Monthly Archives: May 2013

More on the Shetland diver

Many thanks to all those who have commented so far. Still in the process of checking out all the angles but an encouraging response so far.

Keith Brockie posted an interesting comment earlier this morning:

Are there any photos showing the side of the neck? The easiest way to separate a summer plumaged arctica from pacifica is the extent of the white neck stripes. In arctica they extend right down the neck ‘flowing’ with the belly stripes. In pacifica the neck stripes end before the base of the black throat patch, look at any photos and it can be easily seen and to my knowledge has never been commented on!

The difference Keith describes seems obvious in some photos, but less so in some others for example this Pacific in Manitoba, by Martin Scott.

snaky-necked-pacific-diver

Sadly, I don’t have much in the way of decent, side-on images of the Grutness bird with the neck fully visible. This is probably the ‘best’…

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Or maybe this one

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World’s Rarest Birds – Book review

The World’s Rarest Birds

by  Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash and Robert Still, (2013) Princeton University Press

ISBN 978-0-691-15596-8

Reviewed by Keith Clarkson, May 2013 on behalf of Birding Frontiers

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This remarkable book vividly depicts the 590 most threatened birds on Earth.  It provides up-to-date information from Birdlife International on the threats each species faces and the measures being taken to save them.  Impressively, the book features photographs of 515 of the most threatened species.  The remaining 75 species, for which photographs do not exist, are illustrated by the wildlife artist, Tomasz Cofta, who sourced museum specimens and past and present descriptions to reconstruct these unique artworks.

The ‘coffee table’ format belies the extraordinary amount of research and the sheer volume of information presented.   The authors have produced a reference book of outstanding quality.  But this is no ordinary reference book to be occasionally picked off the shelf, dusted down and browsed rather it is a treasure chest of stories of discovery, loss and re-discovery. I found each visit to these beautifully presented pages unearthed more gems and yet more extraordinary insights into our most threatened birdlife.

Strangely, even though the book focuses on the parlous state of our natural world and is functional in its reading style, it was a surprisingly uplifting read.  I found myself starting to relate to the predicament of birds I had previously never heard of, birds that inhabited remote islands and far-away countries I have never been to and birds which, until now, had passed me by. Having read the book I feel inspired, I want to make a difference, I want to do my bit to help safeguard our globally most threatened birdlife.

So how did this change come about?

The World’s Rarest Birds, which evolved from Birdlife International’s Rare Bird Yearbooks, uses the IUCN 2012 Red List as its source reporting on 197 ‘Critically Endangered’,  389 ‘Endangered’ and four more species, the Hawaiian Crow Corvus hawaiiensis, Guam Rail Gallirallus owstoni, Alagoas Curassow Mitu mitu and Socorro Dove Zenaida graysoni that are only known to exist in captivity.

Perhaps surprisingly, the list of Critically Endangered species includes fourteen species tagged ‘Possibly Extinct’ or ‘Possibly Extinct in the Wild’, a third of these have not been seen for over fifty years and may well be extinct.  However, time and time again as you go through the species accounts there are tales of birds thought to have been extinct being rediscovered. This phenomena has led to the adoption of the term ‘Romeo Error’.

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The introductory chapters set the scene – describing how the IUCN define thresholds of rarity to produce the Red List categories, teasing the enquiring reader with the 60 bird species for which there is insufficient data to assess their status- the ‘Data Deficient’ category.  Here the appetite of the modern-day bird hunter is whet and probably drawn to New Guinea and its islands and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and adjacent West African countries which together almost half of all 29 Data Deficient species.

The distribution of threatened birds is then explored.  Revealing, not surprisingly, that the countries with the greatest proportion of globally threatened birds are islands whereas the largest number of globally threatened species are found in Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Colombia and Ecuador.  The majority of globally threatened birds only occur in a single country and three-quarters are associated with forests.  Seabirds are the most threatened group of birds with 38% globally threatened or Near Threatened.  Alarmingly, 200 species are now believed to be restricted to single sites! The factors driving these alarming figures reveal that agriculture and aquaculture, logging, hunting and invasive species are the most serious threats.  A summary of the impacts of these and other key threats is provided.

