Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Ethiopian Bush-crow

African natural history’s best kept secret?

by Sam Jones

In line with Terry Townshends excellent piece some time ago on Jankowski’s Bunting (a very rare bird indeed), I thought it pertinent to carry on this theme, bringing some limelight onto undoubtedly one of the worlds most remarkable avian subjects and a bird I have had the pure privilege of a fascinating and compelling journey in conducting some of the first ecological study on during 2013; the Ethiopian Bush-crow Zavattariornis stresemanni.

Ethiopian Bush-crow Zavattariornis stresemanni head profile- sporting bright azure blue facial skin. Current taxonomic understanding places the species within the Corvidae with its closest relatively that of Magpies (Pica) and Asian Ground-jays (Podoces sp.). Further genetic study may re-classify this however

Ethiopian Bush-crow Zavattariornis stresemanni – sporting bright azure blue facial skin. Current understanding places the species within the Corvidae with its closest relatively that of Magpies (Pica sp.) and Asian Ground-jays (Podoces sp.).

“..enigmatic and baffling… one the most remarkable African discoveries of the 21st century”
Fry et al. (2000)

The Bush-crow was discovered (in the eyes of science at least) in 1937, when a specimen was collected during an expedition to southern Ethiopia led by Edoardo Zavattari from the Zoological Institute of the Royal Institute in Rome, leading to its formal description in 1938. Its genus name followed that of the finder, while the species name comes in honour of Erwin Stresemann, the influential german ornithologist. This name is often carried into its other widely used vernacular, Stresemann’s Bush-crow.
This relatively recent discovery is interesting, but undoubtedly the most intriguing aspect of its existence in this region is its bizarre range-restriction to one tiny area of nondescript rangeland and thornscrub in the arid Borana zone of southern Ethiopia. Adding complexity, these rangelands have been subject to anthropogenic influences by the pastoralist livelihoods of the native Borana for centuries, with vast expanses of seemingly identical habitat existing directly adjacent to its occupied range.
An early ornithologist studying the region, Constantine Walker Benson (1946), remarked-
‘The reason for this remarkably restricted distribution is not at all apparent to me. There seems to be nothing at all unique or distinctive about its environment.’ 

The rangelands the Bush-crow calls home have been subject to the traditional pastorlist practices of the Borana for centuries.

The rangelands the Bush-crow calls home have been subject to the pastorlist practices of the native Borana for centuries.

This bizarre range-restriction continued to perplex ornithologists while concern also grew over its population trends and pressures on habitat within the range. Until recently, however, the reasons underpinning its peculiar occupancy remained unsolved. This mystery was finally unearthed, when research by Donald et al. (2012) discovered its area of occupancy to be described, with remarkable precision, by a climatic envelope of some 6,000km2, harbouring a cooler, drier and more seasonal local climate than its surrounding areas. This compelling finding brought to light one of African ornithology’s best kept secrets and what is, on current knowledge, probably a unique case within the avian kingdom.

Looking South over the easterly edge of the Bush-crows range

Looking south over the easterly edge of the Bush-crows range, the limits of which are invisible to the eye.

To add complexity to the puzzle, the species appears unspecialised in its diet choice and (in relation to its reliance on human modified habitats) its broader habitat preferences, residing in good numbers around villages and heavily modified grazing land. Aspects of its behaviour and known ecology are also peculiar, complex social interactions, co-operative breeding and its enormous and conspicuous nests to name but a few. It is also widely recognised by the local people and fondly named the Kaka, a term synonymous with its common vocalisations

All this leads to the natural burning question therein, to further understand what is driving this range-restriction from the biological perspective of the bird and crucially for its conservation, what impacts these might have in the face of its long and short term threats. The Bush-crow is currently listed at ‘Endangered’ under the IUCN RedList although trends in its putative population decline remain unclear.

Post-fledging family party of Bush-crows

Post-fledging family party of Bush-crows

A body of observational evidence has indicated the likely sensitivity of the Ethiopian Bush-crow to high temperature and considering the critical recent discovery of the climatic limits that describe the bush-crows range restriction, this has been identified as one area of key ecological research to be addressed. This was precisely the aim for inquiry, to investigate the behavioural impacts of high temperatures on this most unique subject.

A number of birds were captured and colour-marked, creating several new datasets for the species. Interestingly, many adult birds tending nests were synchronously breeding and moulting. The likely product of careful energy allocations in relation to high temperatures and cooperative breeding strategies.

A number of birds were captured and colour-marked, creating several new datasets for the species. Interestingly, most adult birds tending nests were synchronously breeding and moulting, the likely product of careful energy allocations in relation to high temperatures and cooperative breeding strategies.

Early findings (although some needing further clarification) appear to support previously mooted ideas that it is a vulnerability of immature birds to high ambient temperatures that might be a key determinant in the range-restriction dynamics of the species. Furthermore, considering the seasonal polarity of dry/wet seasons within the climatic envelope and the co-operative breeding strategies of the species, it appears likely that the Bush-crow has developed a specific set of behavioural and ecological traits that allow for careful energy allocation in relation to high temperatures experienced during the post-breeding season, while tending temperature affected young.
Further research will aim to clarify these relationships and provide a greater body of baseline information for use in predicting the future impacts on the Bush-crow as a product of global warming.

Understanding and interpreting the puzzle of the Ethiopian Bush-crow is still in its earliest stages and future work will no doubt shed more light on this captivating and romantic evolutionary tale. In my eyes at least, there is also no finer setting for this story than in the beautiful Borana zone of southern Ethiopia, a region as fascinating and beautiful as its endemic birdlife.

“Whatever the reason this bird is confined to a bubble, alarm bells are now ringing loudly.  The storm of climate change threatens to swamp the bush-crow’s little climatic lifeboat – and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.”
Prof. Nigel Collar-  BirdLife International


Call for observations

The Ethiopian Bush-crow still remains poorly understood biologically and much of its basic natural history is unknown.  A large number of observations alongside more systematic work were made during 2013 field campaigns that have added to our knowledge pool of the species. If any readers have birded the region and spent time watching Bush-crows, any field observations of note could well add to our existing understanding of the species. Currently, these notes are in preparation for publication and if you feel you may have something to add- please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


Post-script; White-tailed Swallow Hirundo megaensis

Another southern Ethiopian endemic, the White-tailed Swallow Hirundo megaensis, a species I have declined to mention thus far, also shares almost exactly the same range as the Ethiopian Bush-crow. Perplexingly, its sister taxa, the Ethiopian Swallow Hirundo aethiopica of which it is visibly similar, is widespread and common throughout east, west and central Africa. What the ecological drivers behind this range-restriction are, from the case of the Swallow, are entirely unknown and arguably even more baffling than the Bush-crow.

White-tailed Swallow Hirundo megaensis - Probably the first photograph of this species at the nest!

White-tailed Swallo Hirundo megaensisProbably the first photographic documentation of this species at the nest.

All photographs ©Sam Jones.


Benson, C.W.(1946) Notes on the birds of southern Abyssinia. Ibis. 88:180-205.

Donald, P. F., Gedeon, K., Collar, N. J., Spottiswoode, C. N., Wondafrash, M., & Buchanan, G. M. (2012). The restricted range of the Ethiopian Bush-crow Zavattariornis stresemanni is a consequence of high reliance on modified habitats within narrow climatic limits. Journal of Ornithology153(4):1031-1044.

Fry, C.H., Keith, S. & Urban, E.K.(2000) The birds of Africa, vol VI. Academic, London

Woodcock: Seeing them in the Daytime

At Flamborough

by Martin G.

A rare sight! In case your interested… at least 3 Woodcock can be seen again day roosting and sometimes feeding in South Landing ravine, Flamborough.  Just view about half way down road to Lifeboat station and South Landing beach. This post from March 2013, same place

woodcock s landing a 11.03.2013

Capturing a moment… and the details. I guess that’s ultimately why I love taking photos. I have lots of stories of mediocre photography and failed efforts! ‘Digiscoping’ is undoubtedly the realm of bird and wildlife photography I have struggled with the most. Fundamentally the art is to take photos with an ordinary ‘family’ camera by placing the camera lens up to a high powered birding telescope so that the ‘scope effectively becomes a super lens for the camera. I did ‘OK’ about 10 years ago by hand holding a Nikon Coolpix up to my scope. However with new cameras, heralded as the route to new heights of photo quality- I only seemed to get worse despite careful coaching by friends. Honestly, I was ready to give up. It seemed too complicated, the results often poor and seemingly interfering with ‘birding’. More recently however, spurred on by the quality of images and especially video which James Lees (Slimbridge WWT warden) was achieving and with regular encouragements from Paul Hackett and others, I opted to have one more go. Over the last couple of years I feel like I have broken through- a little. For a lot of photography I use DSLR camera – a Canon 7D with 400 f5,6 lens  It does an amazing job. However sometimes the birds are simply too far away. Then the digiscoping kicks in. Furthermore, with digiscoping,  I love that you can do video!

Woodcock at South Landing, Flamborough.

Up to 3 birds are roosting on the far side of the ravine, occasionally coming out to feed. It was a good test being very windy, with variable light from grey cloud and snow showers to odd bursts of sunshine. And the birds were in open or under poorly light canopy. It was too far to get a really nice DSLR shot (see below). I used a Canon S95 Camera taking photos through a Swarovski ATX95 ‘scope. There camera is held securely in place by a gizmo called the DCB ll swing adaptor.

woodcock s landing a2 11.03.2013Woodcock, South Landing, Flamborough (above and top). A lovely looker with American Woodcock-like grey strips.

On Video: Woodcock and Worms

I have several sections of video of both birds which too me look really good! However when I uploaded to YouTube  the compression? of the file just made it look ‘orrible. So I am trying Vimeo (basic) with one section and welcome suggestion on how to get the best out of publishing videos online. Only a few seconds, have a look:


woodcock s landing bird b 11.03.2013Woodcock, South Landing, Flamborough. A more typical looking browner bird which kept to the deeper shaded zones. Amazes me what can be achieved. No it hasn’t one of the notorious ‘half-bills’. In fact the bill tip is covered in mud.


woodcock watching

watching woodcock Illustrating the view and distance  The Woodcock were mid way up the far slope.

In Comparison:

To compare digiscoping with normal photography I include  2 shots of the first bird above, but this time taken with the Canon DSLR and 400mm lens. Acceptable, but heavily cropped due to the distance and I don’t think the results are as good. Also don’t think I cold get anything like the same quality of video!

woodcock 7d c

woodcock 7dWoodcock, South Landing, Flamborough. Upper 2 shots using ‘normal’ technique with Canon 7D and 400mm lens.

Thanks to Brett Richards.

in association with Swarovski Optik

MEGA: Meadow Pipit!

By Terry Townshend

The title of this post is almost certainly not a message you will see on your RBA pager!  But it’s exactly the message that flashed up on the new “Birding Beijing” smartphone chat group on 14th January when Paul Holt found Beijing’s first MEADOW PIPIT at Miyun Reservoir.

 MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis) is the 455th species to be recorded in Beijing 

Paul was spoilt that day as he also found Beijing’s second ever (and first for more than 50 years!) ARCTIC REDPOLL (ssp exilipes).  In fact, it was as he was looking at the redpoll flock that he heard what he thought sounded like a MEADOW PIPIT.  Of course, being Beijing, he understandably thought it must have been a slightly unusual sounding japonicus BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT, itself pretty rare in the capital in winter.  It wasn’t until the redpoll flock disappeared on one of its regular forays that he turned to look for the suspected BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT and realised that it was, in fact, a MEADOW PIPIT!  Putting the news out quickly, it was subsequently ‘twitched’ by several of Beijing’s birders and is still there as I write, in the company of a flock of WATER PIPITS (Anthus spinoletta).

Some (heavily cropped) images of the MEADOW PIPIT here:

MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 22 January 2014.  The heavily streaked back, plain rump and face, and the typical gait are all apparent in this photo.

MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis), Miyun Reservoir, Beijing, 22 January 2014. The heavily streaked back, plain rump and face, and the typical gait are all apparent in this photo.


One of Paul's original photos of the MEADOW PIPIT at Miyun Reservoir.  A spectacular find.

One of Paul’s original photos of the MEADOW PIPIT at Miyun Reservoir. A spectacular find.

This MEADOW PIPIT continues a spectacular start to 2014 in China’s capital with a COMMON CHIFFCHAFF (ssp tristis) discovered on 6 January in the Olympic Forest Park.  And with 7 new species added in 2013, the Beijing list now stands at a whopping 455.  There can’t be many major capital cities that compare…



Origins and radiation of true rosefinches (Carpodacus)

José Luis Copete
A paper recently published investigated the potential splits and the possible cryptic diversity hidden in a group with striking plumage similarities: The Carpodacus rosefinches.
Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus, Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus, Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

The genus Carpodacus, or rosefinches, comprise about 25 species, 19 of which are living in the Sino-Himalayan region, where they most probably originated.

Roborovski's Rosefinch Kozlowia roborovski Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Roborovski’s Rosefinch Kozlowia roborovski Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

A paper recently published (Tietze et al 2013 Complete phylogeny and historical biogeography of true rosefinches (Aves: Carpodacus). Zool J Linn Soc 169: 215–234) investigated the potential splits and the possible cryptic diversity hidden in a group with striking plumage similarities, especially in females and juveniles. According to their results, that genus originated in SW China and the Himalayas about 14 millions years ago, giving rise to a small clade consisting of Common Rosefinch (C. erythrinus), Scarlet Finch (Haematospiza sipahi) and the nowadays extinct Bonin Islands Grosbeak (Chaunoproctus ferreorostris) on one side, and on other side a larger clade comprising 22 species. The latter split into four major lineages when the uplift of the Himalayas. In that group, they found support for four splits already advanced by some works:

dubius from White-browed Rosefinch (Carpodacus thura), present in WC China (NE & E Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia S to E Xizang)

formosanus from Vinaceous Rosefinch (Carpodacus vinaceus), present isolated in Taiwan

grandis from Red-mantled Rosefinch (Carpodacus rhodochlamys), present in NW & NE Afghanistan, W & NC Pakistan and W Himalayas E to N India (E to N Himachal Pradesh)

verreauxii from Spot-winged Rosefinch (Carpodacus rodopeplus), present in  S China (NE Yunnan and SW Sichuan) and NE Myanmar.

However, one of the already proposed splits, severtzovi from Great Rosefinch (Carpodacus rubicilla) was not supported and then they consider it should be still considered intraspecific.

Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla severtzovi Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla severtzovi Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Of great interest, too, is they suggest the central Asian lineage of Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus) deserves species rank, Carpodacus stolickae. This is indeed not only evident looking at the phylogeny, but also to the morphology. During my last visit to Tring museum last November, for the job of checking skins (ageing/sexing and subspecies differences) for the forthcoming Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, a quick examination of the skins from the range of stolickae compared with the birds present in Jordan/Israel and other spots in Near East,  was showing how different they are in colouration and size.

Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus pulcherrimus davidianus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus pulcherrimus davidianus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Finally, the Pink-rumped Rosefinch (Carpodacus eos) and Beautiful Rosefinch (C. pulcherrimus) complex consists of four lineages, pulcherrimus/argyrophrys, davidianus, eos and waltoni. They propose to consider C. pulcherrimus waltoni with C. eos as C. waltoni.

Red-fronted Rosefinch Carpodacus_puniceus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Red-fronted Rosefinch Carpodacus puniceus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Given that many rosefinches occur in remote/isolated mountains, the authors didn’t obtain material from the field for logistical reasons, and had to rely on old skins which were providing only four markers for 13 out of 28 terminal taxa, so a few older nodes remain unresolved. It’s therefore of high interest to try to examine these cases with material taken in the field nowadays, since there is still the potential to find hidden diversity.

They also suggest to include Chaunoproctus, Haematospiza, Kozlowia, Pinicola subhimalacha and Uragus inside the genus Carpodacus.

Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus_rubicilloides Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilloides Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

Caspian Gull movements around Britain

Andrew Tweed, Josh Jones and Mark Golley

The movements of a first year Caspian Gull could be followed from SSE Poland nr. the Czech border, to Norfolk and then to Essex through autumn 2013 into early 2014, with a ‘bruva from another muvva’  (birds ringed same colony, same day) found in Peterborough in late December ’13

Thanks to keen gull watchers, readers of rings and the power of social media, we joined up some dots. Andrew Tweed kicks off with this ringed Caspian Gull at Rainham, Essex on 17th January:


Great gulling session at Rainham today with 6 Caspians. 2 x 1st win , 2 x 2 nd win , 1 x third winter and an adult. Best tally for a couple of seasons. One of the 1st winters had a yellow ring on its right leg with PNEL written on it. I have had green polish ringed birds before but not yellow. 

Any ideas?  Kind regards, Andy Tweed 

Andy’s request for info was ‘tweeted’ out through Birdingfrontiers. Within a matter of hours loads of clear data emerged. Thanks especially to Josh Jones, Mark Golley. Click:

>>>Movements of yellow PNEL from Polish Caspian Gull Colony<<<

Caspian Gull, Pat's Pool, Cley, Norfolk, November 2013 (Steve Gantlett).Here’s the boy! Only this photo was taken by Steve Gantlett at Cley, Norfolk in late October 2013. Mark Golley explains:

Thanks Martin ~ second one of mine in recent years that’s gone from Norfolk to Essex (one went to Pitsea where Steve Arlow saw it). Herring Gulls too of course, but nothing as as funky as a  Caspian….Emoji

I do love these UK movements. I just knew PNEL would be picked up somewhere else this winter, but wondered if it may go inland to Milton or the Midlands. Essex was the obvious choice tho’ and I’m glad someone has picked him (it’s a beast) up again.

Nice too as it consolidates what we kind of know here about these Norfolk – London/London – Norfolk gull movements.
Bit of background:~ I found PNEL on the evening of October 21st then it was back on October 28th and was seen, almost every night to at least November 9th.

You’ll have seen from the ringing data that you passed on to me where and when it was ringed ~ interestingly this is the second cachinnans from the same Polish colony to make it to Cley ~ I found one here in July 2012 which has subsequently appeared in the Netherlands and Northumberland.

The natal site is in the far SSE of Poland, not that far from the Czech border, due south of Wroclaw.

PNEL was the first in a remarkable (for Cley) run of new 1w cachinnans last autumn. I logged (and photographed) nine different 1w’s between 21st October and 12th November (eight of them between 21st-31st!) ~ an unprecendented run of birds here. There was at least one other 1w that I didn’t see that I was sent shots of….incredibly exciting!


caspian andrew tweedHere’s the same fella at Rainham on 17th January. Photo by Andrew Tweed.

Josh Jones helpfully fills out he picture a little more:

Hi Martin

Find the enclosed the details for yellow-ringed ‘PNDZ’ that I saw in Peterborough on 24th and 27th December 2013.

>>>Movements of yellow PNDZ from Polish Caspian Gull Colony<<<

I’m certain that Andy Tweed’s bird will be from the same ringing scheme in Poland. In fact, ‘PNEL’ sounds like it will be very close in line, so it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s from the same colony as mine, and perhaps even ringed on the same day!

Andy can submit his sighting of PNEL here at – they usually only take a couple of working days to respond.

Just an interesting bit of background, by the way. You’ll see species is not labelled Caspian Gull, but ‘Caspian Gull colony’. This is because the colonies (usually islands in the middle of gravel pits) are generally characterized by dense vegetation and long grass. When they head over to ring them, the adults naturally get up and fly around, leaving the chicks wandering around on the deck on their own. Now, the dominant species in these colonies is Caspian Gull, though a small proportion of birds with mixed characters do occur (per Rich Bonser, who visited one of these colonies last June) as presumably does the odd pair of Yellow-legged Gull. As such, they cannot say for certain that each chick ringed is a pure Caspian Gull, hence the use of ‘Caspian Gull colony’. I think the official word on these ringed birds is as follows:

“Chicks ringed in mixed colonies where Larus cachinnans is the dominant species (it is most likely that these chicks are cachinnans, but other species and hybrids are not excluded); this is the most common code, because most colour-ringed birds are from southern Poland, where this species is the dominant one.”

So, all in all, really very interesting. Basically, it seems that the vast majority of these ringed birds are going to be Caspian Gulls from southern Poland, but there is of course the small chance of a ringed bird being a hybrid (presumably with Yellow-legged Gull).
Also these yellow (and green) ringed birds are seen with reasonable regularity. Here’s a second-winter that Rich Bonser and Steve Arlow had at Pitsea that has now been seen in seven countries(!):

>>> Caspian Gull visits 7 countries<<<

Not overly surprising revelations, but it adds further weight to the belief that the majority of British Caspian Gull records must originate from these Polish colonies.




Back garden Bittern

Steve Blain


When I received a phone call about a ‘Bittern’ in someones back garden I had to go and check, just in case it was!

I received a phone call one afternoon. It was from a Beds Bird Club member

“I’ve got a Bittern in my garden”

Came the voice on the telephone. That was not what I was expecting to hear! To be honest I was slightly sceptical. As all county recorders know not every strange garden bird reported to you is correctly identified. As the gentleman was only in the next village I arranged to pop in for a look myself. Fifteen minutes later I rang the doorbell of the house. The door opened to a cheery

“it’s still there! It’s best seen from our bedroom through…”

What was I walking in to? Plenty of thoughts raced across my mind about where I was being taken. I obviously had an overactive imagination as soon as I reached the top of the stairs I looked through their bedroom window and there was a Bittern!

Canon S90, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 20-60x eyepiece.

Their garden backed down to the small river Ivel and there on the opposite bank was a stunning Bittern waiting patiently in the vegetation.  It had been strutting around the back gardens of this sleepy close for around a week.  Mr and Mrs Seal, whose bedroom I was currently standing in, also managed to get it on their garden bird survey form!

I ended up spending a fantastic half hour digiscoping it through their bedroom window (and double-glazing unfortunately) with a cup of tea and biscuits.  Perhaps one of the strangest places a Bittern has ever been photographed from, especially in Bedfordshire.

After watching it for a while it was clear it was very close to the footpath on the other side of the river.  It would freeze every time a dog would come bounding along the bank not more than six feet from it, and every time the dog (and its owner) didn’t have a clue the bird was there.

It was heading towards dusk and I didn’t want to outstay my welcome in the Seals bedroom.  I decided to see if I could find the bird from the footpath on the opposite bank before it got too dark.

Five minutes later I found the Seals house from the footpath and I slowly edged along the path scanning the reeds as I did.  Time was running out and it was getting steadily darker.  Just as I was about to give up I looked down and there it was – just a few feet from my position.  Its head was pointing skyward and those amazing eyes were looking straight at me – fantastic!  I moved back a little and positioned my scope on the path.  It was too close to focus!  I had to slowly move back until I could focus clearly on it.  The detail in the failing light was amazing.  I could just about get the head and neck in the camera.  A few snaps at various ISO settings, making sure I got a sharp image, and I decided to leave it alone for the night.

Canon S90, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 20-60x eyepiece, ISO 1000

It was simply a brilliant hour of local birding with an outrageously confiding bird.

Fascinating Bird Sounds

 Martin Garner

Many birders have been weened on books where the bird’s image and appearance has been the main/only means of identification. For the birds themselves, recognition is arguably much more frequently done through the sounds they make. This frontier is a wonderful place for discovery and exploration. Here’s a taster of some recently recorded sounds that have interested me from ID point or I just find evocative. There’s also a couple of mystery birds if you want to have a go 🙂

Siberian Lesser Whitethroat, blythi

The Lesser Whitethroat complex: If it only boils down to DNA when identifying vagrant Lesser Whitethroats from Siberian, central and Eastern Asia, then rightly, birders should switch off. Thankfully it doesn’t. Subtle structural and plumage differences mark out certain individuals, but also calls can point to getting the identifications sorted. I was much chuffed to see and hear the Lesser Whitethroat below give both ‘tac’ and rattle calls (like Spectacled Warbler). Plumage and sound said blythi. DNA confirmed it!
This Lesser Whitethroat was present in South Mainland, Shetland in Sept/Oct 2013. It gave both typcil 'tac' calls and a rattle call, just like the sound recorded in Eilat, Israel - below. The Shetland bird was trapped and DNA confirmed it as a blythi- Siberian dude!

This Siberian Lesser Whitethroat was present in South Mainland, Shetland in Sept/Oct 2013. It gave both typical ‘tac’ calls, like W European birds and an obvious rattle call, just like the sound recorded in Eilat, Israel below, together with ambient cafe music.

Lesser Whitehtroat probable blythi ratttle call Eilat late March 2012


Caucasian Water Pipit, coutelli

Here’s a subject that fascinated me since Brian Small indicated these sound different to his ears. I agree, they really do. I have recorded several ‘coutelli’ on 3 recent visits to Israel. Raspy and generally distinctive I think. Have  a listen and look at that sonagram shape.
Water Pipit 'coutelli', Mount Hermon, Israel 15th Nov 2013. Martin Garner

Water Pipit ‘coutelli’, Mount Hermon, Israel 15th Nov 2013. Martin Garner


coutelli Water Pipit 1 Negev November 2012 sonagram

Common Crossbill. Type ??


Can you help? One of the Common Crossbills recorded at Broomhead, S. Yorks on 13th Dec. 2013 with background twitcher chatter. I had a quick look but couldn’t assign it easily to one of the several ‘Common Crossbill types’. What do you think?

Two-barred Crossbills – trumpeting


And if Crossbill types doesn’t float your boat; the sounds of Two-barred Crossbills should at least! First recording, a flock of at least five chattering to each other as they feed, then a recording of more sustained ‘meep meeps’. Distinctive enough.



Two barred Crossbills 5 +Broomhead, S Yorks, 13th Dec 2013 heard but not seen

Mystery Sound

What was that? That’s a frequent comment coming from my lips. So many sounds I am still learning. This one was from a small bird (warbler sized) in Tamarisk at Ma’agan Michael, Israel on 15th Nov. 2013. I never got a proper look at it and couldn’t put the sound to a name. Happy to look a fool. What species was it? Comments very welcome!

British Storm Petrel

It doesn’t have to be all about ID. Some sounds are just worth hearing for themsleves. Here British Storm Petrels on Mousa, Shetland in May 2013. Famously described as: “The sound of a fairy being sick.”


Graceful Prinia

Are they all the same? With more than one taxa of Graceful Prinias these invite further study. Plumages are not massively different. What secrets do calls and song hold?
Graceful Prinia Jerusalem Bird obs. Israel, Nov. 2012

Graceful Prinia, Jerusalem Bird obs. Israel, Nov. 2012

2 Graceful Prinia Beit shean valley nov 132 Graceful Prinia Beit shean valley nov 13.png b

  • akyildizi Watson, 1961 – S Turkey, possibly into NW Syria.
  • palaestinae Zedlitz, 1911 – Lebanon, S Syria, E Israel, Jordan and NW Saudi Arabia.
  • deltae Reichenow, 1904 – W Israel S to N Egypt (R Nile delta).


Italian and Maltese Sparrows


A recent and former claims of potential Italian Sparrows in Britain seem not to have majored on recording sounds. If Italian Sparrow then I wonder if we should expect some Spanish Sparrow type notes – and if hybrid House/Tree then some Tree Sparrow like notes. Best interpreted/ confirmed with use of sonagram. I don’t know about Italian repertoire but Maltese Sparrows on Linosa, Italy recorded in November 2011 include Spanish Sparrow type calls. Roy Slaterus, who found the first confirmed female Spanish in NW Europe commented on these calls. Might include more details on what to listen for in future post. Here’s a brief look and listen.

Male Maltese Sparow 'maltae' Linosa, Italy, Nov. 2011. Miki Vigiano.

Male Maltese Sparow ‘maltae’ Linosa, Italy, Nov. 2011. Miki Vigiano.

maltae sparrow linosa early nov 2011

Desert Grey Shrike

See this post on Asian and Desert Grey Shrikes. Sounds surely hold some unexplored revelations when it comes to the various groups of grey shrikes. This is a vagrant bird in its first autumn, still stirred up to give a bit of song.
Southern/ Desert Grey Shrike, Linosa (Italy), November 2011. Igor Maiorano.

Southern/ Desert Grey Shrike, Linosa (Italy), November 2011. Igor Maiorano. Have a listen to this guys sounds below.

Desert Grey shrike 1a Linosa Nov 2011 Igor MaioranoDesert Grey shrike 1b Linosa Nov 2011 Igor Maiorano