Monthly Archives: June 2011

Dresser’s and Northern Eiders

Some easier than others

Sometimes I am delighted and other times flummoxed. It was very cool to see the Dresser’s Eider last winter off Fanad, co Donegal. The same place has been a regular spot and learning ground for vagrant ‘Northern’ Eider ssp. borealis. Some- with bright orangey bills and tall perky white sails seem obvious. Other less so with a bit of intebreeding perhaps clouding issues.

Tim Dean showed me this bird below, at a talk I gave in March. What a stunner. Amazing looking bill and I bet it does have some kind of sails when in fresh plumage. Looks like there is something sail-like still there. I love it! He found the bird at Seahouses, Northumberland on 22nd May 2008. Is it a borealis? I don’t know for sure. What do you think? The bill lobes look a bit on the broad side and May- August is THE worst time to assess the presence of sails on Eider due to wear and moult. Perhaps sometimes you need to just enjoy such a cool looking bird…

Then if you go visiting Aberdeen, it’s the best place in the UK to see Eiders with sails. Chris Galvin sent this photo of one such taken in the last week. Sure I think its got some ‘borealis genes’ in it, but I think vagrants birds have sometimes stayed and interbreed. I love the sails on this one, but an orange bill base would perhaps clinch it.

Brett Richards sent this shot from the present Dresser’s Eider location in Donegal. Looks like a pukka borealis, but again sails are hardest to read in summer. Nice bill colour and lobe shape.

This one below is not tricky. Proper Dresser’s Eider, even without visible sails. Thanks to Aidan Kelly for these. The blocky head shape, green under the black cap, huge rounded frontal lobes (with very thin back border) reaching almost higher than the eye and slight kink at bill tip all add up to a quite different looking bird.

So ssp. V-nigra of Alaska next. Its already reached Greenland and Newfoundland.

New Zealand Storm-petrel

Australia’s apparent 2nd record…

…of this species which still has wonderment, magic about it. You could even call it mythical! These photos were taken 2 days ago (Saturday 18 June 2011) by Paul Walbridge off Eastern Australia. There is only one previously accepted record for Australia, in March 2010. New Zealand Storm-petrel Oceanites maorianus was rediscovered in 2003 with UK-based, Scilly birders, Bob Flood and Bryan Thomas taking a leading role in the rediscovery of a species thought be extinct for 150 years.  More here and  here and here.

Paul Walbridge is the guy to contact if you want to see Tahiti Petrel – never mind an excellent collection of other ‘southern seabirds’. He runs Southport Pelagics out of Southport, (nr. Brisbane) Queensland. Thanks to his brother Grahame (of Portland Bill fame) for forwarding the pics.

Eyed Hawk-moth

Big, Fat and Beautiful

Saturday 18 June, Spurn. Not in a moth trap but emerged from pupa stage in long grass. Its body was particularly fat. Is this a female then, similar to the different body shapes of the different sexes of Poplar Hawk Moths? Oh- and how do you spell Hawkmoth/ Hawk Moth/ Hawk-moth?

Earlier in the day in normal rest posture: Stealth Bomber mode!

White-winged Scoter taxonomy

and vagrancy…

Scoters. Painted by  Henry Thurston for Jonathan Dwight’s 1914 paper. (see below) Back then all 3 Scoters with white wings were split as separate species.

This is the guts of the text from ‘Frontiers in Birding’ on the subjects of Vagrancy and Taxonomy.


Velvet Scoter in North America

Velvet Scoter has reached Greenland (Witherby et al. 1944), and thus seems a likely potential vagrant to North America.

White-winged Scoter in Western Europe

Iceland is the only country so far in the Western Palearctic with confirmed records of White-winged Scoter. Since the first, at Arnarfjordur, northwest Iceland, in June 1993, there have been five accepted records, all in the period May to July including one adult male, which paired with a female Northern Eider (Kolbeinsson et al. 2001). There have also been several records of White-winged Scoter (deglandi) in northeast Asia (Dementiev & Gladkov 1967).

Postscript. Hard to tell exact number of individuals involved due to repeat appearances. It is claimed from 2-8 birds have occurred. Iceland is now no longer the only place that White-winged Scoter as occurred in the W. Palearctic (as of last Saturday!).

Stejneger’s Scoter in Western Europe

There have been four extralimital records of Stejneger’s Scoter in Europe, two of which were initially misidentified, perhaps suggesting that others have been overlooked. The records, all of adult males, are as follows: Baie de Somme, northern France, 4th December 1886 (recently re-identified specimen: Jiquet 2007); Kemio, southwest Finland, May to June 1996 (Lindroos 1997); Iceland, April to May 2003 (Garner et al. 2004); Gdansk Bay, Poland, 10th March 2007 (photographed, Dorota Lukasik pers.comm).

