Monthly Archives: September 2012

Next Stage: Mystery Photos

Voting on Monday 14th Sept.

3 Way Mystery Photo Competition

OK no outright winners. However all the right answers have been said- just not by the same person! Its a great set of 3 birds- and much to learn from them.
So I am leaving it over the weekend. Same birds, same questions. I think all 3 are identifiable from the pics- and perhaps the hardest just needs more careful inspection. Voting will open again all day Monday 24th Sept up till 8:00 pm. Doesn’t matter about who is first. If more than one person gets all 6 answers correct I will pull out of a hat. Those who didn’t have go first time around can piggy back on bolder ones knowing now that all the right answers have been said. Which ones are right though? Who will score 6 out of 6?

For full set of pics and questions see here

Pallid Harrier: Next step in status change

First-summer male undertakes post-juvenile moult in the Netherlands.

by Nils

Well within the time of my birding life, Pallid Harrier was nothing less than a mythical species. Nowadays it is much less rare in NW Europe (in the Netherlands we can call it a rare to even scarce migrant now); but still today, many birders will get a magic feel when they see a Pallid Harrier. In Dutch language the species is named ‘Steppe Harrier’, which further add to the magic (and because I know MG likes it: exactly translated Steppe Chickenthief). It makes me still dream away to its formerly normal range of vast steppes in ‘far eastern’ countries. But it also is just a wonderful bird!

The recent high numbers in Europe are unlikely explained alone by the increasing knowledge of the immature and adult female plumage’s, or by the now many, almost daily occupied migrations watching points either. Although naturally these factors have add to the overall picture, the species must be really much more common today (in western Europe) than a decade and more ago; going through a remarkable rapid status change.

In the Netherlands the spring of 2012 shows just the expected pattern with several 10s of records of mainly migrating individuals. The first individuals typically start to appear from the beginning of April (so, much earlier than Montagu’s).  The settling down of a male that starts his first complete moult was again a new phenomena in the row and gives us the nice opportunity to follow the progress of the chancing plumage.

The bird was found on the 6th of May and stayed mostly in agriculture fields in the county Drenthe until at least the end of August.

As usual in 2nd cy spring Pallid Harrier, in the beginning the bird was very juvenile like. Only some dark streaks on the crop-area betray the first signs of post-juv moult, possible acquired in an earlier stage. The pale iris immediately confirm it’s a male.

13 May (photo by Gerard Sterk)

On or just before 20 May the complete moult really started; both p1 were dropped and on 26 May p2 on the right side. From then the primary moult takes a sprint with up to p5 dropped on 5 June. Also many greater upperwing coverts were dropped, but no underwing coverts.

5 June (photo by Claudia Burger)

Until 14 June no extra primaries were dropped but p1-p5 were more than half grown.

21 June: p1-p5 are fully grown (being typically uniform blue-grey unlike any other harrier at this stage); the body and underwing coverts were still unchanged, but the greater upperwing coverts were replaced (greyish; not visible in this picture). (photo by André Strootman).

26 June: new brown-greyish scaps and tertials appear.

11 July: the first secundaries are replaced (looks like s3-4), the head and underparts are moulted (crop-area again?). Now the breast and flank are quite extensively dark streaked, maybe surprisingly for a male! The axillaries and median underwing-cov looks still juv-type. The primary moult way have reached p8 (which is dropped), p9-10 are still juv-type. (photo by Claudia Burger)
6 Aug: juv p10 is still present, p9 is dropped. The underwing coverts and axillaries are almost fully moulted, the dark central secundaries are still juv-type. (photo by Michel Linnemann)

On 22 Aug, the last day that the bird was photographed so far, there seemed no juv secundaries left and the new p10 was growing. So, with the last stage under way this fine bird will likely be gone soon.

Interestingly, this male shows more dark pattering of the underparts than normal in 2nd male after the complete post-juv moult, but it is far from unusual.

Many thanks to Frank Neijts and especially Vincent Hart and of the administrator-team of for their great help in sorting out all the pictures and making contact with the photographers, who are also greatly thanked!

3 way Mystery Photo Competition

Autumn cometh…

…and with it the opportunities for some scarce and rare bird hunting. So here, 3 ‘Mystery Birds’; the kind of thing I might be looking for. I had to identify some of them, so will let you know how I got on, later.

There are 3 birds and 6 questions. They are not easy!  First person to get all 6 questions correct- or first to highest number of correct answers  e.g. 4 or 5- gets a Birding Frontiers memory stick and the rest of us learn stuff! (P.S. apart from the few I may have told answers to who are excluded!)

So go ahead and give it a go:


a) What species?

b) What age?

bird one– what species and age is this sea-going bird?


a) What species?

b) What age?

Bird two– what species and age is this long-billed thing?


a) What species

b) What subspecies?

Bird Three: What species (and if you are very clever or good at guessing), what subspecies does this tail and undertail coverts belong to?

Seabird Masterclass: The Results

7-9 September 2012

by Martin

Very pleased with our first ventures into guided Seabird events billed as Seabird Masterclasses. They are open to all and indeed we did have both very experienced and new birders. As one person put it:

“Despite gloriously unsuitable weather for sea-watching (280C plus a lot of the time, southerlies), a combination of a boat trip and dedicated enthusiasm watching from the Old Head at Flamborough yielded an incredible list of sought-after birds – 4 species of skua and shearwater, Black Guillemot, Mediterranean and Yellow-legged Gull, auks and gannets in abundance plus the evocative sight of the first Pink-footed geese of the autumn in off the sea noisily cackling their way overhead and away inland. Couple that with the enthusiasm and knowledge of Martin, Richard and Steve, and you find you’ve had an unforgettable sea-birding break demanding an early return ! Thanks for a great trip !”  Phil Hyde

Pomarine Skua – This bird was one of the highlights of a bird filled 3 days. Photo by Phil Palmer (

The 3 days (or option of one day event) included sea watching from Flamborough and 4 hour pelagic out from Bridlington harbour (in conjunction with RSPB cruise).

We Saw:

Long-tailed Skua (1 superb juvenile heading north off Flamborough showing off distinctive combo of  plumage/ structure and flight actions.
Pomarine Skua– superb adult flew around the boat
Arctic and Great Skuas several of each
Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns– plenty of looks at all ages, including and ad and juv close off the boat
Black Guillemot – a local ‘mega’. A first winter bird off the boat which thankfully all guests got on to as it stay stick around
Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin– good views of all 3
Cory’s Shearwater- a distant bird which was ‘hanging around in the area. Almost certainly seen briefly in flight then sat on water- but rather a long way out to for satisfying views
Sooty, Manx and Balearic Shearwaters– all seen
Gulls- included, Mediterranean, Little and 1st winter Yellow-legged– all on sea watches
Gannet and Fulmar- plenty of them and a chance to practice aging Gannets from juveniles to adults!

waiting by the pier at Bridlington on beautiful morning

View from the bridge with the ‘Great White Cape’ of Flamborough Head in the background

This superb adult (dark morph) Arctic Skua flew right over our heads (by Phil Palmer) (

This juvenile Great Skua flew around giving excellent views of its distinctive plumage- by Steve Race

another view of the same juvenile ‘Bonxie’ by Phil Palmer (

loads of close views of auks of different ages- and we got 4 different species! These Guillemots by Steve Race

1st winter Black Guillemot by MG. Bit of a mega!

Having spotted it, shouted it out, a few folk managed to get on it, I rattled off some blurred pics, it dived and wasn’t seen again.

Adult Arctic Tern. Always a pleasure to see, especially close-up. By Steve Race

Fulmar. Plenty of these, juts no ‘Blue’s’ this time. By Steve Race

Evening (above ) and morning (below) seawatching provided lots of fun, learning and some pretty cool seabirds. Non seabird highlights included superb skeins of the first Pink-feet Geese of the autumn, coming in close to the headland and calling as they went.

Special thanks to Steve Race and Phil Palmer for photos used here and Sal Cooke and RSPB team on the Skua Cruise and Phil for his kind comments

Transatlantic Transport

As the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season spins its way into autumn, tropical systems that strafe the Atlantic Coast of North America sometimes, eventually, make their way across the pond to Europe. Although not terribly regular, when these systems arrive on European shores they may bear avian gifts along with generally wet and messy conditions. They arrive with varying degrees of intensity, from the most scattered remnants of a tropical depression to nearly completely intact hurricanes. With their arrival in the eastern Atlantic, birders should hope for any of a potpourri of megas that could get entrained in these storms.

A tropical system is moving between Iceland and northwest Europe now and associated winds could well be favorable for trans-Atlantic vagrancy. With North American migration at its peak for many species, conditions this weekend could well bring some Yank vagrants to the U.K., Ireland, or France. Below we review a couple past examples of similar phenomena and go out on a limb with a few things for European vagrant hunters to think about for this coming weekend. We draw on eBird–a free, global system for entering and sharing bird sightings–to help illustrate some of the patterns, past and present, that we discuss.

Migrant birds flying over the Atlantic may get caught up in these fast-moving tropical systems and may survive aloft long enough to reach European shores. Many of these birds intentionally depart from the Atlantic Coast of North America on long non-stop flights to the Caribbean or coastal South America, including waders such as American Golden-Plover, Hudsonian Godwit, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Pectoral, White-rumped and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willet (the probably specifically-distinct ‘Eastern’ subspecies T. s. semipalmata), and several others, Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Red-eyed Vireo, wood-warblers (especially Blackpoll, but also Connecticut, American Redstart, Northern Parula and others), Bobolink, and a number of other passerines. These intentional over-water flights are probably more common than has been generally appreciated, and, not surprisingly, many of the migrants that do this are among the more common vagrants to Europe.

Wind drift offshore is also common off the eastern U.S. and Canada, especially following the passage of strong cold fronts with northwesterlies. Sometimes these frontal boundaries carry birds directly into the heart of a tropical system. The list of species that could end up offshore could theoretically include almost anything that is on the move in North America right now. A glance at eBird’s seasonal histograms for Cape May County, New Jersey, gives a good sense for the landscape of migration off eastern North America right now (try clicking on the map links and the species’ names for more info).


Under similar conditions, some past results have been quite spectacular from a vagrant bird perspective. In early October 2011, for example, observers in New England, eastern Canada, and Bermuda experienced a combination of effects from both continental and marine systems, as a strong low-pressure system moving eastward interacted with a Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic. While Hurricane Ophelia passed east of Bermuda and churned the western North Atlantic into a frenzy, a strong low pressure system over the southeastern United States catapulted birds off the Atlantic Coast of the US. What occurred is affectionately known in American English as a “slingshot” effect, in which southern species appear at sites far to the north of their expected ranges and destinations (e.g., McLaren 1981, McLaren et al. 2000). Tremendous numbers (up to 1000!) of Yellow-billed Cuckoos dropped out in Bermuda, and a suite of Caribbean and Central American winterers were deposited in New England and the Canadian Maritimes (Farnsworth and Iliff, in press). Unfortunately, this system did not reach the Western Palearctic in any organized way, dissociating long before reaching any continental land masses.

Perhaps the best Western Palearctic vagrant load in a hurricane to date came compliments of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Dinsmore and Farnsworth (2005) wrote of the effects of Hurricane Wilma from a North American perspective. Wilma had the lowest pressure ever recorded for an Atlantic hurricane (882 mb) and reached the strongest category 5 status. Forming off Jamaica on 15 October, Wilma reached Tropical Storm status two days later and hurricane status by 18 October. The next day, she was a powerful and dangerous Category 5 storm that slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula. Weakened by landfall in Mexico, she then took moved east through the Gulf of Mexico, crossed Florida 24 October, and regained category 3 strength off the East Coast of the U.S. and moved rapidly northeastward. It was during this period that birds were probably entrained in the storm and in the transatlantic wind fields that formed due to her interaction with other systems. On October 26 she was an extratropical cyclone southeast of Nova Scotia that finally hauled across the Atlantic toward after merging with the remnants of Tropical Storm Alpha and with another strong, continental low-pressure system as it moved northeastward away from North America. These three systems merged off the coast of Atlantic Canada, south of Greenland, further intensifying an already exceptional low pressure system. Of primary importance in this scenario was the union of these storms off the coast – the strong continental front pushed any birds already aloft over the ocean farther east, birds already entrained over water in the tropical systems stayed entrained, and the entire system of three storms became more cohesive over water, not to see land again until European soils. For those that follow meteorological extremes, this combination of three systems will sound reminiscent of the so-called “Perfect Storm” from 1991. This weather site lets you step through the progression of these lows and how they moved across the ocean. Note that several strong low pressure systems arrive even before Wilma, which can be seen on 25 October 2005 imagery as a 991 and 985 milllibars of mercury (mb) low pressure systems west and north of the Azores; the arrival of these low pressure systems certainly aided movement of additional Nearctic/Neotropical migrants to the Palearctic.

The “Wilma” systems finally passed north of the Azores as an extra-tropical depression late on 27 October 2005 (e.g. at that URL above, the 966 millibar low pressure system). The ensuring Nearctic fallout was perhaps most memorable on Corvo in the Azores, where Peter Alfrey described his epic birding in Birding World (Alfrey 2005) and in Birdwatch (Alfrey 2006). A partial list of his highlights on Corvo included 27 Chimney Swifts at once, Lapland Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, Buff-bellied Pipit, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Laughing Gull, and Forster’s Tern. Other observers elsewhere in the Azores had Tree Swallow, Indigo Bunting, Greater Yellowlegs, Upland Sandpiper, and a Palearctic first American Barn Swallow. A strong low pressure system two days before Hurricane Wilma had also deposited the first Palearctic Hooded Warbler, multiple Indigo Buntings, Philadelphia and Red-eyed Vireos, a Bobolink, and a White-crowned Sparrow.

Wilma brought great vagrants to mainland Europe too, and some probably remember mad twitching adventures, during the aftermath of that tropical system: multiple Magnificent Frigatebirds in Spain, Portugal, France, and England, Great Blue Heron, American Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, Sora, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, many Chimney Swifts in multiple countries (more than 80 among Ireland, England, Spain, France and the Azores), Gray-cheeked Thrush, Tree Swallow, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-rumped, Blackpoll, and Hooded Warblers, Ovenbird, Indigo Bunting, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Clearly a whole host of migrants were “caught offshore” after the major low-pressure system had moved out over the Atlantic, including species probably making intentional jumps for South America (Bobolink, Red-eyed Vireo) and others that were simply displaced offshore by wind drift in associated with frontal passage (American Bittern, Tree Swallow, etc.). A combination of systems of this magnitude clearly means a potential bounty for areas outside of the typical island vagrant traps. And in terms of timing, some of the aerialists (e.g. Chimney Swift) arrived within 24 hours of passage of the Wilma system. Some, like Indigo Bunting, arrived as it was passing or even pre-passage, suggesting additional entrainment perhaps in advance of Wilma within another strong system (see the weather site referenced above to examine additional strong systems passing in advance of Wilma). Clearly it seems at the least that within 24 hours of passage, regular rechecks of known migrant traps are essential! A good accounting of the timing of vagrants, in 2005 and otherwise, can be found here and here (note in particular pages 306-307).


Though not at the scale of Hurricane Wilma, or even the Ophelia event, several tropical systems are presently working their way across the Atlantic. As Tropical Storm Leslie moves across the North Atlantic, followed closely by Hurricane Michael or its remnants, birds that departed the coast of the US and Canada on 10-11 September with the passage of a strong cold front could well have been entrained in winds associated with these tropical systems. The figure below shows a mosaic of data collected on the network of Weather Surveillance Radars operating in the continental US. Additional, synoptic weather data are shown, including a frontal boundary in the Atlantic, low pressure off the Atlantic coast, high pressure just west of the Appalachian Mountains and over the upper Mississippi River valley, and surface wind direction and speed (the purple arrows). The uniform patterns visible in the radar data (the stippled blues and greens) represent migrating birds (some bats and insects as well). These data were collected at approximately 11 p.m. Eastern time on the night of 10-11 September, and heavy coastal movements of birds may well have moved offshore in Northwesterly and Northerly winds in the New England region. Migration conditions since then have remained good, but flight have not been as massive as the number of birds aloft that night.

With the passage of this strong front, it is possible that numbers of birds moving between continents, departing from Canada and the US for destinations in South America, also moved far offshore. The strong northerly and northwesterly winds that facilitated movements of birds on these trans-continental flights may push them right into the swirl of at least one of these storms. Along with species that may be drifted offshore in the front, South American over-water migrants like some waders (see list above), are probably the best bets. Most North American terns, along with Laughing Gulls, are also on the move now, and strong flyers that could well occur in this system. Passerines and near-passerines (swifts, cuckoos) of course would be most exciting, and although mid-September is earlier than most European records, Connecticut and Blackpoll Warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, Chimney Swift, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, all have reasonable potential to be entrained in the systems moving east across the Atlantic. Of course not all species have the same probabilities of successfully completing the flight to Europe, with the larger, long-winged species with better fat reserves (i.e., those already “planning” a multi-day flight to South America) being the most likely to reach Europe alive. This system may not be fast moving enough to hurtle the Western Palearctic’s first Ruby-throated Hummingbird across the Atlantic, but according to eBird observations this week is when most birds are leaving eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States and streaming south, so one can dare to dream…

Given the timing forecast for the arrivals of the remnants of the tropical systems in the Northeast Atlantic, it seems plausible to hope for North American waifs to appear in Europe some time between 15-18 September. Note the strong westerly winds that begin to overspread the UK by 14-15 September in the forecast image to the left. Since any excuse to go birding is a good one, why not check some western coastlines (or better yet, islands) in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, or northwestern France this weekend and see if you can prove our predictions correct!

Icelandic birders yesterday (13 September 2012; fide Yann Kolbeinsson) reported Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, and American Golden-Plover, and the wind fields that reached Iceland may not have been as favorable as those that should reach Ireland and the northern United Kingdom. So perhaps the best is yet to come!


Alfrey, P. 2005. American vagrants on the island of Corvo, Azores, in October 2005. Birding World 18(11): 465-474.

Alfrey. P. 2006. Eye of the Storm. Birdwatch (October 2006), p. 37-40.

Dinsmore, S. J. and Farnworth, A. 2005. The Changing Seasons: Weatherbirds. North American Birds 60 (1): 14-26.

Farnsworth, A. and Iliff, M. J. In press. The Changing Seasons: Driven. North American Birds 66 (1): 16-67.

McLaren, I. A. 1981. The incidence of vagrant landbirds on Nova Scotian islands. Auk 98: 243-257.

McLaren, I., B. Maybank, K. Kiddy, P. D. Taylor, and T. Fitzgerald. 2000. A notable autumn arrival of reverse-migrants in southern Nova Scotia. North American Birds 54: 4-10.

The Pomarine Skua Show

Spoons up!

by Martin

Full report to follow. For now, headlining act on our Seabird weekend event was this adult Pomarine Skua. Seen coming in to the chum at the back of the boat, a skua was called out. Heading toward the back of the boat, I quickly picked the bird up just as it turned to reveal shape, plumage and ‘spoons’ thus sparking a holler from me of  ‘Pomarine Skua! Thankfully, unlike many other skuas, this one chose to stay and give a wonderful performance to the 100 plus folk on the boat.

Spoons up:

Adult Pomarine Skua goes in. Unfortunately some moisture in my lens meant a bunch of foggy fotos, Managed to salvage this attempt at an ‘arty’ one of the bird’s central tail feather ‘spoons’.

Adult Pomarine Skua, Bridlington Bay, 8th Sept 2012, above 3 by Steve Race. Easily aged as an adult by all dark underwing coverts. The bird is moulting into winter plumage with new secondaries contrasting with old primaries. It has also moulted some body feathers including on the rump and upper tail coverts. In fresh summer plumage males can have almost no barring on flanks or breast band. However I think an adult in moult is perhaps not safe to assign to sex as they do develop barring over the underparts in winter plumage.

Adult Pomarine Skua, Bridlington Bay, 8th Sept 2012, above 2 by Phil Palmer ( Very much enjoyed once again working with Phil as a fellow ‘spotter’.

Adult Pomarine Skua, Bridlington Bay, 8th Sept 2012,  by Steve Race.

Surfbird hybrid

With Great Knot or Knot?

Striking! Would give me a scare in the field. This wader, found by Paul Lehman on 12th July 2012, had been previously present, nearby, 3 years early in late August 2009, when the plumage was less definitive. So what it is? Opinion (for obvious reasons) centres around a Surfbird which has hybridised with either a Great Knot or (Red) Knot.

Surfbird hybrid (x Great Knot or Red Knot), San Diego Bay, California, July 2012, by BJ Stacey. Lots more photos and video from BJ Stacey of the bird: here.

Thanks to Paul for the alert, BJ Stacey for his excellent pics and see this months Birding World mag  for more discussion and photos.