Monthly Archives: March 2014

Trouble along the Black Sea

It’s all very well to have distinct, artificial categories like Caspian – Steppe – Heuglin’s Gull, but what if you keep seeing gulls that do not fit into any of these “boxes”?

Peter Adriaens

Caution! This is a long and tedious read about Asian gulls!

[Note: You can click on pictures for bigger version.]

 

In January 2014, Chris Gibbins and I visited the Black Sea coast in Georgia, with the idea of studying Russian Common Gulls (Larus canus heinei) in the field. This research trip was sponsored by the Dutch Birding fund. There were thousands of large gulls, especially in the Chorokhi delta south of Batumi, and in Poti, a rather industrial coastal city with a big harbour. The vast majority were Caspian Gulls, but we also saw quite a few Yellow-legged Gulls (Larus michahellis), about a hundred Armenian Gulls (Larus armenicus), 15 Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus – a vagrant in Georgia), 4 Baltic Gulls (Larus fuscus fuscus), 2 Pallas’s Gulls (Larus ichthyaetus), and tens of Heuglin’s Gulls (Larus [fuscus] heuglini).

A few Caspian Gulls on the beach at Poti...

A few Caspian Gulls on the beach at Poti…

From day one it became clear that among these thousands of gulls there were some odd adult birds, looking a bit like Heuglin’s Gull but with paler upperparts and somewhat less black in the wingtips. Were we perhaps looking at Steppe Gulls (Larus [cachinnans/fuscus/heuglini] barabensis), a taxon that winters in the Persian Gulf and India and that has not been recorded in Georgia before? These birds were trouble. It is nice to have books and papers that classify gulls into distinct categories like Caspian – Steppe – Heuglin’s Gull, but what to do when it is obvious that the gulls have not read any of this and do not care for such categories?

Allow me a quick recap. What exactly is a Heuglin’s Gull, what is a Steppe Gull, and what do they look like? Adult Heuglin’s Gull has been described by Rauste (1999) and Buzun (2002). Most authors seem to consider it a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull, as it is very similar in plumage and there is evidence of some gene flow between fuscus and heuglini. However, the long calls of Heuglin’s Gull are slightly different from those of Lesser Black-backed, and some authorities advocate full species status. Essentially, adult Heuglin’s Gull looks very similar to adult graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull, though some birds have slightly paler upperparts. The black wingtips are very extensive, with only a short pale tongue on underside of outermost primary (usually covering about 1/3 of the inner web, but sometimes up to ½). The tongue mainly has a diagonal shape, not concave or rectangular. From above, the black colour on the outermost three primaries (P8-10) reaches the primary coverts, creating a solid black outer hand. Most birds (95%) show black down to P4. The white mirrors are small; the one on outermost primary (P10) nearly always shows a complete distal black band, and the one on P9 never breaks the black outer edge of the feather. Nearly all birds show head streaking in winter (until March) and their leg colour is variably dull yellowish to greyish/pinkish – rarely bright yellow.

 

A typical (though rather dark) adult Heuglin's Gull together with Caspian, Armenian and Black-headed Gulls, Poti. Compare mantle colour to that of the Armenian Gull immediately behind.

A typical (though rather dark) adult Heuglin’s Gull together with Caspian, Armenian and Black-headed Gulls, Poti. Compare mantle colour to that of the Armenian Gull immediately behind.

The same Heuglin's Gull in flight. Black colour on P8-10 reaches the primary coverts. On the underside of P10, there is only a short, diagonal pale tongue (indicated by the black arrow).

The same Heuglin’s Gull in flight. Black colour on P8-10 reaches the primary coverts. On the underside of P10, there is only a short, diagonal pale tongue (indicated by the black arrow).

Steppe Gull is a poorly differentiated taxon and is clearly very closely related to Heuglin’s Gull. The two taxa are genetically very similar. However, not all of its long calls are similar to those of Heuglin’s. Steppe Gull is said to have two different types of long call, one being much closer to Caspian Gull.  Nowadays, most authorities seem to consider it a subspecies of Heuglin’s Gull (or a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull, if you consider Heuglin’s to be part of Lesser Black-backed Gull too), but it has also been grouped with Caspian Gull or even been treated as a full species. In any case, it is believed to have a hybrid origin. To make things even more complicated, mixed colonies of Caspian and Steppe Gulls have been reported from southern Siberia, and birds breeding in northern Kazakhstan appear to show characters intermediate between these two taxa.

