Monthly Archives: October 2013

Pallid Swift Identification

under pressure

by Martin G.

I think this is my first ever solo observer ‘rarity’ record. Of course it would go and involve a species that’s reckoned to be one of the trickiest identification challenges in British birding. A briefly seen fly by Pallid Swift claim. I am tempted just to hide away and say nothin’!
In short I took our dog Ebony for an evening walk, last Saturday evening (26th Oct.) near North Landing Flamborough. I wasn’t expecting to see much but my first Ring Ouzel of the autumn was very welcome. It was hard to see but having manged a couple of photos of it diving into a bush I approached for a closer view. I then noticed a swift sp. flying towards me. I literally thought ‘Oh No!” I knew this could be good, or torture.  I identified this  bird as Pallid for myself within about 15 seconds- structure really good, big pale face, pale brown ‘window’ from below (secondaries and inner primaries) and obvious brown tones glimpsed on upperparts. Not much though, and all a little subjective! Then it flew further away and into low harsh light and as it did I grabbed my camera and rattled off a few images, before putting news out. The whole encounter might have lasted about a minute (or less!) . Despite a good effort put in by friends the bird could not be located and wasn’t seen again.

Ring ouzel b Holmes gut 27.10.13Ring Ouzel diving into bush in Homes Gut. Just before a swift appeared…

The images are poor. The bird is flying into low evening light, at some distance from me, so they are heavily cropped. I was very curious to see what ‘evidence’ could be obtained in this brief fly by view. Of course I had my own field observation and impression… and these photos.

I have had some feedback on these photos from 3 friends. I will put these comments up later, but before then, given some interest in the challenges of Common and Pallid Swift ID (views, light, experience, pros and cons of photographs etc) I wondered if some might like to have a look at the images that I have had to wrestle with:

Pallid Swift d Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift f Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift j Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift g Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift h Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift m Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

Pallid Swift n Flamboro 26 Oct 2013

and if you are bored with Pallid Swift stuff- then perhaps you can appreciate this ending to an email from Swedish birder, Hans Larsson I got a couple of days ago:

BTW, I went to our only prominent cliffs in my part of the province of Scania yesterday in hope for a Pallid. To my surprise I did found a Swift, but it turned out to be a White-rumped! Still in shock today…

Best wishes,


more photos here



Juvenile Baltic Gull candidate

at Richmond Bank, Cheshire

Delighted to get an email from Ian McKerchar. It’s immediately apparent that his photos of a juvenile Lesser Black-backed type Gull are ‘of the type’. The hypothetical Baltic Gull type. Just like 2+ birds at Flamborough in Sept. Just like several from North Norfolk recorded by ardent gull watchers in August/ Sept over several years.


Hi Martin,

I took these photos on August 15th this year at Richmond Bank, Cheshire and to say the bird stood out like a sore thumb was something of an understatement. Given that all the many hundreds of juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls present at the time were typically considerably darker than this bird you can see why. It’s head and underparts were strikingly pale and the upperparts had a frankly beautiful, almost scalloped look to them with the feather edges much paler than anything else around it. It was typically long winged but small billed and had something of a greyer ‘shawl’ around the neck. I couldn’t place it at the time and initial thoughts ranged from juvenile Caspian Gull (which is fairly obviously wasn’t!) to fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gull. When the bird finally flew though it displayed strikingly white underwing coverts which really threw me as I didn’t realise juvenile fuscus apparently displayed such and I expected the usual Lesser Black-backed Gull brown coverts. I’ve seen many hundreds of fuscus over the years but never a juvenile so after some fairly rudimentary investigation, including your recent thoughts on the subject, it seems white coverts may be something of a feature of juvenile fuscus?
All the very best,  Ian
Ian McKerchar
County Bird Recorder, Greater Manchester
and king gull: Chris Gibbins commented on Ian’s photos:
Wow, looks really good, as you say.  Seems to me that this bird has everything we could expect – both structurally and plumage wise. Na-sayers will say we cant rule out an intermedius with 100% certainty, which is fair up to a point; but this does not mean it isn’t fuscus.  Jizz, size, plumage pattern and underwing are all great.  At the moment I think this is as good an unringed candidate as we might hope for – wasted bill and Common Gull like head in some images are striking.

