Monthly Archives: April 2013

You’re Invited: Special Digi and Photography Event

‘Getting Sharper’

This one-off event is designed to encourage and further equip anyone interested in digiscoping or digital photography. Led by Martin Garner (a learner in both fields!), Steve Race (Bempton’s renowned photographer), Tim Norgate of Swarovski Optic (bringing all the gear to try out) and Rich Baines of Yorkshire Coast Nature. All at the fantastic seabird cliffs and excellent facilities of the RSPB’s Bempton reserve.

All levels from beginner to more experienced. Hints, tips, ‘try stuff out’ and ‘have-a-go’. Great chance to improve skills in an encouraging, learning atmosphere.

WHAT: Digiscoping and Digital Photography

WHERE: Bempton RSPB Reserve

WHEN: Sunday 9th June 2013

HOW LONG: Session up to one and a half hours

HOW MUCH: Just £2:50 to guarantee a place. Book soon places limited.

BOOK ME A PLACE! Would you prefer a morning or afternoon session?

To book or for more info: martin.go [at]

photo flyer

Bitterns and Powder Down

Explaining the Blue

Bittern d Buckton Pond 7.4.13

THIS POST on a curiously ‘blue-capped Bittern’ (blue-grey on crown and in malars and even little at the bill base) at Buckton Pond produced highly illuminating responses. So here, a follow -up bringing those comments together. Certainly new learning for me (MG). James McCallum and Norman McCanch brought the intel. Robbe added a photo of a similar bird.

James McCallum:

“I’ve seen a couple of wintering Bitterns that appeared similar to this. In addition one memorable observation concerned a ‘text book plumaged-bird’ which, having spent several minutes preening under one wing, raised a very floury head – presumably covered in powder down. It was reminiscent of the bird you’ve photographed here and perhaps provides an explanation?
Powder Down – I looked this up shortly after observing it and was amazed to find out just what happens. Anyhow if my memory serves me this is basically what I read – perhaps somebody else will explain it more clearly –
Bitterns + Herons and some other bird species have patches on their bodies where this powder down is produced. I think that these are patches of specialised down feathers that are not moulted and grow continuously and disintegrate at their tips to form fine powder. Bitterns have two pairs on the breast sides and thighs and these presumably help the birds clean themselves from fish slime…etc. The Bittern I saw ‘powdering’ itself looked rather similar to your photos and it remained looking like this for an hour or so until I lost sight of it in the reeds. Of course if the bird you saw continues to look like this throughout the day then you can quickly dismiss the idea – It was just a thought!
(Found a dead Little Egret and it was quite easy to locate them – they looked quite horrible but are clearly useful!)
I also found some sketches of two different wintering Bitterns which both have dull grey-blue crowns, I’d put these down as young birds but am not 100%
I found the subject fascinating – connected and equally interesting is the preening comb present on the inner edge of the middle toe. I once found a dead Bittern and was amazed to see theses beautifully formed combs – I really like these adaptations but they are frustratingly hard to see in the field.”

from Norman McCanch:

“Hi Martin,
Attached a photo of the powder down patches on a dead bittern found in bizarre circumstances on my local patch in Kent last year. There seem to be rather few images of these structures out there, so thought it might be of interest.
At Seaton Lakes (my patch near Canterbury) I often get the chance to watch Bitterns undisturbed for extended periods and the bluey grey dusting can sometimes be seen during and shortly after preening. The purpose of the dust is to coagulate fish slime on the feathers, so it can be raked off using the adapted pectinate claws. It seems to get most frequent use if Bitterns catch eels, for obvious reasons.
Not your usual bird picture, but it might be of some interest.
Regards, Norman”


from Robbe

“This Bittern I photographed in Belgium on Feb 8th has ‘powder’ even on the base of the bill.” Click here to see.

Baikal Teal – BOOM!

Flamborough 15th April 2013

Well done Brett Richards. He rang from the seawatch spot having seen a funny duck with 2 Wigeon fly into towards Selwick’s Bay. Not fully resolved on the ID, not sure what had been seen on such brief view but he did mention Baikal Teal. This was the morning I had given to getting some boring work done so wished he luck as he headed to Northcliffe Marsh, the obvious drop-in for a dabbling duck. The next message was a ‘knock yer socks off’ type. Male Baikal Teal on Northcliffe. Panic! with insufficient oxygen reaching leg muscles I ran (OK stumbled) to the hide. Just as we arrived to join Brett, 2 Pinkfeet Geese came in ad spooked the dabblers- off they flew to Old Fall. Arrghhh! Another dash and thankfully, ‘scope up and BINGO!

Here’s a couple of shots. It will get discussed I am sure. Haven’t seen anything that suggest a 2cy male on it- though very tricky at this time of year. So for now male. It does have gaps/ feather damage of some sort on the right wing towards inner primaries and mid secondaries. Not sure what that means but I like the arrival style/timing with Wigeon.

Baikal Teal 7

.Baikal Teal 9Baikal Teal 8

Baikal Teal 2

Baikal Teal 1

Baikal Teal 5.Baikal Teal 4

Common Grackle over Kamperhoek in the Netherlands

A true vagrant?

by Roy Slaterus

On 8 April 2013 a Common Grackle was seen by five observers at migration hot spot Kamperhoek in Flevoland, the Netherlands. It was flying Northeast just like thousands of other birds that day (see here on for the totals of that day). The observers were not really prepared for such an unexpected bird to appear and it was only after studying photographs that they were convinced of the identification. The bird showed a black plumage, with a contrast between glossy purple head and neck and glossy brown upper- and underparts, a pale eye, strong bill and a very typical ‘grackle tail’. In size it seemed a little bigger than Mistle Thrush. These features point at Bronzed Grackle, the subspecies versicolor – a migrant that breeds in e.g. New England. One of the intriguing questions now is: was it a true vagrant?


Common Grackle, Kamperhoek, 4569572  Flevoland, the Netherlands, 10:45 8 April 2013 (Roy Slaterus). This photo was made just seconds after the bird was found in strong light at c 450 m off the watch post. The bird seemed to cross the Ketelmeer, like so many other birds, but miraculously changed its path and flew straight to the watch post. Other, and much better photos were then made by one of the other observers.

Go HERE for more photos of the bird at closer range and showing a variety of features.


Thanks very much to team eBird (Chris Wood, Jessie Barry, Marshall Iliff, Brian Sullivan, David Bell) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who responded straight back with thoughts on the bird’s identity and superb data on migration timing and distribution of the Common Grackle, especially in NE North America.

eBird team response per Chris Wood

Hi Martin

We looked at the photo and agree with that it looks like a Common Grackle — amazing.

You are probably aware that Common Grackle and other blackbirds (Red-winged, Rusty; and Brown-headed Cowbirds) are among the most abundant birds seen when doing visible migration watching in eastern North America. The setting that you describe is perfect.

I’ve attached a graph of frequency for New Brunswick (Common Grackle Frequency NB), Canada (below) that shows the timing of migration for Common Grackle. This shows the percentage of checklists submitted to eBird for New Brunswick where Common Grackle was reported. Most of the province is a bit south of the Netherlands — the migration timing seems spot on for the Netherlands birds with the maximum frequency in NB reached the first two weeks of April. The first migrants arrive in March, and by the third week in March they are frequently seen.

Common Grackle Frequency NB

Here is a direct link from which you can also look at birds per hour, high counts etc. [N. B. from M. G. – this is crammed with very cool information  Worth an explore and click on all the buttons. Go here.]

I’ve also attached a map of all April records (below) in eBird based on frequency of reports (Common Grackle April all years). Areas where they are most frequently seen are darkest, those where infrequent are palest. You will also notice there are gray squares that indicate where we had complete checklists submitted to eBird with no Common Grackles reported. You can see there are scattered records to the north in April in including Labrador City, NL.

Common Grackle April all yearsClick twice on map to see details better. Here is the link to that map where you can then zoom into see points, or change the date to see how distribution changes from one month to the next. Go here.

I’ve also included a screen shot (below) of what it looks like when you zoom in and can see individual points (COGR zoom April). Checklists from within the last 30 days appear in red. Since we are limiting this to the current year, this means all red locations are from this April and all blue locations are from previous years. I clicked on the marker at Labrador City, which expanded this box. If you were to click on the checklist link, you could see the entire checklist.

Cheers Chris

COGR zoom AprilClick twice on map to see details better.

eBird’s Marshall Iliff commented further:


No question whatsoever and I’d be willing to ID as versicolor based on the strong head/body contrast below (see best photos here). It may be a female (not adult male anyway) given the duller underparts (not iridescent bronzy).  Remarkable record, and as Chris said, typical behavior for the species. Also as Chris said, this is a great date for vagrancy as almost the entire population is surging northward along the East Coast from mid-Feb to mid-April. Given the Yellow-headed Blackbird records from Europe (very rare on East Coast), it almost seems surprising that this abundant migrant has not been more regular. That said, I think of Brown-headed Cowbird and to a lesser extent Red-winged Blackbird as the most regular blackbirds on ships offshore (and Baltimore Oriole, of course), but have rarely (maybe never) heard of an offshore grackle. Islands a short distance offshore do get grackles.

eBird has a very incomplete picture from Bermuda (total list should be 350+) ad I am shocked that Brown-headed Cowbird is not on the list. No grackle though: click here

Nearer to shore, Monhegan Island is a well covered vagrant/migrant trap off Maine (only 10 mi offshore), although less so in March/April than May and Sep-Oct. Here’s that data as a graph: Click here.

Best, Marshall

Next: Further information on flight identification of grackles or on vagrancy of Common Grackle is much welcomed and could be sent to roy.slaterus [@] .

Remembering Martin Gilbert

Billy Morton has done fitting tribute to an old friend. Martin died 3 years ago today. Never really said enough at the time.

Well done Billy.

Read all the tributes by clicking : Martin (Gilly) Gilbert

niagra-fallsontario-canada-april-1986-by-martin-garnerPhoto of Martin Gilbert (far right) Billy (middle) and Ian (left) which I took when the 4 of us went to Canada (especially Point Pelee) in spring 1986.

Rock Thrush/ Blue Rock Thrush Questions

Puzzling rock thrush in the Netherlands

by Nils van Duivendijk and Martin Garner

A rock thrush found by Andre Boven in Den Helder on Thursday 11 April 2013 keeps Dutch birders busy.

After the first views the ID seemed to be simple: a stocky rock thrush with a short reddish tail, bluish head and orange on the underparts; clinched: Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. But with better views and pictures published on the internet (good set of photos here), more and more features seem at odds for Rufous-tailed… The easy part is ageing and sexing: the moult contrast between new lesser coverts and 2-3 inner greater coverts against the old rest of the wing is typical of a first summer. The blue head and orange on the underparts makes it a male.

Rode Rotslijster, Den Helder, 12042013, Co van der Wardt OO9A0411 (800x533)First summer male Rock Thrush…, Den Helder, Netherlands April 2013 by Co van der Ward.


•Extensive bluish/blue feathering on the underparts.

•Tail on the long end for RTRT resulting in relative large part of tail visible from below (undertail coverts not reaching close to tail-tip).

•Replaced lesser coverts and inner greater coverts with blue wash.

•Blue uppertail coverts with only buffish tips.

•Extensive dark barring on whole underparts.

•Dusky outer webs to reddish outer tail-feathers.

•Blue back feathers (though probably normal for first summer).

2013-04-13_165524Reddish feathers on underparts seem to be fresher than blue feathers. So is blue moulting away…??

Most of these plumage anomalies are more or less normal for, or towards Blue Rock Thrush. Some have suggested ‘Eastern’ Blue Rock Thrush philippensis… and indeed especially the underparts of our bird are very similar to some first summer male philippensis. However the longer primaries/ shorter tail ratio (and short legs) of the Den Helder bird is much more similar to RTRT than the longer tail/ shorter wings ratio of all Blue Rock Thrush taxa. Furthermore, as far as we know, philippensis should not have any red in the tail. Also the wing formula of our bird is in line with Rufous-tailed i.e. very short p1 (much shorter than the primary coverts) and there is only one clear emargination (p3), and a very slight second on p4. In Blue Rock Thrush of all forms p1 is at least as long as the primary coverts and there should be three emarginations which are also closer to the feather bases (in our bird about halfway to the primary projection). So ‘just’ an aberrant Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush?

Rode Rotslijster, Den Helder, 12042013, Co van der Wardt OO9A0456b (800x533)First summer male Rock Thrush…, Den Helder, Netherlands April 2013 by Co van der Ward.

 Or do we have a rare²-bird… Hybrids between RTRT and BRT are said to occur but up to now we have failed to find a picture or description of such hybrid. From hybrid Black x Common Redstart it is known that the wing formula is somewhere in-between in at least some known birds. As far as we can ascertain from the photos this seems not to be the case here.

Postscript: droppings have been collected, but as there are only sequences from mitochondrial DNA to compare this will only lead to the ID of the mother.

More to be discovered…

Great White Egret – and the modesta issue

Bridlington 12th April 2013

Always wanted to see one of these. Today was the day. A Great White Egret in Western Europe but with bare parts colours which used to be assumed to relate to Eastern taxon ‘modesta’. Breeding dress and other forms of Great White Egrets is a subject worthy of attention. For now a quick pic because it looks very smart. Get to see it of you can!

Great White Egret Bridlington 12.4.13Great White Egret in ‘high breeding dress’, Bridlington, 12th April 2013. Long aigrettes,   reddish-pink legs and all black bill. Not a plumage I have personally seen in the UK before though. and birds seen in W Europe with these characters about a decade ago, especially outside the breeding season were initially mooted as possible ‘modesta‘. This is almost certainly a western bird but there is an interesting narrative here and good to revisit the subject and it’s confusing past.