The characters of adult Steppe Gull have been described by Panov & Monzikov (2000). Photographs from the breeding range can be seen at http://birds-altay.ru/chajka-larus-barabensis/, and from the core wintering range at, e.g., http://chrisgibbins-gullsbirds.blogspot.de/2010/05/steppe-gulls-in-uae.html. Its upperparts are dark bluish-grey, similar to Armenian Gull (Larus armenicus), and the black wingtips are slightly less extensive than in Heuglin’s Gull. The pale tongue on P10 usually covers about half of the inner web, though this can be up to 2/3 in a few. The tongue can be concave or rectangular in shape. Nearly all birds have black down to P4 or P3. Black band at tip of P10 is usually complete and thick. Adults are very white-headed even in mid-winter, and have bright yellow legs and feet, especially from February on.

So far for the theory.

Now, what are these then?

 

An adult gull with dark grey upperparts and Caspian-like structure, thus suggestive of Steppe Gull, but note the pinkish tinge to legs and, especially, feet.

Bird 1. An adult gull with dark grey upperparts and Caspian-like structure, thus suggestive of Steppe Gull, but note the pinkish tinge to legs and, especially, feet, more like Heuglin’s Gull.

The same bird, stretching its wing. Unlike Heuglin's Gull, black on P8 falls clearly short of primary coverts. The pale tongue on underside of P10 covers about 50% of inner web and is concave in shape (diagonal in Heuglin's).

The same bird, stretching its wing. Unlike Heuglin’s Gull, black on P8 falls clearly short of primary coverts. The pale tongue on underside of P10 covers about 50% of inner web and is concave in shape (diagonal in Heuglin’s).

Another very similar mystery gull, Poti. First view is strongly suggestive of Steppe Gull.

Bird 2. Another very similar mystery gull, Poti. First view is strongly suggestive of Steppe Gull.

View of the upperwing of this bird. The primary pattern looks ok for Steppe as well as Heuglin's Gull here.

View of the upperwing of this bird. The primary pattern looks ok for Steppe as well as Heuglin’s Gull here.

From below, however, the pale tongue on P10 has a concave shape, unlike Heuglin's Gull. The pink feet and greenish tinge on legs are not typical of Steppe Gull.

From below, however, the pale tongue on P10 has a concave shape, unlike Heuglin’s Gull. The pink feet and greenish tinge on legs are not typical of Steppe Gull.

Bird 3. This bird has bright yellow legs, but the fairly extensive brown spotting on head is unlike Steppe Gull. The bluish-grey mantle colour seems a bit too pale for Heuglin's Gull.

Bird 3. This bird has bright yellow legs, but the fairly extensive brown spotting on head is unlike Steppe Gull. The bluish-grey mantle colour seems a bit too pale for Heuglin’s Gull.

In flight, the pale tongue on underside of P10 is too long for both Steppe and Heuglin's Gull. In fact, it is as long as in the Caspian Gull to the right of it! Note also the large white mirror on P10, with broken black distal band (at least on left wing). Black only reaches down to P5; the inner four primaries are unmarked.

In flight, the pale tongue on underside of P10 is too long for both Steppe and Heuglin’s Gull. In fact, it is as long as in the Caspian Gull to the right of it! Note also the large white mirror on P10, with broken black distal band (at least on left wing). Black only reaches down to P5; the inner four primaries are unmarked. Black on P8 falls short of the primary coverts.

And it goes from bad to worse. Bird 4 has head streaking that is so extensive that it matches Herring Gull. Yet, its upperparts are as dark grey as in Armenian Gull, and black on P8 reaches the primary coverts (just visible below the tertials here). The big white mirror on P10, with very little distal black, is unlike Heuglin's and Steppe Gull.

And it goes from bad to worse. Bird 4 has head streaking that is so extensive that it matches Herring Gull. Yet, its upperparts are as dark grey as in Armenian Gull, and black on P8 reaches the primary coverts (just visible below the tertials here). The big white mirror on P10, with very little distal black, is unlike Heuglin’s and Steppe Gull.

Bird 5. Another barabensis type with way too big white mirror on P10.

Bird 5. Another barabensis type with way too big white mirror on P10.

There is very little distal black on the P10 mirror, and the feet have a pinkish tinge.

There is very little distal black on the P10 mirror, and the feet have a pinkish tinge.

Still the same bird. Note that the strong contrast between dark grey remiges and white underwing coverts differs from Caspian Gull.

Still the same bird. Note that the strong contrast between dark grey remiges and white underwing coverts differs from Caspian Gull – if anyone was wondering about that species here.

Bird 6. With its bit of head streaking and short, fairly diagonal tongue on P10, this bird suggests Heuglin's Gull at first.

Bird 6. With its bit of head streaking and short, fairly diagonal tongue on P10, this bird suggests Heuglin’s Gull at first.

From above though, the upperwings are rather pale and bluish for that taxon, and the black colour of P8 and P9 falls short of the primary coverts.

From above though, the upperwings are rather pale and bluish for that taxon, and the black colour of P8 and P9 falls short of the primary coverts.

Birds 7 (left) and 8 (right). Two heuglini types, seemingly...

Birds 7 (left) and 8 (right). Two heuglini types, seemingly…

In flight, however, neither of these two birds truly matches Heuglin's Gull. In the left bird, the pale tongue on P10 is way too long (longer even than in Steppe Gull) and has a concave shape, while in the right bird black on P8-9 falls clearly short of the primary coverts.

In flight, however, neither of these two birds truly matches Heuglin’s Gull. In the left bird, the pale tongue on P10 is way too long (longer even than in Steppe Gull) and has a concave shape, while in the right bird black on P8-9 falls clearly short of the primary coverts.

Another look at bird 8 in flight. The pale tongue on P10 has a concave shape, unlike Heuglin's.

Another look at bird 8 in flight. The pale tongue on P10 has a concave shape, unlike Heuglin’s.

Bird 9. Big white mirror on P10, almost without any distal black. The black wingtip is quite restricted: black only reaches down to P5, and on P8-9 it falls clearly short of the primary coverts.

Bird 9. Big white mirror on P10, almost without any distal black. The black wingtip is quite restricted: black only reaches down to P5, and on P8-9 it falls clearly short of the primary coverts.

The underwing of bird 9. The pale tongue on P10 is extremely long and suggests Caspian Gull, but note the dark grey colour of the remiges as well as different head structure.

The underwing of bird 9. The pale tongue on P10 is extremely long and suggests Caspian Gull, but note the dark grey colour of the remiges as well as different head structure.

The following two birds seem to match Steppe Gull in all respects. They were seen above the landfill just south of Batumi on February 2nd. If they truly are Steppe Gulls, they would represent the first records for Georgia, which is over 1,200 km northwest of their normal wintering range.

 

Bird 10. Putative Steppe Gull, Batumi.

Bird 10. Putative Steppe Gull, Batumi.

Bird 10, upperwing. Note bright yellow legs, clean white head and neck, thick black distal band on P10, black wingtip reaching down to P3.

Bird 10, upperwing. Note bright yellow legs, clean white head and neck, thick black distal band on P10, black wingtip reaching down to P3. Bluish-grey upperwing.

The tongue on P10 is rather short and diagonal.

The tongue on P10 is rather short and diagonal. Remiges paler grey than in Heuglin’s Gull, not contrasting strongly with white underwing coverts.

Bird 11. Putative Steppe Gull, Batumi. The pale tongue is rather long and could also match Caspian Gull, but there is no white mirror on P9 and black reaches down to P3. There is a thick black distal band on P10.

Bird 11. Putative Steppe Gull, Batumi. The pale tongue is rather long and could also match Caspian Gull, but there is no white mirror on P9 and black reaches down to P3. There is a thick black distal band on P10.

Bird 11, upperwing.

Bird 11, upperwing.

What does it all mean?

 In 11 days time, we saw over 30 adult ‘misery gulls’ in Georgia. These seemed to show mixed characters of Heuglin’s and Caspian Gull, thus making them similar but not identical to Steppe Gull. It is difficult and probably unwise to try to pigeonhole such birds. Heuglin’s Gull is a tundra breeder, and its breeding range is well separated from the much more southern range of Caspian Gull, so extensive hybridisation is not likely. Perhaps some Herring Gull genes are involved, but that is just speculation. Whatever these birds are, it is clear that they make the identification of out-of-range barabensis more challenging. Another complication is that the breeding range of barabensis overlaps with that of Caspian Gull to some extent, and it may even come into contact with that of Heuglin’s Gull. Between the known breeding ranges of the latter and Steppe Gull lies an area of approximately 1,200 – 1,500 km wide impenetrable bogs and marshes; nobody really knows what is really going on there… At least, extensive intermingling of barabensis and cachinnans characters is known from northeastern Kazakhstan, and the same may be happening with Heuglin’s Gull.

One more possibility to consider when faced with such gulls as in Georgia is Taimyr Gull (Larus fuscus/heuglini taimyrensis). This is a very unlikely option though, as colour-ringing has shown that the gulls of the Taimyr peninsula move southeast to winter along the Pacific coast of East Asia. In addition, the tongue on P10 in this taxon is not longer than 50%, and there is always a substantial amount of black at the tip of this primary. Since some of the Georgian ‘misery gulls’ have a very long tongue and a big white mirror on P10, they do not match the appearance of Taimyr Gull.

As a final note, such ‘misery gulls’, of course, may also occur in other regions. There have been reports of Steppe Gull from Israel and even Greece; are these truly Steppe Gulls? Even some of the “Heuglin’s Gulls” photographed in Israel seem odd, and do not really match birds from the breeding range. For example, http://gull-research.org/heuglini/heug5cy/admarch06.html shows a huge, concave tongue on P10, and http://gull-research.org/heuglini/heug5cy/adfeb01.html portrays a bird with rather paler grey upperparts, big white mirrors on P9-10, and black of P8-9 clearly falling short of the primary coverts.

If you are still reading this, congratulations and thank you for your attention! Let us keep an open mind about these heuglini and barabensis types.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rare Birds of North America: REVIEW

Rare Birds of North America

By Steve Howell, Ian Lewington & Will Russell

reviewed by Mark James Pearsonk10101

As you’ll hopefully gather from the following paragraphs, there are many good reasons to commend the authors of Rare Birds of North America, but perhaps the most pertinent is their clarity of vision. It’s a book which has a very ambitious reach, attempting to play several major roles simultaneously, and could easily have come unstuck if any one of those roles fell short of the mark. Yet its bold remit and clear identity reflect not only the expertise and knowledge of its creators, but also their patent enthusiasm and authoritative attention to detail.

 

A sturdy hardback unlikely to find a place in the backpack, Rare Birds….. importantly makes no attempt to masquerade as a true field guide, and thus avoids the obvious pitfalls and limitations that would otherwise have hamstrung such an excellent work. The overall design benefits from a lack of those restrictions, and this is reflected by the clear, stylish and pleasingly accessible layout from start to finish. It’s a joy to handle, with high production values and an inherent feel of quality.

 

The positioning of the book as a companion (as opposed to competitor) to established field guides pays off perfectly in various ways. Take each species’ field identification summaries, for example: suitably concise and straightforward, and yet detailed enough to provide all the relevant points (including notes on similar species), the book works under the presumption that cross-referencing is a given, and is all the better for it. Likewise, there is no rigid template applied to the length of each account or the sections within them, allowing the authors freedom to prioritise and develop themes.

27BlackbelliedStormPetrel3a

Pleasingly, each of the 262 species accounts lack the sometimes arguably necessary (but supremely annoying) abbreviations often adopted elsewhere; instead, all the information is presented in an easily read and digested style, hopefully setting the bar high for similar works in the future. US states abbreviated into standard two-letter acronyms are thankfully about as esoteric as it gets (and if that’s still too much, think of it as valuable research for your next game of Trivial Pursuit).

 

Likewise, there’s no need to reduce the illustrations into frustratingly tiny representations, or indeed to cram multiple species onto the same plates; nor, on the other hand, are the plates excessively expansive. Instead, they occupy exactly the right amount of space on  the page, sitting comfortably alongside the accompanying text, with a comprehensive variety of races / ages / variations etc on display for each species.

5NuttingsFly2

Of the plates: Ian Lewington has been understandably revered for his (increasingly) superb artwork over the years, but with Rare Birds… he’s clearly excelled himself once again. Enhanced by the high standard of printing and colour representation on display here, superlatives come easily when flicking through these pages; but perhaps the highest (and rarest) compliment a bird artist can be paid is for their work to considered both beautiful and accurate, which is unarguably the case here.

 

Picking out highlights is virtually impossible – there are too many to mention in any detail here – but it’s hard to look at the buntings, for example, without involuntarily salivating; they look even better when viewed down the hall through binoculars, and I’m half tempted to plant the Pine Bunting page in the bottom of a hawthorn hedge here in Filey, just for the practice.

39PineBunting

 

 

Primarily aimed at the North American market, the book nevertheless has numerous insights and much relevance to the British and European birder. There are various cases here where a kind of simple ‘reverse’ referencing is easily applied; notable examples include the Sandpipers and Egrets, although the book is littered with solutions to ID problems well known to birders this side of the pond. Faced with an interesting peep this September on your local wetland, for instance, you could do much worse than turning to the illuminating text and plates (primarily concerning Little Stint) here first, before more traditional choices.

26CommonSandpiper1

Another less important but similarly enjoyable side-effect of the book is how it encourages the British-based reader to look at familiar species through an unfamilar filter. In an extension of the ‘if only it were rare’ game (we all play it on those boring February days, don’t we?), looking at the Fieldfare plates against the additionally spicy backdrop of vagrancy revitalises one’s appreciation of such stunning yet taken-for-granted species.

Similarly absorbing, and in a sense the outstanding feature of the book, is the inclusion of the comments sections within each species account. Delivered with a refreshingly enthusiastic and conversational flavour, these invaluable paragraphs allow the authors to hypothesise and discuss the minutiae of each species’ vagrancy patterns (down to individual records in many instances), bringing alive the reality of occurrence and the possibility of finding your own.

154DarksidedGraystreakedFlycatcher

As someone with a worsening weakness for the unique thrill of rarity-hunting (as well as  the good fortune to have birded in the US a fair bit in recent years), I’m doubtless already part of the congregation the book hopes to preach to; drooling over almost unattainable but glittering avian prizes within such pages is practically a hobby in itself, and if you share similarly unhealthy habits, then look no further.