Seebohm’s Wheatear reaches Britain?

by way of introduction

by Martin G

Steve Votier is a top-notch observer; I was personally a little miffed  a few years ago when he beat me to finding Caspian Gull in Sheffield (how very dare he) even though he only lived there for a few months. So I am grateful for Steve’s honesty and willingness to explore a seeming ID faux pas with what is to actually a fascinating bird. The title above is mine not Steve’s and invites exploration rather than being an announcement :). So can they and have they? See Steve’s last comment: responses welcome.

The Lizard, Cornwall, 2nd October 2013

by Steve Votier

Preamble Sometimes it’s best to forget certain experiences in birding and I felt this way about a wheatear I found in the Lizard Village on 2nd October 2013. I’ve thought about it a lot since then and while I don’t think I covered my self in glory I wonder whether I might have stumbled onto something of interest. I had been out all morning with Ilya Maclean and Rob Curtis. These guys had to leave early afternoon, but the conditions were good so I stayed on. A scattering of interesting migrants (wryneck, grasshopper warbler, spotted flycatchers, whinchats etc) kept me interested and one of the features of the day was good numbers of northern wheatear. As always, I had spent much time checking these for something different. Mid-afternoon I had what I assumed was that much anticipated rare-wheatear experience. A small group of northern wheatears were perched on a pile of manure in fields within a sheltered corner of the Lizard Village and among them I flushed a female wheatear with jet-black axillaries and much white in the tail… Surely I was ‘in’…


lizard wh 1a Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). A wheatear with black axillaries was firmly on my radar as a ‘rare’. This feature was very striking in the field and is not simply a photographic artifact. Over the next hour or so, this bird gave me the run-around. However no matter the angle or conditions it looked interesting throughout. Very interesting.

Lizard wh 2a Wheatear, Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). Initial impressions were of a small pale wheatear with dark wings, a plain face and long legs. Black-eared Wheatear?  

I finally managed to note a range of key features that should have helped my identification: striking black axillaries; extensive white in the tail that seemed to mirror the classic Pied/Black-eared pattern (but see below); small size; very white underparts contrasting with peach wash on the breast only and white throat; rather dark contrasting wings. I considered a variety of options but the only thing that seemed to match was Black-eared Wheatear and, given the rather cold appearance, most likely melanoleuca. Pied Wheatear was ruled out straight away – this bird was not dark enough either above or below and lacked of any pale fringes to the upperparts. Nevertheless, it did not look like any Black-eared Wheatear I had seen previously so I was a little concerned. However I reconciled this with the fact I had never seen eastern Black-eared in autumn, but had seen some very variable female melanoleuca in Greece in spring. Also, maybe this species was more difficult than I had previously thought? Anyway, with an underwing and tail pattern like that, what else could it be? I had to make a call and I decided that the evidence was very strongly in favour of Black-eared Wheatear and I therefore released the news.

Lizard wh 3aa Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). This bird was consistently different from nearby northern wheatears in a number of respects.

Several birders arrived and saw the bird, which was now much more settled and feeding in horse paddocks, loosely associating with 3-4 northern wheatears. Tony Blunden (top birder who lives in the Lizard Village) and Ilya were able to capture a number of digital images. There was not a great deal of discussion about identification, although several did comment that it was not quite as anticipated. I felt this was partly attributable to collective experience of nominate bird on Scilly in 2011. At this stage I was focusing more on establishing whether this was eastern or western. Maybe not… The next morning I was busy, but by mid-morning I noticed on a number of websites that this bird had been re-identified as a northern wheatear from photographs…. I was less than happy. However, when I got a chance to look at Tony’s images, I could see why. The bird really didn’t look much like a Black-eared Wheatear at all. Oh dear. Oh bloody dear. What had I done? Ilya and I managed to get back down to the Lizard later that afternoon and spent several hours scouring the still numerous wheatears in the area. There was no further sign, so the only option was to resolve the identification from existing images.

Lizard wh4a Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). Where is it in relation to the northern wheatear? In the cold light of day this looked like a wheatear and very little like a black-eared. What to do?

The more I looked at the images the more it just looked like a northern wheatear and the resemblance to Black-eared Wheatear was superficial: the breast was too clean; the upperparts not the right colour; the tail too short and the face rather too well-marked. Moreover, while images of the tail did show a narrow terminal band, the tail was not typical of Black-eared Wheatear. In fact when you ignore the black axillaries the case for a rare wheatear was thin, very thin indeed. So what was it and what to do?

Lizard wh 5a Lizard wh 6a  Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). These images show the rather narrow black terminal band. The tail was not right for typical Black-eared Wheatear however, although the outer tail feathers are missing.  

As I mentioned at the start I really wanted to forget this bird. We all make mistakes, but this felt like a total howler. Whatever it was, I don’t think will ever be resolved. The possibility exists that it was a northern wheatear, but I find this very hard to believe given the colour of the axillaries. The overall colouration (especially the very white underparts) is possibly within in the range of northern, but I have never seen anything approaching this in an autumn bird in the past. I did consider the possibility that it might be an adult that has not undergone a complete summer moult, but this can be excluded given the relatively fresh plumage throughout. Therefore the argument for this being within the normal variation of Northern Wheatear is very weak. Seebohm’s Wheatear? One of the inevitable processes I went through (and I know Ilya, Tony and Rob did the same) was to look for a match on-line. It’s not the most sophisticated of birding techniques, but can be helpful. When you do this Seebohm’s Wheatear seems to fit the bill. Certainly the black axillaries were a fit, as was the restricted black terminal tail band Moreover, some images from Morocco of female Seebohn’s show birds with very white underparts contrasting with warm tones around the face and a ‘feel’ not dissimilar to the Lizard bird I have not seen anything on Seebohm’s Wheatear in autumn, but presumably features such as underwing and tail pattern are consistent throughout the year. To be clear, I am not claiming this as a Seebohm’s Wheatear. I simply don’t know anywhere near enough about this taxon. However I do think that there is something to be learnt here and maybe if some more detailed information about them emerged in autumn, then this might be a slightly different story. If anyone has experience of this or of northern wheatear with similar plumage characters, I would love to hear more.  

Lizard wh 7a Wheatear Lizard Village 2nd October 2013 (Tony Blunden). The upperparts look very cold and grey in this image and contrast with the russet rear ear-coverts. Another feature of this bird was the rather dark wings (created by narrow pale fringes to the coverts) – in the field I (erroneously) convinced myself that this mirrored the pattern of an adult Black-eared Wheatear…

Steve Votier

Comment from Nils van Duivendik

Hi Martin

Female Seebohm’s  have dark underwing-cov and auxiliaries with pale lines, but overall looking dark, male have solid blackish underwing-cov and auxiliaries (in line with many dark-throated wheatears). This looks like a first winter so sexing is probable not easy (but I have not find any picture of a autumn seebohmi so far). Anyway I think that those blackish underwing-cov and auxiliaries on a fresh bird like this are very interesting, especially in combination with the rest of the features (tail pattern and subtly different plumage tones). It also looks small against the Northern on the picture but that is maybe an Icelandic/ Greenland bird. Stephen also said ‘long legged’, that’s new for me so have to look in the literature if that is a seebohmi character too (a quick look at pictures on the internet suggest that indeed it could be).
Wow, this bird seemingly ticks some pro-seebohmi boxes…
Cheers, Nils

seebohms vs northern

Spring female Northern Wheatear (left) and female Seebohm’s Wheatear (right). Natural History Museum photo by Nils Van Duivendijk.


Spurn Bird Oct 2007

Don’t know if this is the same kind of beast as the Cornish bird or not, but while chatting with friends, the subject an intriguing wheatear at Spurn came out. Around for about  a week in October 2007 it tricked same into thinking it might be a Black-eared Wheatear due to small size and light jizz, dark/blackish undewing coverts and other plumage aspects. Thanks to  Bill Aspin, John Wright, Adam Hutt and Gary Taylor.



Above, interesting wheatear... Spurn, October 2007, Bill Aspin

Dominic Mitchell kindly provided instructive shots from Morocco:

© Dominic Mitchell_Seebohm's Wheatear_3367
© Dominic Mitchell_Seebohm's Wheatear_3434

Above: female and young male Seebohm’s Wheatear, late April 2009 at Oukaimeden, Morocco. © Dominic Mitchell (

Lee Dingain provided lovely shots of adult male Seebohm’s Wheatear. See more on his blog

seebohms_wheater-2 .

Britain’s Day-Flying Moths: Book Review

by Gaynor Chapmank9974 

David Newland, Princeton Univerity Press, £17.95.

Paperback, 224pp.

Sensibly, the authors of this field guide, produced in association with Butterfly Conservation, have adopted geographical rather than political boundaries in their book, including the Republic of Ireland. 155 species are covered in detail, including more than 20 micro moths, and there are an impressive 320 colour photographs. Since most moths fly by night, the book includes those night-flying species you’re most likely to disturb as you’re gardening or striding through vegetation on daytime walks.

Two of my personal gripes with field guides are 1) species maps and text appearing on separate pages to the illustrations and 2) having to strain my eyes to read the text and index. Happily there are few such issues with this book. All the information you need for each species fits on a single page without loss of clarity. A clear, reasonably-sized font is used throughout and the index is colour-coded with bold red for the main species accounts, black for those mentioned only in relation to other species and italic blue for additional photographs.


Indeed this book is a triumph of design. Small enough to carry in the field, it comes with a protective PVC cover and a millimetre rule for field measurements printed in the inside back cover. Species are arranged by family, with an introduction to each group. Half-page photographs allow for magnification and are often breathtaking. The upper edge of each photo fades into soft focus, misting the division between text and picture. A colour-banded box next to the text provides a quick and easy reference to status, where and when the moth can be found, forewing length (a bar in the margin also shows this in visual form) larval foodplant and similar species. The maps are also colour-coded, and photo magnification and Bradley & Fletcher numberof the species are given.

Much additional information has been included, with sections on how to distinguish butterflies and moths, biology, taxonomy, key family features, habitat, gardening for moths and a glossary appearing before the species accounts, while a quick reference table and sections on conservation, recording and further reading are at the back.


Photo magnification sometimes leads to a loss of sharpness, and page numbers occasionally merge into the background of the photographs they are printed over, despite the publisher’s attempt to combat this by employing both black and white font-colours. But these are minor criticisms.

More disappointing is the lack of site information. The Chalk Carpet, for example, is found on the cliffs of Flamborough, my home, and more people recording the species could potentially add much to our knowledge of it. Sites for such scarcer species could have been listed briefly at the end of the description, or in the text box. The authors have missed an opportunity here, since to my knowledge, no such book on the subject has yet appeared for moths.

This is an informative and attractive guide, which with the inclusion of site information could have been a ‘must-buy’ for up to intermediate-level lepidopterists.

Gaynor Chapman.


Yellow-legged Gull: first winter

with white(ish) underwings

by Chris Gibbins


I thought Birding Frontiers readers might be interested in this one. I saw this first winter Yellow-legged Gull (michahellis) last week (mid October) in Spain.  Normal YLG other than exceptionally pale underwing.  I think many YLGs moult underwing coverts as part of the partial post juvenile moult and so some can grow in some very white second generation feathers – so such birds, perhaps like this individual, have something of a Caspian Gull pitfall if you only get flight views….

This is the palest I’ve seen so far (though notice that the longest auxiliaries are still heavily blotched). For more typical underwing go here





Cape May Warbler on Unst

2nd for Britain (and everywhere else)

Gripping stuff. Spoke to Brydon Thomason earlier about Mike Pennington’s uber rarity find today at Alma Manse, nr Baltasound on Britain’s most Northerly Isle.

Brydon’s  photos from this afternoon. BOOM!




DSC_7645_Cape-May-Warbler_webCape May Warbler, Alma, Unst 23rd October 2013 by Brydon Thomason

Think maybe we should just go and live there for the whole autumn…?

Shetland Nature.indd


Daurian Shrike at Flamborough

and Identification of First Winters

by Martin G.

It’s a privilege to live at Flamborough near some very keen and capable birders. I was reminded of this last Tuesday morning. I arrived back from Shetland on the Monday evening (14th) and by tuesday lunchtime had seen Dusky Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler and this. An ‘Isabelline Shrike’ Found by Phil C. earlier in the am and only seen briefly it finally gave itself up ear he cliff top. So which type/taxa/species 🙂 is it?

2 types are recognised as having occurred in Western Europe. The Daurian Shrike ‘isabellinus’ and the Turkestan Shrike ‘phoenicuroides’.

All photos of Flamborough bird by Martin Garner, 15th October 2013

Daurian Shrike 1cy m Flamborough 15.10.13

In a nutshell: this is a first winter bird. My gut reaction on seeing it was that it looked like a Daurian, albeit a darker example. Daurian is seemingly occurring much more regularly in Britain in recent years than Turkestan.  Like Siberian Chiffchaffs and Pallid Swifts (and a host of others) seeing these shrikes in the right light conditions/ accurate photos is absolutely critical (and often not easy)

Key features on the Flamborough bird:

  • Overall gingery wash to the brownish upperparts
  • Gingery orange colouring prominent on the flanks but extending from rear flanks all way up to below ear coverts (hard to see latter).  Centre of throat and central breast/ belly white.
  • Tertials darker brown but not strong contrast with uppers. Mask slightly darker brown with gingery wash at some angles- not blackish brown
  • Rump brighter orange with only very weak dark marks on some feathers tips
  • Orange centred median coverts

First winter Turkestan should have cold earth brown/ grey brown uppers with darker (almost blackish) mask and flight feathers. Uppers contrasting strongly with mostly clean white underparts (marked with blacker bars/chevrons). More often retained juvenile feathers in rump and mantle/ scaps with white or black centres to median coverts (not orange!).

Here’s the Flamborough bird:

Daurian Shrike 1cy b Flamborough 15.10.13

Daurian Shrike 1cy k Flamborough 15.10.13

At close range and in flat light and lovely gingery tone warmed the upperparts. The ‘mask’ could vary from darker to paler depending on angle with, again a gingery tone washed through.

Daurian Shrike 1cy h Flamborough 15.10.13

Daurian Shrike 1cy g Flamborough 15.10.13

The flight feathers, especially tertials were not especially dark (sooty/blackish) and contrasty

Daurian Shrike 1cy f Flamborough 15.10.13Orange/ gingery wash went from rear flanks to the pale area below mask (lower ear coverts). Underpart barring/chevrons more brown than black.

Daurian Shrike 1cy o Flamborough 15.10.13Like my favourite chocolates, the median coverts were orange centred (black or white centred in Turkestan). The small upper tertials and greater wing coverts almost had a subterminal orange band.

All photos above of Flamborough bird by Martin Garner, 15th October 2013

What about intergrades?

This question was posed by some. This study by EN Panov (2009) demonstrated spatial isolation between phoenicuroides and isabellinus (speculigerus in Panov) in a potential contact zone. Furthermore a time difference in arrival of 2 months on breeding grounds between the 2 taxa was noted. Panov’s conclusion is that, while there are occasional examples of interbreeding the evidence presented suggests the 2 should be treated as independent species. One of the consequences for observers in Western Europe is that intergrades are arguable likely to be rarer than ‘pure’ birds. Perhaps we should approach identifying firsts winters (and the somewhat easier adults) with renewed confidence.

Variation not Intergrades. Seems to me learning about variation in young Daurian and Turkestan Shrikes (think of the variables of red/grey/brown seen in Red-backed Shrikes) is the key. Here’s a plainer first winter Daurian Shrike from this last week in Lincolnshire, still showing the same ‘themes’ as the Flamborough bird.

Adult male Daurian Shrike in Cornwall

Meanwhile, a fellow Shetland fan, Paul Bright-Thomas, emailed to say he found an ‘Orange on a Stick’  at Pendeen earlier this month. Superb! Paul’s photos below: