Monthly Archives: June 2011

Arctic or Mealy Redpoll

Yes it was one (if you guessed right)

Somewhat cheekily I recently posted a photo (2nd one below) from Varanger in May and asked the question “Arctic or Mealy Redpoll”. Here, then,  the same bird’s details more fully revealed. Not too tricky with good views, but then redpolls don’t always give good views. It was singing (which I also recorded). Being quite a streaky bird it was one I found more interesting. Broad rather long streaks in 2-3 rows well done the flanks sides and more dark grey than fully blackish in tone. For quite a while it faced head on and the one feature I could see with a bit of effort were the undertail coverts. Pure white. That kind of nailed it for me plus quirky elements of the song and the big bullheaded look when it turned side-on. It only turned around at the last-minute, before flying off. You can see the fuller details below. I am thinking probably first summer male– and YES Arctic Redpoll ssp. exilipes, don’t you think? Varanger, Norway 12th May 2011

Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Spring?

On Helgoland

Looks the part doesn’t it? Seen on Helgoland (first Bird Observatory in the World etc. etc.) last month: 10th May 2011 by Marc Förschler. He strongly suspected the bird to be an ‘Eastern’ and commented that the  call was ‘quite sharp and similar to a Citrine Wagtail’.

I agree with him. The parsimonious explanation is that it is an eastern tscutschensis type, based on plumage and call. What’s new? It’s in the spring, adding to the potential time of year to look for this taxon following confirmation of a likely British first only last December.

Photos of Devon Bird     Call of Devon Bird


added comment 27/6/11- one thing that I simply don’t know enough anything about is this plumage type in spring. It is very like first autumn/winter plumage. To me it appears too cold and grey for most greyer examples of western taxa. Whether eastern taxa have a (presumed first summer) plumage like this normally I don’t know. More to learn about!

Suggested best chance of finding one? Join me in Shetland in the last week of September!

Friday 23rd September to Friday 30th September 2011 . More info  here

White-billed Diver heaven

Hunting Ground for Mega Rare Birds

13th May 2011. Met Tormod 12:45 off the ferry having spent the morning with the seabirds of  Hornøya.  Stopped for a quick lunch at the Polar Hotel in Vardø (famous base camp for Nansen and co. ) and headed north.

Polar Hotel in Vardø and nearbv Nansen’s statue and plaque (tells you when he arrived and then returned from just failing to reach the North Pole).

A large break-water outside Vardø is an excellent gull spot.  An adult Glaucous Gull was stunning and Tormod told me about adult Sabine’s and adult Ross’s Gulls, same day the previous May in a snow storm.  Duck in the harbour included 6 King Eider, 2-3 flocks of Steller’s Eider, Common Eider, Common Scoter, Mergansers and several Black Guillemot.

We drove north and through some amazing terrain (the 1st summer female Stejneger’s Scoter is currently present off this section of coast- so I can visualise where it is!).  The two things are the eerie landscape, which was a filming location for ‘extra-terrestrial’ elements of the James Bond movie “Moonraker”, and the second is the sheer richness of the sea.  It’s hard to keep going from the road, you can see its cram jammed with sea duck (Long-tail Duck numbering up to thousands), Scoter, Eiders and loads of gulls – each flock containing several  Glaucous Gulls, the odd Iceland and one or two “hybrid” types.

‘Moonraker landscape’, NE Varanger. Rong Ouzel, pallid looking Red Fox, White-tailed Eagle and Rough-legged Buzzard all seen from the car. The sea is full of birds. There’s currently a young female Stejneger’s Scoter somewhere on the sea seen in the photo.

Saw several of these, including this one in Moonraker land. Most Red Foxes seemed to have much denser fur and paler isabelline ‘plumage’ than British foxes. Arctic Foxes are further inland in Varanger and require a set of skies to see. The Red Fox has ousted them in many areas.

We finally arrived at one of my favourite spots.  Hamningford. The tiny community of houses looked perfect for rare passerine vagrants, and as if to demonstrate I soon located European Robin or maybe it was a ‘Russian Robin ssp. tataricus, a new bird anyway, for Tormod in Varanger.

Here’s me clambering above the tiny community of Hamningford.

White billed Diver heaven.

Tormod and I sea-watched for a couple of hours locating 18 White-billed Diver, including a single flock of ten just beyond the surf plus several Blue Fulmar, Long-tailed Duck and a variety of auk.  We didn’t see any but it’s a place where Beluga (the white whale!) come close in shore rubbing their bodies against the rocks.  Returning back to the houses, only a couple of hundred yards from the sea-watching spot, we opted to look for passerines.  There’s no real vegetation so I went into ‘Shetland mind-set’.  Singing Fieldfare and Redwing drew us to pick up a large, first summer, Peregrine.  It’s close to the border to where people say you get Tundra Peregrine.  I don’t know if it was one or not – have a look.

Around the gardens we found Northern Golden Plover, Snow Bunting, Tundra Bean Geese, Pink-feet Geese, Arctic Hare and 2 Red Fox.  I picked up a movement, set up my scope and clocked a Tree Sparrow.  So I turned to Tormod and said, “How often do you get Tree Sparrow in Varanger?”  He replied “I’ve never seen one.”  So I said “Are they rare?” to which he replied he didn’t think there’d been any records.  So I did that cheeky little thing and said “There’s one in here” and pointed to my scope.  A few moments later a second and then a third bird appeared.  That evening 3 Tree Sparrows were mega alerted for Varanger on the Norwegian bird news. Sorry rubbish photo.

Seriously! I think this place look like an awesome spot for Eastern vagrants- maybe a place to look for a new species of passerine to add to the Western Palaearctic list. Just musings…maybe I will organise a trip for next September- any takers?

Bird News on Twitter

Getting Local and National Bird News on Twitter

I have (I feel ) been entering the world of internet-based social networking at something slightly faster than sloth-paced. And I have to admit, now, I am enjoying it. I tweet on twitter and Facebook on Facebook. My teenage girls teach me what I need to learn.

I am also very interested and always have been to keep in touch with the ‘Bird News’. Both local (for me mainly near Sheffield and NE England) and national (especially those once-in-a-while ‘megas’). However expense and other factors have made it prohibitive.

I have never owned a pager nor subscribed to any mobile based information system. Man- I am still a fan of the Nancy’s cafe information service!  I already have more than enough ‘gear’ to carry around as part of my birding experience. I want LESS not MORE.

For the last month I have been using Birdnet’s Twitter system. I already use Twitter to update my Birding Frontiers stuff. So I thought it would be interesting to see what its like having access to a constant stream of UK bird news  ‘in my pocket’. It’s GREAT! I really like it. I am finally in the ‘KNOW’- all the time! I am using Twitter anyway, so not added ‘stuff’. The continuous feed means I can scroll down and not miss anything. Very cool.

I am no expert on news services but this suites me really well. Simple to use, 1 Smart Phone button press away. No extra gear. All the gen.

You can find out more here: Bird Information

Thanks a 1/4 million (nearly)


Been meaning to say this after we passed 200,000 views earlier in the month. The Birding Frontiers blog has been going just over 10 months and we are on the way to 1/4 million views. Guess we will hit it soon after our first anniversary. After a somewhat admittedly nervous start- who’d have thought!

So thanks very much indeed for the interest, support and encouraging comments, especially to  everyone who has contributed. I am not great at lots of things ‘internet’ so if you see areas you like to see improved etc. Let me know. Comments on posts and feedback are always welcome.

To Celebrate:

A couple of original field sketches from Norfolk -based artist,  James McCallum.

One of the higlights of my spring was visiting Varanger, Norway. On my last day I watched James sketching  Steller’s Eider in Vadsø harbour. 2 male and a female Bar-tailed Godwit were new -in on the shoreline in front of me. I wonder if they were these birds…

Stejneger’s Scoter – Norway

1st summer male- Varanger!!!

