Monthly Archives: August 2013

Spurn Migration Festival Focus on:

The Warren

Less than 3 weeks from now the Migration Festival will be in full flow. One of the key places at Spurn (and there are several) will be ‘The Warren.’ Here’s a peek into the kind of activities that will be going on; including radar tracking of birds. Check it out:

Full Weekend Tickets and

Single Day Tickets (Saturday or Sunday) available.

Local Accommodation info and Camping at Westmere Farm.


Warren gets readyPracticing with one of the banners outside the Warren at Spurn.

Identification of first cycle Cape Gull

Identification of first cycle Larus dominicanus vetula:

The Cape Gull of Good Hope?

 by Chris Gibbins


The two Cape Gulls Larus dominicanus vetula recently found in Portugal (Birding World, 26(6), July 2013), along with the previous bird in Paris (Jiguet et al., 2004), illustrate that this is a species we should be looking out for in Britain.

Gull watching in Europe is perhaps best in the Northern hemisphere winter, because this is the time that Northern breeders move away from their breeding areas and displaced birds may find themselves on our shores.  For the same reason, the chances of finding Southern hemisphere taxa here may therefore be best in the months following their breeding season; i.e. in the Austral winter, our Northern summer.

All three European Cape Gulls have been adult or near adult birds.  However, given that younger individuals are more likely to occur here as vagrants, anyone keen to find a Cape Gull is perhaps best advised to have a working knowledge of what first cycle birds look like during the Northern summer. The aim of this note is to showcase this age group at this time of year, and highlight one or two features that should make them stand out among our local gulls. The main argument put forward is that because of their absolute age and related absence of primary moult, along with the presence of a remarkably striking secondary skirt, in the Northern summer first cycle birds offer good prospects for out-of-range identification – they are the Cape Gulls of good hope.

Taxonomy and terminology

 Before discussing identification, a few words on taxonomy and the terminology used in this note may be useful.

cape gull3

Cape Gull (vetula) is the African subspecies of the very widely distributed Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus.  So far it seems that all European records of Kelp Gull have been vetula (Jiguet et al., 2004), so at least for the moment this seems the most meaningful taxon to discuss.  All the photographs and observations upon which this note is based relate to birds observed in the SW Cape Province of South Africa between 26 June and 6 July 2013. Hence, all birds are assumed to be vetula.

 Comparing age classes of Northern and Southern hemisphere gulls is made complicated by respective breeding seasons.  Terms such as ‘first winter’, ‘first summer’ are confusing when comparing Southern and Northern species, because the seasons are effectively reversed. Moreover, because breeding times differ by around 6 months, at certain times of the year the use of calendar years does not work. For example, the laying period of Kelp is November-December (Jiguet et al, 2001) so by April first calendar year (1cy) birds will be a few months old, and so could conceivably turn up in Europe; however, there is no such thing as a 1cy Northern hemisphere gull in April (as laying has not even commenced and birds reared in the previous season have ‘ticked over’ into their second calendar year) so meaningful comparison using calendar years is not possible at this time.

The solution is therefore to talk about ‘cycles’ (as per Howell and Dunn, 2007).  A first cycle bird is defined here as a bird that has not completed its first primary moult. For Northern taxa this moult occurs in the summer of their second calendar year (e.g. in Scotland Herring Gulls start primary moult around 1 May), so first cycle birds in the Northern summer are around a year old.  In Cape Gull this primary moult commences in October-November, when birds are a little less than a year old.  The main advantage of using cycles when comparing immature Cape to our Northern gulls is that birds in the same cycle are the most likely cause of confusion, even though their absolute ages differ by several months.

cape gull1

Moult: Why we should not throw the baby out with the bath-water

Moult is often cited as being useful for field identification of gulls. Due to reversed breeding times, Southern hemisphere gulls such as Cape have completely different moult periods to Northern ones; they are in moult when our birds are not, and vice versa. This should make them look strikingly different.  However, the opposing argument is that displaced birds may adopt (or ‘correct’ to) the moult cycle of the birds in their new location. Indeed, Malling Olsen and Larsson (2003) specifically make this point in relation to Kelp/Cape Gull:

‘Note, however, that Kelp Gulls in the Northern hemisphere may adopt moult cycles similar to Northern hemisphere gulls, as has been observed in US and Mexican adults’ (p144)

The Paris Cape Gull supports this argument, as it was moulting in accordance with our Northern hemisphere gulls (Jiguet et al., 2004).  So perhaps we should abandon any thought of moult being useful for picking out a Cape Gull?

The Paris bird was an adult.  In theory it could therefore have been in the Northern hemisphere for several years; this is ample time both for it to need to adjust its moult to Northern seasons and be physiologically able to do this.  Younger birds, especially first cycle ones, by definition can’t have been here so long. A first cycle Cape reared in the austral summer will only be a few months old by the time the Northern summer comes around; unlike our birds whose primaries are a year old, a first cycle Cape should have much fresher feathers that do not need replacing, and in any case if it has only just arrived, it may not be physiologically capable of moulting feathers rapidly enough to catch up to our first cycle birds (i.e. our 2cy, ‘first-summer’ gulls; Table 1).

So, while we should always be careful when using moult, in the Northern summer it seems likely to be more useful for first cycle Cape Gulls than adults.  In addition, as birds may be more prone to be displaced or wander in their first year of life, the Northern summer is likely to be a productive time for first cycle Cape Gulls in Europe.  At this time, because they will only be a few months old, their moult and extent of feather wear and bleaching should be markedly different to our birds.

cape gull2 june 13

Picking out a Cape Gull

The starting point for picking out a Cape is to be familiar with first cycle Northern gulls during the summer when they are moulting primaries. A safe window for picking out a Cape would be May-August inclusive, as this covers the start and mid part of the moult period of Northern taxa, but is well before first cycle Cape Gulls might be expected to drop their first primary (Table 1).  Because of feather grey tones and the inner primary patterns (detailed later) first cycle Lesser Black-backed Gulls (LBBs) are most similar to Cape, but actually the key distinguishing features suggested here also apply to separation of Cape from Herring and Yellow-legged Gulls.  Plates 1-3 show what a typical first cycle graellsii or intermedius LBB looks like in mid summer, while Plate 4 shows a Yellow-legged Gull. The key points to note in these images are the extreme wear on remaining first generation primaries and wing coverts and the fact that birds are in primary moult.

The Full Article

This blog post is a taster to full article fully illustrated with Chris’s fab photos and available as a pdf.

Just download the PDF below.

>>>> Identification of first cycle Cape Gull <<<<


Winner of 2013 Birding Frontiers Challenge

Mystery Bird Quiz

The Play-off mystery birds were:

1cy male Caspian Stonechat (ssp. hemprichii – variegatus in old money)

 2cy Steppe Buzzard – vulpinus

 2cy Cape Gull – vetula

The last one a bit of a stinker but not impossible (and a potential vagrant in that plumage)- hence an ID frontier. Chris Batty came closest first time around, being the only one to get  all 10 species correct, but didn’t give a trinomial (subspecies) for the coutelli Water Pipit (which is identifiable as such).

In the play-off , Chris, Jon Holt and Mark Lawlor all pitched about right for the stonechat and buzzard but only Nick Moran got all 3 correct and is the overall winner. Congratulations Nick!

Thanks to all those who took part. Hope you enjoyed it and learnt something too- as I certainly did. Full answers and more on each mystery bird to come.

Cheers Martin

Digiscoping – Spotted Flycatchers


by Steve Blain

I’ve been rather side-tracked this summer with surveying Corn Buntings, but I did pop along to my local churchyard to see its Spotted Flycatchers. There were two pairs with at least one of them feeding young.

Spotted Flycatcher, Nikon V1, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 25-50x eyepiece

In previous years I have had a wonderful photographic relationship with these birds. They would often fly-catch from the gravestones just a couple of meters away, seemingly oblivious to my presence.

Below are a few assorted shots from a couple of visits this summer and a few from last.  The light was always best in the evenings so short visits after work made the most of it and kept disturbance to a minimum.

Spotted Flycatcher, Canon S90, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 20x eyepiece

They can be difficult birds to expose for – often a bright bird on a dark background of deep Yew tree shadow. Here spot-metering off the focus point managed to achieve best results (see images below). However an eye had to be kept on the results as sometimes my camera under-exposed the flycatcher and made the images look dull.

Spotted Flycatcher, Canon S90, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 20x eyepiece

Spotted Flycatcher, Canon S90, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 20x eyepiece

Even though flycatchers are stationary for a few seconds at a time, panning after them, focusing and pressing the shutter often resulted in a missed opportunity. Sometimes it was better to just watch which perches they favored and pre-focus the scope on them. All you then had to do was do some slight adjustments to the positioning when a bird alights, and gently squeeze the shutter-release to nail a shot. Not rocket-science but a smooth gentle action was needed to keep vibration to a minimum after focusing, and before you can be confident of a shake-free shot.

Spotted Flycatcher, Nikon V1, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 25-50x eyepiece

Sometimes, the quieter summer period can give you a chance to hone your skill. And these Spotted Flycatchers made a great summer project!



Birdfair 2013: Pushing Boundaries Tour RELOADED

Join Us at the Birdfair

by Martin Garner and Tormod Amundsen

Back in early 2013 we ran the Pushing the Boundaries Tour. We visited bird clubs all around the UK. Thanks to fab hosts who kindly gave us some very cool revues the RSPB have invited us to give the RSPB Birders Lecture at the 25th International BirdFair at Rutland Water.


Same 2 dudes speaking. Similar format and content. Some new spicy bits. 


So we invite you:

When: Friday 16th August 4:15-5:15 pm

Where: Events Marquee, Birdfair, Rutland Water

What else: Free Booklet base on talks and Followed by Free Drinks Reception (Black Grouse Cocktails)

A reminder of the tour. 

 7 minute video, all around the country and you may be able to spot some familiar faces too.


Birding Frontiers: Mystery Quiz Results

Congratulations to:

Chris Batty, Jon Holt, Mark Lawlor, Nick Moran 

Each scored 9 correct answers out of the 10 mystery birds.

As a finale to the competition, they have agreed to go into a ‘play-off’. 3 birds in 3 photos, same rules (to lowest taxonomic level deemed possible). All info here. All to be identified by 9:00 pm on Wednesday 14th August (tomorrow). If there is no outright winner then prizes will be divided up by ‘picking from hat’.

Here are the answers to main round:

First off: Thank You to all who had a go. Quiet a few European countries were represented as well as entries from Britain. No-one disgraced themselves. These were a tricky bunch of photos. Many came close! Ian Lewington, Nils van Duivendijk and Tristan Reid looked over them at the start, with no prior knowledge  and there was agreement that they were identifiable. Some more easily than others. I will cover more fully the identification of each mystery bird, together with more instructive photos of each individual. For now here’s a summary of the correct answers:

1. Band-rumped Storm Petrel Oceanodroma castro… (probably of form ‘Grant’s’ but more on that to come). If you said ‘Madeiran Petrel’ that would have been OK.

2. male Cyprus (Pied) Wheatear Oenanthe cypriaca

3. female Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri

4. female Ehrenberg’s Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus samamisicus

5. Coues’s Arctic Redpoll Carduelis hornemanni exilipes

6. female Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis

7. Caucasian Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta coutelli (‘coutelli’ would do)

8. 1st winter Armenian Gull Larus armenicus

9. Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca (photo is of a bird showing full set of characters of Desert / Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat ssp. halimodendri). More on the bird and the call to come. For the quiz, ‘Lesser Whitethroat’ would do.

10. Brünnich’s Guillemot Uria lomvia

Here are the play-off 3

(for Chris, Jon, Mark and Nick)

Mystery Extra 1

Above: Play-Off Mystery Bird One (photographed in November)

mystery extra 2

Above: Play-Off Mystery Bird Two (photographed in March)

mystery 3

Above: Play-Off Mystery Bird Three (photographed in June)

Digiscoping with micro four thirds system

SO_ATX_STX_birding_728x90_ani_en.stoat hatfield 1

by Justin Carr

A digiscoping journey

I started taking video in 1996 with my first camcorder – an impulse buy. I  realised sometime  in 1998 I could get reasonable video through my spotting scope. My first real rare bird video- scoped was the Druridge Slender-billed Curlew (video now on youtube). Over the next few years I became quite accomplished. I was contacted by Birdguides who wanted to use my video in their DVD and CD-rom identification guides.
  In 2007 I wanted a new challenge so I bought my first digital camera, a Sony P200. This was a very good camera at the time for digiscoping. The first few months of snapping away was a very hit and miss affair; getting a decent image more miss than hit, but with practice I gradually improved. My next camera a couple of years later was a Sony N1 which was a major let down due to several factors, e.g. lots of noise, dull colours of the image and the inability to get a sharp image. That camera lasted only months before I upgraded to the tried and tested (in digiscoping terms) Nikon P5100 and a great camera it was too. With this camera coupled to my Swarovski  scope I improved a lot. I used this kit until about 2009 when a friend told me about some images he had seen on-line, digiscoped with a new type of camera.

Micro four thirds

Panasonic had produced it along with a few other companies using what is called micro four thirds. Panasonics’ first was the G1 and the images on this website blew me away. To me this was the way forward!! I had to  have this camera but by the time I had scraped the money together the G2 was out so that was my new acquisition. But, and there was a big BUT. It didn’t work! The vignetting was terrible. It was August and the Birdfair was coming up so I went armed with camera  to ask advice from Swarovski as I suspected the lens was the problem: It could potentially be rectified with using Panasonic’s 20mm lens; £330 at the time GULP!!!

Going for it

So I bit the bullet and purchased this cracking little super fast lens that has transformed my digiscoping. I used this camera, still on my swaro scope, for prob the next two years ’till a friend asked if I was interested in buying his Panasonic GH2 which had 16 mega pixel up from the 12 of the G2.


This is now my current set up: Panasonic GH2 with 20mm lens on a Swarovski 80mm HD with 30x wide angle lens using Swarovski’s DCB1 bracket plus hahnel combi tf wireless remote.

Getting flight shotsCIMG1574

The remote is very important for two reasons, first it stops camera shake, but as important to me allows you to get flight shots. You hold the remote and panning handle on the tripod in one hand with you other hand focusing the scope as in the pic to the right >>>>


Camera settings

Quick low down on my camera settings: camera always set on aperture priority, focus set to manual most of the time, iso set manually ( this gives you some control over shutter speed I set the iso up to 1250 if I need a fast shutter for something like a flight shot). I also shoot in burst mode which gives me roughly 5 frames per sec. I always have the aperture  set at f1.7 (gives fast shutter).
monte spain_filtered

Bird activity and better pictures

When shooting I try to get something different from a bird just sitting on a branch the trick is to anticipate when a bird is going to do something i.e. when a bird is preening they very often finish with a stretch of its wings always looks good. Stand there with finger on trigger ready for that moment.
I always if possible try to give the bird uncluttered surroundings, backgrounds are important to try to give some distance between the bird and say for instance bushes behind this gives a pleasant blurred background.
I use Lightroom to edit but do only a few things to enhance: crop,levels,saturation, and last sharpen.
Justin Carr, South Yorkshire
N.B. more of Justin’s digiscoped photos coming soon in part 2.