 

But to confine the book’s appeal to those united by the pursuit of vagrants is to do it a disservice. One of its many strengths lies in its breadth of appeal and accessibility (without feeling the need to dumb down). The extended introductory chapters alone are a pleasure to read, wherever you may place yourself on the birding spectrum. The section on ‘Where Do North American Vagrants Come From?’, for example, is a nerd’s dream, and yet is followed seamlessly by a ‘Topography, Molt and Aging’ chapter that much more generalist and populist works would do well to try and emulate.

14CommonSnipe3a

 

This is a book that ambitiously attempts to be many things – part comprehensive identification guide, part commentary, part definitive reference work, part hypotheses reader, amongst others – and impressively succeeds on all counts, without so much as breaking into a sweat. Highly recommended, regardless of where (or how) you enjoy your birding.

 

Mark James Pearson

 

Mark’s writing – http://markjamespearson.wordpress.com/

Mark’s blog – http://northernrustic.blogspot.co.uk/

 

cuckoos1

 

 

A digiscoping challenge and an interesting haircut….

Justin Carr

Having woken early this morning, I decided to take the short drive from my house to Doncaster Lakeside hoping to catch some early spring passage and hopefully digiscope a few birds

After awhile a 70 or so Sand Martin dropped in and as I am always up for a challenge I began taking a few shots as the Martins passed my position at the lake’s edge. Here are the best of my efforts……

Sand Martin at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 2014

Sand Martin at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 2014

Sand Martin at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 2014

Sand Martin at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 201

And finally……..

Sand Martin at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 2014

Sand Martin at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 2014

I also noticed this Tufted Duck with a semi-Afro…..

Tufted Duck at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 2014

Tufted Duck at Doncaster Lakeside © Justin Carr 2014

All the above were taken with a Panasonic GH3, with a 20mm pancake lens and a Swarovski 80 with 30x wide angle eyepiece.

Other birds seen during the hour and a half to two hours before I had to leave for work included  a Woodcock flushed by a dog from one of the shrubberies , 13 Meadow Pipit and 2 Siskin all moving north.

Good digiscoping 

Justin

The Red Snipe Files – unanswered questions

The Faeroe Snipe ssp. faeroeensis

Hypothesis. The Faeroe Snipe is restricted to… the Faeroes. Bird in Iceland, Shetland and Orkney are labelled as faeroeensis as part of late 20th century ‘lazy lumping’ in the field of taxonomy.

Martin Garner

Appeal for a bit of help – literature and photos… Examples of Faeroe Snipe look very distinctive indeed- almost like a different species. And you don’t see many off them. The ideal time to compare like for like in plumage is adult and young bird in autumn- in fresh plumage. I am really keen to see photos of snipe on Faeroe in autumn- and any other photos in autumn of birds looking outstandingly like/ assumed to be faeroeensis.

I also want together hold of the old literature that spells out studies and status- from C.L Brehm (1831)! onwards. Any pointers much appreciated.

 “Although the colour and markings of the Eurasian Common Snipe vary in its wide distribution from the British Isles to Kamchatka in East Asia, in only a single population have these variables been sufficiently stabilised to be recognised as a geographical race or subspecies. The Faeroe Island population of Common Snipe was first described as a distinct species by C. L. Brehm in 1831”. Tucker 1972.

 

This Snipe flew in to Britain's northernmost patch off ground at Skaw, unst. You can juts make out how this the white scapulars fringes are and intricate reddish markings. all photos below of same bird in murky light.

This Snipe flew in to Britain’s northernmost patch off ground at Skaw, unst. You can juts make out how this the white scapulars fringes are and intricate reddish markings. all photos below of same bird in murky light.

While most/all literature now states that birds of Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and Faeroe are all the same. I don’t believe it!

Currently the population of Iceland, Shetland, Orkney and Faeroes are all lumped under faeroeensis. Two previous studies found only the birds of Faeroes represented a sufficiently discrete population defined as faeroeensis, and that Icelandic birds, “while slightly more buffy than a series from the continent, and are closer to the latter than the Faeroes birds. In fact the Iceland birds were indistinguishable from some specimens from Sweden, the location of the nominate form.”

 

faeroeensis snipe 9 skaw unst auutmn 2013faeroeensis snipe 6 skaw unst auutmn 2013

faeroeensis snipe 5 skaw unst auutmn 2013 faeroeensis snipe 3 skaw unst auutmn 2013

 

Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea

Still Identifiable

Hypothesis: Despite not even being recognized as a valid taxon in some quarters, some Arctic Guillemots ssp. hyperborea may be identifiable within and outside of their range (as wanderers/vagrants) by dark crescentic barring over the underparts. NGB birders report:
 

Gullfest 2014,  Zac Hinchcliffe,  Next Gen Birders

check out this fella picked out by Gullfesters yesterday:

Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea, Hornøya Island, Varanger. 21 March 2014, Zac Hinchcliffe. The breeding guillemots here are of the Arctic form. Some have dark crescentic marking across the underparts which may be a character only found in this taxon. This individual takes the character it to a whole new level!

Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea, Hornøya Island, Varanger. 21 March 2014, Zac Hinchcliffe. The breeding guillemots here are of the Arctic form. Some have dark crescentic marking across the underparts which may be a character only found in this taxon. This individual takes the character it to a whole new level!

 

hyperborea– Identification possible?

reblogged from 2012 – MG

I’m back on 13th May 2012 on  Hornøya Island, Varanger, by myself for the best part of 4 hours. Just a wonderful time amoung the auks. Specifically Arctic Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Brünnich’s GuillemotsAlso Shag, argentatus Herring Gulls (including the kind of pale “is it a hybrid” types we get in winter in Britain). Otter, White-tailed Eagle, Scandinavian Rock Pipit and a lone Chiffchaff all add to the interest. Here’s a taste ; )

One which I spent a bit of time on were the Arctic Guillemots, ssp. hyperborea.

3 old taxa:

Southern Guillemot (ssp albionis) 

Northern Guillemot (nominate aalge)

Arctic Guillemot (ssp hyperborea)

Very crudely  southern albionis breed in England and Wales, and nominate ‘Northern aalge breed  in Scotland. N. Ireland probably has a bit of both (mostly Northern).

Arctic Guillemot ssp hyperborea presumed to be a rare vagrant.

Arctic Guillemots however don’t move so much (BWP) and seem to be genuinely rarer in British waters. The ‘Birds of Shetland’ (Pennington et.al.) lists just 3 records attributed to hyperborea based on measurements of tide line birds. There is a clinal aspect to characters and some features (such as extensive dark underwing ‘spotting’) while commoner in hyperborea can regularly be found in other forms.

Do Southern (albionis) and Northern (aalge) Guillemots ever show these dark crescentic marks?

Some Distinctive

So what I found was, while variation existed; some bird perhaps not really being detectable in British context, others were quiet distinctive. Most especially in having very extensive dark flank steaking. This extended right down to the legs and then out from the flanks becoming fine dark ‘crescents’ (formed by dark feather tips), which made the ‘dark streaked zone’ really very extensive on the body sides. On some these dark crescents,while weakly marked were easy to see on scope views extending right across the white underparts.

Dark spotty underwings are well known as a feature which increases in frequency as you move from Southern through Northern to Arctic breeders:

BWP indicates that while other taxa have pre-breeding moult which ends in March, hyperborea is later (from mid-April to late May). Thus these breeding adults are in spanking fresh plumage which includes, in some, obvious dark crescentic tips to the white underpart feathers. Combined with the blackish plumages, very extensive dark flanks marks, extensive dark underwing spotting- I wonder if you could ID one in Britain? Does the post breeding (July to November) moult produce this same dark crescents and if so would they be worn of in mid winter?

Do Southern (albionis) and Northern (aalge) Guillemots ever show these dark crescentic marks?

A few more shots of Arctic Guillemots:

Showing appearance on water, inc. extent of flank streaking

I notice some still moulting out of non-breeding plumage (2nd cal yrs?) nevertheless had the same extensive flanks streaking when viewed on the water. More northerly breeders more often have full dark band across the throats in winter plumage than southern birds.

One on right with more of an ‘inverted V’ where dark meets white on neck, though not as striking as on Brünnich’s Guillemots. Bird centre left with weak pale gape or ‘tomium stripe’.

And in flight, flank streaking appearance from less to more obvious (dark crescents visible on the lower one):

 

 

The Secret Seven Bird Quiz

Double Book Prize! 

Thanks very much to the lovely folk at Princeton University Press we have this double prize:

Check out reviews  and plates from these books at the end. Then enter the Quiz!

2014-03-21_154420

Welcome to the ‘ Secret Seven’ Mystery Bird Quiz.

BIG THINGS to KNOW:

  • It’s a fun quiz- have a go. It’s a little easier than the last one. Designed around the quick views of browner birds that the Birding frontiers team need to ID quickly on the 24 hours birds race- The Champions of the Flyway! Hence 7 photos all taken in March in southern Israel.

 

  • Completion runs until 9:00 am on Wednesday 26th March (when the Birding Frontiers Team flies to Israel)

 

  • Winner takes all- No Tie break.  If more than one person with all correct/ same number correct then winner drawn from hat.

 

 

 THE SECRET SEVEN QUIZ

QUIZ RULES:

7 photos. Each identified to species level.

SUBMIT YOUR ANSWERS

Either in comments box below (for all to see) or privately via email: martin.go ‘at ‘ virgin.net. Answers must be in by 9:00 am on Wednesday 26th March.

TIEBREAK

In the event of more than one person with same number of correct answers  the winner will be ‘drawn from ‘the hat’.

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD ONE

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD ONE

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD TWO

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD TWO

 

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD THREE

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD THREE

 

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD FOUR

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD FOUR

 

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD FIVE

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD FIVE

 

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD SIX

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD SIX

 

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD SEVEN

Secret Seven, Mystery BIRD SEVEN

 

Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and BirdLife International are pleased to announce that the first recipients of funding generated by the Champions of the Flyway Bird Race will be Bird Conservation Georgia (BCG) – an NGO that was established through a merger between the Georgia Centre for the Conservation of WildLife (BirdLife in Georgia) and the Batumi Raptor Count
http://www.champions-of-the-flyway.com/cause/

 

The  Prizes. Both are easily amoung the most popular books for birders to have been published in recent months.

The Warbler Guide 

Lots of reviews >>> HERE <<<

book-review-warbler-guide-2 (1)

Face-Quick-Finder

 

Rare Birds of North America

another must have. See more >>> HERE <<<

 

dusky

robin

 

shrike

Black Brant and hybrids

in Norfolk – March 2013

by James McCallum  (photos Martin Garner)

March and April are key time for watching and studying the 4 Brents. Spring movement  and flock shuffling. Lots to watch and learn. James McCallum’s study of Black Brant and theory hybrids in Norfolk in full of useful stuff.

 

Black brant hybrid lone bird aAdult Black Brant X Dark-bellied Brent, Holkham, February 2013

Some of my earliest memories of growing up on the north Norfolk coast are of flocks of Brent Geese and their lovely muttering calls. In my early teens I developed a stronger interest in the local bird life and a closer look at the Brent flocks occasionally revealed the presence of a few Pale-bellied Brents and, more rarely, a Black Brant. Such occurrences set the scene for the following two decades – although in some winters, small influxes of Pale-bellied Brents occurred and occasionally two or three Black Brants graced the local flocks.

In January 2001 I was watching a flock of Brents at Burnham Deepdale when, suddenly, a rather well-marked Black Brant walked into my telescope view. This well-built bird frequently adopted a very upright stance and regularly made threat postures aimed towards other geese that ventured too close. I was confident that it was a gander and it wasn’t too long before it became apparent that it was paired to a Dark-bellied Brent Goose. This was the first occasion that I could recall seeing a vagrant Black Brant that had formed a pair bond with a Dark-bellied Brent and my interest turned to surprise when the pair came towards the edge of the flock to reveal four hybrid goslings in tow!

This was the first time that a mixed pairing had been recorded in Norfolk and, prior to this, there had only ever been one other documented British record -a mixed pair with six hybrid young was found by Barry Collins at Thorney Island, West Sussex in the early winter months of 1989 (two of these original hybrids returning during the following three winters). The same observer also found a second adult Brant (another gander, but this one was without a mate) in the same area between October 1991 and March 1992, accompanied by four juveniles that resembled berniclas (the other adult may have died on migration or on the breeding grounds, or the Brant may even have adopted the family).

In subsequent winters after 2001, two more mixed pairings with hybrid young appeared in Norfolk, both in the Wells and Holkham area. They could often be encountered, with ease, on the Pitch & Putt course near Wells Beach Road or in the fields adjacent to Lady Anne’s Drive at Holkham. These Norfolk hybrid youngsters have shown high survival rates and, in common with many of the Brent flocks, are largely site-faithful.  At least seven birds have returned as adult hybrids and currently, in the winter of 2012-’13, at least four are to be found in north Norfolk – one at Burnham Overy and three in the Wells/Holkham area (with one or two of these also appearing at Cley during a period of cold weather in January).

Picking out a potential Black Brant as it walks into view amongst a flock of Dark-bellied Brents is both instantaneous and exciting – working out whether it is a pure Brant or a hybrid may take a little longer but, so long as the views and light are good, it should prove possible. The returning birds have provided an excellent opportunity for observers to familiarise themselves with the appearance of adult hybrids of known parentage. Interestingly these hybrids have (so far!) all shared a remarkably consistent appearance.

Plumage

Pure Black Brants show distinct brown hues on their body feathers. The tone can vary in its darkness but the brown hue is always present – I tend to liken the colour to ‘plain chocolate’ or ‘tar brown’ whereas others describe the brown colour as having ‘tobacco’ hues. The pale flank patch usually has a striking chalky-whiteness which contrasts greatly with the rest of the dark brown body feathers. Hybrids, at first glance, can closely resemble a Black Brant, but more prolonged study will reveal some subtle differences in plumage hues that hint at the Dark-bellied influence -the body feathers have distinct grey hues and the flank patch often appears slightly ‘dirty’, caused by a pale buff-grey wash.

These plumages hues can, however, be influenced by light. Bright but overcast days are particularly good for assessing the subtle plumage hues of Brent Geese.  Full sun can sometimes ‘burn out’ some of these subtleties. On very dull, overcast days assessing the plumage colours can prove problematic. Hybrids can look quite dark and, at times, the grey hues of the body feathers frustratingly difficult to see. During these lighting conditions it is worth concentrating on the back feathers that catch the light e.g. the mantle and upper scapulars. As the bird turns, these highlighted areas will often be the first to show the telltale grey hues of a hybrid. As ever prolonged observation will often provide a more accurate picture of true colour and tone. (It may be worth noting that on very dull days most pure Black Brants appear very ‘black and white’, they often appear as if the contrast level has been turned up! On such days there is very little or no distinct division between the breast and belly and this dark feathering can make the flank patch and collar especially white and dazzling.)

Neck Collars

The neck collar detail of the returning adult hybrids has varied between individuals.  When viewed from the side most birds have a large, striking Black Brant-like collar but on the majority of birds the collar is broken at the front, particularly on the upper edge (see illustration). NB when relaxed or feeding it can be difficult to correctly interpret the detail of the collar at the front, some individuals can appear to have a broad unbroken neck collar at the front and it is only when a bird is alert that the true shape of the collar can be seen.

James McCallum hybrid Brants

Neck collars of known hybrid adults – B&C are most frequent whereas A is more unusual (2 individuals). James McCallum.

 

To date, the plumage colour hues of all of the known hybrids in Norfolk have been consistent. This has suggested that colour hue is probably more helpful than the presence of neck collar that meets at the front when identifying a hybrid.

The following photos, taken in Feb 2013, are of two adult hybrids that continue to return each winter to the Wells and Holkham area.

Hybrid One

Black brant hybrid lone bird b

This eye-catching individual readily stands out from the accompanying Dark-bellied Brents. At first glance it does look very like a Black Brant. The presence of grey hues in the body plumage and the ‘dirty’ wash to the rear flank-patch are indications of a hybrid.

Black brant hybrid lone bird f

In duller light the plumage can appear more contrasting and, frustratingly, the body plumage can sometimes appear to have brown hues. During such conditions this individual can appear extremely Black Brant-like, however,  a greyish ‘bloom’ can often be visible on areas of the mantle and upper scapulars that catch the light as the bird turns.

Black brant hybrid lone bird e

In better light the grey hues and buffy/grey washed rear flanks area much more evident making it easier to identify this bird as a hybrid.  When seen well, the neck collar of this individual is obviously broken at the front. (See Fig ‘C’ in the illustration of neck collar patterns)

Hybrid Two

Black Brant hybrid paired g

This bird has a striking collar. (The collar usually appears unbroken but, at very close range, it has tiny dark flecks eating into the upper edge, immediately below the bill.)

Black Brant hybrid paired e

In spite of the bold neck collar this bird is easier to identify as a hybrid due to the paler greyer hues of the body plumage and the obvious buffy/grey wash to the flank patch.

Black Brant hybrid paired j

In brighter light the Dark-bellied Brent influence is clear to be seen. In the winter of 2012-13 this bird returned paired to a Dark-bellied Brent, with a gosling in tow. The bird’s behaviour showed it to be a gander and it would readily threaten any of goose that wandered too close to his mate and young.

Black Brant hybrid paired l

Hybrid gander paired with Dark-bellied Brent and gosling. This family has spent most of the winter at Lady Anne’s Drive, Holkham. The Brent flock with which they associate often fed close to the road allowing close views and the opportunity to obtain excellent photographs. The resulting images may well represent the first documentation of definite F2 hybrid.

Black Brant hybrid paired f

In terms of plumage the 1st winter F2 gosling shows strong similarities to that of a Dark-bellied Brent. The neck collar is perhaps more striking than an average 1st winter Dark-bellied but it is not exceptional.

Black Brant hybrid paired F2 juv

Living in the heart of a traditional wintering ground of Dark-bellied Brent Geese it has been possible to get to know many of the local flocks and to watch them in a variety of weather and lighting conditions. This privileged situation has proved invaluable for regularly sharing observations and thoughts with other local observers, notably Andrew Bloomfield, Mark Golley and Richard Millington.

Further thoughts – Vagrant Black Brants in Norfolk can vary in the darkness of their body feathers, not all are distinctly ‘black and white’ and it is not uncommon to see a distinct division between the brown body feathers and the blackish neck, (as discussed above, light conditions will, of course, have a great influence). The presence of a neck collar unbroken at the front is often a requirement of an ‘acceptable’ pure Black Brant. It is now clear that an unbroken collar doesn’t exclude a hybrid Black Brant X Dark-bellied Brent.  The question that has to be asked is – how variable are the neck collars on pure Black Brants, particularly during the winter months?  (I have seen a Black Brant in Alaska in early summer with a neck collar that only met at the front on the lower edge). I guess that the answer can only come from those with experience of Black Brants within their native range.

James McCallum

Many thanks to Mark Golley for reading through the first draft and commenting on the text.