Monthly Archives: September 2012

Juvenile Montagu´s Harrier

Following the interesting post on a summering Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) on the Netherlands by Nils, I thought sharing these photos of a quite Pallid-like juvenile Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus) could be of interest.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile. Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

The bird was seen near Zaragoza, Aragón, Eastern Spain, in mid September, and had been ringed and wing-tagged in France this past summer.

As you can see on the pics, the head pattern of this juvenile was quite striking and well marked. If not seen well, It could resemble that of a Pallid Harrier to the inexperienced observer.

The prominent pale neck collar was almost complete, the hind neck was very dark and contrasted a lot with the pale collar, the white areas around the eye were relatively small and the lores were quite dark. Thus, quite Pallid-like if seen distantly.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile. Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

However, on closer inspection, you can see that the pale collar has some faint dark smudges (which could easily go unnoticed if not seen close, though), the dark hindneck is not uniform, but shows some paler spots mixed in with the dark feathers and the dark cheek-patch only reaches the gape. All these features would identify the bird as a well-marked juvenile Montagu´s, but would require good views.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile, Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

Furthermore, the primary pattern is also typical of Montagu´s. Unlike most Pallids, the bird shows almost all dark fingers and obvious dark tips to the inner primaries. Beware of the last feature though, as some Pallids can also show contrasting dark tips to the inner primaries, like Montagu´s.

Montagu´s Harrier (Circus pygargus). Juvenile, Zaragoza, September 2012. Photographer: A. Manuel Galán Subias

The barring of the primaries, although relatively extensive,  is finer than that of a typical juvenile Pallid.

Several fine streaks are present on the upper breast and flanks, which should be absent on juvenile Pallids in autumn.

All in all, an interesting bird that addresses the need of good views and a proper study of the primaries, amongst other things, when confronted with any pale-collared juvenile Harrier.

Many thanks to the photographer, A. Manuel Galán Subias, for letting me use his photos on the post, and also to Javier Train for first sending them to me.

Shetland – day 1

Martin arrived in Shetland last night, I picked him up from the last flight into Sumburgh. Talk about a kid in a toyshop – he was sooooo excited! And correspondingly loud. I could see all these people I knew giving me very strange looks, while mothers were hiding toddlers away from it all. Great to see someone so fired by the prospect of some birding though! I took him home and got a few glasses of wine down him but he was still bouncing around like Tigger when I went to bed…

This morning, Thursday, we headed out into the field to remind him what Shetland birding is like. We started off at Sumburgh Head just after dawn, where Goldcrests were hopping around our feet and Song Thrushes exploded from grassy cover. We called in at the quarry, where the Little Bunting found last night by Shetland Nature guide Gary Bell was still present, and showing well:

All that before breakfast – a good start. We went back home, and opened the nets in the garden before setting about a panful of porridge. Mid morning, we set off to Quendale, hoping for a Blyth’s Reed or a tasty locustella – after all the Blyth’s Reeds in Shetland during the last week or so and all those PGs on the mainland yesterday. We’d barely got out of the car at Quendale, when Rory Tallack, another Shetland Nature guide, phoned in with a Lanceolated Warbler at Sandness – a mighty impressive find in the god-forsaken west side of Shetland. Feeling under pressure now, we set off up the burn in glorious sunshine. Ten minutes later, this little beauty appeared:

Olive-backed Pipit! Martin got noisy again. BOOM!! (Boom! is his new favourite word.) And started doing his Tigger routine, interspersed with extraordinarily lifelike Scooby doo impressions. (Next time you meet him, get him to do his Scooby noises, they’re great.)

We managed to get a few pics, but sadly no sound-recording. Carrying on up the burn, we visited every single iris bed on the east side of Fitful but found not a single acro or loco. Still, we could barely complain, with a BB in the bag, four Yellow-browed Warblers and this particularly drab Common Rosefinch, a worn adult bird we presume:

News from elsewhere in Shetland kept on arriving too, new birds including a Bluetail on Whalsay, an Isabelline Shrike and another OBP at Hestingott (just down the road) and then a Booted Warbler on Unst, the last bird found by Micky Maher and Shetland Nature tea-lady Brydon. (There! I’ve done it! Three mentions of Shetland Nature in one post and I qualify for a free bacon roll at Gutcher caff.)

Heading back for a late lunch, we stopped at Virkie to scan for waders, a Little Stint and a Curlew Sandpiper being the best on offer, before the aforementioned Isabelline Shrike appeared on distant fence wires, brandishing a large bumblebee and waving its tail around. Views were distant but by no means bad – it looked like a fairly standard 1W isabellinus, although I wouldn’t put any money on that without seeing it a bit better.

Rest of the day involved some work for me, and a quick lap of Sumburgh in the evening, but no more milestones to relate. Martin still said ‘BOOM!!!’ at regular intervals even so. His tour group are going to need ear plugs this week. Me, I’m off for a lie down…

Desert Lesser Whitethroat

Spurn Bird Observatory 23rd Sept. 2012

In brief excellent weekend at Spurn. Guided day on Saturday was followed by this wee thing on Sunday morning. Trapped at the Warren by Adam Hutt.

apparent Desert Lesser Whitethroat of form halimodendri. Spurn Bird Observatory, 23rd Sept. 2012. by Ian Smith

.Desert Lesser Whitethroat: This birds tail pattern with extensive white is more indicative of more eastern taxa together with its shorter wing and longer tail than on average for nominate ‘curruca’. Paul Leader who has studied the Lesser Whitethroat complex extensively said “Looks like a good halimodendri to me, structure and plumage spot on”. Some halimodendri and minula can be virtually identical on plumage.


If you operate at a bird observatory or ringing station, and you suspect an ‘Eastern Lesser Whitethroat’ obtain full set of biometrics and take photos of the wing and tail patterns. Here is Paul Leaders full list of bios. Please help yourself and print off:

 S curruca ring sheet Paul Leader

A few of the other (many) highlights from Saturday.

SPURN: rather worth a visit if you get the chance!


Interesting Wilson’s Petrel

With white belly feathering

One of the more curious birds seen out of a very nice selection over 2 days of full on pelagic birding at the Banco de la Concepción, N.of Lanzarote, on 15-16th Sept. 2012. It made me wonder about the Fuegian Petrel – the chilensis form of Wilson’s Petrel. However the white patterning is somewhat random and chilensis normally has obvious white tips to underwing coverts and is smaller with more fluttery flight (Alvaro Jaramillo pers coms). It seems more likely to be a’sport’ and Martin Gray ‘tweeted’ to say he had seen several such Wilson’s in Antarctica. Nevertheless it is seemingly the first example mimicking the white belly feathering of the pacific breeding taxa such as chilensis,  gracilis and the recently discovered pincoyae, reported in the North Atlantic.

Still much to learn about these birds (as with so many!). Thanks to Alvaro Jaramillo, Ash Fisher, Bob Flood and Dani López-Velasco for comments

What else did we see on the Sept 2012 Lanzarote pelagic? Here’s a rough list, thank to James Lees and when have time- more to blog about:

Here are the totals from the Lanzarote Pelagic I was on last week. SWINHOE’S PETREL, White-faced Petrel, 5 European Storm Petrels, 10 Wilson’s Storm Petrels, 200 Band-rumped Petrels, 80 Bulwer’s Petrels, 3 Scopoli’s Shearwaters, 2 Sooty Shearwaters, 1000 Cory’s Shearwaters, 30 Manx Shearwaters, 10 Long-tailed Skua’s, 2 Arctic Skua’s. 7 Pomarine Skua’s, Great Skua, 2 Black Terns, 2 Arctic Terns, 30 Common Terns, Hammerhead Shark, 50 Sea Turtles, 30 Spotted Dolphins, 200 Bottlenose Dolphins and 12 Bryde’s Whales!

I pinched Eric Didner’s photo of Facebook. Here’s the guys we were with:

Suggestion of what to do if you have just seen a Swinhoe’s Petrel in the Western Palearctic:

ANSWERS! to 3 Way Mystery Competition

How did you do?

by Martin G and Paul Leader

Thanks to all who were bold enough to have a go at the 3 ‘Mystery Bird’ photos.  Winners at the bottom- scroll down. I bet the folk who engaged with this the most (and had even 2-3 attempts) will have learnt the most. Hope you had fun, whether watching from afar or having a go online. You can thank Paul Leader for testing me (MG) with the snipe and undertail first! Here are the answers:

There were 3 birds and 6 questions:

BIRD ONE: juvenile Long-tailed Skua

Not an easy one! Not surprised that many thought of a dark 1st or 2nd cy Pomarine Skua. The lack of apparent pale tips and fringes in the photo and double pale marks in under primaries and primary coverts didn’t help! Suggestion: lets get rid of pale and dark morph, as descriptive terms for juvenile Long-tails. It’s so passé. Instead I call this plumage ‘MOCHA’ juvenile Long-tailed. Then, of course, we can have latte, vanilla latte and cappucino Long-taileds?!

juvenile Long-tailed Skua, by MG, Banco de la Concepción, N.of Lanzarote, 16th Sept 2012

above: 2 photos are of the same individual: Mystery Bird one– an extreme dark juvenile Long-tailed Skua. Below is another dark juvenile taken, same place, same day but a slightly lighter and perhaps more typical dark juvenile Long-tailed.

juvenile Long-tailed Skua, by MG, Banco de la Concepción, N.of Lanzarote, 16th Sept 2012

BIRD TWO: Adult Swinhoe’s Snipe

I (MG got this wrong) but learned some good things! Pintail Snipe and Swinhoe’s Snipes are virtually indistinguishable in plumage in the field. So it’s critical to see the outer tail feathers and if you can, hear and record the calls. Roughly speaking Pintail Snipe has more same -width thin’pins’ in the outer tail feathers. On Swinhoe’s the outermost tail feathers are pin-like, but there are less pin-like ones and they become thicker towards central tail feathers.

Ageing is based on partial wing moult (in this case within both the secondaries and primaries) it is obvious on the open wing shot attached (but can be seen in the mystery picture), also the few retained and very worn scaps (obvious if you zoom in on the mantle) plus retained and very worn central tail feathers.

Adult Swinhoe’s Snipe, Paul Leader

Pintail Snipe tail, by Paul Leader. 8 ‘pins’ of similar length for outer tail feathers

Adult Swinhoe’s Snipe tail, by Paul Leader. Same bird as Mystery Bird Two. 6 ‘pins’ for outer tail feathers, which broaden noticeably inward. Now have another look at the original profile shot of the ‘Mystery Snipe’.

Adult Swinhoe’s Snipe. Same ‘Mystery bird’ by Paul Leader– note replaced inner secondaries and primaries

juvenile Swinhoe’s Snipe to compare, Paul Leader.

Adult Swinhoe’s Snipe, (same as ‘mystery bird’ two) by Paul Leader

BIRD THREE: Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler ssp. rubescens

The undertail coverts belong to an adult Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler of the subspecies  rubescens.  Only rubescens regularly has such dark centred, pale tipped under tail coverts.  In Hong Kong it seems that in northerly populations of PGW (mainly rubescens) juveniles do not have a post juvenile moult prior to migration, whereas southerly populations (mainly minor and certhiola in HK) often undertake a post juvenile moult prior to migration and this may include all of the tail.  So a rubescens in September with a fresh tail is invariably an adult.  see below a photo showing the adult that goes with the tail (which if you look carefully shows new primaries but retained secondaries – which only adults show), and a tail of a juvenile rubescens.  We have trapped 40 PGTips this week (2nd week of Sept 2012) in two mornings of ringing!!

adult Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler of the subspecies  rubescens. Same bird in above 2 photos by Paul Leader

juvenile Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler of the subspecies rubescens (see comments above on aging and moult of different subspecies).

Very tricky as many came very close. I got he Snipe age right but species wrong (If any consolation!). Closest I think were:

Aron got it right on the 3rd attempt Julian H got it right over his 3 attempts!
Peter A just missed it with the PGTips subspecies
 Andy MacKay just fell on age of the Snipe 
 Dani, Ryan, Timo and ‘Hemsby Birds and Moths’ were very close- understandable thinking the Long-tailed Skua was a few months older
So I put this lot in a hat and Mrs G pulled out the winning bit of paper: …  Peter Adriaens.

Many did better than me. Especially hope you enjoyed it and learnt some stuff. I did.

Potential Additions to the Palearctic List…

… from the EAST

by Paul Lehman

Every fall since 1999 I have spent between 5 and 6 weeks at Gambell, Alaska, an eskimo village of about 650 persons located at the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island, in the northern Bering Sea. Gambell is some 200 miles WSW of Nome, Alaska, and only about 45 miles SE of the closest point on the Chukotsk (Chukotskiy) Peninsula in extreme northeast Russia (see map). The lure here is the frequent occurrence of both regular and mega Asian avian strays (including nine first North American records since 1999), as well as major rarities for Alaska from well to the east in mainland North America, plus a fantastic seabird spectacle, and the presence of many western Alaska and arctic specialties.

One of the bigger surprises that has come out of all this time spent here in fall is the occurrence of some very unexpected North American vagrants, a good number of which would be first records for Russia, Asia, or even the entire Palearctic region if they continued northwestward for only those additional 45+ miles—and IF there were active observers stationed on the shores of the Chukotsk Peninsula, which there are not….

So, here is a list of what landbirds have been recorded at Gambell during the autumn since 1999 and which would mostly qualify as “mega’s” on the nearby Russian side. It does not include very regular strays such as several sparrow species (e.g., Savannah, Fox, White-crowned, Golden-crowned). If there is more than one record, that number follows in parentheses:

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Common Nighthawk
“Yellow-shafted” Flicker (2)
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher (4)
Warbling Vireo (5)
Philadelphia Vireo
Tree Swallow (4)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (22)
Golden-crowned Kinglet (4)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (26)
Swainson’s Thrush (8)
Hermit Thrush (15)
American Robin (6)
Varied Thrush (4)
Northern Waterthrush (5)
Tennessee Warbler (2)
Orange-crowned Warbler (42)
Nashville Warbler
MacGillivray’s Warbler
Mourning Warbler
American Redstart (4)
Cape May Warbler
Magnolia Warbler (2)
Yellow Warbler (22)
Blackpoll Warbler (2)
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler (9)
Townsend’s Warbler (3)
Wilson’s Warbler (31)
American Tree Sparrow (20)
Chipping Sparrow (24)
Clay-colored Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow (9)
Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco (21)
Black-headed Grosbeak
Bullock’s Oriole (4)
Purple Finch (3)
Pine Siskin (38)

So, if there are any enterprising birders out there who would like to add a slug of species to the Palearctic list, the eastern Chukotsk Peninsula in autumn awaits!!

Paul Lehman  (San Diego, California)