Just over a month ago I was envisioning the guys in Vardø, – they should get Stejneger’s Scoter. Early this morning only 15 minutes north of Vardø, at Persfjordena, Varanger a first summer male ‘White-winged type’ Scoter was found by birder, Tor Olsen and some other guys.

I think they are still discussing the ID in terms of is it deglandi/ stejnegeri. To me in the photos it looks a straightforward Stejneger’s Scoter. Tormod says there is pale at bill tip and age look like a 1st summer (2nd cal yr) male. Great comparison with the Aberdeen White-winged Scoter.

The above photos by Morten Kersbergen  and below by Tormod Amundsen. Thanks also to Knut-Sverre Horn . Cheers guys- great bird for Varanger!

Arctic Dunlin ssp. arctica

Identification and stuff

Sometimes called “Greenland Dunlin” the  breeding range of some 10-15,000 birds is often said to be restricted to NE Greenland. However the small population numbering 10-100 pairs on Svalbard seems (unsurprisingly) also to be of this form, e.g. see photos here.

Dunlin are bread and butter birds. Have been for me since Frodsham Marsh, Cheshire and the late 1970’s. Easy to see, cram-jammed with information. 3 forms pass though Britain and 2-3 rarer taxa from N America and Siberia could occur and have been claimed. They are the launch pad for finding other rare wader species (especially ‘calidrids‘). That’s why they still draw me and I can while away hours watching flocks, especially when they come close. The 2 commoner forms passing through Britain are the ‘Southern Dunlin’ ssp. schinzii and the ‘Northern Dunlin’ ssp. alpina. As an example, Spurn will have c 4000 Dunlin passing through in July and nearly all will be schinzii. Come later in the autumn the ratio will change as alpina numbers start to build up. Most of the wintering birds on the Humber will then be alpina.

Claiming the much scarcer Arctic Dunlin ssp. arctica seems to be generally given a wide birth- at least on the east coast. Following a bout of west and NW winds in late May I expected I might come across an arctica candidate or two. I think I did! Both the weather and time of year (late May/ early June) gave me confidence. This bird at Beacon Ponds looked spot on to me. Have a look:

Characters of Arctic Dunlin

Here’s the list of features I look for on one of these. n.b. On birds in full summer plumage in May/June.

  • Average smaller size and especially noticeable rather short bill
  • Looks overall paler lacking string rufous/ orangey tones above
  • Bright white ground colour to breast (also on sides of head)
  • Breast streaking thin and weak looking
  • Black Belly patch small and often with obvious pale tips to black feathers
  • Upperparts especially scapulars include

1)      rather large areas of black in feather

2)      some grey (not rufous)  feathers with black centres

3)      paler + duller orange-brown/ buff/yellowy fringes to some scaps (‘silver and gold’)

4)      more obvious straw coloured ‘braces’ on scapular fringes (as on juveniles)

Get all those combined on one bird and I will usually claim it!

First summer shinzii

Often the sticking point. First summer (or not fully moulted) schinzii do look a bit similar. However feather like only black spotting on belly, retained winter scapulars and a bird that is clearly not the full shilling in terms of summer plumage usually sort these I think.

Here’s what I would call first summer Northern Dunlin ssp. alpina. It has the more obvious alpina scapular pattern. Black centre, firey orange fringe, bold white tip. BUT some plain grey winter type scapulars are present and the belly patch is just black spotting. Beacon Ponds 19th June 2011.

Sure there are caveats, not the least of which is, I am still learning! I like to come up with list of criteria as above and then test them. It help me learn and keeps me looking.

The bird below was with a little posse of northern bound waders. A Sanderling, some obvious ‘Northern Dunlins’ and this baby. All at Pugney’s C.P, West Yorkshire  in the last week of May 2008. This also seem to me to be an Arctic Dunlin, if a little less obvious. The browner streaked nape making it a female, versus the contrastingly grey-naped male (at Spunr ) above. It’s with a pretty obvious alpina (on the left) in the first photo (and I personally find here is an overlap zone in characters between brighter shinzii/ duller alpina so I don’t try to ID them all by any means!). Have a look for the features for arctica I listed both in the Spurn bird above and the Pugney’s bird below: