Monthly Archives: April 2012

Semi-collared Flycatcher

Calls and conundrums

IF they call, listening to and especially recording calls can be very helpful in separating the black and white ficedula flycatchers in all of the ‘trickier’ plumages (i.e. pretty much everything that isn’t adult male!). Could be helpful with this most intriguing bird at Flamborough.

Here 2 Semi-collared Flycatchers are calling to each other in the famous Eilat date palms, late March 2012. This is I suppose the most helpful/ distinctive call type. I also recorded a more generic contact call.

Listen to 2 Semi-collared Flycatchers (female and 2cy male) calling <here>

and some pics:

Adult male Semi-collared Flycatcher, Eilat, late March 2012. This was by the entrance to my hotel!


2 cal yr. male Semi-collared Flycatcher, Lotan, late March 2012. Older brown primaries contrasts with new tertials, the white patch at base of primaries is tiny but look how the white forehead patch looks more defined/ less broken than on the adult (above). 2nd cal year males did vary in appearance but all showed some white-tipped median coverts.


female Semi-collared Flycatcher, Eilat date palms, late March 2012. Aging females seems to be a lot trickier.


2nd cal yr female Semi-collared Flycatcher, Eilat date palms, late March 2012. This one has bigger white patch at base of primaries. I initially thought it looked 2nd cal yr but not so confident on aging females. However conversation with Brian Small bolstered my confidence saying he thought 2nd cal yr too, see the old-looking alula and outer primaries…

Bird of Dreams

Hawk Owl

The odd character

by Vincent van der Spek at the Gullfest, in Arctic Norway, April 2012

Pine Grosbeaks within touching distance after a hilarious dog sledge ride, flocks of King Eiders in all plumages and ages, Steller’s Eiders from the hotel window, the view on (and sound of) ten thousands of seabirds, up close and personal with a Tengmalm’s Owl… What possibly can I claim to be my bird of the trip?

Martin already picked out Tengmalm’s Owl, Tristan Reid Steller’s Eider. Thanks guys, that makes life (slightly) easier!

As in Tristan’s story, there’s a bird that regularly appears in my dreams (day or night) since my early childhood.

A mad twitch in Holland on a Monday afternoon in October 2005 included a car with three people that run away from their offices without notifying anybody – let alone their bosses. We had brilliant views. Yes, Hawk Owl was every bit as good as expected. Gone next day. Still the only twitchable in Holland ever. T-shirts (“Ladies and gentlemen – we’ve got him!”) and even tattoos were made after that twitch.

Hawk Owl still appeared in my dreams. During GullFest I was not to be disappointed. That very first found by Nils “wingformula” van Duijvendijk in Pasvik (and that reindeer trick pulled by Martin) was just the beginning.

There was that very distant one brilliantly found by Seamus (the birder that found a new species for science!); and that bird calling from inside a nest box; and what about that brilliant day along Tana river, where everybody saw six different birds and the group total for the day was an astonishing eight? One of these birds was even singing and another was caught red handed catching a vole!


So what’s so special about it? Well, it’s a species full of surprises! Actually it’s a rather odd case amongst the owls. For starters, the zebra plumage is almost as unique as it is striking.

A tail that long is unheard of amongst owls.

And then there’s the partly diurnal habits. Not unique, but not common amongst owls either.

What I find most striking, however, are the feeding habits. Instead of swallowing their prey whole, Hawk Owl plucks it, like a raptor! I managed to capture this on video near Vadsö.

I rest my case.

And after this trip? Well, they still appear in my dreams.

Iberian Chiffchaff

Grimston, East Yorkshire, June 2010

To compare. Getting a head around variation in wacky singing Chiffchaffs, so-called mixed singers and real (and variable) Iberian Chiffchaffs has proved testing (again) this spring. Having been asked to comment on birds in Sussex and Cambridge and still being an early stage learner myself, I revisited this bird. Found by Tim Isherwood at Grimston, East Yorkshire in June 2012, it represents, I suppose, the ideal, or at least, easier vagrant Iberian Chiffchaff. Looks and sounds the part – both song and call- without too much head scratching; indeed hearing one burst of song seemed to nail it.

The last bit of the Cambridge bird’s song here reminded me of what I recorded as ‘conflict’ song for the Grimston bird- given in response to short burst of ‘pishing’ (see sonagram and recording 5 below). The Cambridge bird clearly has elements of Iberian song ( I have only listened to the video,) no news there but there is lively and increasing illuminating discussion on this channel. The sobering comments by sharp (and annoyingly young) Spanish birder, Dani V are well worth a read.

The Sussex bird seems even less appealing and an analysis of sonagrams by David Cooper points more to variant Common Chiffchaff on that one.

Another thing? The Grimston bird at one stage called repeatedly in response to pishing-  the downslurred note of  Iberian (‘song and call’ below). Worth a pish next time?


Iberian Chiffchaff normal song one – You can listen to the song <HERE>

(above) Iberian Chiffchaff normal song one

Iberian Chiffchaff normal song two – You can listen to the song <HERE>

(above) Iberian Chiffchaff ‘normal song’ two

Iberian Chiffchaff song and call – You can listen to the song and call <HERE>

(above) Iberian Chiffchaff  song and call (call is present as on sonagram but a little quiet)

Iberian Chiffchaff, song variation – You can listen to the song <HERE>

(above) Iberian Chiffchaff, song variation

Iberian Chiffchaff, presumed conflict song – You can listen to the song <HERE>

(above) Iberian Chiffchaff, presumed conflict song- given in response to ‘pishing’


Steller’s Eider

One of many highlights from Gullfest 2012!

When Martin asked me to pick out a species that was a particular highlight from our recent trip to the first ever Arctic Gullfest on the Varanger Peninsula, I had to think hard. There were so many birding highlights! However there was one species that for me stood out above the rest, this was of course the iconic bird of the Varanger Fjord, the Steller’s Eider.

Steller's Eider

Steller’s Eider © Tristan Reid

I started birding at a very young age and I remember at about age eight flicking through my Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East (Heinzel, Fitter & Parslow). Now there were obviously many amazing birds contained within the pages of this book, however the one that stood out to my infant imagination was the Steller’s Eider! This bird looked liked nothing I had ever seen, it almost looked like a creation of a very imaginative cartoonist. Having locked onto this species I began to read where it came from, it came from the Arctic! The Arctic was of course an exciting place for any small child to dream about, I of course day-dreamed of becoming an Arctic explorer! However in reality as I grew older and older I never had any real anticipation of actually going to the Arctic or seeing this enigmatic Steller’s Eider!

How life and expectations can change! Fast forward to April 2012. I was in the Arctic and on the Hurtigruten travelling up the mighty Varanger Fjord. Soon watching Steller’s Eider would be a reality! Some of our group located some Steller’s Eider in Kirkenes Harbour, I was secretly pleased to have missed them; after all I wanted to locate my own! As we passed the epic  Hornøya Bird Cliff and moved towards Vardø my eyes focused on a group of four small ducks flying in the wake of the boat. The distinctively striking plumage of the drake made these ducks instantly recognisable. BOOM I had seen my first ever Steller’s Eider! I was in the Arctic AND I had seen Steller’s Eider, this was nothing short of emotional!

Steller’s Eider and Common Eider

When we settled into our hotel rooms (Vardø Hotel ) I was astounded to see that I could see Steller’s Eider from my room! Every morning when I woke up I looked out the window and got my early morning fix of the iconic species!

Once the excitement of seeing my first ones had slightly (only slightly) calmed, there was ample opportunity to actually watch these birds in detail. Vincent van der Spek pointed out a very nice feature shown on the drakes; the isolated black spot on the side of the breast is a unique shape on each individual bird, sort of a Steller’s Eider fingerprint! Whilst watching a group of Steller’s Eider;  Martin Garner and Nils van Duivendijk indicated to me how to age the females. Once I got my eye in, this was fairly straight forward; the key was the speculum, lacking the bright colouration in immatures.

Steller’s Eider flock (including a few 2nd cy birds) © Tristan Reid

Some of the immature drakes were fairly obvious showing the progression from brown duck  into the white plumage of an adult. However Martin & Nils pointed out that there were a proportion of drakes that were still predominantly brown only separable from the females by their head shape and the tone of their tertials. Is there more to ageing Steller’s Eiders yet to be discovered?

Steller’s Eiders © Tristan Reid

So my experience of seeing my first Steller’s Eider was not only superficial excitement of the realisation of a childhood dream, but it had great depth and was also a fascinating learning experience! You’ve got to love Varanger 🙂

Tengmalm’s Owl

What a moment!

Some things you can’t expect. I knew there had been a Tengmalm’s Owl competing for territory with a Hawk Owl (pretty cool in itself!). It seemed that the Hawk Owl had won out, as we heard (the female?) calling from a nest box and later saw the male bring food to the box. However I assumed the  Tengmalm’s had been out-sung and may well have moved on. It hadn’t. It was still there on one of our Taiga trips during the Gullfest in Varanger, Arctic Norway and proved an absolute highlight at the end of what had already been a remarkable days birding.

It’s also well north of normal range as far as I know. Thanks to Øyvind Zahl Arntzen of Arntzen Arctic Adventures – his cabin in the woods was certainly one of my favourite spots.

Watching a Boreal Owl. Photo by  Øyvind Zahl Arntzen


Superb Southern Seabirds

Streaked Shearwater and friends

One day?

Paul Walbridge’s latest ‘Southport pelagic’ from 4 days ago netted these mouth-watering photos.  Thanks to Paul and Graham. Be pretty cool to see some of these. One day… maybe?

Streaked Shearwater in company with two Tahiti Petrels. by Paul Walbridge

Kermadec Petrel  (left) and Flesh-footed Shearwater.

Some of us can dream at least!

Eastern Common Tern – did one frequent Minsmere in 2011?

Eastern Common Tern – did one frequent Minsmere in 2011?

By David H Hatton, Royston, Herts, UK

In the late spring of 2011, I took a holiday based at Westleton, Suffolk, for a week together with fellow birding friend Tim Wilson and our families. Most days we would venture the short distance to Minsmere RSPB reserve for some birding and photography. During the course of these visits, we had encounters with many terns, but one in particular may be exceptionally interesting.

On the 30 May at 8.50 am Tim spotted an adult dark-billed tern resting some 40 metres from the south hide. Presuming it was going to be one of the few Roseate Terns present we switched to our scopes only for it to immediately fly off over the scrape and disappear seawards. In flight, the jizz looked wrong, lacking the long tail expected of that species. And, as Tim pointed out, shouldn’t it have had bright red legs?! – as his first brief binocular view had indicated the bird possessed dark legs, we scratched out heads and mused over whether a 1st or 2nd summer ‘portlandica’ Common Tern might be the explanation.

Later that week, on the 3rd June at 8.10 am, I was alone in the east hide at the end of a pre-breakfast walk down from Dunwich cliffs. Scanning the scrape, a tern suddenly grabbed my attention, sitting on one of the perching poles conveniently located to the left of the hide. Again I fell for the same trick – with my eyes briefly feasting on the black crown and bill, ‘great, Roseate’ I thought to myself as I instinctively switched to my digiscoping set-up and spent a few seconds slotting the gear over the eyepiece. The very moment the target snapped into focus, and before I could press the shutter button – it took off and started flying towards me. This time, I reached for my SLR and, with some relief, it locked on, allowing a couple of shots to be acquired (Figs 1, 2). Seconds later, the bird had passed the end of the hide and disappeared over the dunes towards the sea.

Again I was to be initially disappointed – its dusky not pinkish underparts, modest tail, rather ‘common’-like underwing pattern, with pale semi-translucent inner primaries contrasting with dark-tipped outer primaries and slightly darker grey secondaries, all suggesting Common Tern, Sterna hirundo. However, really bamboozling me was its quite un-‘common’-like bill – modest in length, delicate in structure and entirely blackish along its length save a hint of maroon at the very base of the lower mandible. Its completely black cap and neat body plumage suggested it was in adult summer plumage, but why that funny bill?

With some photographic evidence acquired and the end of the family holiday approaching, I resolved to follow it up later. I was likely to be stymied I thought by the brevity of my encounter and lack of detailed field notes, but, within days of my return, and with excellent timing, I noticed Sean Nixon’s account and photos that had just been published in Birding World (issue 293), of a presumed ‘Eastern Common Tern’, S. h. longipennis, at, where else but, Minsmere on 14 May 2011, putatively only the second record for Britain of this form. Until that point, I had forgotten about the existence of these birds that, unlike European birds, are black-billed in summer. That article, with its insightful additional editorial analysis, together with an update six months later (issue 300), arguing that a second bird was present at Pakefield (& possibly Alton Water), Suffolk 14 July 2011 and another, perhaps third bird, present at Heist, Belgium on 22 June 2011, convinced me that I should seriously consider whether I had fortuitously added a piece to the jig-saw of Suffolk ‘Eastern CT’ occurrences in 2011.

Below I tabulate the known features of Eastern Common Tern (believed to be useful for separation w.r.t. Common Tern) and compare them with the set of features of the ‘East hide’ bird. This summarizes information I have found published in Birding World issues 293, 300 & 303, Terns of Europe & North America (Olsen & Larsson, 1995) and the Advanced Bird ID Guide (N.v. Duivendijk, 2010).

Eastern Common Tern features in comparison with those of Common Tern (adults) Minsmere ‘East hide’ bird, 3 June 2011Similar feature present?
Slightly more svelte appearance YES, the bird was more elegant & less ‘stocky’ to my eyes, born out by the side-view photo
Smaller more domed head/crown YES, head neatly domed, less angular than CT
Slightly longer wings, outer tail feathers project slightly beyond wing-tips Not determined
Bill shorter & finer, sharper, less dagger-shaped (though some variability) YES, bill less ‘dagger’ proportioned appearing fine in side view
Bill black, some with crimson-purple at base of lower, brightening in spring YES, blackish, with small area of blackish crimson at base of lower mandible
Bill has less arched culmen YES, bill has quite delicate profile
Black crown has more sharply defined edges, sharper contours behind head YES, sharply demarcated edges to whole crown
Dark trailing edge to secondaries on underwing YES, grey distal secondary band contrasting with white greater coverts
Upperparts more ash grey Not determined, but perhaps hinted at by darkness of the underside secondary band
White cheek stripe, esp. in front of eye YES, contrasting moderately with pale grey upper breast
Underparts dusted with lavender grey, isolating a white cheek stripe YES breast & belly looked darker and more contrasty than other CTs seen in same light
Legs dark reddish brown/brown/chestnut Legs retracted & invisible in flight, not noted either way when briefly perched
Call less shrill Not determined (silent)

I conclude that the East hide bird of 3 June 2011 shares many of the features associated with Eastern Common Tern, especially the overall jizz and bill colour and structure, although the character set is incomplete because views of the upperparts and leg color were not obtained. No strong contra-indicatory features were noted. Could a ‘western’ Common Tern in summer ever show such a suite of features one wonders? The photos I obtained are not inconsistent with those published in plates 1–3 and 10 of Birding World issue 293 (pp. 211, 214) – if it is an Eastern type, perhaps the bird that Sean Nixon found was more than a one-off visitor to Minsmere in spring of 2011 – maybe it will return!


I thank Tim J. Wilson and Charles Fentiman for discussions during preparation of this note.

20 Apr 2012

Footnote –  See similarity from BirdQuest in Japan: