘parvipes’ and the continued view that there are a lot more than just 11 ‘Canada Goose’ taxa, a number of which occur in the UK. I feel some folk would rather just stick hands over ears and hope this would go away. It won’t. It can’t. The 11 taxa/ 2 species approach doesn’t make sense of what’s observable. Should I get ready to hear about claims of Rufescent  Arctic Goose  and Aleutian Goose on the bird news services?

For fun! A Canada Goose showing some characters of Giant Canada Goose old ssp. maxima (once considered extinct but rediscovered by Harold Hanson)- it’s part of the Canada Goose flock at Rother Valley C.P. I think its Mark Reeder’s favourite bird.

Notes on Anderson

(by Andrew Harrop)

Taxonomy of white-cheeked geese as proposed by Anderson (2010)

Reference: Anderson, B.W. 2010. Evolution and taxonomy of White-cheeked Geese. AVVAR Books, Blythe, California.

Bertin Anderson worked with Hanson in bringing Hanson’s two volumes to publication. Here he presents his own taxonomic conclusions (summarised in the table below). Like Hanson, he does not recognise parvipes, for reasons discussed on pp. 267-8 and pp. 274-5.

In total, Anderson recognises 15 species and 181 subspecies. 9 species and 98 subspecies correspond to Greater Canada (sensu AOU/BOU), and 6 species and 83 subspecies to Lesser Canada/Cackling Goose.

Anderson’s proposed taxonomic arrangement:

Scientific name English name (BOU/AOU ‘Greater Canada’) No. of subspecies
Branta dawsoni Dawson White-cheeked Goose 23
B. akimiskiae James bay WCG 1
B. kinojeae Boreal Forest WCG 11
B. tetonensis Rocky Mountain WCG 4
B. deltensis Columbia River Delta WCG 9
B. canadensis Pale-mantled WCG 13 incl canadensis, maxima
B. basinensis Basin WCG 4
B. occidentalis Dusky WCG 21 incl interior
B. chipewaynensis Lower Tundra WCG 2

(BOU/AOU ‘Lesser/Cackling Canada’)
B. hutchinsii Pale-breasted Arctic Goose 21 incl hutchinsii
B. fossi Barred Arctic Goose 14
B. clarkei Yukon Arctic Goose 16
B. leucopareia Brown Arctic Goose 9
B. aleutianensis Aleutian Goose 11 incl minima
B. gavini Rufescent Arctic Goose 12 incl taverneri

Many of the methodological problems present in Hanson’s work are again present here. Like Hanson, Anderson did not undertake any genetic work (though he does include a discussion on pp. 254-8). Nonetheless he presents much food for thought in a clearer and more consistent way than Hanson. One point which needs prompt attention is that continued recognition of parvipes is highly questionable.


AHJH (Andrew Harrop), January 2011

Cackling Goose  – Caerlaverock © Tristan Reid 2009

Cackling Goose  – Caerlaverock © Tristan Reid 2009

Me here (MG) : Certainly one of my favourite white-cheeked goose encounters in the UK. a ‘Cackling Canada’ (old ssp. minima) at Caerlaverock WWT– watched migrating west with the Barnacle Geese from Svalbard, off the coast of N. Norway. They are monster migrants of the pacific. Surely they can straggle occasionally to Western Europe?

Notes on Hanson

(by Andrew Harrop)


Hanson, H.C. 2006. The White-cheeked Geese: Taxonomy, Ecophysiographic Relationships, Biogeography and Evolutionary Considerations. Vol. 1 Eastern taxa. Avvar Books.

Hanson, H.C. 2007. The White-cheeked Geese: Taxonomy, Ecophysiographic Relationships, Biogeography and Evolutionary Considerations. Vol. 2 Western taxa, Biogeography and Evolutionary Considerations. Avvar Books.

According to my calculation, Hanson recognises six species and 217 taxa as follows:

Branta CanadensisCanada Goose 92 races incl. canadensis, interior, moffiti, occidentalis, fulva
Branta maximaGiant Prairie Goose 10 races
Branta “lawrensis”Ontario Goose monotypic
Branta hutchinsiiArctic Goose 97 races incl. hutchinsii, taverneri
Branta leucopareiaAleutian Goose 16 races incl. leucopareia, asiatica
Branta minimaCackling Goose 2 races

Hanson includes taverneri in hutchinsiiparvipes is not recognised; Hanson comments that the type of parvipes is a wing-clipped specimen ofB. hutchinsii in poor condition from Vera Cruz, Mexico which would be ‘difficult to associate… with a fresh series of skins of any race of similar size’.


AHJH (Andrew Harrop), May 2010

Above 4 photos: currently labelled (probably incorrectly) as Taverner’s Canada Goose, Caerlaverock  WWT, January 2009, Tristan Reid

2 different (old money) Richardson’s Canada types, Caerlaverock WWT, Tristan Reid. Certainly ‘Arctic Geese’ but we seem to get different taxa or subspecies of Arctic Geese (as per Anderson) in the UK.

3 photos above: The best we get in South Yorkshire, a dodgy mixture that look something like Giant Canada X Cackling Canada hybrid?! Broomhill Flash, March 2006.

Ring-billed Gull hybrid

1st Western Palearctic Breeding?

Great morning out on Saturday (13th Feb.) with Wilton and Ian hanging on to the coat tails of Derek and Wally as we circumnavigated the Ards Peninsula in N Ireland. It’s a beautiful piece of coastal scenery with many bird species, chiefly wildfowl and shorebirds making for top draw birding. One of the birds I was keen to see was a reported Ring-billed Gull X Common Gull hybrid. First seen 3 years earlier and initially assumed to be an adult Ring-billed Gull the full story appears below. Indeed it was very Ring-billed Gull-esq. but with some subtle differences. Compared with standard Ring-billed – a less bright ‘smoky’ yellow iris. less deep bill, slightly narrow black bill ring, bit more white in the primary pattern and tad darker above. The silver Copeland Island leg iron did help with confidence though! Have to say would be easy to pass of as Ring-billed Gull on brief look. Here it is last Saturday at Millisle:

In flight with natal home: Big Copeland (island) in background

Call sounded rather Herring Gull -like

Fuller details of the record have been published as follows:
“The following text is part of a joint announcement made by the Northern Ireland Birdwatchers’ Association and the Observatory.

The story began on the 25th April 2004 when Anthony McGeehan found an adult Ring-billed Gull at the Common Gull colony on Big Isle, Copeland Islands, Co. Down. The bird appeared to be holding territory. It, or another adult, was then seen again by Wilton Farrelly at the same location on the 8th May.

Fast forward events to February 2008 when Derek Charles was photographing a Black Brant near the pool at Millisle, Co. Down (within sight of the Copeland Islands!) when his attention was drawn to a gull flying with a couple of Herring Gulls around the pool. He identified it as an adult Ring-billed Gull and took a few photographs. It drifted off and Derek continued photographing the Black Brant.

Nothing more was thought of it until a few days later when he noticed from the pictures that the bird was ringed. This was a major event in itself and local birders were notified. Despite several more visits Derek didn’t see the gull again and that looked like being the end of the story.

But events took a major turn on the weekend of 22nd-23rd March when Richard Weyl found the gull again and spent hours chasing it around Millisle avoiding the hundreds of dog walkers, joggers and weekend visitors. What a sight that must have been, but amazingly he managed to read enough of the ring for the details to be submitted.

When details of ring number EG55164 came back the location the bird was ringed was not, as expected, Lake Ontario, but the nearby Copeland Islands! This threw everyone into a state of confusion for a moment or two. Luckily Richard had taken photographs of the gull and when matched with Derek’s it appears to be the same bird. Things began to get serious now.
Careful examination of the photographs seems to show a few features at odds with a pure Ring-billed Gull and it was suspected that it was a hybrid Ring-billed x Common hybrid.
The Copeland Bird Observatory was contacted next. Kerry Leonard and John Stewart have been managing the census and ringing studies on Big Copeland Island for the past 10 years. The details were checked again and there was no doubt that the bird had been ringed as a chick on Big Isle, Copeland Islands on 16th June 2004.

Derek Charles re-visited Millisle over the weekend of 12-13th April and took more photographs, which leave little doubt that the bird is a hybrid.

Confirmation that the bird is a Ring-billed Gull x Common Gull hybrid means that a Ring-billed Gull bred on the Copeland Islands in the summer of 2004. This is the first confirmed breeding record for the UK and Ireland (and indeed, the Western Palaearctic, as far as we know). There is likelihood that there may be one or two other hybrids from the same nest in the general area.

Praise must go to Richard, for without his valiant effort on reading the ring, this fantastic breeding record may well have gone undetected. A close eye will be kept on the Common Gull colony this summer to see if this bird returns to breed or if there are any other surprises lurking out there!

This is a fantastic reward for everyone associated with the Copeland Bird Observatory and especially the ringers who have put in so much work over the years.”