Postscript: Adult male Rossbeigh Strand, co. Kerry, Ireland  winter 2010/2011

Short clip of Stejneger’s in Mongolia taken by James Lidster last week.

Stejneger’s Scoters in North America

Until recently there were no records of Stejenger’s Scoter in North America. In early June 2002, while leading a bird tour to Gambell, Alaska, Jon Dunn, Steve Howell and Gary Rosenberg found a ‘White-winged’ Scoter swimming off the northwest tip of St Lawrence Island. They had witnessed a small, but consistent, spring passage of White-winged Scoters in late May and early June in each of the previous twenty-five years they had collectively led tours to Gambell, but this was the first time that a swimming bird had been found there. JD was the first to notice that this male-plumaged bird had ‘black’ flanks, unlike normal deglandi White winged Scoters from the mainland. The bird remained off the point for at least three days (2nd-4th June), and photographs were taken by GR. Shortly thereafter, GR photographed normal deglandi in the interior of Alaska, from which differences in bill colouration and structure were noticed. Further direct comparison of the photographs of the Gambell bird with photographs of stejnegeri in a photographic guide of the birds of Japan confirmed that the Gambell bird was an example of Stejenger’s Scoter.

This record was subsequently pre-dated when a photograph was discovered of an adult male Stejneger’s Scoter taken at Cape Nome, Alaska, by Brad Bergstrom on 30th May 2001 (Garner et al. 2004). Given this overlooked record and the fact that most birds are seen only in flight off Gambell (see above), it seems likely that Stejneger’s Scoter actually occurs more commonly in North America.


In a paper published back in 1914 Henry Thurston illustrated not 3 but 6 species of Scoter (see Dwight 1914). Under the genus of Oidemia the six recognized species were:

Oidemia americana = Black Scoter

Oidemia nigra = Common Scoter

Oidemia fusca = Velvet Scoter

Oidemia deglandi = (American) White-winged Scoter

Oidemia carbo = Stejneger’s Scoter or Asian White-winged Scoter

Oidemia perspicillata = Surf Scoter

Since then the genus has changed to Melanitta and in the ‘west’ the 6 Species were lumped into 3 Species during the early/ middle part of the 20th Century. With some bird forms there have been genuine discoveries in the last couple of decades about biology, behaviour and characteristics (including molecular data) that have caused an elevation of a former subspecies to species status. Examples such as Taiga Flycatcher, Balearic Shearwater and Hume’s Warbler spring to mind. However some taxonomic changes, and are more of a pendulum swing simply reflecting current trends rather than new information, and this is certainly more the case with the Scoters. Past authors such as Dwight fully recognized the very significant differences in bill structures, feathering around the bill base and some plumage differences that caused them to see specific status for these birds as axiomatic.  More recently the BOURC split Black Scoter and ‘American’ White-winged Scoter (Collinson 2006), and the criteria used are largely the same as those evident in Dwight (save for difference in courtship call between Common and Black Scoters).

Russians ornithologists have had these species splits in place for many years. Here is how the taxonomic situation looks currently under the BOURC:

Melanitta americana = Black Scoter

Melanitta nigra = Common Scoter

Melanitta fusca = Velvet Scoter

Melanitta deglandi (ssp. deglandi and stejnegeri) = (American) White-winged and Stejneger’s Scoter

Melanitta perspicillata = Surf Scoter

It may sound presumptuous, but by simply applying established criteria (Helbig et al. 2002) it is clear that all 3 forms of ‘white-winged Scoter’ display more than sufficient criteria for them all to be classified as full species. They well-defined biological and evolutionary species. It is anticipated that any DNA/Phylogenetic studies will further establish this taxonomic position.

All three taxa are diagnosable in the field and exhibit differences at all ages and in all plumages (e.g. Dwight 1914, Witherby et al.1944, Cramp & Simmons 1977, Gardarsson 1997, Garner 1999, Garner 2004). They also appear to be reproductively isolated: they have essentially separate breeding and wintering ranges, and there is no evidence of interbreeding or clinal variation. Thus, according to the criteria proposed by Helbig et al. (2002), they can justifiably be classified as three separate species:

Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca (Linnaeus 1758)

White-winged Scoter M. deglandi (Bonaparte 1850)

Stejneger’s Scoter M. stejnegeri (Ridgway 1887)


