Monthly Archives: July 2013

Birdfair 2013: The Birding Frontiers Challenge

10 in 10

Mystery Bird Competition

You are welcome to join in a bit of fun and in the run-up to the 25th Birdfair.

Each day from 1st to 10th August a Mystery Bird will be posted here on Birding Frontiers.  The challenge is to identify them. The person(s) with most correct answers at the end. WINS!

The challenge is to get as many of the 10 correctly identified as possible.  There should be enough information (photo or sound), to identify the bird even if it’s tricky ;). The challenge provides a back-drop to our Birdfair talk on Friday 16th at 4:00pm.


Thanks to friends and partners we also have a few wee prizes:

  • A full weekend pass to Britain’s first Migration Festival at Spurn.
  • RSPB British Birds of Prey book by Marianne Taylor and other bits
  • Some goodies from Shetland Nature
  • Swarovski Optik watch and baseball cap
  • Petrels: Night and Day. book by the Sound Approach
  • Presentation map of Flamborough from Yorkshire Coast Nature.

How to play

Every day from the 1st to the 10th of August 2013 a new bird of some sort will appear on the Birding Frontiers blog: a photo and/or a  sound recording. Some will be a bit more obvious and  there might be one or two ‘stinkers’ thrown in.


  • N.B. There is no need to respond straight away
  • All 10 answers can be submitted after the 10th bird has been posted
  • All answers must be in by midnight (British Summer Time) Monday 12th August

Two ways to send in answers:

  • Either by putting your answer on the blog in the comments section on/after 10th August.
  • Or email me here

Other rules

  1. If there is only one outright winner they get all the prizes!
  2. If there is a tie/more than one winner, the prizes will be distributed and if necessary by means of picking names from a hat.
  3. Birds must be identified usually to the lowest taxonomic level e.g. sub-species UNLESS the bird was never deemed as identifiable to a lowest level.  For example if a photo of a Greater Sand Plover appears, there are 3 sub-species of Greater Sand Plover.  If the bird is deemed identifiable to a sub-specific level then that (e.g. ‘Greater Sand Plover’ of subspecies crassirostris) is the correct answer.  If however the bird is only deemed identifiable as a Greater Sand Plover and not to sub-specific level, then that (i.e. ‘Greater Sand Plover’)  is the correct answer. Don’t worry though – if you take a punt/guess on a sub-species and it’s not deemed identifiable to that level you won’t lose any points.

I think that’s everything. GOOD LUCK and hope you enjoy it!

Oh and P.S.  YOU ARE INVITED. Tormod and I would love you to come along to our talk if you’re at the Birdfair on Friday at 4:00 pm.  Most of the quiz birds will feature there.  Details below!

Birdfair promo PB Tour small


Big nod to these guys for the prizes:





Revealed: Mongolian Plover – First for Israel

Unearthed from August 2000

Itai Shanni and Martin G.

Following the wrestles with the very recent Lesser Sand Plover in Israel, Itai Shanni dug out an old slide. Looks like a first for Israel!

Itai wrote: “See attached the photo that I took on 10th Aug 2000 at K20 next to Eilat (just before I left the country).”

Lesser Sand Plover_10_08_2000_K20Mongolian Plover, K20, Eilat, August 10th 2000. Photo: Itai Shanni

MG’s response to photo:

“I have had time to read your email and digest the content this am a bit more. I have also followed up on my impressions of your photo.
From what I can see I am quite convinced this is a Mongolian (mongulus/ stegmanii) as opposed to Lesser Sand Plover (atrifrons group).
First of all I read the date you saw it- so clearly much more pro Lesser/Mongolian than Greater. I didn’t notice that detail first time around. Secondly the overall appearance puts me immediately in mind of Mongolian rather than Lesser.
So to be more specific, 3 things:
The Head Pattern– particularly forehead show 2 small white dots either side of thin black divide = ‘spectacles’. Where the pattern is reduced white it is more pro stegmanni than mongolus (larger area of white on average) but I am not convinced the taxonomic difference is especially valid- just marginally clinal. More importantly on male Lessers ‘atrifrons’ this is THICK black divide. Indeed it’s really a different pattern of all black forehead or black forehead with couple small white spots which are well separated and don’t look like spectacles. the head pattern on your bird is wrong for atrifrons.
The Underparts – deep colouring extends solidly down the breast. It then appears to break up into spots/ splodges of colour which then continue seemingly along just beyond (at least) mid flanks (say about 3/4 way along length of flanks. This pattern of underparts colouring is wrong for atrifrons- in which the colouring remains solid and fades  a little towards the lower part of the breast. In doesn’t show obviously breaking up into distinct dark splodges and doesn’t normally extend so far along the flanks as it appears to on this bird.
The Black Necklace – I am a little circumspect about this as the ‘crease’ where the breast colouring reaches the white throat can appear to show a thin black dividing line which in reality is not really there. When definitely confirmed a black line is found in mongolus but not atrifrons. This bird does at least appear to show a black dividing line.
Thus unless there are other records hidden away, this look’s like Israel’s first Mongolian Plover.
Cheers Martin”

Ian Lewington also commented along very similar lines, and he felt that while the light was harsh and may create some artifacts, the forehead pattern was Mongolian, the upper and underpart tones and extent of plumage all seem to indicate Mongolian and the black neck line could be ‘shadow’ but may well be real. Overall view- “Looks like Mongolian Plover”.

Too compare. The recent Mongolian Plover in Ireland:

A KellyAdult male Mongolian Plover, Pilmore Strand, Cork by Aidan G. Kelly.

Understandably, the issues of Sand Plovers and their identification has generated lots of positive and lively discussion amoungst the Israeli birding community of recent days. Hadoram Shirihai kindly sent these photos of male and female Mongolian Plover, fresh from a trip in the far east:

>>>>Mongolian (Lesser) Sand Plover, Mongolia, June 2013<<<<

Minke Whale swims around our boat

Bridlington, East Yorkshire

by Martin G.

It’s a privilege to be part of the team at Yorkshire Coast Nature. For over a year we have been wondering about trying new kinds of pelagic trips. Credit to Rich Baines especially and Steve Race for ‘pushing ahead’. Last Friday morning a group of 7 of us headed out on the first exploratory trip. Bridlington harbour at 5 am is pretty quiet! A beautiful sunrise greeted us, lighting up a motionless North Sea. Unfortunately an algae bloom and no wind meant no fish for birds, and no smells carried on wind, hence few seabirds.

At 9 miles out after a few Arctic Terns, Manx Shearwater, Arctic Skua and fine close Harbour Porpoise, I picked up a  Minke Whale c 500 yards off the boat. We were chumming and had gathered Fulmar and Herring Gulls. We knew from watching Minke off Filey that they loved to come into the midst of gull feeding frenzies.

And that’s exactly what this one did. 

Watch the video- it’s only about 2.5 minutes long with the most amazing view at 1 and half minutes- full nose to tail and white banded pectoral fins. Check out Rich’s reaction soon after that. Enjoy!

North Atlantic Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata acutorostrata , 9 miles off Bridlington, 26th July 2013

Not often you get such close views of a Whale around Britain’s coast albeit  not a huge one (also known as Lesser Rorqual). It swam around the boat, under the boat, and was visible underwater, rolling to show its belly. Bit of a once-in-a-lifetime!

Here’s a few pics to give a sense of surroundings, beginning with sunrise as we head out:

ycn 3

YCN pelagic 2 jpg

YCN pelagic 1


With several more Yorkshire Coast Nature exploratory pelagics planned this summer/autumn, be interesting to see what we get. We’ll be reporting back, so watch this space!

I also help out with calling on the RSPB Skua and Shearwater Cruises out of Bridlington. It does very well on most trips. 🙂

Mongolian, Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers


by Martin G.

Given Yoav’s excellent posts below on this 3rd, 4th or 5th* record of Lesser Sand Plover for Israel, and a Mongolian Plover in Scotland seemingly heading south and to become Ireland’s first,  I thought it apposite to add to the discussion, Ian Lewington’s stunning plate below.

Ian lew sand plovers

 Mongolian Plover (top 4),  Lesser Sand Plover (middle 4), Greater Sand Plover (ssp columbinus – bottom 2). Monchrome tails etc. bottom right – Mongolian Plover on left and Lesser Sand Plover on right. Plate by: the legend that is…Ian Lewington

Ian, the late Russell Slack and myself looked into the ID issues of Sand Plovers quite extensively, culminating in article published in Birding World magazine:

Garner, M., Lewington, I. and Slack, R. (2003) Mongolian and Lesser Sand Plovers: an identification overview. Birding World 16(9): 377-85.

I concur with Yoav’s comments on the Israeli Lesser Sand Plover. * At the moment Israel has two accepted records (1983 and 2001). There are three records under circulation by IRDC – 2000, 2010 and this one. So this sand plover could be 3rd, 4th or 5th (per Yoav P!).

I would add a few points based on my notes and our research for the Birding World paper. Please make you own mind up. Here are  my thoughts, hoping some might be helpful or next time:

The recent Lesser Sand Plover in Israel seemed to me to have the overall ‘gestalt’ of an atrifrons Lesser.

  • Bill nail length. I think the bill does look small and it appears to me from the photos that the ‘nail’ section is (clearly) less than half the total bill length. The nail should be half or even more than half  of the bill length in Greater Sand Plover.
  • Breast and head pattern. The fading and worn orangey area over the beast is even, smooth and I think too broad for most Greater Sand Plover. GSP with extensive breast colour does not normally show such a broad even band,-rather it tends to break up along the flank line. A soft feature maybe, but it think it adds to the Lesser ‘feel’. With the extensive black mask, seemingly as Yoav mentions, perhaps just beginning to break up through moult, this is a head pattern/ breast pattern combo which is very ‘Lesser’.
  • Wing Pattern. I agree with Yoav that the wing pattern may be a little use, we certainly found previous statements on the usefulness of the wing pattern conflicting and not borne out by the evidence.
  • Tail Pattern. What we did find a potentially very useful feature was the tail pattern. Greater has dark tail band which is matched by Mongolian but not by Lesser. On Lesser the terminal area of the tail is virtually concolorous with the rump and upperparts- thus no dark tail band. Furthermore the white tail sides were more extensive in Greater and Lesser Sand Plover than they were in Mongolian Plover. Hence a slightly but helpfully different pattern of tail and rump sides each species (see Ian’s monochrome illustration).
  • Projection of toes beyond tail. Maybe a project for someone. Greater does/can have obvious toes projection in flight, beyond tail. So can Mongolian Plover (seemingly slightly shorter). This needs much more research to clarify vaariation but Lesser may have little or no toe projection…
  • Feathering and tibio-tarsal joint. Brian Small makes interesting observation on Surfbird forums which may a feature worthy of further study.

It’s wonderful to be able  to compare what are surely 2 good, full species (as we advocated in the BW paper) at the same time, both vagrants in the Western Palearctic. Here then is Ireland first Sand Plover of any kind:

A Kelly

……..Adult male Mongolian Plover, Pilmore Strand, Cork by Aidan G. Kelly.

Aidan commented on his very nice digiscoped photos and the video which were taken using the new Swarovksi ATX 95:

“Yes, photo on Surfbirds and YouTube clips all taken with ATX95  with TLS APO using a Canon 7D.   Have  had a few Irish birders  who were on site with me using DSLR and prime lenses  (and with variable results due to distance /heat haze) being  surprised at the quality which I got with the new kit! First twitch with the new scope and lot of birders who hadn’t seen it before,  were very  impressed with it yesterday.
 Great bird to see. Finally our first ever Sand Plover in Ireland! Now for a Greater…..”  


Israeli sand-plover resolved

I hope Martin forgives me for turning this into my personal blog. But this bird stirred a fascinating discussion among some top birders, and deserves one last post.

Lesser Sand-plover
Lesser Sand-plover

 So after lots of thinking and reading and discussing, the concensus on this bird now is that it’s a good candidate for atrifrons. This happened after seeing more images of the bird, better illustrating its petite size, and understanding that wing pattern and bill structure are highly variable in both species, and identification shouldn’t be based on these features only. This bird showed a wing pattern normally associated with greater (bulging white wingbar on inner primaries), as mentioned in literature. Well, not anymore. 

Also, this bird showed a bill structure similar to the bird from Kenya in my previous post – long and rather thin, with slightly bulbous lower mandible. Again, according to literature this is not very good for lesser, but better for greater.

So what do we have on this bird?

1. Timing of moult – lesser moults later than greater, which is a good pointer for lesser – at least in Israel a bird in summer plumage in late July or August should be lesser. I know little about how eastern leschenaulti moult.

2. General size and structure – small. Not the most ‘delicate’ atrifrons in the world though.

3. Leg colour – basically dark (though often hard to tell in the field).

4. Head pattern – massive black mask.

5. Dull grey mantle. Greater normally has brighter rufouns mantle, but surely this is affected by wear?

At least my understanding from recent days is that some features widely mentioned as distinguishing between greater and lesser are invalid or at least very variable, such as wing pattern and bill structure. More work is needed on separation of columbinus and western atrifrons, that appear to be very close to each other.

And a couple of lessons for me – 1) always be extra cautious about identifying birds from images without seeing them and 2) never be definitive about such difficult taxa; always use indefinite terms such as ‘looks like’, ‘good candidate’ etc.

I want to thank all the people who contributed to this discussion, in Israel and overseas.

Always learning!

Tricky Greater Sand-plover

Yesterday, Israeli birder Irad Solnik had a summer-plumaged sand-plover in a small lagoon near Bet Yanay, on the Mediterranean coast. This immediately got the alarm bells ringing, as Greater Sand-plover, which is common in Israel, moults very early and now is already in full winter plumage, while Lesser and Mongolian Sand-plovers moult much later and still are in summer plumage now (see this bird from Scotland a couple of weeks ago).

Surprisingly, both Lesser and Mongolian Sand-plovers are great rarities in Israel (they are common winter visitors to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coast of Egypt), so I asked Irad to try and get some images of the bird. He returned to the site around midday and got these excellent shots, in very contrasting light.

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

It took me some time until I got to see the images on a computer screen (never try to identify birds on your mobile screen!) but eventually, after circulating the images among some top Israeli birders, we decided it was a small columbinus Greater Sand-plover. Thank god – my wife would have killed me (again) if I disappeared this morning to twitch a Mongolian Plover.

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

columbinus is the smallest and most delicate race of Greater Sand-plover, breeding in the Middle East (steppes of Turkey, Syrian and N Jordan) and W Asia, and the commonest race in Israel. The much larger and more massive crassirostris is rare in Israel. Most columbinus are still easy to identify, but some, like this small (female?) sand-plover can be quite tricky.

The black forehead and what looked like black legs, combined with summer plumage in late July were misleading. This is how adult columbinus should look like this time of year – this image was taken by myself on Wednesday – green legs!

columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Ma’agan Michael, Israel, 24/7/13

But what eventually gave this bird away as columbinus were:

  • Structure – though rather small (compare with Dunlin), this is still a powerful bird, not compact and delicate like lessers. Note especially the attenuated rear – lesser have much less ‘body’ behind the legs, and it seems that most of their mass is in front of the legs.
columbinus Greater Sand-plover

columbinus Greater Sand-plover, Bet Yanay, Israel, 26/7/13

  • Bill structure – the bill is long and quite thin. Lessers have a short and stout bill, and together with a rounded head give a cute impression. These in-hand images of Lesser Sand-plover were taken while ringing in Kenya in 2010 with A-Rocha Kenya.

Lesser (left) and Greater (right) Sand-plovers, Mida Creek, Kenya, December 2010

Lesser Sand-plover

Lesser Sand-plover, Mida Creek, Kenya, December 2010

  • Leg structure – long tibia. Most lessers have a shorter tibia, but note that southernmost atrifrons lessers have pretty long legs and are frustratingly similar to columbinus – they overlap in almost every biometric parameter.
Lesser Sand-plover in winter plumage

Lesser Sand-plover in winter plumage, Mida Creek, Kenya 2010

About leg colour – this feature must be used with great caution. Like most shorebirds, sand-plovers too get their legs covered in mud, sand, algae etc., and often true leg colour is impossible to tell, just like the Israeli bird.

And a few words on moult – in most long-distance migrants moult patterns are rather uniform and well defined. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like this bird. In this case, moult is a good indicative feature, not a clincher.

Thumbs up to Irad for noticing this interesting bird. BTW Irad is very hot lately – he found the first of the two Yellow-billed Storks present now in Israel. Many thanks to Irad for allowing me to use his photos.