Monthly Archives: October 2012

The best date in the birding calendar?

What’s the one date in the year you’d want to book off work? Here in the far north of Britain, the week just gone has been one of the best of the autumn. No great surprise there – some of the rarest autumn migrants in recent years have appeared in the second half of October – though what is surprising is that while Shetland almost disappears under the weight of visiting birders and tour groups in late September and early October, by the end of the month there are none left, even on Fair Isle. Apart from those chartering planes and boats that is. In the past ten years, 23rd October has produced Siberian Rubythroat and Rufous-tailed Robin on Fair Isle so if I had to pick one date in the year to be on the magic isle, that would be a reasonable one. This year, I had five days on Fair Isle in late October, and 23rd was my last full day. Would it deliver?



The trip coincided with a spell of unusually pleasant weather, generally sunny with light and variable winds. There were plenty of migrants during my stay, although turnover was more limited than ideal. Nonetheless, you can’t really complain when every day you can see a Lanceolated Warbler and multiple Olive-backed Pipits (part of an exceptional arrival throughout Shetland this year), good numbers of thrushes, Bramblings and Snow Buntings, and a wide variety of decent birds local birds, such as Woodlark, Goldfinch, Yellow-browed Warbler and so on.

By lunchtime on October 23rd 2012 I’d seen a variety of the birds mentioned above and spent some time photographing redpolls, including a stonking pale northwestern bird:

I had a text from Rob Fray in Shetland saying: “are you still on Fair Isle? Apparently there’s a Little Bunting near Sheila Fowlie’s.” Sheila lives at Virkie, just along the road from us. Nice bird, but not too gripping. And so, by 5.30 pm, when the light was beginning to go, it looked like 2012 wasn’t going to be a vintage October the 23rd. And then…

Fair Isle resident (and ex-obs warden) Nick Riddiford peered out of his living-room window at the gathering dusk and BOOOM! Siberian Rubythroat! We were there in minutes, but still not quickly enough. The light ebbed away fast, and the rubythroat played shy. October 23rd had delivered – again – but it hadn’t been quite the day I had played out in my head. Plans for a dawn start (in other words, who was going to get up early and make the bacon sarnies) were made. But as the evening wore on, another story developed. The one photo of the Virkie Little Bunting that had been posted on the net was causing more than usual scrutiny. Some were saying it was Britain’s second Chestnut-eared Bunting. I must admit that, from that one photo, I couldn’t see how Little Bunting could be ruled out, so I went to bed thinking that the biggest bird of the day was in Nick’s garden at Schoolton.

Dawn on October 24th. We were at Schoolton, the rubythroat was not… To add insult to injury, those of us who started looking for it elsewhere were gripped off by those who went in for tea and hospitality, and were rewarded with… a Blue Tit. Which, unlike Siberian Rubythroat, would have been a Fair Isle tick for me. Meanwhile, news came through from Shetland: the Virkie bunting was a Chestnut-eared! Boom! Suddenly, October 23rd was looking an even more stellar date, and now there was a decision to make – stay on Fair Isle and look for the missing rubythroat (and the pesky Parid) or leave as planned and go and see a second for Britain a stone’s throw from home? Daddy or chips, which to choose. Neither was a tick but in the end I opted to catch my flight as planned. The plane was delayed, which gave me more time to look for the Fair Isle birds, but by the time I left there was still no sign of the ‘throat and as for the Blue Tit… I don’t want to talk about it.

And so, by 2.00, I was back on home turf, and soon had views of Britain’s second Chestnut-eared Bunting. A fabulous little bird. No consolation to the two people who saw it the previous day that by now it was much more obliging. We all make those same mistakes – a skulky bird, brief views, too much time looking through your camera rather than your bins – they just get magnified when it’s a second for Britain, and there’s nothing you can say to ease the pain. Hopefully the forthcoming write-ups in the birding rags will present a suitably balanced picture. Go find a first, guys – and they probably will. All that aside, 23rd October had delivered once again, big style.

Almost forgotten in the melee, another great bird had been found on 23rd October, when Gary Bell came across a Pied Wheatear at nearby Quendale. That bird had, like the rubythroat, disappeared soon after being found but after an hour watching the CEB, I went off to Quendale to have a look for the wheatear with Will Miles and Jason Moss, who had come out of Fair Isle with me to see the bunting. Quendale was devoid of rare wheatears though and, with the light failing, we set off back to our house. All the bunting watchers had packed up too as we drove past Sheila’s. But suddenly, flying alongside the car, was a strikingly dark wheatear, with a very white tail! I hit the brakes, the bird flicked across in front of us and there, perched up on the fence of our neighbour’s house was… a very smart male Pied Wheatear! Sensational. It was nearly dark, and Jason hasn’t got a fancy camera so the pics are not exactly frame fillers, but he did better than I did. Chestnut-eared Bunting and Pied Wheatear, both within 400 m of my front door – that’s the nearest I can get to Jochen’s post about garden birds.

The bunting spent one more day along the Eastshore road – it presumably decided that it could do better than the howling northerlies and snow that arrived overnight on 25th/26th. The Rubythroat reappeared on Fair Isle, and both Will and Jason got to see it. (Thanks to David Parnaby for the pic below.)

By the weekend, things looked to be settling down once again, but October proved to have one last day of magic left. Sunday 28th October, Paul Harvey and I were having a thrash round a few of our favourite spots, focusing on weedy areas that might offer up a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Tree Sparrow, Lapland Bunting, Goldfinch – all nice birds in Shetland but not quite what we were looking for. We never did find any snowballs, but we did manage to stumble across a rather more unexpected seed-eater in with the sparrows at Brake:

The same day, Geoff and Donna Atherton reported a Buff-bellied Pipit on Foula. Two American passerines in a day, just to balance up all the eastern stuff from earlier in the week. Fabulous.

So there we are. 23rd October is MY favourite date in the birding calendar. All you frontier birders out there, you need to weigh up the potential rewards of coming to Shetland later than tradition has it that you should. Me, I know where I’m going to be on 23rd October next year. I’m already booked in on Fair Isle. Maybe see you there. I fancy a rare accentor…

Catching the Bug: Book Review

Review by Martin

The fourth in the series of books by the Sound Approach joins my line of ergonomically challenged books with brightly coloured spines.  From the outset I confess I am a fan of the Sound Approach and if part of the goal has been to popularise bird sound, recording, sonograms and such like, then its growing adherents includes me.  Out of the four this is a particularly thick book – 287 numbered pages – with only that tour de force which is the Petrels Book being slightly larger.  It is a good third bigger than the original, red spined ‘The Sound Approach to Birding’.
From the outset I found this to be an eclectic read.  The overall aim to chronicle the changing habitats, birds and birding in Poole Harbour set in the narrative of the conversations over 20 years of a group of friends meeting in a local pub. Chock full of history, colourful maps, and wonderful photos, excellent illustrations and of course pioneering sonogram analysis. It embraces a very wide spectrum of bird and birding related content.
I confess to finding it at times most enlightening and in other places a frustrating read. Chapter titles (some rather bizarre) often not fully connected to the ensuing chapter content (some kind of abstract might have helped) didn’t help me to engage.  Thankfully every so often my attention would be grasped by a fascinating insight such as the discovery of White-tailed Eagle remains during a televised Time Team exploration, or similarly the number of Puffins killed formally where now they are extremely rare.  I think some chapters could have benefitted from some tougher editing to making them pithier and more clearly focused.
Punctuated among the less easy-to-read chapters are some real gems.  Chapter four ‘If that’s a Bibby’s Warbler I’ll eat my Hat’, taught me much about Dartford Warblers than I’ve known before and how young darfordiensis can have underparts colours as on a Chestnut-eared Bunting, compared to apparently greyer underparts of the southerly breeding nominate undata (though the accompanying photo of a juvenile undata in Portugal seems not to fully endorse this).  The attempt to document differences in calls between dartfordiensis and undata are (uncharacteristically) unconvincing, at least to my ears. Maybe I am missing something?
The same cannot be said for the comparison of Cabot’s and European Sandwich Terns.  The differences in calls seems quite distinctive and further confirming that they should best be treated as good species and adding another identification feature for vagrants on either side of the pond. The Sound Approach at its best!
Similarly the Cormorants chapter containing super illustrations by Killian Mullarney of the two key taxa, keeps both the ID and ‘at-risk’ status of Atlantic ‘carbo’ to the fore. Though it seems one time too many that I have read the name ‘Richard Benyon MP’, a man charged with government ministerial role but taking diametrically opposed actions seemingly driven by personal hunting/shooting/fishing interests.
Chapter 14 is my favourite and kind of what I expected/hoped that, more of the book to be filled with. It deals in some depth with Visible Migration on the south Dorset coast.
Hold on!
Writing this review on October 30th I thought I would just check the Trektelen site for visible migration records from south Dorset.
Flip! Nick Hopper and friends have been out this morning. Have a read of some of the birds they have seen:
Bee-eater 1
Mediterranean Gull 3
Swallow 9 (at end October!)
Brambling 53
Goldfinch 565
Siskin 151
Bullfinch 25
Hawfinch 4
Ring Ouzel 4 (grounded)
Kind of sells it doesn’t it? They are out there doing it. And Chapter 14 tells you how and why. It’s the inspiring stuff on distinguishing calls, sonograms, and variation in common bird calls that will certainly have me reading chapters and sections like this over and over.

Bearded Reedling (Nick Hopper) and Sonagram (Magnus Robb) from ‘Chapter 14’

Chapter 16 ‘Drab’, is similarly engaging though the initial, personal  ‘putdown’ of another observer detracts from an otherwise good argument. The chapter deals with the identification and calls of the Siberian Chiffchaff. It certainly takes the debate further and for those keen to have the latest word on the subject this chapter is a must read.
2 CD’s accompany the book, filled with top quality recordings. However I have found myself very reluctant to take one of the two CDS off the sleeve and put it into the computer.  It’s something I rarely do these days, as it’s all there on t’internet.  My personal preference would be for a web-space linked to the book so that as I browed the books content I could just click onto the sounds itemised in the chapters and listen to them on my phone/tablet/laptop.
The book ends with a summary which indicates a presumed hope for the book.  It says,
“Catching the Bug is our snapshot of birding the harbour… We figured that if we have been successful and infected you with that same bug then there will always be someone to look after the birds of Pool harbour, whatever the weather”. 
Well,  I did see the incredibly confiding Lapland Bunting on the day of the Little Swift dip back in the 1980’s, and once saw a summering Red-rumped Swallow at Corfe Mullen but apart from that I don’t have a massive interest in the birds of Poole Harbour and its environs – certainly not enough to buy a £30 book.  Thankfully, the book is a lot more than an insular view of a local birding patch.  As I’ve just listened to the (little known) calls of Jack Snipe, enjoyed the ‘jammy ringers tape’ by Mark and Magnus, spent far too much time on the migration chapters and just occasionally I admit had my attention grabbed by historical details in the harbour.  This is a book which has somehow, almost in an unplanned way, managed to contain something that could interest most birders, including those who’ve never been to Poole Harbour or even intend to go. Some chapters are a bit of a must have. And did Horace Alexander really see a Siberian Thrush there in January 1961?
You will have to read the book to find out…
For more information and to order, go to the Sound Approach Website
Have you read this book? Any further comments? Agree/ disagree with anything I have said.
Fire away and have your say!

Oh and here’s that darn Bee-eater from yesterday: 

Caspian Stonechat ssp variegatus on Vlieland


Deception Birding!

by Nils

21 years ago, Hans ter Haar († 2011) invented a new way of rarity hunting in the Netherlands. After years of the classic Dutch Birding (whole) weeks on Texel in October, his eyes got stuck on Vlieland. Vlieland, next to Texel, was much narrower, almost wholly accessible and much smaller than Texel. So, it looks much better to cover with a fairly small group of birders. Also he thought that one full week was not the way; too much chance for a long slow period and too much chance of ‘the same birds’ every year. No, the plan was three long weekends spread out over the autumn between early Sept and late Oct. With not too much expectations but with humour and some self-mockery, Hans and his friends called their experiment ‘Deception Tours’.

Indeed some weekends were a deception (motivations were always high, but birds sometimes few), as on all island which lean on migration, but the concept was brilliant! The list of rarities found during the Deception Tours weekends is much too long to mention here, but to highlight a few: 5 new species/taxa for the Netherlands (Yellow-rumped Warbler, Turkestan Shrike, Pallid Swift, Northern Waterthrush and indeed Caspian Stonechat). The 2nd Bonelli’s Eagle for the Netherlands, and Vlieland, as small as it is, now host about half or more of all Dutch records of Olive-backed Pipit (7 in one weekend of which a group of 4!), Yellow-breasted Buntings, Rustic Buntings and Radde’s Warblers (4 on one day!). Hans sadly died just before the third weekend last year. Until his last days, although already very weak, he still supported us on Vlieland by phone. His motivation, insights, leadership and great company we will continue to miss.

In the overcrowded Netherlands, Vlieland is the most ‘remote’ inhabited island. It has a population of 1100 people and the ferry arrives just three times a day. UK birders will be laughing now, and yes we can only dream about isles like Fair Isle, Foula, St Kilda etc. Cars are not allowed for visitors on Vlieland, so birding goes by bike and by foot.

The mobile network doesn’t cover whole Vlieland so if you come across this without receiving the message earlier, you know there is sometimes very wrong (uhh, good!).
The Northern Waterthrush twitch, Sept 2010
Photo by Henk van Rijswijk

October 2012

The weather maps are my compass. After quite a long period of bad situations, finally a narrow ridge of high pressure waved over Southern Scandinavia during the second Deception Tours weekend (5th -7th Oct). On Saturday early morning the back of a frontal zone passed Vlieland and already huge numbers of thrushes, mostly Redwings were coming in while still raining. The excitement in the air sunk quickly down into our veins, our team prepared for code red…

For me and my friends, the fall phenomena is a wonderful event in itself, whatever including rarities or not. But the excitement went to a climax when Eddy Nieuwstraten and Han Zevenhuizen bumped into a Siberian type Stonechat with white in the tail… A ring from Han and within minutes I was with them: WOOOOW a cracking male variegatus!! Beside the ‘black-eared wheatear-tail-pattern’ the bird shows • a huge whitish (not uniform buffish) uppertail-coverts and rump-area, • very broad orange neck-side patch, strongly narrowing the black mask towards the rear-side • sandy-grey fringes to the mantle-feathers and scapulars, and • an almost maximum contrast between black underwing-coverts and white bases of the underside of the flight-feathers (latter from photo’s). All spot-on for variegatus.

In flight the bird gives a very pied impression…
Photo by finder Han Zevenhuizen

The bird was a splendid male with such a deep black face, seemingly full set of adult-type wing-coverts, narrowly pale edged primary-coverts and blackish primaries that, at first I thought it have to be an adult male. I knew that at least some first winter males variegatus are much more ‘adult-like’ than maurus first winter males, but this seems too much.

In the 2nd part, below, the ageing of this beauty is further clarified. The earlier presumed age as a first winter by the presumed diagnostic tail-feather shape appeared to be incorrect.

Note the nasty swellings at the tarsi and toes, which probably also effected the leg-coloration.
Photo by Eric Menkveld

The taxonomic situation of variegatus is still unclear, but for the time being widely regarded as a form of Siberian Stonechat and forms a group with armenicus: the Caspian Stonechat. Whatever future DNA studies will discover, for birders, the males are very distinctive by at least their tail-pattern. I think the most interesting thing is that first winter males variegatus in autumn are often already much more ‘male-like’ compared to first winter male maurus (which are often hard to tell from females). To highlight some possible reasons for this: • a difference in body moult-strategy between the two taxa (with maurus acquire a black mask by moult not before the winter)? • larger pale tips to the body-feathers of maurus, concealing the male-like plumage tracks? and/or • earlier breeding season of variegatus (due to the more southern breeding range) resulting in older first winter birds which are more advanced and thus more ‘adult-like’? As far as I know, this is not clear, and some first winter male variegatus are much less advanced and thus more similar in body-plumage to maurus. Maybe there are readers who know more? The Vlieland-bird had already moulted most or all wing-coverts, some secondaries and possible the upper two tertials. Also several secondaries went missing during its two week stay, maybe due to active moult. The more adult male-like plumage compared to most vagrant (first winter) maurus in Western Europe in itself seemed to be an interesting starting point for future discoveries, before the tail-pattern is seen. Females are, as far as I know, identical to maurus (females). Maybe some show little pale at the base of the outer-tail feathers, normally invisible in the field.

Part 2: Caspian Stonechat on Vlieland, the ageing reviewed

Thanks to Magnus Hellström, Tom van de Have and Brian Small, now we can firmly say that it is indeed an adult (2cy+).

Very pointed tail-feathers with large white tips; incorrectly thought by me (Nils) to exclude an adult, despite the otherwise very ad-like appearance.
Photo by Arnoud van den Berg

Magnus Hellström: tail of fresh adult autumn (2cy+) male stejnegeri, Beidaihe, China September 2012. Although there are some average differences regarding the shape of the tail-feathers, both age classes (1cy and 2cy+) shows quite broad feathers with a rather protruding and pointed tip. Note also the pattern/coloration: in average, adults generally show a darker black feather with a pale tip/edge that is whiter and more sharply set off. In juvenile males the feathers are usually more brownish black with a tip/edge that is more buffish and often more diffusely set off.
Photo credits: Beidaihe Bird Observatory.


Here, the primary coverts are visible and show to have only a very narrow fringe which is even more narrow along the tip. In first winters the fringe should be thicker, often more frayed and most thick along the tip.
Note also the adult-type wing-coverts with white fringes which not reach the base of the feather. Well advanced first winters could show at least some adult-type coverts.
Photo by Cock Reijnders

Here the uniform and deep black face is well visible; typical of adult males form the ‘redstart/wheatear-group’ in autumn. First winters are more extensive pale tipped including the loral area.
Photo by Marijn van Oss




Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – Vocalisation Comparison

The rather showy Eastern Olivaceous Warbler that is currently present at Kilminning in Fife (UK) has given opportunity not only to study morphological details but also to study vocalisation.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Fife © Tristan Reid

Chris Hind discusses the vocalisation of the warbler in the following article:

Vocalisation of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – by Chris Hind

While watching the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler at Kilminning in Fife on 20th October the bird was particularly vocal as it fed among the elders and rose bushes. It gave a rapidly repeated ‘ tack ‘ call which was particularly helpful in keeping track of its movements. The question raised was ‘which other species did its call most resemble?’

Blackcap’s call certainly sprung to mind but it sounded rather softer and was repeated more rapidly. There seemed also to be some similarity to the call of Garden Warbler.

  • You can listen to a recording of Blackcap <here>
  • You can listen to a recording of Garden Warbler <here>
  • You can listen to a recording of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler <here>

Despite the revving of engines and screaming of tyres coming from the nearby race track I made some sound recordings. The sonagram of Eastern Olivaceous shows a ‘ broader ‘ trace than that of Blackcap, but less so than the one for Garden Warbler. The trace has more emphasis on the lower frequency sounds than in Blackcap – again producing a rather softer note.


Garden Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

All in all, the impression of similarity to Blackcap, but tending towards Garden Warbler, is quite nicely demonstrated by the sonagrams.

A fantastic opportunity to learn even more from a rare bird in the UK!

Baltic Gull pretender

The Carsington Gull- October 2012

by Richard Lowe

A possible adult ‘fuscus’ (Baltic Gull) was reported at Carsington Water, Derbyshire on 13th October and subsequently seen on following evenings in the gull roost from Sheepwash Hide. Good views and video were obtained on 15th October which seemed to confirm the identification. This was a stunning bird – small, slender, long-winged, black upperparts with a ‘mahogany’ sheen, white head with few markings, black outer primaries with no white tips, small mirror on P10 only, slim bill – a good set of features to start off with. Critical review of video at home revealed that P1 to P3 were fresh, P4 growing (just!), P5 missing and the remaining primaries appeared old. (It is important to note that this degree of scrutiny was not possible in the field – a preening or flying bird at range in a gull roost is difficult to study to get this sort of detail.) With only three fresh primaries, surely this was a good supporting feature for ‘fuscus’, which typically only replaces (if at all) the inner one or two primaries prior to suspending its moult for its autumn migration?

Well, I thought so but just to check, I e-mailed some of my Dutch friends at Gull Research.Org with this response from Mars Musse:-

 About the attached images, this will not be fuscus. The complete moult has progressed far to much, with P1-3 new, a gap showing there is active mult and only a few retained outer primaries. This is more in line with intermedius.Jonsson in BW described the ‘safe zone’ as P1, at most P2 replaced and moult then suspended prior to migration.

So, its the fact that the bird appears to be in active moult that is critical here i.e. the moult has not been suspended, as it would be if it were a typical ‘fuscus’. (The moulted wing coverts forming the white ‘lines’ on the upperwing – see videograbs – may also suggest active moult?). 

A bit disappointing from the identification point of view but another great learning experience. Irrespective of it being unlikely to be a ‘fuscus’ it is still a very distinctive and attractive gull but appearances can be deceptive…

Regards to all ‘gullers’, Richard Lowe (Derbyshire, England.)

Feeding Garden Birds in Winter

is there any point?

by Martin

As I contemplate spending money on feeding the birds this winter; niger seed, peanuts, fat balls and the like, I stop to wonder… and remember this superb photo taken by my lovely daughter Abi  of our garden bird table, and a less than welcome visitor!

A cat (not ours) on OUR garden bird table, by Abigail Garner