Collinson, M., Parkin, D.T., Knox, A.G., Sangster, G. and Helbig, A.J. 2006. Species limits within the genus Melanitta, the scoters. Brit. birds 99: 183 – 201
Cramp, S. & Simmons K.E.L. Eds. 1977. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 1. Oxford.
Dementiev, G.P. & Gladkov, N.A. Eds. 1967. Birds of the Soviet Union. Vol. 4. Jerusalem.
Dwight, J. 1914. The moults and plumages of the Scoters, genus Oidemia (Melanitta). Auk 31: 293-308.
Gardarsson, A. 1997. Korpönd að vestan. Bliki 18: 65-67.
Garner, M. 1999. Identification of White-winged and Velvet Scoters – males, females and immatures. Birding World 12: 319-324.
Garner, M., Lewington, I. & Rosenberg, G. 2004. Stejneger’s Scoter in the Western Palearctic and North America. Birding World 17 (8): 337-347
Gilroy, J.J. & Lees, A.C. 2003. Vagrancy theories: are autumn vagrants really reverse migrants? Brit. Birds 96: 427-438.
Gooders, J. & Boyer, T. 1986. Ducks of Britain and the Northern Hemisphere. London.
Helbig, A.J., Knox, A.G., Parkin, D.T., Sangster, G. & Collinson, M. 2002. Guidelines for assigning species Rank. Ibis 144: 518-525.
Jiquet, F. 2007. Siberian White-winged Scoter, New to France. Ornithos, Vol. 14 No.1: 38 – 42
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Kolbeinsson, Y., Prainsson, G. & Petursson, G. 2001.  Sjaldgaefir Fuglar a Islandi 1998 [Rare birds in Iceland in 1998]. Bliki 22: 21-46.
Lindroos, T. 1997. Rare Birds in Finland 1996. Alula 3: 160-169.
Madge, S. & Burn, H. 1988. Wildfowl. London.
Palmer, R.S. 1976. Handbook of North American Birds. Vol 3. London.
Phillips, J.C. 1922-1926. A Natural History of the Ducks. New York.
Proctor, B. 1997. Identification of Velvet and White-winged Scoters. Birding World 10: 56-61.
Iráinsson, G. & Pétursson, C. 1997. Sjaldgaefir fuglar a Islandi 1995. Bliki 18: 23-50.
Sangster, G., Collinson, M., Helbig, A.J., Knox, A.G., Parkin,
D.T. & Prater, T. 2001. The taxonomic status of Green-winged Teal Anas carolinensis. Brit. Birds 94: 218-226.
Sangster, G., Hazevoet, C.J., van den Berg, A.B. & Roselaar, C.S. 1997. CSNA-mededelingen Dutch avifaunal list: taxonomic changes in 1977-97. Dutch Birding 19: 21-28.
Stepanyan, L.S. 1990. Conspectus of the ornithological fauna of the USSR. (In Russian) Moscow.
Stepanyan, L.S. 2003. Conspectus of the ornithological fauna of Russia and adjacent territories (within the borders of the USSR as a historic region). (In Russian) Moscow.
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Atlantic and Pacific Blue Fulmar

Ocean Wanderers and ID conundrums

I have already flagged up the potential for Pacific Fulmar ssp rodgersii to occur in the Western Palearctic in this book. The Blue Fulmar Pelagic made me wonder if the Barents Sea might be the place the first one is found. Recently Rónán McLaughlin sent me an image I had seen before (flagged up by Harry Hussey). It’s a Fulmar which Rónán saw 80 miles south of the Fastnet Light (beyond Cape Clear, Co. Cork) in February 2009 (the best time of year to look for uber rare seabirds). It looks amazing! I don’t know what’s going on really. The almost blackish ‘blue’ plumage tone puts me into mind of the darkest of the Pacific birds. It simply look too dark for an Atlantic Fulmar (isn’t it?). It also has a  more conspicuous brown wash to worn upperpart feathers- as per Pacific birds. However it’s not straightforward. Most Pacific birds have rather strikingly pale almost entirely yellow or orange/ yellow bill which is a tad slimmer than Atlantic birds. It contrasts very noticeably with the plumage of dark birds. The bill on this bird is dark toned/ dull greenish and not at all ideal for Pacific Fulmar claim. The tail is hard to read but does look to be a little darker than the worn rump feathers. It would be acceptable for a Pacific bird and seems to me to be too dark for an Atlantic bird. The ‘extra white’ in the primaries is also odd. With rather extensive white plumage in c 7 + primaries, with blackish tips  and white similarly in the greater primary coverts- this doesn’t seem right for very dark Pacific birds. However this is the kind of contrasty wing patterning can be seen on very pale Pacific birds– more so than Atlantic Fulmar. It has has a mottling of white over the mantle/back, scapulars and some secondary coverts. Strange! Almost a combination of the features of a very dark and a very light Pacific birds!

Unusual Fulmar 80 miles south of Fastnet, Feb 2009. Rónán McLaughlin. Honestly? I reckon it has Pacific genes in it. Having a peculiar mix of  characters it can’t be claimed as Pacific or Atlantic with any certainty at present. What do you think?

And to compare, some excellent shots from Mark Darlaston of Atlantic Blue Fulmar off SW Britain . Mark wrote:

“I was very interested to see those pics of dark and double dark Fulmars on your recent Northern trips on We get these dark birds down here occasionally off Devon in a range of dark tones, usually in winter Jan-Mar. Most I’ve seen is five on a seawatch, typically when we might get a passage of 500-1000 light phase birds. So thought you may be interested in a few photos from Devon. By far the darkest (a double dark++), I’ve seen down here went past Berry head on 21/01/09.  I did a double take at first when it appeared as to what it was, even the bill appeared dark! Not good pics, but I was sat on a headland in a gale. 

And more recently a few pictures of a more typical dark bird off Devon on 08/03/11 from a boat.”

Above a very dark (presumed Atlantic Blue) off Berry head on 21 Jan 2009.

and below ‘intermediate’ Blues from a boat off  Devon on 8 March 2011. Mark Darlaston

Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea

Identification possible?

I’m back on 13th May on  Hornøya Island, Varanger, by myself for the best part of 4 hours. Just a wonderful time amoung the auks. Specifically Arctic Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Brünnich’s Guillemots. Also Shag, argentatus Herring Gulls (including the kind of pale “is it a hybrid” types we get in winter in Britain). Otter, White-tailed Eagle, Scandinavian Rock Pipit and a lone Chiffchaff all add to the interest. Here’s a taste ; )

One which I spent a bit of time on were the Arctic Guillemots, ssp. hyperborea. In Britain we have southern (ssp albionis) and Northern Guillemots (nominate aalge). Very crudely I think the former breed in England and Wales, the latter in Scotland. N. Ireland probably has a bit of both (mostly Northern). Please correct if wrong! I found the wing of an Arctic Razorbill (nominate ssp. torda) at Cley, Norfolk back in the mid 80’s (ssp. islandica breeds in Britain).

The more northerly breeding Razorbills regularly head south in winter. The only way you can tell them though is on wing measurement. Hence tide line corpses are the normal means of their discovery. Back in the day, mine was about the 7th British record, though I think in reality they are regular in the North Sea.

Arctic Guillemots however don’t move so much (BWP) and seem to be genuinely rarer in British waters. The ‘Birds of Shetland’ (Pennington lists just 3 records attributed to hyperborea based on measurements of tide line birds. I know there is a clinal aspect to characters and some features (such as extensive dark underwing ‘spotting’) while commoner in hyperborea can regularly be found in other forms.

Nevertheless, have a look at these:

So what I found was, while variation existed; some bird perhaps not really being detectable in British context, others were quiet distinctive. Most especially in having very extensive dark flank steaking. This extended right down to the legs and then out from the flanks becoming fine dark ‘crescents’ (formed by dark feather tips), which made the ‘dark streaked zone’ really very extensive on the body sides. On some these dark crescents,while weakly marked were easy to see on scope views extending right across the white underparts. Don’t remember that in the old school of Guillemot ID!

Dark spotty underwings are well known as a feature which increases in frequency as you move from Southern through Northern to Arctic breeders:

BWP indicates that while other taxa have pre-breeding moult which ends in March, hyperborea is later (from mid-April to late May). Thus these breeding adults are in spanking fresh plumage which includes, in some, obvious dark crescentic tips to the white underpart feathers. Combined with the blackish plumages, very extensive dark flanks marks, extensive dark underwing spotting- I wonder if you could ID one in Britain? Does the post breeding (July to November) moult produce this same dark crescents and if so would they be worn of in mid winter? Do Southern (albionis) and Northern (aalge) Guillemots ever show these dark crescentic marks? Fun to ponder!

A few more shots of Arctic Guillemots:

Showing appearance on water, inc. extent of flank streaking

I notice some still moulting out of non-breeding plumage (2nd cal yrs?) nevertheless had the same extensive flanks streaking when viewed on the water. More northerly breeders more often have full dark band across the throats in winter plumage than southern birds.

One on right with more of an ‘inverted V’ where dark meets white on neck, though not as striking as on Brünnich’s Guillemots. Bird centre left with weak pale gape or ‘tomium stripe’.

And in flight, flank streaking appearance from less to more obvious (dark crescents visible on the lower one):