The body of the book is the species accounts of the most threatened birds.  This part of the book is divided into seven regional sections.  Each region includes a well presented summary of the key threatened bird hotspots and the main conservation challenges followed by a comprehensive illustrated directory of the most threatened birds in the region. Each entry includes a photograph or painting of the bird, a distribution map, the IUCN Red List category, population trend and size and the key threats for each species plus a concise summary of the issues and a QR code which provides a direct link to the species factsheet on the Birdlife International website.  The latter is freely accessible to readers and updated annually providing some inspired added value and continuity.

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It is here in the body of the book, flitting from section to section, that I started to make connections.  Close to home I was shocked to see that Velvet Scotor Melanitta fusca is now classed amongst the most threatened birds in the world as the global population has collapsed by more than 50% in the last ten years – it makes those sightings of a handful of wintering birds in Filey Bay, on the Yorkshire coast, ever more significant.

I was already familiar with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper story, thanks to the fantastic publicity machine of the RSPB and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, but having recently witnessed a flock of over 40 Spotted (Nordmann’s) Greenshank, near Thailand’s Pak Thale Spoon-billed Sandpiper site I was shocked to find out that the global population of the Spoonies less sensational neighbour may lie somewhere between only 330-670 individuals. At the same locality I watched large flocks of Great Knot feeding on the muddy shores of the Gulf of Thailand unaware that the destruction of the Saemangeum wetlands in South Korea appears to have resulted in the Great Knot population declining by some 90,000 birds.   By now the stories were becoming personal and discussions with fellow travelling birder, Simon Roddis, highlighted that many of these birds can be seen with relative ease belying there true rarity and vulnerability.

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I am also, thanks to the outstanding work of the SAVE (Save Asian Vultures from Extinction) project, familiar with the collapse of Gyp vulture populations in India and South-East Asia but was unprepared to read that the population of the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus  which stretch across  Europe, Africa and Asia is Endangered and the global population may have fallen to between 13,000 and 41,000 individuals.

Evermore curious I started to read more intensely, noting the demise of the Yellow-crested Cockatoo Cacatua sulphurea of which the total global population is less than 14,000 birds and yet, in a 12 year period towards the end of the 20th Century over 100,000 birds were exported legally from Indonesia.

But it isn’t all depressing reading, the re-discovery of species assumed extinct always gives hope perhaps none more so than the story of the New Zealand Storm Petrel Oceanites maorianus, known only from three specimens taken in the 19th Century, prior to being rediscovered in 2003, near the Mercury Islands.  Subsequently a flock of 16-20 were photographed off Little Barrier Island.

Even more rewarding is to read of back-from-the-brink conservation success stories and if you search hard enough they are in there.  In 1981 there were only seven individual Asian Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon in the wild.  Since then, thanks to conservation efforts, the population has increased steadily to over 500 birds in Shaanxi province, China and there are now plans to re-introduce them in Japan and South Korea.  Similarly, the Chatham Island Black Robin Petroica traversi is distinguished by recovering from the lowest population of any wild bird – three males and two females, one of which proved to be infertile! Following extensive habitat creation on Mangere Island the population has increased to 224 individuals evenso the spectre of chronic in-breeding and loss of genetic diversity hangs over the population.

In Simon’s words ‘this is a book that should be presented to every Environment Secretary or the equivalent Minister, of every country on Earth!’.

The stories go on and on in this beautifully presented, monumental book.  Go on treat yourself, at £34.95 it will provide hours of insight and inspiration and the purchase contributes towards supporting the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme which amongst other conservation successes has backed the Madagascar Pochard Aythya innotata  project resulting in a quadrupling in the population and has established a breeding centre for Spix’s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii, from which birds will be released into the wild later this summer.

Keith Clarkson is the warden at Bempton RSPB reserve, EastYorkshire, active in global conservation measures relating to birds and one Britain’s leading pioneers of visible migration watching.

Spurn Migration Festival – Press Release

First for Britain – Spurn to host first National Migration Festival

6th-8th September 2013

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 Bird Migration is one of the great wonders of the natural world and the Spurn Peninsula, on Yorkshire’s East Coast is arguably the best place in Britain to witness this spectacle. At the Spurn Migration Festival visitors will have the chance to enjoy a packed programme of guided migration watches, walks, talks, activities and events led by the expert staff and volunteers of the host organisations. There will also be a celebration of art in the Lighthouse, digi-scoping and photography workshops, demonstrations of bird ringing and a Saturday night Hog Roast.

Day and weekend tickets and a more detailed itinerary will be available in the near future so please look out for more information on our websites: Spurn Bird Observatory – www.spurnbirdobservatory.co.uk, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust www.ywt.org.uk and Birding Frontiers – www.birdingfrontiers.com

The event is hosted by Spurn Bird Observatory and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in partnership with Birding Frontiers.

Supported by Westmere Farm, Yorkshire Coast Nature, B.T.O., R.S.P.B., Opticron, Swarovski Optic, and Birdnet Information

Pacific Diver in Shetland?

Grutness, 16th May 2013

by Roger Riddington and Paul Harvey

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A quick post from Shetland to get some feedback about an interesting diver seen earlier this evening. At about 7.30 I got a phone call from Paul Harvey, who’d just seen a stunning, summer-plumaged Black-throated-type diver in the sheltered waters of Grutness voe. Paul was out birding with bins only, was some distance from his car/scope and needed a second opinion – the fact that he couldn’t see a thigh patch on the bird made my journey time that much quicker. Shame I don’t get a company sports car from BB but there you go.

To cut a long story short, I picked up Paul, reunited him with his scope and then we started to grill the bird. The photos below tell their own story really, a bird with a solidly dark flank and an arrestingly small-looking bill. I started to try to photograph it – not so easy in low light, with the scope at x60 and the camera zoomed in to max, but at least there is something. We watched it for about 15-20 minutes, getting gradually more twitchy about it, before it (sadly) flew off strongly. In flight, there was a neat, even black rim around the flanks, with no sign of any indent towards the thigh/rump. At no stage did we see any white in the thigh either, even though the bird was typically sitting quite high in the water.

And – well there’s not much more to say. We’d be grateful of any constructive input! Pacific Diver is a major challenge in summer plumage and it would be interesting to see what people think. Seeing on average one Black-throat a year in Shetland doesn’t make us best placed to judge these things!

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P1060690bA quick interjection from M.G. Not an easy call. Glad that RR and PVH have taken the risk of putting this bird ‘out there’. For me the photo above seems compelling. The area below the rear edge of the wing coverts is the place which is white in Black-throated Diver and dark in Pacific Diver. It appears to be dark, and this concurs with their field views. The bill looks pretty titchy too doesn’t it – and the head/bill combo feels all Pacific. They are asking the critical question in the right spirit. Hope it gets seen again- for them, and for us to learn! As already indicated, comments welcome.

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Grey-headed Wagtail ID

Necklaces on females

by Sindre Molværsmyr and M.G. 

It’s long been known that adult male Grey-headed Wagtails (thunbergi) can show variable dark feather across the yellow breast, on some creating something of a little necklaced effect. Females can too. Sindre reports on observations made on breeding birds in Norway, which may be useful in both spring and autumn migrants  and not just of adult males:

“Male thunbergi are usually quite simple to separate from male flava, the females on the other  hand can be a different story. Often they can look surprisingly similar. I
think that dark breast markings can be a way to distinguish some female
thunbergi from flava. At least at summer (when I have the most experience).
Have also seen dark breast markings on thunbergi migrating, so most likely
it can be used all year around. I will not claim that it is a secure ID
criteria, as I haven’t seen enough of either ssp. to do that, but it
should be looked more closely in to.”

IMG_4131Female thunbergi. Though breast centre slightly wind-blown, still dark spots also present in middle of the breast.

Male thunbergi

 Male thunbergi. Males are more variable. This one has dark marking in the breast, but dark markings more randomly placed than in females.

female thunbergi

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above 2: the same female thunbergi in both photos. Old brown feathers in wing should indicate 2cy? Makes me wonder if the breast markings this bird shows are more common in 2cy birds. The bird also lacks yellow tones on flank and undertail.

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Above, 3 photos of a pale female thunbergi. It’s mate is pictured below.

Gave a quite pale and brown expression in field. On photos one can see yellow tone in rump and on flanks. This one also shows some dark on breast, but more restricted than “normal” thunbergi.

male thunbergi paired to pale female above.

All photos and text above by Sindre Molværsmyr

Blackthroat

Black-throated Blue Robin (Luscinia obscura), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province, China, 8 May 2013

Black-throated Blue Robin (Luscinia obscura), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province, China, 8 May 2013.  Photo by Rob Holmes

By Terry

The Black-throated Blue Robin (Blackthroat) was, until very recently, an almost mythical bird.  Known only from the odd scattered record in the Chinese Provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, with presumed wintering records in southern China and Thailand, it has been “the Holy Grail” of China birding. 

The chances of seeing one were as close to zero as one could get until June 2011 when Per Alström and a team of Chinese scientists discovered a total of 14 males at two sites – Foping and Changqing – in Shaanxi Province.

I had long been planning a trip to neighbouring Sichuan Province in May this year with friends Rob Holmes and Jonathan Price and, after consulting our local guide – Sid Francis – we decided to tag on a couple of extra days to visit Changqing and try to see Blackthroat.  It was a gamble.  We knew that, in 2012, the first birds were seen in Foping and Changqing on 4 and 18 May respectively.  So it was by no means certain that they would have arrived and be on territory on 8 May, the day we had planned to visit.  And even if they had arrived, would we be able to find one?

Per had kindly uploaded some sound recordings of the Blackthroat’s song, so we knew what to listen for.  And on our arrival at Changqing we met with our guide for the day – Zhang Yongwen – who was part of the team that made the discovery in 2011.  We were as prepared as we could be, and in good hands.

Yongwen told us that we had “a chance”.  This Spring had been a little warmer than usual.  His visit with us would be the first time he had looked for the birds this year.  If successful, we would be the first people to see Blackthroat in 2013.

Our day began as a typical Spring day in Shaanxi – overcast with the threat of rain and a little chilly in a brisk breeze.  Not ideal conditions to look for a skulking robin but not terrible either – it is not uncommon for rain to last days in this part of the world in Spring.

We drove from our hotel in the “ancient” town of Huayang (which looked about 5 years old!) into the core reserve area.  The ‘road’ was an old logging track that took us into the heart of some superb habitat.  The forest in the reserve is mostly mature secondary growth with generous areas of bamboo.  In addition to Blackthroat, the reserve hosts around 100 Giant Pandas as well as Takin, Goral, Serow, Wild Boar and Tufted Deer.  The chances of seeing Giant Panda in the wild at this time of year are slim, with the trees in full leaf, but we did see evidence – panda poo!

Giant Panda poo... our closest encounter with this special mammal.

Giant Panda poo… our closest encounter with this special mammal.

After an hour’s drive, including seeing a couple of Golden Pheasants by the side of the road, we stopped at the edge of a small valley – “Wo Wo Dian” at an altitude of 2,200-2,400 metres.  It was along this valley that Blackthroat was found in 2011 and seen subsequently in 2012.  Fortunately the rain was holding off and we began the short walk to the prime area.  The sense of excitement among the group was palpable.

Blackthroat habitat

Blackthroat habitat

The search was focused on areas of dense bamboo alongside a small stream. The constant sound of running water muffled any birdsong, making it difficult to hear and identify any birds along the way…  At the first patch of bamboo, just a few hundred metres along the valley, we had a frustrating glimpse of a robin running along the ground.. but it was so deep in the bamboo that it just looked like a black shape and, after waiting patiently for 20 minutes or so, Yongwen said that the best area was further up, so we moved on…

The next stand of bamboo looked good – it was relatively open and, with a low vantage point gained by standing in the rocky stream, it was easier to see any movement.  We soon heard a robin singing…  and it sounded similar, if not identical, to the sound recordings we had of Blackthroat…  our hearts jumped.  It wasn’t long before we spotted a robin at the base of the bamboo, deep inside the thicket, and after a frustrating few minutes of half-glimpses and flight views, it finally sat up and sang from a rock – FIRETHROAT!  A robin, and a fantastic bird at that, but not the bird we were looking for…  Although disappointing that it wasn’t a Blackthroat, we were encouraged that this bird was on territory…  would this sighting suggest that the related Blackthroat was also back?

Firethroat (Luscinia pectardens), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province.  We felt bad at being disappointed to see this stunning bird!

Firethroat (Luscinia pectardens), Changqing National Nature Reserve, Shaanxi Province. We felt bad at being disappointed to see this stunning bird!  We later learned that this could be the most northerly record of Firethroat ever recorded.

Onwards we walked to the next area… constantly alert to listen for any song.  After no joy at the next couple of stands of bamboo, I began to feel a little deflated…  had we arrived just a day or two too early?

The deflated feeling didn’t last long…  as we turned a corner, Sid heard what he thought was a short burst of Blackthroat song and, standing absolutely still and turning our heads to one side, we all heard what sounded like the beginning of Blackthroat song…  but it was distant and barely audible above the sound of the running water…  could it be one?  Or was it another mimicking Firethroat?  We daren’t presume anything but one could sense the excitement among the group.  We edged down a bank towards the location of the sound and, sure enough, we began to hear more of the song above the sound of the stream…  it matched very closely the recording we had.  The song was clearly coming from the opposite side of the stream, so we edged to the bank and sat quietly, hoping that the bird would reveal itself…  First, there was a fleeting glimpse of a dark shape in the bamboo… it was a robin.  Then a second glimpse.. but both times it was gone before we could get onto it with binoculars..  A few seconds later it flew to a moss-covered rock and sang, just for a second, before diving into cover again..  There was stunned silence.. we looked at each other and smiled… we had all seen a male BLACKTHROAT!  Wow…(or maybe I should say “BOOM!”).  For the next couple of minutes, we sat in awe as the Blackthroat moved to several different song posts, delivered a short burst of song and then dived back into cover…

The scene of our first sighting of Blackthroat.

The scene of our first sighting of Blackthroat.

Whilst my attempts at photographing Blackthroat resulted in blurred twigs and images of the space where the bird had been just a split-second before, Rob managed to secure the image at the beginning of this post.  It’s an image that captures the essence of our experience – fleeting glimpses of an enigmatic and elusive bird in thick bamboo in poor light…  Sharp, in-focus, full-frame photographs are over-rated!

After enjoying this bird for some time, we continued up the valley and encountered several more birds..  all were elusive and, although we heard at least 5 individuals, we only saw one more definite Blackthroat.  Mr Zhang also pointed out an old nest from 2012 – possibly the only nest ever discovered.

A Blackthroat nest from 2012.  Situated on a steep bank.

A Blackthroat nest from 2012. Situated on a steep bank.

The elusiveness of this bird surprised me a little.  I had expected newly arrived Blackthroat males to be more obvious…  maybe it was the weather conditions (overcast and a little breezy) that suppressed their activity or maybe they are louder and more obvious when the females arrive..  I don’t know..

In any case, I am very grateful to Sid for picking up the faint song of the first Blackthroat we saw and to Mr Zhang for his expert company throughout the day.  I am also grateful to Per Alström and Paul Holt who provided information about Blackthroat ahead of our visit.  Finally, a big thank you to Jonathan and Rob for their company on what was an outstanding trip to Sichuan and Shaanxi that ended on this magnificent high.

If anyone is heading this way and wants to explore the option of visiting Changqing National Nature Reserve to see this bird, please feel free to contact me or Sid Francis for advice.

White-billed Diver discovery

White-billed Divers off Portsoy, North-east Scotland: discovering a new birding spectacle

Paul Baxter, Chris Gibbins and Hywel Maggs

In April 2011 Peter Osborn contacted HM to say that he has seen what he thought could have been a White-billed Diver off the harbour at Portsoy, North East Scotland.  At this time White-billed Diver was a very rare bird in the region, with only a handful of records, so the sighting was well worth checking out.  After work on Monday 25 April CG and HM drove up to Portsoy and arrived to find a flat-calm sea and perfect viewing conditions.  Much to their amazement they counted 5 White-billed Divers in the bay, mostly in or approaching summer plumage.  Wow!  They were all rather distant, but unmistakable with their ivory ‘tusks’ shining out in the early evening sunshine.  The distance meant that photographs were impossible, so HM and CG made some field notes and sketches (Plate 1) and alerted local birders to the spectacle unfolding on their doorstep.

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Plate 1. Field sketches of Portsoy White-billed Divers on 25 April 2011.  Chris Gibbins.

PAAB went up at the weekend, just four days later, but no birds were present. So, what was going on? Were the 5 birds a one-off event, or were White-billed Divers present off Portsoy each Spring? Or perhaps they were present all winter?  The Spring passage of White-billed Divers on the Western Isles is of course rather well known, so the three of us agreed to start going up to Portsoy regularly to try to establish what the true situation was.

For the remainder of Spring 2011 and over the following two winters we made regular trips to Portsoy.  We only had a single bird in the winter of 2011/12 (from 17th March until 17th April, a bird in active wing moult) and there was certainly no clear evidence of a Spring peak.  In the 2012/13 winter the first bird was not seen until 18 March, when three winter-plumaged individuals were present.

From the time of the first sightings in 2011 we discussed the possibility of chartering a boat, so after the three birds on 18 March 2013 PAAB made contact with Gemini Charters at Buckie (a harbour just West of Portsoy) and made plans for some off-shore forays.  Two trips were arranged initially (one on 14 April and another on 21 April), with a different group of birders on each one. All available places were taken on each trip, and each had an entirely different group of birders. The three of us were scheduled to be on the first trip but unfortunately this was cancelled due to bad weather.  The second trip (i.e. on 21st) therefore became the first, but as it was already full there was no room for us; there was nothing we could do but reschedule our trip and wait to see what the others saw on 21st.  They scored, with between 7 and 10 birds seen in the bay just off Portsoy harbour.  It was gripping stuff – up to 10 White-billed Divers in one spot in North-East Scotland!

Our trip was rescheduled to 28th so we waited nervously for news of the weather.  The weather for 28th was not looking good so the trip was changed to a narrow window in the early afternoon of 27th.  As it turned out, this window could not have been better – we had 13 birds over the course of the 3 ½ hour trip.  The majority were close to full summer plumage so it was a spectacular day, although the rolling sea made viewing and photography difficult. The photos were little better than record shots, but we managed complete a looped survey route and secure GPS coordinates for the birds

 wb2Plate 2.One of the closer birds seen on 27th April.  Most birds were in a similar plumage to this, close to but no quite in full summer dress. Chris Gibbins

 wb3Plate3.The same bird as plate2. Chris Gibbins

wb4Plate 4.  Watching a White-billed Diver from the MV Gemini Explorer, April 2013. Paul Baxter

wb5Plate 5.  Watching a White-billed Diver from the MV Gemini Explorer, April 2013. Paul Baxter.

On both boat trips the birds were concentrated into a remarkably small area; all 13 on the trip of 27th were in the area between Logie Head (just east of Cullen) and Portsoy.  We have checked the coastline a few miles either side of Portsoy on several occasions and not seen any birds, so it does seem that all the action is concentrated around Portsoy.  The relatively small number of birds seen on our mid-winter visits suggests that it is primarily a Spring passage phenomenon, but for the moment we do not know what is so attractive about Portsoy Bay to these birds, nor how long into the Spring and early Summer they remain.  Whether this is a new phenomenon or whether birds have been overlooked in the past also remains unclear.  Prior to our regular visits to look for divers the area of coast around Portsoy was very underwatched, at least relative to the areas further west (towards Spey Bay) and east (around Banff and Fraserburgh) so divers may always have been there in Spring.  Alternatively, their presence may be a recent phenomenon caused by changing environmental conditions elsewhere. We simply don’t know.  However, what we know for sure is that ‘discovering’ that White-billed Divers occur in such numbers off our coastline has been a great experience.

Paul Baxter, Chris Gibbins and Hywel Maggs, Aberdeenshire